I am navigating a very awkward, uncomfortable situation with a coworker who wants us to be friends. I'm in need of smart, sensible advice on how to handle this.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (85 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
A few months ago, our company hired a new employee. I don’t really know how else to explain this, but there is something very off about him. Over the weeks and months, a few things became clear. The first thing my coworkers and I noticed was that despite his claim of having extensive experience and impressive qualifications in this field (on paper, he’s somewhat overqualified for this job), he had no clue how to do the work. He had difficulty grasping simple, basic concepts that should have been second nature to someone with his credentials. He is very, very slowly coming along, but he is developing at the pace of someone who has never done this kind of work before. We are fairly certain that his resume contained significant embellishments, if not complete fabrications regarding his experience.
We have tried to be patient with him, and we help him whenever he asks for it, but he doesn’t take advice well. He is stubborn, defensive, and argumentative. He has a tendency to demand our help before he has given any critical thought to the issue he is having, and omits or misstates crucial details when relaying his problems to us. He misinterprets instructions and suggestions in perplexing ways. He often doesn’t understand why his mistakes are mistakes. He needs to be taught simple administrative tasks repeatedly before he retains them. All of this is a drain on our time and we have heavy workloads of our own to manage. He also reacts poorly to criticism from our managers, and is not above deflecting blame onto coworkers (when we have done nothing but try to help him). I suspect that his attitude is a big reason why he has been so slow to improve. If you ask him, nothing is ever his fault. I admit that we don’t think much of him, either professionally or in terms of his character.
We are perfectly polite to him while at work and we never refuse him help or advice when he asks for it, but we have no desire to interact with him further. He’s not just hard to work with, but he’s also strange and socially inappropriate. He makes me and the other women I work with feel very uncomfortable. For the first few months, my coworkers and I thought he understood that our relationships with him were purely professional and would remain that way. We haven’t had the most pleasant working interactions with him, and besides the most perfunctory of polite greetings, we haven’t engaged him in off-topic conversations.
Meanwhile, a small group of female coworkers and I have become good friends. We take our lunch breaks together and sometimes hang out outside of work. We recently noticed that while we were chatting in our office’s lunch room, the new guy was obviously listening in on our conversations, nodding and chuckling along with us. This made us uncomfortable, but we understand that the lunch room is a public space and we can’t expect to have total privacy in there. Shortly after we noticed this, he sent me and my coworker an email, asking if he could join us at our table for lunch. We didn’t know what to say at first, but that day so happened to be one where we each had our own separate plans for lunch and wouldn’t be meeting up in the lunch room anyway. My coworker and I told him this, and hoped he would get the hint. He asked if he could join us some other time, and neither of us replied.
A few days later (today), the new guy sent my other coworker an email asking again if he could join us for lunch. She replied, explaining that as a group of female friends we often discuss topics that are personal and private and she did not see us changing that in order to accommodate his presence, so she was sorry but the answer was no. He pressed it, saying that he listens to our conversations and thinks they’re fun and interesting, and stated again that he would really like to join us. He said that he doesn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable, so he would be respectful and discrete when personal and private topics come up, and not comment about our feminine issues. This made my coworker all the more uncomfortable and she did not reply.
This small group of coworkers and I are in our 20's, and the new guy looks to be in his late 30’s or early 40’s, which adds to our discomfort with his taking such a personal interest in us. We realize that he probably has a hard time making friends and is probably very lonely, but our intuition tells us that he is not someone whose attentions should be encouraged.
What, if anything, should we do to protect our boundaries? What should we say if he continues to press the issue? We will have to continue working with him and we certainly don’t want there to be more negativity between him and us, but we do not want him to know anything more about us on a personal level and we definitely don't want to give him the idea that we are open to being friends. We are already uncomfortable having our lunches in the lunch room now that we know he enjoys eavesdropping on us, but we can’t afford to eat out every day and it’s too cold to take our packed lunches outside. We are inclined to leave things alone and cross our fingers that he simply gives up on trying to develop friendships with us, but we are afraid that he will go to our managers or to HR, as he has shown no hesitation in pointing fingers at us to our managers before. We’ve been concerned about this since one of our managers recently took my coworker aside and asked her if we were making an effort to include the new guy and make him feel welcomed as part of the team. We don’t want to end up with reputations as mean girls, excluding the poor lonely new guy, and potentially have it on our performance reviews that we’re not team players. On the other hand, we don’t want to pre-emptively speak to our managers or HR about him, because he really hasn’t done anything worth reporting, and we don’t want to escalate this unnecessarily or come across as a bunch of hysterical women.
TL;DR: I need advice on how to enforce my boundaries with a male coworker who would like to have more than a professional working relationship with my female coworkers and me. He makes us very uncomfortable and does not know how to take a hint. We hope we can do this in a way that is professional, as polite as possible, and will not affect how our managers and HR view our performance in terms of being good team players. How do we make it clear to this male coworker that we do not want his company outside of working hours and do not want to interact with him beyond what is required for us to do our jobs, as kindly yet clearly as possible?