Yer crossing the line, buck-o...
March 1, 2010 3:44 PM   Subscribe

Inappropriate flirting from a manager at work during an outing Friday evening... he apologized, I'm not going to get him in trouble for sexual harassment here, but I need advice on tactfully dodging this sort of situation in the future.

Female engineer, late 20s, been working in this project management company for five months now, male-dominated environment of course. The guy in question is not in my department, single and 40, but he is a manager.

We were all out for drinks on Friday night to welcome some new transfers to our office, and towards the end this manager was drunk and repeatedly putting his hand on my knee and being rather attentive. I was inebriated by the time I realized that there's some gravity to his actions, and possible ramifications. I totally froze on what to do and played oblivious, let him use my leg as a hand-rest (and thanked god he didn't move it anywhere else). I know I wasn't doing any intentional flirting on my end, especially not reciprocating any physical contact or encouraging remarks, just acting like there was nothing unusual about the situation. This morning he apologized in private, and said it wouldn't happen again.

Given that it wasn't something that really made me uncomfortable in itself, just the fact he was a superior and that's wrong, and he apologized... filing a harassment suit would be all negative outcome in my mind, let's leave out comments voting for his tar and feathering. I've told a few people in private, so if this ever did escalate to something I have to put a stop to, I've got backup.

This is in all likelihood probably going to happen again at some point. There's a drinking culture at work, networking is achieved best by going out for drinks with the project leaders and being one of the boys. Generally I'm treated like an apprentice and daughter, but it's not hard to imagine that on occasion one of the unattached workaholics will suddenly feel otherwise as they know I'm unwed. This doesn't really bother me in itself, but I do need some tips on what to do to in the future to discourage such advances in a tactful and light-hearted way, i.e. without ruining the sense of comraderie and leaving people feeling uncomfortable like I am (and the manager is) right now.

posted by anonymous to Work & Money (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
i'm having to hold my tongue as to your preferred way of handling this, so realize this suggestion comes through clenched teeth, but is here to answer the questions asked, so here i go.

you can "go out for drinks" without being inebriated. if you're not drunk you'll be better able to handle any situation that arises and you'll be able to leave if things get too out of hand.

as soon as inappropriate contact starts, excuse yourself to the bathroom and when you come back find a reason to sit next to someone else. if they pursue you after that point, then you shouldn't be trying to spare them the embarrassment.
posted by nadawi at 3:50 PM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't really have any advice on how to dodge this, because in my experience, such behavior is undodgeable. You're a woman in a male dominated workplace where you're viewed as an "apprentice and daughter" rather than as a colleague and an equal, and going out for drinks with "unattached workaholics" is part of the culture.

However, I do strongly urge you to do your future self a big favor here and make a clear statement to this manager that his flirtations are unwelcome. Use that specific word - "unwelcome" - couched in whatever kind of tone or additional language that you want. Then send yourself an email (home and work) documenting that you had a conversation during which you let him know that his conduct was unwelcome. Include the date, time, who was present, and exactly what each of you said.
posted by jennyb at 3:59 PM on March 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

And good luck.
posted by jennyb at 4:00 PM on March 1, 2010

My advice (from the point of view of a guy who has been on the receiving end) is to look pointedly at the offending appendage. Keep looking until it is moved. If it doesn't move in the first ten seconds (these things happen when you're drunk), say 'Excuse me?' and look again at the hand.

You can smile if you want, to take the sting out of it, but you don't have to.
posted by Pragmatica at 4:08 PM on March 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

I completely understand the situation you're in. I'm a mid-20s female engineer (the only female engineer) in a company of about 80 people. My company has a very similar social environment. On top of the drinking culture, people become very close friends (I'm going on a ski trip this weekend with a few colleagues, for example, staying at a manager's vacation condo) and there are some very blurred social/professional lines.

This can introduce a lot of complications. On the other hand, it can really expand your options in how to deal with uncomfortable situations. Somebody I'm regularly hanging out with and drinking (heavily) with is also someone with whom I can be straightforward. I've occasionally gotten a drunken arm around the shoulders or in one case, a hand on my lower back while I was leaning over a counter. In both cases I just kind of gave a Look (tm) to the offender -- once it was a guy who reported to me, once it was my boss -- and both were completely mortified when they realized what they'd done, immediately apologized, backed off, and it never happened again. So yeah, for better or for worse the social environment makes situations like this possible, but it also makes it possible for me to give a I'm-your-friend-and-what-you're-doing-is-dumb response to someone I report to.

So in this case, if I were you, I'd similarly write it off to "drunk dumbass." If it happens again, this is something that needs to be seriously dealt with. If it happens with someone else, take advantage of the casualness to deliver some nice-but-firm "back off" line -- just like you would any guy friend you were out with who was getting a little handsy. I know you'll have lots of people in this thread telling you to be zero-tolerant about this and treat every situation as a professional situation, but there are companies where the social dynamic is different and if that's the kind of company you like being in, you can take advantage of that to deal with these situations. If it goes beyond "I'm out with friends and one guy was being a little weird but he apologized" -- as in, if it gets to a situation where your ability to do your job comfortably is being compromised -- then it's time to escalate.
posted by olinerd at 4:19 PM on March 1, 2010 [6 favorites]

It's hard and I don't have any good answers for the general situations either. Unexpected hands, though, can be returned to their owners, preferably straight away; in the case you described above, reach under the table yourself, take his hand - by the wrist - and put it back on his own leg, ideally while maintaining a conversation with someone else. If it comes back it's time to move or adopt Pragmatica's strategy and attract other people's attention. Good luck.
posted by Lebannen at 4:19 PM on March 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

It's not easy being a woman in a situation like this. The fact that he recognized it was inappropriate and apologized is a good sign. And possibly a sign that you gave off exactly the right uncomfortable vibe. I think it can be handled with gentle humor, "Aww, nice try, Frank" as you remove the hand, or with the Look, which is a direct look at somebody's eyes, while you say to yourself, "No fucking way, pal." It gets the message across, after which you act as if nothing happened. If it happens again, you say, in a quiet but severe manner, "Stop that Right Now." and move.

I would make a note of the event in a calendar. If you are subjected to regular treatment of this sort, documentation of the treatment, what you did about it, and how it affected your ability to do your work, makes any action much more successful. (IANAL) Just in case.
posted by theora55 at 4:44 PM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think the approach that might work the best is to turn to the person and say, "I appreciate the attention, but I just don't get involved with people I work with." That allows the offending person a way to gracefully slink away. If s/he persists, ramp up to, "Look. No means no."

Don't let yourself get trapped into a situation where you are alone with someone who might try this. If there are others around, there will be men or women who will come to your assistance before it gets out of hand.

If this was a person in a managerial position in your own department, take it to HR immediately. State (if this is the case) that you do not want to file a formal complaint, but you want to be on record that it happened and, if it continues, you are willing to pursue it.
posted by Old Geezer at 4:57 PM on March 1, 2010

My response to unwanted physical/sexual touching, by a colleague or anyone else:
1. Stop conversaton, stop smiling.
2. Use your hand to remove his hand from your knee/ lower back/ wherever it landed.
3. Say "No."
4. Resume conversation.
Repeat 0 times. I consider it a one-time courtesy.
posted by pintapicasso at 5:04 PM on March 1, 2010

I don't think that it's about avoiding the behaviour in the future, because you didn't do anything to entice or encourage the behaviour, so don't blame yourself over it. I think it's more about how do you deal with it, and I would suggest that discreetly but firmly removing someone's hand from you will send them the message pretty clearly. If they don't get the message and try it again, then saying something about it out loud will both embarass them and get the attention of others. At that point you could also say something to someone else and ask them to pull him aside and get the message to him. I would also follow that up with HR. The first touch? Inappropriate, and he should have known better, but to me it falls into flirting outside the comfort zone - something we've probably all been guilty of (though not in a work setting) - not harassment. Second touch? Not cool at all.

I also think you showed discretion and compassion in not trying to ruin the guy's career over drunken flirting. His unprompted apology is a good sign - not everyone who lets testosterone and alcohol cloud their judgement breifly deserves to have their life ruined over it.
posted by Dasein at 5:14 PM on March 1, 2010

Assertiveness. "I'm certain you would agree that it would be inappropriate for you to interact with me in this manner, as I am your subordinate."

What are they going to do, say they think its appropriate?
posted by Ironmouth at 5:29 PM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

think it can be handled with gentle humor, "Aww, nice try, Frank" as you remove the hand

This would send exactly the wrong message. You can either tell him to stop, or get up and move.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:39 PM on March 1, 2010 [4 favorites]

This is in all likelihood probably going to happen again at some point.

I don't really think you have to take that for granted. I'm a female engineer, mid-twenties, have spent just on a year in a male-dominated company with frequent work drinks. Most of my 'social' friends are also guys, and I drink with them as well. I like to think that I'd be able to respond as in olinerds example - about the same way whether it was work friends or non-work friends.
posted by jacalata at 5:41 PM on March 1, 2010

Document anything like this that happens. You never know if this is the beginning of something you eventually will want to pursue in court.
posted by sallybrown at 5:51 PM on March 1, 2010

You gave the guy a chance, that's one more than he needed.

However, be mindful of situations that you are putting yourself in. Though others at your company choose to get hammered together this does not mean you need to join in. So, go out for a drink or two but leave and let them continue without you, this way if something gets out of hand between other people you will not be brought into any HR investigations regarding what you saw/experienced.

Remember that these are people you work with, that does not mean you need to be friends. Becoming friends with people you work with can become odd if you ever have to officially reprimand them or go to HR about other issues.

Good luck.
posted by zombieApoc at 6:16 PM on March 1, 2010

I think its very useful to go drinking with the boys after work. I find that getting tipsy with coworkers lets people know that you trust them as they really are and that you all don't take yourselves that seriously. Also you get all the good gossip or a chance to bend someone's ear or pick someone's brain.
However, you don't have to do it every single time they go out (unless you really want to) and you don't have to get smashed. I generally avoid getting much more than buzzed the first couple times I go out with new people until I've seen how they act when drunk. Feel free to leave early if people get too drunk and you think trouble is brewing. This A) avoids trouble and B) lets you avoid seeing your buddies/coworkers being assholes. When I first started drinking with coworkers I felt I had to stay just as late as everyone else and drink as much, and its really not the case at all. I find as long as you are chill and being fun you really don't have to drink that much or stay that long unless you want to. If i duck out early I say stuff like "I need my beauty sleep" or something jokey. I find "going out to catch a game" gives me a nice end point for social interaction.
As for touching incidents, I try to react as soon as possible and push the offending appendage away, and raise and eyebrow or glare depending on who it is and give a stern "dude" or "that's not cool" or "dude! Space!" or even what you have in your title "yer crossing the line, buck-o" will work just fine, manager or not. At the bar, you're all equals. Then I drop the subject. I don't make a big public deal about it. The earlier suggestion of going to the bathroom and then changing seats works fine as well. Of course if it extends beyond a single incident I would get angry but I've never had it happen.
When it gets down to the singleness thing, I generally say nothing on my status either way. If pushed into a corner I tell em its none of their goddamned business or that I like to keep my indiscretions discrete. I generally grin when i say this.
If you're not reasonably confident this advice might not work for you, but you're a female engineer so its unlikely. I've found straightforwardness to work well for me and I hope it works for you. Good Luck! Happy drinking.
posted by captaincrouton at 8:17 PM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Please please please stop being such a pushover that you let him (or anyone) use your knee as an armrest. You can nicely, friendly-like move dude's hand and chide him kindly.

Anyone who persists after kind chiding should get "LOOK, quit it, okay?" You can go out after work and hang out and not tolerate this shit.
posted by desuetude at 12:52 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

There's a drinking culture at work, networking is achieved best by going out for drinks with the project leaders and being one of the boys

It's possible to hang out with drinkers and either not match them drink for drink, or not drink at all. I've done both, and none of the drinkers seemed to care after the first few minutes. As long as you're having a good time, it doesn't matter to anyone whether you're getting as smashed as they are.

So, you don't need to drink to fit in is what I'm saying.

Engineer, non-drinker for most of my career.
posted by zippy at 1:38 AM on March 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

but the OP seems to like to drink. and they shouldn't have to not drink.

Can't you just laugh at the blokes as though they are being absurd and you are not up for that... and then move off a bit towards someone else?
posted by mary8nne at 3:43 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

So a coworker flirted with you and you didn't say no and he apologized later and yet there are still people telling you to be wary and prepare for a harassment lawsuit.

In the future actually say no and stand up for yourself. Without saying a firm no whats to stop him from thinking that you are interested? It is not unheard of, especially in engineering, to not know many other women and therefore try it on with a coworker.

(I know of a couple of happy marriages because of this)

THIS IS NOT WRONG, unless you don't want it to happen. In order for people to know that it is wrong you have to say that it is wrong.

The person complaining of a drunken arm over the shoulder also needs to get some perspective but at least she complained and then it stopped. I've drunkenly put my arm over many a shoulder (male and female in a friendly way) and in no way do I consider it inappropriate, especially if both are drunk because 4 legs stand better than 2. Not every iota of physical contact is sexual, in this case it probably was but in many other cases it is certainly not.
posted by koolkat at 4:04 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Let me be a little more clear. I do employment law and I've had cases involving male supervisors who made inappropriate advances towards my clients. From the first, say no. You will have to overcome the natural tendency to get along, but cite the fact that you are working in the same organization and that therefore it is inappropriate for you to be involved in that way.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:16 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't understand why you chose to act oblivious. In doing so you told the guy he was OK doing what he did so he's almost certain to do it again. He gave it a go. You gave him the green light. He's good to go. You can't blame him. You're going to have to decide what you want and then change (or maintain) your signals depending on your decision. (His apology the next day didn't mean a thing other than to test your reaction but that's just as much your responsibility as his.)

Make up your mind whether or not you want this attention. You've got to decide whether you want the recognition -- and the harassment -- or not. It's not likely you'll get one without the other but you do have a choice and once you make the choice it's easy to take the actions to make it clear.

If you decide you do not want him touching you (and are you sure about that?) you can either tell him straight up, avoid him, or make it physically impossible by putting your lumpy back-pack, your elbows, the sole of your foot, whatever, closer to the guy than your more attractive parts. It's pretty easy.
posted by y6t5r4e3w2q1 at 2:29 PM on March 2, 2010

but the OP seems to like to drink. and they shouldn't have to not drink.

I don't see "I like to drink" mentioned in the post. I have nothing to say about whether the poster should or should not drink.

The poster suggests that they were unable to respond in the manner they wanted to ("a tactful way") because they were inebriated. The poster also indicates that they feel the need to drink in order to fit in with the work culture.

I'm suggesting that a lack of inebriation makes it easier to handle things tactfully, and also that drinking (esp. to the point of inebriation) is not necessary to fit in. That's all.
posted by zippy at 10:48 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

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