Busted being unwittingly pervy at work
August 18, 2010 2:25 PM   Subscribe

This morning at work, I was in a one-on-one meeting with a valued (and, yes, attractive) female colleague. While we were talking, she caught me looking up her skirt (yes, it was blatant). I looked up, and realized I was busted. At that point, she tugged her skirt down, rolled her eyes slightly, and got up and left (muttering an excuse that she had to "make a call"). I'm still really mortified that this happened. What should I do now? Should I say something to her? Apologize? Ignore the fact that this encounter ever happened? What's the least awkward way of proceeding, knowing that we'll likely be working together for a lot longer? Men: Have you ever gotten busted this way? What did you do? Women: Have you ever been in this position? Did you lose your respect for the peeper, or do you generally assume that most dudes are trying to peek at you whether you notice or not? Any advice would be valued. (If it matters, I'm male, she's female, we're both straight, and are about the same age.)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (127 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Yes. Any respect she had for you is gone and you should hope that the place she had to go to wasn't HR.
posted by Jubey at 2:33 PM on August 18, 2010 [62 favorites]

As a woman, I would avoid you as much as possible after that. I am still creeped out by a jerk in my work vicinity who gave me the world's longest ogle that made me feel like a bug pinned to a wall, years later.

I'd rather not blatantly KNOW you are peeping, is the thing. Yes, we know all men ogle women, but when we're at work, we don't want to be thinking about this. Even if we wanted to, it's not the world's best idea to be thinking about the people you work with in a sexual context, and we're all aware of the joys of sexual harassment when a guy at work finds you hott. We don't want to be made aware that you think we are something fuckable while we're just trying to fill out our TPS reports.

I can't remotely think of a way you can make this "better", to be honest, other than avoid her when you can, look at her as little as you can get away with, and never talk about anything but work.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:36 PM on August 18, 2010 [13 favorites]

Women: Have you ever been in this position? Did you lose your respect for the peeper

There was a guy who frequently stared at my boobs or legs while I was dressed normally, and yes, I did lose respect for him.

or do you generally assume that most dudes are trying to peek at you whether you notice or not?

Er, I don't think that's how it works. I think most men would be embarrased if they could see up my skirt. Maybe some would be embarrased and secretly happy, but even them wouldn't be actively trying to peek. You don't do that, period.
posted by clearlydemon at 2:36 PM on August 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Mod note: comment removed - if you've forgotten how AskMe works, please drop us a note and we can refresh your memory.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:37 PM on August 18, 2010 [6 favorites]

Women: Have you ever been in this position? Did you lose your respect for the peeper, or do you generally assume that most dudes are trying to peek at you whether you notice or not?

Loss of respect? Check.
Loss of a collegial relationship? Absolutely.
Loss of some of your reputation when she tells others over drinks? Most likely.

I do not assume that most guys at work are checking me out because to do so would be rude and unprofessional and I like to assume the best of my coworkers no matter their genitalia.

And I agree with dzaz. Leave her alone. Treat her with extra, extra respect. Never look below her chin and someday if you've earned back her respect you might, might be able to tell her that you regret your earlier completely inappropriate action. But, that's only if you become good friends or something. Which is unlikely. Also, she'll likely brush it off and let you off the hook which is a really nice lie we tell guys so that they don't feel bad about themselves. Isn't that nice?
posted by amanda at 2:37 PM on August 18, 2010 [36 favorites]

It's hard to tell if you are sorry about inadvertently looking up her skirt, or if you are sorry you were caught blatantly looking up her skirt. Was it an accident? Your question makes it seem like it was no accident.

Either way, I'm pretty sure your colleague would just like to forget this ever happened; there's no point rehashing the incident with an apology, because it would probably make her feel worse (while making you feel better).

The only thing you can do is to behave like a gentleman from now on. This means keeping your eyes above the neck level at all times, even when you think she's not looking.

You've probably blown it with your colleague (once again, are you sorry about doing it, or are you sorry about being caught?), but she's probably grown-up enough to ignore your transgression (I get the feeling that women are pretty used to male creepiness in the workplace) in order to get work done. But any sort of relationship you might have had is gone.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:39 PM on August 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Did you lose your respect for the peeper, or do you generally assume that most dudes are trying to peek at you whether you notice or not?

I generally assume that most dudes, if they are old enough to hold a job, are expected and able to act like adults at work. That means restraining yourself from looking up women's skirts.

Yes, I would lose all respect for the peeper and would probably avoid him; I'd warn female colleagues as well.
posted by corey flood at 2:42 PM on August 18, 2010 [42 favorites]

Women: Have you ever been in this position? Did you lose your respect for the peeper, or do you generally assume that most dudes are trying to peek at you whether you notice or not?

When I am with colleagues, I start out by assuming that they will treat me with respect. I don't believe that "most dudes are trying to peek at you whether you notice or not." Thus I think the ones who do things like that are jerks. IMO, the fact that you would even ask this question demonstrates gender-relations cluelessness on your part.

If a male colleague did something like look up my skirt or down my shirt, I'd lose respect for him and I'd be pretty disgusted, actually. I think you've damaged this work relationship, probably beyond repair.

I don't know if you can make this better, but you can sure make it NOT WORSE, by following amanda's advice to leave her alone as much as possible from now on, focus your eyes on her face ONLY, and be formal and professional in any conversations you have to have with her. Don't joke around or try to be casual or friendly with her. That ship has sailed.

As others have said above, you need to stop being that guy.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:43 PM on August 18, 2010 [7 favorites]

Women: Have you ever been in this position? Did you lose your respect for the peeper

Yes, I have. And they also end up on a list of "men who I will never consider befriending or going out with, ever, ever, ever". That's just me though.

do you generally assume that most dudes are trying to peek at you whether you notice or not?

I don't assume this. I never make guesses at how much of a gawker somebody is. I know a lot of men are, but I know there are quite a few who aren't. I don't like men assuming I'm a certain way because of sex-related hormones; I don't think it's fair for me to assume all men are a certain way because of theirs.

I would just pretend it never happened, be very polite with her, and keep everything business-like here on out.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 2:47 PM on August 18, 2010

Another woman here and I personally would avoid working with you as much as possible, would have no respect for you in a professional setting.

An apology makes no difference and the length of my skirt makes no difference. If you were "caught" "blatantly" looking up a colleague's skirt, you were behaving disrespectfully, unprofessionally, and inappropriately. I would feel the same about you as I would someone who photocopies his ass when he thinks no-one is watching. An apology won't change that.

To reiterate the excellent advice above: leave her alone as much as possible from now on, focus your eyes on her face ONLY, and be formal and professional in any conversations you have to have with her. Don't joke around or try to be casual or friendly with her. That ship has sailed.

BTW: do you generally assume that most dudes are trying to peek at you whether you notice or not? is incredibly insulting to men and women." Seriously. I assume everyone at work is looking at everyone else at work in the context of their professional responsibilities, not as a chance to get a quick jolly looking up a skirt, down a blouse, or a chance to check out a package. To suggest that I go through life assuming everyone is trying to sneak a peek not only reduces me to my tits and ass, but reduces everyone around me to a lizard brain on legs.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:48 PM on August 18, 2010 [50 favorites]

Oh my, some of my fellow ladies are much more upset at this than I am. If you can see "up my skirt" when I am in a meeting, my skirt is too short, if I noticed you looking I would think "gosh, I hope I wore underwear", then I would wear a longer or loser or whatever skirt the next day, in winter, tights solve the problem because you just have a big black void up there. :)

If a guy was wearing a shirt such that when he leaned over I could see his chest, it would be distracting and I would either look or preoccupy myself with not looking so much that the whole excercise would be pointless.

You are mortified, not titilated, so you don't come across as a predator or jerk to me.

I think the professional thing to do is just keep being professional, don't mention it and for god's sake try not to do it again.
posted by stormygrey at 2:54 PM on August 18, 2010 [78 favorites]

I think my earlier response was too snarky and not helpful; I apologize.

What's the least awkward way of proceeding...

If I were your coworker, I would prefer that if you had to interact with me in person, to maintain a respectful distance and to keep your eyes above my shoulders. But I would also prefer if you not interact with me unless necessary.

do you generally assume that most dudes are trying to peek at you

Not at work, no.

If this is the only time you've been caught doing this at work, then consider it a learning opportunity. Good for you for recognizing that it was unprofessional and you made a colleague uncomfortable.

Moving on, you should respect that she may be feeling some discomfort and give her space.
posted by dzaz at 2:55 PM on August 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

I would feel compelled to apologize, were I in a similar situation, and I would take great pains that my apology not contain any "explanation" to cheapen its honest and heartfelt meaning. This is easier if it is written, rather than spoken, especially if you find her attractive. Apologizing may not be the "least awkward" move but it is the right thing to do.

Then, assuming you really do have to continue working together in the future, you treat her with exemplary respect. If that's hard, imagine her getting you fired to keep your mind on task. You're not doing this to prove to her that you're a decent guy, you're doing it as a penance and because it's what everyone deserves at work.

Behaving normally at work around people whom you find physically attractive is hard, but, like a lot of hard things in life, the process of growing up demands that we [make a mistake or two, perhaps, then] shoulder the burden and move on.
posted by richyoung at 2:55 PM on August 18, 2010

OK, maybe I just work in a different industry ... or have a different understanding of these things but I (a woman) have caught men looking at my boobs, etc., and just thought, "Whatever. Back to the subject at hand." I didn't lose respect or keep my distance, because quite frankly, I did respect and have to work with some of these guys.

I worked in journalism for a lot of years which is far more relaxed. Most of the time, when I caught the guy looking, I'd just saying something like "Lose something?", then he'd apologize and we'd move on. I now work in government with an almost all-male crew. They are older, more polished guys but ocassionally, yeah, somebody's sneaking a peak. My response is generally to once again, bring it back to the subject at hand or, if it gets to be a problem for me, I'd confront the person by saying something like, "You're really making me uncomfortable."

I am basically in the camp that you should go to her, apologize profusely for being highly unprofessional, make it a point to say you respect her as a colleague and hope you can continue having a collegial working relationship. Then keep your eyes away from the skirt.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 2:57 PM on August 18, 2010 [26 favorites]

it isn't as if women don't check guys out either

weird. i've never tried to spy up the suit legs of my coworkers to see if i can get a peek at their junk. maybe i'm a weird woman that way? if it's neo-victorian swooning to insist that people not sexually harrass their coworkers, i guess i need to go out and get myself a petticoat.

if, when talking to a woman you work with, you find that you accidentally or fleetingly look down their blouse, i'm more inclined to say "yeah, you're human - try to watch that at work, would ya?"

but that's not what you described, OP - " While we were talking, she caught me looking up her skirt (yes, it was blatant). I looked up, and realized I was busted." - that's just gross and icky and gross. first - it takes work to look up a skirt - it's not like the blouse scenario because if you're taller and she's shorter, well you have to look down to get to her face and your eyes can drop - but to be staring so intently up her skirt that she had a chance to "catch" you and you had to look up after you realized you were busted? ew. ew.ew.ew.

if you weren't a friend of mine, i would lose respect, talk to a trusted manager to make sure we were never in a one on one meeting again, and spread the news around to the other women to watch their hemlines around you.
posted by nadawi at 3:01 PM on August 18, 2010 [22 favorites]

do you generally assume that most dudes are trying to peek at you whether you notice or not?

No, I generally assume that most men are decent human beings who try to treat women in the workplace respectfully, and I will not assume they are creeps until they engage in the creepy behavior such as the kind you've described.
posted by scody at 3:02 PM on August 18, 2010 [14 favorites]

To Richyoung above...put NOTHING in writing. Actually don't apologize at all. Don't even admit it happened to anyone...you've confessed to Ask MeFi...leave it at that.

It is quite likely that in the USA what you did could easily be defined as sexual harassment. You could lose your job. The more you talk about it, ESPECIALLY if you put it in writing, the more you are admitting to it and putting your job in jeopardy.

What you did WAS sleezy, but understand your worst case scenario is not her thinking you're creepy, the worst case scenario is you being terminated for sexual harassment of a co-worker and then having to try to find another job with THAT on your history and in this economy.

As MANY others have said, keep your distance from her as much as your duties allow. Got e-mail? Use it as your primary form of contact if you HAVE to deal with her. And from now on, with her and EVERYONE ELSE, eyes above the shoulders. Period. Always. Not if you think they aren't looking, ALWAYS.
posted by arniec at 3:02 PM on August 18, 2010 [9 favorites]

You fail. Lost respect is just the start. And yes, I would count yourself lucky if you don't catch serious flack for this. That call? Could have been to anyone, including a good lawyer. You just don't know.

How the hell is one talking with a colleague AND looking up a skirt??

I'm a dyke. I look like a dyke. Everyone knows I'm a dyke. My old boss used to consistently look at my breasts when I was talking to him. Mind you I don't wear anything revealing. It's insulting.

Sorry guys, it's called sexism. And some would call it harassment. Some would even go so far as charging your workplace with creating a hostile environment.
posted by FlamingBore at 3:02 PM on August 18, 2010 [9 favorites]

I would have felt grossed out and disrespected, and you would be on my "this guy is a creep" list for the indefinite future.

If you decide to apologize to her, keep it short and to the point -- you're sorry you forgot your professionalism for a moment, it was stupid of you and it won't happen again. Anything beyond that becomes more about asking her for forgiveness than actually making her feel better. Don't put her in a place where she has to say "it's okay" because you know, it's not okay.

Also, I would point out that the problem here isn't that you got caught, but that you shouldn't have been oogling your coworker that way in the first place. Women can tell when they're being oogled, no matter how subtle you think you're being, and it's creepy and weird. Enjoy the scenery from a distance if you have to, not during a meeting.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 3:03 PM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think I would appreciate an apology. Nothing drawn out, just a quick walk by her desk and a "look, I'm very sorry about earlier, I appreciate you as a colleague and it won't happen again." And then walk away. Don't give her big earnest, focussed looks in the eye (could seem creepy in the light of what you did). Don't expect effusive forgiveness or any comment at all. Just say it and then back off and treat her with professional distance.

That's assuming you saw an opportunity and your eyes glommed onto it, rather than you going out of your way to catch an eyeful. It's hard to tell from your post.
posted by Omnomnom at 3:03 PM on August 18, 2010 [13 favorites]

I think most men would be embarrased if they could see up my skirt. Maybe some would be embarrased and secretly happy, but even them wouldn't be actively trying to peek. You don't do that, period.

Also this. This so hard.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 3:04 PM on August 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

Yes, we know all men ogle women...God, what a fucking lech...

Am I the only one who thinks that this stuff doesn't go together?

To be clear, I'd second anything that goes like "stop being that guy" - (actually the original situation suggests "don't ever be that guy again"). But why does everyone need to pull that old men-are-disgusting-card instead of just answering this question?

Being European (in the sense of blunt and straightforward), and honest, then, I would wait for a situation to apologize, and apologize. Not in a sheepish way but simply in the "I was out of order, we both know it, I'm sorry and I'll see that it doesn't happen again" manner. In my book, that's more likely to win back whatever respect can be won back than any evasive non-action (If you're unsure about whether your actions from now on could be misconstrued, keep a diary for a while, in order to tell the true story in a consistent manner, whenever prompted). After that, I'd indeed take quite some care not to be that guy again. (The guy who looks up skirts, I mean, not the one who gets caught.)
posted by Namlit at 3:05 PM on August 18, 2010 [5 favorites]

I would feel compelled to apologize, were I in a similar situation, and I would take great pains that my apology not contain any "explanation" to cheapen its honest and heartfelt meaning. This is easier if it is written, rather than spoken, especially if you find her attractive.

Awwwww, HELL NO! Do not put anything in writing for the sake of your career. To someone in HR, that's referred to as "evidence." Be professional with her. Don't avoid her-- this will suggest shame and further this as a something major. And it's not yet.

This isn't that big a deal and it WILL blow over. But you must be very careful to not leer at the women in your office-- the colleague may have mentioned this to coworkers. If so, it's now a vague accusation that people may chalk up to drama/misunderstanding. But they'll be watching you for signs-- actively for the shrill types who make up the bulk of the early responses here, subconsciously for people who are more even-keeled. Any noticed glance may cement your reputation as a leering pervert.

But if you manage to not so much as linger for a good while (how long? who knows) this will be forgotten by everyone, perhaps even the woman whom you perved on. Good luck.
posted by Willy Wombat at 3:06 PM on August 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

What's the least awkward way of proceeding, knowing that we'll likely be working together for a lot longer?

Are you sure about that?

If the "call" she had to make was to HR, your collaboration may be short lived. You may want to consult an employment lawyer in your jurisdiction in advance to have some representation in the event you are (I have to say, rightfully) fired.

Regardless of however one relates to the opposite sex in general, the best approach at work is to treat everyone as if they were sexless golems made of plutonium. Don't give them hugs, don't slap their asses, don't touch their hair or hold them reassuringly by the elbows, and don't look up their skirts at their radioactive genitals.

How to proceed now that you've pretty much disgraced yourself? I'd start looking for another job ASAP. Even if, by some stroke of luck, your colleague does not report you to management to get you (rightfully) fired, she may well let every other woman you work with know that you're pretty scuzzy. That could make for an unpleasant place for you to work. Best to start over somewhere new, and NEVER EVER do that again. Sweet lord.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 3:06 PM on August 18, 2010 [11 favorites]

Mod note: folks, very seriously chill out. If you can't answer without being GRARGRARGRAR, do not answer. Thank you.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 3:07 PM on August 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

This is what the OP said:

While we were talking, she caught me looking up her skirt (yes, it was blatant).


I get the feeling that the poster thinks this is sort of the norm. And, I'll give a huuuuuge benefit of the doubt and guess that he is maybe young? Not sure. But what was funny high school or college pranking to look up women's skirts or try to cop a feel or something is absolutely not funny or tolerated in the work place. I know lots of guys think it's supper hi-larious to make women tug down their skirts and adjust their shirts to stop the overt leering but it's really not. Not anywhere and definitely not at work.
posted by amanda at 3:10 PM on August 18, 2010

"I'm still really mortified that this happened. What should I do now? Should I say something to her? Apologize? Ignore the fact that this encounter ever happened? What's the least awkward way of proceeding, knowing that we'll likely be working together for a lot longer?"

My best advice would be not to make mention of it and to simply work as best as possible to be as professional as possible. Any attempt at an apology for something like this is only going to lead you back down murky territory at best and if she has lost complete respect for you I don't see an apology here being the kind of thing where you'd earn back half of it. It will come across as you trying to assuage your own guilt and be seen as a selfish act from someone who has already behaved selfishly.

Your absolute best case scenario with this woman is that she will see you working in a positive light with others and slowly change her opinion of you with time.

Go to work tomorrow with your head held up high, be professional and courteous to others, and don't make this mistake ever again. Hopefully there are enough people at your workplace that you can make different allies. Buy a new shirt to inspire yourself to be someone different and better. See this as an opportunity to become someone better and years from now you will see this as a great mistake you made which taught you to lose adolescent behaviour in the workplace.

You can do it, but the next week or so will be tough. Often our mistakes are what make us most reflective, so don't blow this opportunity for change in your life by continuing the same pattern of behaviour that got you here in the first place.
posted by fantasticninety at 3:10 PM on August 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think there is a difference between an unconscious glance at my breasts during a conversation, and catching someone blatantly attempting to look up my skirt.

The first I laugh off with my husband after work. The second would, yes, cause me to lose respect for my coworker, and be on my guard with him or her at all times after.

A brief, heartfelt, and non-creepy apology with a promise that he or she was (a) aware that their behavior was problematic and (b) working on their professionalism would go a long way towards regaining my respect.
posted by muddgirl at 3:11 PM on August 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

It would never occur to me to think that "most dudes are trying to peek" at work. I assume that everyone I work with is here for some combination of the money, personal satisfaction, professional ambition, etc. Also maybe office snacks.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 3:13 PM on August 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm a girl. I have, for some reason, always worked in very heavily male fields (first finance, then transportation planning) in which I have been vastly outnumbered by men in the office. I'm fairly conventionally attractive, and I have never had a guy look up my skirt or down my shirt at work. (Although I did once have a hapless boss accidentally fart on me). I'm not sure what I would do if it happened. However, I do know one thing--if I were sitting and talking to a guy and I noticed that he was looking up my skirt, the first thing I'd think was "oh my god, I'm sitting in a way in which he can see up my skirt." I'd be mortified about that first, and as a distant second, I might think he was a creep.

The thing that I think a lot of people are missing in their answers is that looking up a skirt is NOT like looking down a shirt in one key way--The skirt-haver has to be sitting in a certain way for anyone to be able to see anything beyond "hemline meets leg here."

I don't think you're as awful as everyone else seems to think. A girl sitting in a way in which you can see up her skirt is like a car wreck. Sometimes it is hard to look away. Maybe I'm a 14-year-old boy at heart, but I sort of get it. I'm also speaking as a perpetual "ohmygoddoeshehaveaboner!?" male-crotch-noticer, so. Watch out, this goes both ways.
posted by millipede at 3:15 PM on August 18, 2010 [56 favorites]


I'm not even sure how you peek up a woman's skirt in a meeting without contorting yourself. I'm guessing perhaps if she had a very short skirt on and was sitting and the OP could see her underwear? In which case, if I can see someone's underwear I'd probably give it a pointed stare myself because that's major a deshabillé. The whole thing sounds puzzling.
posted by Omnomnom at 3:19 PM on August 18, 2010 [5 favorites]

This was mentioned earlier, but I wanted to emphasize: for the sake of your career, you must never, never even toe a line like this with any of your female collegues ever again. You basically have no leeway and no benefit of the doubt ever again.

There's a fair chance you may hear from HR about this, but even if you don't, there's a very good chance every woman in your office will know about this incident very quickly. If that happens, you're probably going to get the reputation of sexist office creep. They'll be suspicious of you and on the lookout for further transgressions. Minor glances or interactions that they might have explained away in the past won't get a passive response now.

I suggest you keep your eyes and hands to yourself from this point forward. It would also be a good idea to do some serious soul searching about how and why you ended up in this situation in the first place. Examining your preconceptions about sex, women, and respect could help you become the kind of man who won't do something like this again. That's the only way I can imagine earning respect back.
posted by mostlymartha at 3:20 PM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

all the tittering about how short the skirt must have been gets us a little too close to victim blaming for my tastes. how many inches above the knee can a woman wear a skirt and not be seen as the instigator?
posted by nadawi at 3:25 PM on August 18, 2010 [28 favorites]

And how far apart, exactly, may my knees be given the width of my thighs? Or is thigh-cleavage itself too tempting for the average male to avoid?
posted by muddgirl at 3:26 PM on August 18, 2010 [9 favorites]

do you generally assume that most dudes are trying to peek at you whether you notice or not?

Utterly irrelevant to the workplace, where you're not some dude, you're a co-worker.

I think that you owe this woman an apology. However, the following are elements that should not be included in this apology:

* Mention of her attractiveness. Again, it's irrelevant, and will come off sounding like a cross between a pickup line and victim-blaming. It will effectively tip you over into obvious sexual harassment.

* Some sort of explanation as to how it happened that you were blatantly looking up her skirt. Please, don't waste her time with this. It suggests that you are not responsible for your actions. You are, in fact, responsible for controlling yourself, should a passing urge to look up her skirt present itself.

* Long-winded gnashing of teeth and rending of hair over your mortification. At some point, an overeffusive apology can become more about the apologizer than the apology, which effectively negates it.

* Voiced assumptions of what she must think of you. (Oh, you must think I'm a disgusting pervert, you have every right to never want to look at me again, etc.) You've encroached her personal space quite enough already -- leave her mind out of it. She can think what she likes about the situation without your helpful suggestions. This tactic comes across both as an attempt to force forgiveness and to assert control over the dialogue.

What does that leave you? Short, discreet, direct, and then never speak of it again. "Co-worker, I apologize for my rudeness yesterday. There's no excuse for it, and I'm sorry. Needless to say, it will never happen again. That's all I wanted to to say." And then you walk away.
posted by desuetude at 3:26 PM on August 18, 2010 [8 favorites]

Say nothing. There is nothing you can say to redeem yourself. Only good behavior going forward will redeem you. So, ya know, behave.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 3:27 PM on August 18, 2010 [8 favorites]

I'm going to agree with stormygrey that a few women here are a little more indignant than this may warrant.

You effed up, son, by blatantly looking up her skirt. No excuse/ justification for that pervy behavior, so please - for the sake of your mother who seems to have raised a son that knows when he's wrong - treat the women at work and in your life with the utmost respect.

That said, this is why most workplaces have a dresscode that says a short skirt should cover your knees when seated. If I am wearing a shirt that happens to be more low-cut than it should be, and if I catch a guy staring at my boobs - I ignore it, and move on. It's definitely a story to tell during happy hour, though. I've been a witness in an actual sexual harassment suit that happened at work, and honestly... this is reprehensible but not unforgivable if it doesn't happen again. Keep your distance, hope that she has her head screwed on right and pray that that phone call wasn't to HR.

Oh, and in the same vein of not making a written apology - I hope you didn't make this post from your work computer. Not sure if it is a big deal, but... seems like it wouldn't be the smartest thing to do.
posted by Everydayville at 3:28 PM on August 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

OK, against my better judgment, I'll weigh in on this.

Yes, this has happened to me. On one occasion, the individual in question (i.e., my boss) and I were having a discussion about some deal or other. At the time, he was a partner, and I was an associate. When I observed, "Such-and-Such, those are not my eyes," the man damn near died. Let's just say it never happened again. Life went on; the years passed; and I eventually made managing director and left the firm for greener pastures. (And yes, we got along after that.)

On a few, rare occasions, I have made polite suggestions to men with respect to their body language when "checking out" women along the lines of "use peripheral vision; don't move the eyes and / or head up and down in an obvious way." Why have I bothered? Many people are not aware of their body language or how inappropriately it can come across. The individuals in question were not overly jerky or otherwise offensive in their general behavior or language, so as a service to my fellow women, I figured a little friendly advice might have a positive outcome for all concerned.

Yes, yes, I know, it's not my job to counsel biological adults that the time to adopt mature behaviors is long passed. But I come out of the financial services industry -- the story in #1 above happened in a Wall Street investment banking boutique -- where the level and extent of offensive behavior is possibly extreme compared to other industries. (...although I'm not that naive to think that the rest of the world is that much better.)

Note: in one truly offensive incident in that same firm that I will not relate on a public forum, the offender in question came within an inch of his professional career as a result of my response to the situation. I was a more flexible tolerant person back then; if such a thing happened today, I'd make it my career to get him mounted on the end of a boot and dismissed in obvious disgrace. (But there were tears involved -- his, not mine.) (It also scared the hell out of the senior partners, but that's another issue.)

I'm neither intimidated, frightened nor shocked by asshole behavior. I consider it offensive and have dealt with it aggressively -- albeit as civilly and politely as possible under the circumstances -- and immediately. Should I have to deal with this crap? No. But the world is full of assholes, and there is nothing I can do about that.

It also helps that I've had very senior level jobs in which I could more readily and effectively assume an aggressive stance than someone junior generally could. And for some strange reason, it wasn't until I was higher up the food chain that I ever had the opportunity to experience this nonsense.

As to your dealings with the co-worker in question, all the advice here about limiting your interaction with her to strictly business is spot-on. You have probably burned your bridges with her, and if you cared about her respect for you, which is almost certainly gone, you would have behaved differently from the get-go. Which of course leads to the question of one of the above posters: are you sorry you behaved badly or just sorry you got caught?

And yes, I'll reiterate some of the above advice: grow up and don't be "that guy."

(This must be my longest post on the green, and I thank everyone who reads it for their patience.)
posted by SuzB at 3:38 PM on August 18, 2010 [21 favorites]

I think some people are being too tough. Like another poster upthread, I'd worry if my skirt was too short. I'd definitely be "whatevs" about catching someone glancing at this or that occasionally. We're human.

If someone did it repeatedly, or accompanied it with a grin and not a mortified face, that would be a different story. I think you're fine and if this person never respects you again, I think they're not being realistic about how people are.
posted by sweetkid at 3:39 PM on August 18, 2010 [8 favorites]

I think it's pretty well-established that, yes, this was a creepy thing to do; yes, the woman you ogled will probably be creeped out; yes, she will probably remember it happened; and yes, she is likely to tell other people, at the very least on a casual complaining-coworkers-among-friends level.

arniec: “To Richyoung above...put NOTHING in writing. Actually don't apologize at all. Don't even admit it happened to anyone...you've confessed to Ask MeFi...leave it at that. ¶ It is quite likely that in the USA what you did could easily be defined as sexual harassment. You could lose your job. The more you talk about it, ESPECIALLY if you put it in writing, the more you are admitting to it and putting your job in jeopardy. ¶ What you did WAS sleezy, but understand your worst case scenario is not her thinking you're creepy, the worst case scenario is you being terminated for sexual harassment of a co-worker and then having to try to find another job with THAT on your history and in this economy.”

I appreciate the possible fear of litigation; and I know that there has been some zealousness about this in the past. But I think this is a somewhat paranoid and unfortunate way to approach this situation, and the work place in general. There are three reasons for this:

First – everyone by right ought to be allowed certain reasonable expectations of trust and equal treatment in the workplace. I think it's clear that this incident (so long as it's isolated) probably doesn't require litigation of any kind; as such, you as an employee ought to be able to expect that you won't have your life destroyed out of turn. To put it bluntly: if you're in a workplace where you have reason to worry that you might be unfairly punished in such an extreme way for any cause at all – not just your unfortunate sexist act – then you shouldn't work there any more. If you really can't trust your coworkers to avoid overreacting to delicate situations, then you probably ought to have a different job. I mean that in all seriousness. Trust is necessary for society, and particularly for a workplace. That includes a reasonable expectation for adequate punishment for wrongdoing.

Second – I think it's unrealistic to believe that what you did could be construed as legally actionable harassment. It is certain that it was an instance of harassment – more on how to deal with that later – but I don't think there's been a case in this country yet where a person was convicted of any charges for simply looking up someone's skirt in a meeting. Again, to be clear, it was wrong; but I don't believe it was criminal. Perhaps an actual lawyer can correct me on this and tell me about such cases, but I don't believe they exist, and I suspect that fearing litigation is likely to lead you down the wrong path here. Fear is never a very good way to make decisions.

Third, and most importantly – some things are more important than such legal niceties or continued employment, and human respect amongst colleagues is one of them. I agree with Richyoung that you should apologize. I can tell that you're fairly mortified about the prospect of having to rehash it and describe the moment you're so embarrassed about, but the good thing is: I don't think you have to. She clearly noticed it, and you remember it; all you really need to do is bring it up and apologize. (I think doing this in writing might not work so well, as writing doesn't always communicate everything you want to say, and can be misconstrued as threatening, or humorous, or otherwise unserious.)

The only way to go about apologizing to her is to be clear, careful, and direct, while showing that you respect her as a colleague. Ask to speak to her privately; make eye contact and be sincere; and, using the same tone you'd use to apologize to your boss, tell her something to the effect of: "look, I need to say something about the meeting you and I had yesterday morning; I don't want to make a big deal out of it, but I want you to know that I feel like I behaved completely inappropriately, and for that I'm truly sorry. The last thing I want to do is make you feel uncomfortable or strain our working relationship. I can promise you: it'll never happen again."

I know a lot of people may feel that the best thing to do is to let sleeping dogs lie, and to pretend this never happened; but I believe strongly that when you feel as though you've done something wrong, the best thing to do is to apologize as best you can as soon as possible. What I think you should do is set aside all the other stuff that crowds in on this issue; it's not about keeping your job, or making sure you impress the right people, or covering your bases, or setting yourself up to defend against wrongful claims. What's important here, the central thing, is that you did something wrong – you made another person feel uncomfortable by sexualizing her. And the way to deal with that central fact is to own up to it, make it clear to her that you know it was wrong, and make a promise that it won't happen again. All the rest is just circumstantial details.
posted by koeselitz at 3:41 PM on August 18, 2010 [8 favorites]

Nthing everything above:

1. Yes, I'd lose respect for the peeper. It would take a long period of NORMAL (professional, respectful, non-peeping) behaviour to regain my respect.

2. This applies to all women in the office - this sort of things gets around, and quickly. To your seniors as well as your colleagues, and not just the women.

3. No, I do not assume that most blokes I work with are trying to get an eyeful. I expect that they treat me as a colleague, not a sex object. Luckily I work in an environment where anyone acting as you've described would be out on their ear pretty quickly.

4. I vote for not apologising. If she wasn't comfortable confronting you at the time (some posters above are, but many women are not - I'm a pretty confident, straightforward person but if someone blatantly looked up my skirt in a meeting, I think I'd have been in shock and not known what to say at the time) then an apology is only going to come across as confrontational and uncomfortable. It might make you feel better, but this isn't about salving your conscience, it's about her. Her not mentioning it at the time is NOT the same as her condoning your behaviour. Apologising just raises the issue again. And telling her that you won't do it again doesn't mean a thing - it's just words. Not doing it again is the only way to make it better.

5. I think you need to seriously think about your behaviour and your attitude towards female colleagues. Your header refers to being busted (as if the problem isn't that you were pervy, but that you got caught), and you refer to your actions as blatant, but in your header you say that you were "unwittingly" pervy, which isn't the case at all. Your behaviour is unacceptable in any workplace to any coworker. You need to recognise that and change your behaviour, otherwise your career is doomed to a series of sexual harassment lawsuits and having colleagues avoiding working with you.
posted by finding.perdita at 3:42 PM on August 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

I used to work with a guy who was obsessed with my cleavage. Obsessed. He would talk directly to my breasts, rather than me. Needless to say, I regarded him like a creepy uncle that you can't get rid of. I'm not sure how he could have won my respect back, but step one certainly would have been to stop his behaviour. I wouldn't suggest speaking to her about it - just stop.
posted by ukdanae at 3:43 PM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

... and... now that I've posted, it begins to look as though most women here disagree with me. Which reminds me of something I'd meant to say: you should apologize for her sake as well as for your own; but if it's clear that she really doesn't want or need to hear an apology from you, well, it's probably your responsibility not to say anything. The general point is to make amends and to make sure it doesn't happen again; even in cases where 'making amends' of necessity is something you have to do privately, without involving the person you wronged, that point still stands, I think.
posted by koeselitz at 3:45 PM on August 18, 2010

I also think you'll be lucky if she didn't go to HR. You acknowledge it was blatant and I can't help thinking you are pretty young and you might do this sort of thing a lot. You could already have a pretty bad reputation in the office totally without knowing it.

Whether or not you apologize (if you do, please actually apologize and don't just "mansplain" or ask to be absolved) you might need to find out what exactly is considered harassment and how to check yourself for the sexism that will not stand you in good stead in your career.

I hope you are lucky and don't get officially reprimanded or fired.
posted by Anitanola at 3:45 PM on August 18, 2010

I could be wrong, but I'm with others who get the impression that you see your problem as the fact that you were busted, not the fact that you were "blatantly" ogling your colleague. The most comprehensive advice I can give you to assist you in navigating the workplace is to give some serious thought as to why you seem to think it's ok to leer as long as you don't get caught.

Again, just going with what I see here. Apologies if your account of the situation gave me the wrong impression.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 3:59 PM on August 18, 2010

Can I just say for a single datapoint that I'd appreciate the apology that Narrative Priorities mentioned:

you're sorry you forgot your professionalism for a moment, it was stupid of you and it won't happen again.

And then just nod, and respectfully leave. Two minutes.

Because that's the thing for me - I personally would find it harder if you just 'pretended' it didn't happen, because it did happen. It isn't just a case of 'avoiding' this person - I'm assuming you really can't. I'd appreciate the apology and keeping it professional in the future.

But that's just me. And I'm in academe, and pretty forgiving when people own up to a human mistake.
posted by anitanita at 4:02 PM on August 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

Ok, I'll bite the bullet and be "that guy."

There are certain confusing signals being put out there towards men. I mean, why wear a short skirt or show cleavage and then be shocked and angered if you see someone look at it? If we can see skin we will look at it. I am dead serious when I say that we just can't help it. Yes, we should be more professional, but believe me when I say that sometimes, even just once, our eyes will waver and we'll check out a chest or some legs. But we spend WAY more time trying not to check women out than we do leering at you. This is not an easy feat, but we have to do it day after day.

A skirt that is short enough to look up is too short. Sorry. I work in a very professional setting and there are plenty of women there who wear skirts that are long enough to not give men anything to look at but that aren't matronly at the same time. They look professional. If men are expected to be professional enough not to stare at exposed skin then women should be professional enough not to expose it in the workplace.

Yes, we're pigs and I apologize for all of us.

And no, this does not at all sound like a situation that requires litigation. It's a one-off. He was blatantly looking and it goes without saying that that's a no-no. The best he can do is apologize directly without making excuses and avoid looking at her ever again.
posted by fso at 4:03 PM on August 18, 2010 [23 favorites]

If you think about her reaction, she got up and left the room when she realized you were looking. I would think that in order for you to offer an apology, you are imagining another situation where it will be just the two of you so you can apologize privately, right? If I were offended enough to leave the room, I personally would not want to be alone with that man again. I personally would be on guard and not really wanting to bring the incident up again; I don't think an apology would raise my opinion of you. I agree with others that looking up a woman's skirt is in a different category that a fleeting chest area glance. The fact that you were looking while in a work conversation, so distracted that you consider yourself busted, puts it in an alienating category. I would want to keep my distance from you.

See how she responds to you in the next group situation, and her nonverbal language should give you some clues. Everyone is different.
posted by effluvia at 4:09 PM on August 18, 2010

fso - "we're wired this way" is such an amazingly weak argument. It's tired. Put it to bed.

As a woman lovin' woman, who loves me some girly girls... I manage to keep my eyes where they belong in meetings, in social settings, hell... even walking down the street.

I refuse to believe that I possess some super duper self restraint that allows me to act like a civilized being. I realize that I do, in fact, lack a penis but I'd like to continue believing that having one does not represent such a huge disability to men that they are incapable of appropriate social and/or business graces.
posted by FlamingBore at 4:11 PM on August 18, 2010 [30 favorites]

The best he can do is apologize directly without making excuses and avoid looking at her ever again.

That's pretty confusing in light of the rest of your reply, in which you state that men are wired to look, will always look, can't stop themselves from looking. Which, frankly, is a huge load of bull.
posted by palomar at 4:14 PM on August 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

Or is thigh-cleavage itself too tempting for the average male to avoid?

I don't know if I'm the average male. I think that the OP should follow all the advice that has been given him, and if "blatant" means "intentional" rather than simply "impossible to deny" I think he was unquestionably being a sexist jerk, and I would never do this intentionally, not even at a bar or some other venue where ogling is the order of the day, I hope, and I'm sorry that there are so many guys who are complete assholes and do this sort of stuff intentionally - but as a guy I have to say that yeah, if someone was wearing a skirt with her thighs well-visible it's quite possible that during a meeting so boring that my eyes are crossing I might focus on it unintentionally when I took notice of it. Unlikely, I'd hope, but possible.

No victim blaming, just a simple fact. I try to never directly look at web ads, too, but I don't succeed 100% of the time there either.

But also I wouldn't call such a skirt "too short", a woman can wear whatever she wants as far as I'm concerned, and I wouldn't consider it grounds to alter the outcome of a sexual harassment case. As much as I think it may be unavoidable I also think it's reasonable for women to insist that it simply must not happen.

FlamingBore - if you really cannot be distracted by things like this then I do think there must be some difference going on. (But the difference might be something like distractability; I take ADD medication.)
posted by XMLicious at 4:16 PM on August 18, 2010

I haven't read all the answers on this post yet so I apologize if I'm repeating something that's already been said. I am a woman and I look at people all the time. Just today I blatantly looked up my co-worker's pants leg and saw his, erm, underwear. We were outside smoking and we were standing up. He had one foot up on a bench and was kind of leaning on his knee. He was wearing a loose pair of knee length shorts and when I sat down on the curb and looked back up at him OMG I CAN SEE STRAIGHT UP HIS PANTS LEG. My face kind of blanched and I stood up quickly right as he realized why my face changed and put his leg down. "Sorry," I said.

Other times various women in the office will lean over and display more chest than I know they realize. Usually it's because I'm standing in their office asking if they have any gum. They lean over to pick up their purse and looking at them while I talk to them and all of the sudden, oops, revealing situation. As an observant person who enjoys the unexpected and will look at most anything, I don't think "THE SHAME!", I just think "look, new information."

I was in a situation recently where I was discusing something with another male colleague. I was wearing a very professional and appropriate blouse, but apparently the position I was standing in was causing it to gap right where my bra clasp was. My co-worker very calmly said, "When you stand like that, your shirt gaps." Clearly he had noticed (not ogling) and I took his comment to be a kind of "you've got something in your teeth" to spare me embarassment.

Is your coworker a librarian who has to ascend ladders and you laid down on the floor under the ladder? Do you have mirrors on your shoes? When you blatantly looked up her skirt, were you hiding in a bathroom stall? Or were you sitting across the room from her scanning the people sitting opposite you and she had her legs positioned a certain way so you could see up her skirt, and you looked and thought "Wait, what? Holy cats I can see up her skirt." And she saw you looking and closed her legs? This happened to me in French class when I was 14 and did not yet understand miniskirts.

I don't understand the context, here. If you engineered a way to see up her skirt and then lasciviously did so, yeah, that sucks. But if you found yourself in eyeshot of something unexpected and looked at it partly because it WAS unexpected; well, I do that all the time. The fact that you are so freaked out about it indicates to me that you're not a pervy creepy office guy (they never seem to feel sorry or care if you notice).

What an awkward situation.
posted by staggering termagant at 4:20 PM on August 18, 2010 [25 favorites]

I mean, why wear a short skirt or show cleavage and then be shocked and angered if you see someone look at it?

I'm wary of veering too far off-topic, but as the OP might be wondering a similar thing it seemed worth addressing briefly.

I'm a married woman. I have no interest in attracting other men, or in being looked at in a blatantly sexual manner, or in getting any sort of sexual attention from anyone I might run into out in the world. But sometimes I'll wear a skirt that's above my knees or a shirt that goes below my collar bones. Because I like to look nice for my own sake, and because those clothes are sometimes the most comfortable for a given situation, not because I'm seeking out attention.

A female coworker's only obligation, clothing-wise, is to follow the office dresscode. She shouldn't have to dress like a nun in order to prevent male coworkers from staring at her inappropriately.

The "we just can't help ourselves" argument, as someone pointed out above, is tired and not particularly convincing. And I'm kind of offended on the behalf of my male friends and associates who manage not to act like creeps without any undue effort.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 4:23 PM on August 18, 2010 [26 favorites]

I am dead serious when I say that we just can't help it

Also chiming in to disagree with this retrograde sentiment. You did the wrong thing - whether your colleague did the wrong thing in a wearing a mini-skirt or whatever is beside the point. Whatever she was wearing wouldn't have been a problem if you weren't ogling.

Short, no-nonsense apology would be the way I would deal with this. It may be not get her "on your side", but it's not going to hurt, and she may be more willing to accept that everybody makes mistakes some times.

Next time you're tempted to gawk at an attractive woman, though, please consider how often men look at your colleague like that, at work, on public transport, at the mall, restaurants etc, and how depressing it must be for her to feel that she is constantly evaluated on something she has little control over (her body), and how frustrating it must be to know that - as a woman - men are assessing qualities in her they would rarely assess in other men. If you find someone attractive and you have to look at something when you're talking to them, look at their attractive face.
posted by smoke at 4:24 PM on August 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Apparently I am in a way-minority opinion here, but I agree with what millipede said up above. I would be mortified if my skirt fit in a way that it rode way up when I sat down, and to cross my legs while wearing such skirts. I would only assume that people would be staring between my legs if I were to wear that sort of skirt and sit like that. I specifically avoid wardrobe pieces like that for that reason. And I am speaking as a woman here - if I were to wear a short skirt or chest-revealing shirt at work, and I caught a co-worker ogling my exposed thighs or cleavage, I would probably be more mortified by my clothing than angry with him.

All that said, if I noticed a coworker trying to look down my shirt while we were having a professional conversation, and he was doing it in a way that is as creepy as you're making it sound, and I reacted the way she did, I'd probably rather he didn't apologize. Because I have a hard time believing you'd be able to pull an apology off without seeming creepier, or seeming like you're only looking for an excuse to talk to her again. If I were her, I would be relieved if 1) The subject never came up, and 2) It never happened again.
posted by wondermouse at 4:24 PM on August 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you were blatantly looking up her skirt and she caught you, there is no apology you can make that will come off as sincere. It's the way you say "blatantly," con brio, that will render an apology insincere and she will get that. Believe me, don't apologize. And by the way, kudos to her for getting out of there instead of politely enduring/moving along THE WAY SO MANY OF US HAVE BEEN TRAINED TO DO. Yay, her.
posted by thinkpiece at 4:24 PM on August 18, 2010 [6 favorites]

I mean, why wear a short skirt or show cleavage and then be shocked and angered if you see someone look at it?

I wear clothing that doesn't cover my entire body because it's very hot out and I don't want to be uncomfortable. Like just about every woman who works in a professional setting, I don't dress for you. I don't wear a skirt because I want you to see my legs -- I wear a skirt either because skirts can look professional, or because skirts are comfortable, or because skirts are cool and, again, it's hot out.

OP, the first thing you need to understand is that you cannot think of women as the sorts of things that you get to ogle when you want. Because, when you treat women that way, you are indeed treating them as things. It's demeaning. Terribly demeaning. And it's creepy, because it shows you don't understand how demeaning it is.

If I were in her place, I would not want an apology. That would just make me have to think about that horrifically demeaning, creepy, uncomfortable, and just plain wrong situation I was in. I wouldn't want to relive it again, and I wouldn't want to have to deal with accepting your apology, forgiving you, or "moving on" for your sake.

It was a really bad thing for you to do, and you should hope to hell you don't hear from HR any time soon, but my advice to you would be to leave that woman alone from now and and never, ever do it again. People like me (you know, the people who are female) deserve better than that.
posted by meese at 4:28 PM on August 18, 2010 [15 favorites]

Can I just say for a single datapoint that I'd appreciate the apology that Narrative Priorities mentioned:

you're sorry you forgot your professionalism for a moment, it was stupid of you and it won't happen again.


I am female. I would appreciate a VERY short and succinct apology. It would make me less preoccupied with avoiding you in future. You can be redeemed.
posted by mooza at 4:29 PM on August 18, 2010 [8 favorites]

Hmm.... Arniec, I hadn't really thought about an apology as evidence in a legal action. It just seemed the right thing to do. Sigh....

I work for a govt. employer and recently took a site-wide sexual harrassment training program. They used specific examples very like this one. The take-away I got was that something like this, if an isolated incident, is not likely to result in action beyond a warning. On the other hand, a pattern of this sort of behavior would. So judging from that training, there's no legal reason to hide the fact that you apologized for something. But hell, I've always had trouble thinking like a lawyer.

Koeselitz has a much better reason to apologize verbally rather than in writing: it's harder to be misunderstood. This is more or less true for different people and situations, but it's probably better advice than mine. And I agree with everyone that somebody who doesn't want to hear your apology doesn't have to, but I'm not sure how you can know unless you try. There's a chance that she expects an apology - some of the women here say they would. So attempt to apologize. If she tells you to shut up and leave her alone, say "Ok" and walk away.

Look, I'm male, and I like to think I stand on the side of women in issues like this, but I'm a little surprised at the violence of the reactions here. People are, in part, sexual beings. If every man who ever did something like this once killed himself in shame, the human race would die out.

Life is not about never making mistakes; it's about using your mistakes to become a better person.
posted by richyoung at 4:31 PM on August 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Mod note: yet more comments removed - Dearest folks - please keep answers on topic, please do not fight with other commenters, please take side conversations to email or metatalk and please try to understand that there are peple in the world who are different from you and do not roll your eyes at them. thank you.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 4:34 PM on August 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

Don't speak to her about this. She's mortified enough.

And keep your eyes where they belong next time.

By the way, fso has a bit of a point. Like FlamingBore, my husband believes that one's eyes should behave themselves, and lives and acts accordingly. But there have been times that he literally came home to work to get away from the office because one of the staff had dressed provocatively that day. ( I was more than familiar with all the office staff and I agreed with his assessment, fwiw.) Not saying people should wear burquas to the office, but a little consideration does go a long way.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:41 PM on August 18, 2010

I would personally apologize, face to face. Explain that you lost concentration and your lizard brain decided to step in. Say that you felt mortified by your actions and that you will make sure it does not happen again. That's how one earns respect, by standing up for what's right.
posted by Ironmouth at 4:41 PM on August 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

With regards to an apology: hell, I don't know how you'd even do it. He shouldn't put anything in writing, probably shouldn't do it over the phone (who knows who's listening in at work and at this point he better not call her privately), and pulling her into a corner for a private apology, well, she's not gonna want to do that.

Hence why a lot of us are saying even an apology won't do any good here.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:44 PM on August 18, 2010

Oh honestly, chill out dude, you looked, you got caught, it's not the end of the world. Knock it off, of course, but don't beat yourself up over it. That mortified feeling you're feeling right now? She probably feels worse. Accept the fact that you made another human being feel uncomfortable, learn from that and move on. Follow her cues about this. If she appears uncomfortable around you, be respectful, keep your distance and 110% professional. Invite a co-worker to meet with ya'll if possible, to defuse things. If she wants to pretend nothing happen, then go with that.

Admit nothing, put nothing in writing and make damn sure to act more professionally in the future. What you did was an honest mistake, but it's a mistake that can make a another person feel very awkward and be damaging to your professional relationships. If this sort of behavior continues, you will be known as the office pervert. You do not want that.

You make a mistake. Learn from it and do better in the future.
posted by nomadicink at 4:54 PM on August 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'd place you directly in the "creepy" category, and feel very uncomfortable around you.

The brief apology mentioned, along with a change in behavior, might increase my comfort and respect. It really depends on your previous and following actions.

I don't assume most males I've worked with are actively peeking. The few I've caught out of the corner of my eye or directly, I immediately and permanently lost respect for, but then, they never changed their behavior.
posted by moira at 5:07 PM on August 18, 2010

with a valued (and, yes, attractive) female colleague

I hope you don't think that it would be okay if she weren't attached. Mostly leave her alone if you can and be professional otherwise. As for bringing it up - I don't think that will make anything better. Just hope she doesn't report you. And never ever look up a woman's skirt again - unless she's your girlfriend. Even then, consider the situation, the mood etc.

There is a reason this isn't okay. Yes, you got "busted", but the way you phrase parts of your question make me wonder if you really get that this is wrong or why this is wrong. I hope you aren't merely worried because she caught you. Be worried for doing this in the first place. Otherwsie no appology in the world will mean a thing (this is why I don't think an apology from you will do any good). Also, don't assume that it's only men being inappropriate in the office:

Men: Have you ever gotten busted this way?

posted by marimeko at 5:14 PM on August 18, 2010

Sorry: replace attached with attractive above.
posted by marimeko at 5:20 PM on August 18, 2010

I agree with koeselitz. Apologize briefly and sincerely. Get to the point as quickly as possible, say as little as possible about the details, and get it over with really quickly:

"look, I need to say something about the meeting you and I had yesterday morning. I want you to know that I feel like I behaved completely inappropriately, and for that I'm truly sorry. The last thing I want to do is strain our working relationship or make you feel uncomfortable. I can promise you: it'll never happen again, and again, I sincerely apologize."

Then change the subject to something light. Or let her leave, whichever seems more natural.
posted by salvia at 5:27 PM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would be even more suspicious of you if you DIDN'T apologize, in the way mooza and Narrative Priorities suggest: short and professional.

If you didn't say anything, I would think you don't get that your behavior was unprofessional.

If you just avoided contact with me without saying anything, I might think you're unprofessional AND you're getting better at hiding your ogling, or are ogling from afar.

Either option gives me the creeps. Someone manning up and saying "Hey I screwed up, I realize that, and I will not let it happen again" makes me less suspicious of you in the future.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:33 PM on August 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh my god! I'm a woman and I DON'T think you need to hire a lawyer, worry about getting fired/sued for sexual harassment and/or be concerned that your entire career is going up in flames. I know we're all supposed to be sexless, hairless naifs at work but Jesus, Mary and Joseph, we're still human!

I agree that she's probably creeped out and it's in your best interest to treat her with the utmost respect...not just because you peeked up her skirt but because it's how you should treat those around you. Apologize if you don't think it would make her more uncomfortable (I personally would NOT want you to bring it up) and just be more careful in the future.
posted by victoriab at 5:37 PM on August 18, 2010 [5 favorites]

I would NOT avoid her. So its awkward for you - tough cookies. Too many women have been kept from advancing because for some strange reason Creepy Harry never wants to work on their team, or she declines to work late nights alone with Sketchy Sam. You should apologize verbally, and soon, and treat her like you would any of your co-workers, maybe better.

(Also, seriously guys? Can we quit with the victim blaming for once?)
posted by fermezporte at 5:47 PM on August 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Yeah, the advice to never speak to her again and not to apologize is terrible advice. You got caught looking. It isn't the end of the world. Apologize sincerely and continue treating her exactly the same way you always have. (Assuming you have previously treated her with respect.)

Shit happens. If all of a sudden you start acting like a whipped puppy, the signal is that you are a raging pervert and are doing this all the time, and are ashamed to have been caught. If you actively ignore it, it sends the message that you aren't a normal person who got caught up in a momentary lapse, but that you are a creep who has been outed. A pervy moment is a lot different from being a perv.

The important thing, however, is that you should absolutely:

1- Apologize sincerely, make no excuses and make no requests for forgiveness. "Hey Colleague- I'm really sorry about what I did earlier. I crossed a line and it won't happen again." And do the apology the absolute next time you see her: the more you wait, the weirder an apology is. Yes- an apology may be momentarily more awkward than not. But in the long term, that momentary awkwardness is a lot less awkwardness than letting it "sit out there".

2- And then drop it. Moment over. If she wants to continue to be creeped out by you, that it her right and you just need to suck it up that your lapse in judgment damaged a relationship.

Don't apologize?? Do we really think this woman is so dainty and prone to the vapors that she should be spared the agony of reliving the horrors of a (presumably unintentional) glimpse?

We are all just people. The Right Thing To Do when you violate someone's modesty like that is to apologize.

And hey, everyone? This isn't an either-or scenario. The passive aggressive "oh, please tell me just how long my skirt must be" crap is really tiresome. Do whatever you want! Making the observation that if a coworker can see underpants during the normal conduct of business then the clothing is probably not appropriate for business is not an excuse for people to look. It isn't "victim" blaming, it is just stating the obvious: if your clothing choices make your junk visible, don't be surprised if people look. That is not giving anyone permission to gape and it doesn't make them any less uncouth.
posted by gjc at 5:47 PM on August 18, 2010 [8 favorites]

I'm a guy, and I often find myself at work (and just about everywhere else) sneaking glances at all manner of people's butts, bosoms, crotches, and other patches of bared skin. If I caught something out of the ordinary with my eye -- say, a woman sitting with her legs spread (weird!) or a man clearly aroused and leaning leaning back in the chair away from a desk/table (weird!) I would find it hard not to look (and no, I'm not bisexual). If someone made a point of noticing that I looked, then I would feel embarrassed. And if they said something about it, I would offer a brief and much-chagrined apology. Maybe I'm a terrible creeper for having my curiosity mercilessly piqued by the human body. But then, I've never had the opportunity to spend time on a French or Spanish beach either, so maybe I'm repressed.

Anyway, yes, leering (or whatever you want to call it) is certainly rude, and you should definitely make every effort not to do it. If you do do it and embarrass someone, apologize politely and crispy if she seems receptive to it. Otherwise, follow the advice of be distant, polite, and professional.

And for all those people who are yammering about your being fired -- thank God I don't work someplace like that. Fired for looking at someone (who, I might add, had her skirt open)? Seems strange. I get it if that behavior constituted a broader pattern, if it included comments or "accidental brushes" ... but sheesh. People need to chill. Just to compare: A receptionist at work calls me "sexy receptionist" and winks at me when I fill in during coffee breaks or the like, and I don't appreciate it, but I certainly don't think she should be fired.
posted by GnomeChompsky at 5:48 PM on August 18, 2010 [6 favorites]

When you say blatant, I’m wondering if you mean deliberate, as in going out of your way to get a peek; or blatant as in something caught your eye, you looked a little longer than was appropriate and got caught. Your title says you were being "unwittingly pervy" so I'm inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt.

I also share your pain, as I have an unfortunate habit of looking where I shouldn't be looking myself. I’m mortified that I keep doing it but when my mind is occupied by the conversation my eyes tend to wander to whatever is most interesting about the person’s appearance. A prominent scar, fucked-up teeth, attractively displayed cleavage… when engrossed in the conversation I simply don’t realize that I’m staring until I notice the person get uncomfortable and tug up their top, or put their hand over their scar, or whatever. And then I’m like “goddammit, I’m doing it again!” I honestly just don’t realize I’m doing it because my conscious brain is totally focused on the conversation. There are a few people in my office that I’ve become extremely guarded around, because I realize that I’ve embarrassed them and myself before, and thankfully the mortifying memory of that kicks in now whenever they come around and I am able to remind myself to “look eyes.”

On the side of the fence, I’ve been the lookee before on many occasions as well. There are basically three kinds of “looking” that I’ve noticed, and how I feel about it depends on which kind it is.

The quick glance doesn’t bother me at all. I do wear clothes that flatter my boobs and I expect that men are going to notice. A quick shift of the eyes down and back up is noticeable but I don’t find it offensive in the slightest. If I were that sensitive about having my breasts noticed I wouldn’t put them out there.

The obvious stare is a different matter. Clueless staring is uncomfortable and while I’d like to be the sort of person who could toss off a “my eyes are up here” comment and move on, I’d probably just avoid the person somewhat and cross my arms over my chest if I ever had to talk to him. I’m probably a bit more sympathetic than most women because of my own clueless staring problem, but from what I understand most women find this guy to be annoying and creepy.

The sort of looking that really pisses me off is when the guy deliberately looks too long, then looks me in the eye with a smirk. Or when I catch a guy deliberately trying to see more... craning his neck to look down my shirt or cocking his head to get a better look up my skirt. That guy knows he’s being a pig and he doesn’t care. THAT is what I consider sexual harassment, and yeah, that creep is the one I’m going to dislike, disrespect, avoid, badmouth to other women in the office and complain to HR about.

So what kind of look was it? Did something catch your eye and she caught you before you managed to get control of yourself? Or were you obviously deliberately trying to get a better look? That will probably make a difference in how mad she is at you.

Ok, so what to do? Well, the coworkers that I’ve embarrassed myself with seem not to be holding it against me, they are still friendly and talk to me, and we’ve never spoken about my faux pas. But I’ve been incredibly careful to watch where I’m looking ever since, so scrupulously stopping the behavior probably has something to do with it.

From a guy I caught looking one time, I would probably appreciate a short, classy apology like omnomnom’s: "look, I'm very sorry about earlier, I appreciate you as a colleague and it won't happen again." Then just be utterly professional, respectful and careful with your eyes from now on, and there’s a good chance it will blow over.

The asshole in my office who keeps doing it again and again, on the other hand, can go fuck himself. His antics are widely discussed amongst the women in the office and everyone is just waiting for him to go just that little bit too far that he finds himself in deep shit with HR.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:53 PM on August 18, 2010 [7 favorites]

Re: litigation / sexual harassment - no, a single incident isn't likely to get you fired. But your post suggests that this isn't a single incident - it's just that the person you're ogling made it obvious in this situation that you'd been "caught". Which, along with your question to men as to whether they've ever been "busted", suggests that this isn't the first time you've ogled a female colleague... Chances are, you've been spotted before, but they didn't alert you to that fact. The comments about the chances of being fired are (I think) more about the perception that this is something that you do regularly and as such, is likely to lead (sooner or later) to a sexual harassment situation.

Re: apologising or not. There are a lot of posts either way. What you should focus on is the person concerned. She didn't have the confidence / quick wittedness to confront you directly at the time (few people do), but neither did she ignore it completely - she left the room on a pretext to get away from the situation, so she did make it clear that she wasn't comfortable with it. So it's tricky. The point is that whether you apologise or not should be about whether it would make the situation better for her, rather than whether it would make the situation better for you. If you're only concerned about the latter, then yes, apologise. But the issue here is her reaction. You know her better than we do - only you can really judge whether a (short, to the point, no excuses) apology will make it better, or actually make it worse.
posted by finding.perdita at 6:10 PM on August 18, 2010

Can we quit with the victim blaming for once?.

Oh, christ. Looking is not assault. It's not victim-blaming to say that showing skin can be distracting for both sexes.

Maybe the OP is a huge creep, and was staring lasciviously for a long while. Obviously not acceptable. Or, maybe he lost concentration and was glancing for a few seconds. We don't know, but a lot of people in this thread seem ready to assume the worst.
posted by ripley_ at 6:21 PM on August 18, 2010 [12 favorites]

I am an employment lawyer. Anonymous, I am not your employment lawyer, and this should not be construed as legal advice. However, I would like to add a little bit of my own perspective on this.

First, a non-legal point -- I think one problem with this discussion is that we suffer from a bit of a lack of information. Blatantly looking up a colleague's skirt means to me that she caught you--in the middle of a conversation--laying down on the ground and trying to position yourself for the best possible view. I doubt that's what happened here. The other extreme view of the situation is that her clothing was positioned in such a way as to constitute "wardrobe malfunction." In that case, I defy any of us--male or female--to say we wouldn't have looked. Sometimes you just can't avoid it. My level of outrage toward the OP depends on which of these extreme examples more closely describes what happened.

As to the legal perspective, a few thoughts:

1. I would echo the sentiments above that an email or written apology is a bad idea. It could absolutely be used as evidence, and because an apology is likely going to be short, it leaves it vague as to exactly what it is you are apologizing for. The (small) flipside to this is that it does show some contrition. Still, a bad idea.

2. Without more, in most jurisdictions this conduct alone would not constitute sexual harassment. The standard for actionable sexual harassment is that it be "severe or pervasive." This is a sliding scale. The more severe it is, the less frequent it need be, and vice versa. As an employment lawyer I can say that as things go, this is not particularly severe. Anonymous was maybe being a creep, but he was not propositioning his colleague, threatening her, or intimidating her. Done enough times, deliberately, this conduct might become pervasive. But one time won't cut it.

Another piece to consider is that a different standard applies to co-workers as opposed to managers/supervisors. Anonymous sounds like he is a same-level colleague, not a manager or supervisor, so from a legal perspective it would probably be more difficult to sustain a legal suit against him because as a non-supervisor he is not in any sort of official position of power over her employment.

3. Despite the fact that there's probably not enough here for a legal claim, it doesn't mean Anonymous is in the clear with regard to his employer. If reported, there is a substantial chance that he will face discipline or at least receive a warning. In my experience, the vast majority of employers won't terminate an employee for a single instance of this sort of behavior, but if reported, it maybe investigated and at a minimum something will be put in his personnel file.

Last, as another non-legal aside, I'm fascinated by the response of the majority of women here who feel that an apology is not appropriate. In anything, if I feel disrespected or wronged, I would feel better receiving an acknowledgement of wrongdoing, even if perhaps that brings back the bad memory or inappropriateness of what happened. It would be a first step toward reestablishing a respectful relationship. If I found myself as the perpetrator of this sort of a situation, I would find it difficult not to apologize and recognize openly that I had done something assholey. Anyway, this is not meant to call into question this point of view...I am not a woman, and I have not been sexually harassed, so my perspective on how the victim of such conduct would want to be treated afterward is obviously lacking.
posted by saladpants at 6:47 PM on August 18, 2010 [20 favorites]

A skirt that is short enough to look up is too short. Sorry.

Wrong. Sometimes it's a legitimate wardrobe malfunction. I wear skirts that go just past my knees. Last summer I was wearing pants a lot and then wore a skirt one day. I was in a meeting where tables were set up in a big rectangle, and sat in my chair the same way I would have if I was wearing pants, with my feet hooked around the legs of the chair. At a break in the meeting, a man who had been sitting on the other side of the room came over and apologetically let me know that it was possible to see up my skirt. I was mortified, but thankful that I at least didn't spend the rest of the meeting accidentally flashing anyone else. That is what a non-creepy guy would do OR, if he didn't want to potentially embarrass someone, he wouldn't say anything, but would resolutely keep his eyes averted.

If I caught you staring and enjoying it, I would be
a. super-embarrassed
b. completely creeped out
c. avoid you as much as possible in the future.
posted by MsMolly at 6:49 PM on August 18, 2010 [6 favorites]

Yeah, I'm with the others who say we need a little more info on how exactly you were able to see up her skirt. If you were doing something out-of-the-ordinary in order to see, and got caught, then you are definitely a creep. But it seems wierd that you would do such a thing and then be so mortified about it afterward...so I'm betting that she was accidentally exposing herself (especially since you say when she caught you she pulled her skirt down) and you got caught noticing. Which is rude, no doubt about it, but I personally would not put that in the sexual harrassment category.

If it had been me, I think I would have said something about it at the time, honestly. Like..."whoops, my skirt's riding up!" And then you would have had your opportunity to apologize or explain yourself, but since she immediately left the room, that makes me worry a bit. I think you're better off just letting it go. If she thinks you're a creep, then anything else you say about it might creep her out more. When I have to work with someone who I think is creepy/annoying for whatever reason, I really don't want to interact with them any more than necessary.

Looking is not assault. It's not victim-blaming to say that showing skin can be distracting for both sexes.

Thank you. I really don't get how people can be liberated about what they wear but then have this puritanical attitude about being looked at. If I wear a top that accentuates my chest then I fully expect that some people might glance at my cleavage. Hell, I glance at cleavage, and I'm a straight woman. I don't see it as being much different from noticing a nice piece of jewelry, or pretty eyes, cute haircut, etc. It's called appreciating beauty, and yes, it's rude to look at people's sexual parts and you should try not to notice those things, but the fact that a person looked doesn't automatically mean that they're a depraved pervert.
posted by cottonswab at 6:54 PM on August 18, 2010 [12 favorites]

You're not a creep, you're a healthy adult male that, for a brief moment, was unable to counter a biological impulse begat by hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary hard wiring. It happens. I'd just let it pass and hope she doesn't mention it to HR. Try to control yourself next time.
posted by Beardsley Klamm at 6:58 PM on August 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

People are free to think that the sentiment that men can't help but look at women showing some skin is tiresome crap, but it's true.

Based upon the description of the scenario outlined in the question, this guy didn't make a concerted effort to look up her skirt. It was presented to him and he looked. Should he have not done it? Sure. He should have known it could make her uncomfortable and made every effort possible to avoid looking. But seriously, our eyes are drawn to that like magnets. And hey, I would much prefer that this didn't happen. I would love it if women and sex didn't occupy so much of my mind but that isn't reality, as much as many women wish it would be. I sure would get a lot more done in the run of the day if I didn't have women on the brain. But I do, all straight men do, and it's just not going to change. Yes, it's biology. If we weren't so horny I'd be curious to know what the world's population would be right now.

He's not a creep, he's a guy. This isn't to let him off the hook or "blame the victim," it just is what it is.
posted by fso at 7:05 PM on August 18, 2010 [5 favorites]

That said, this is why most workplaces have a dresscode that says a short skirt should cover your knees when seated.

I have worked in some very conservative offices, and I have never heard such a thing. Certainly an average skirtsuit, which reaches just to the knee when standing, would not fit this criteria.

But even if her skirt WAS too short, that doesn't make the OP ogling her appropriate. "Can't help it" my ass. Noticing skin can be accidental, fleeting. Taking a good look is a deliberate action.

If someone has a clothing mishap in the office, ripped pants or popped button, in front of coworkers, the polite thing to do is avoid taking blatant advantage of WHOO FREE NUDITY. In the case of a too-short skirt or too-tight pair of pants, I think everyone has gone through a workday thinking "oof, not wearing this again, but it's not bad enough to change."
posted by desuetude at 7:17 PM on August 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

"...what was funny high school or college pranking to look up women's skirts or try to cop a feel or something..." Wow, this is a huge HUGE leap!

Late to the party, but can't resist staying for a bit. All the comments about the OP getting fired, sniping that it's an either/or situation (you want women to wear burkas! I'll wear whatever I want!), and being hyperbolic (she's the victim of an assault!) trivialize actual sexual assaults against women.

I'm female, work in Corporate America, and wore a dress today. I was trying to envision how someone could've looked up my dress and came up with:
- Tech support guy on the floor hooking up my computer while I stood above him. Creepy and blatant.
- Him sitting in a chair, me sitting on a desk/table doing... what? I would have to be in either a very undignified position or (sorry, but I have to say it) wearing a skirt that is way, way too short for the office.

I've been in this situation: I've been the (straight) chick who has to consciously stop staring after realizing a coworker is wearing a skirt so short that, if she moves, I'll be able to see her underwear. It's like watching something tipping over and wondering if it's actually going to fall...
posted by sfkiddo at 7:18 PM on August 18, 2010 [7 favorites]

You did a dumb thing. Yes, most people look (be honest!) but (if they are not oversexed creeps) they keep it to a very subtle glimpse here or there. To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld - it's like staring into the sun: you don’t stare, you glance then look away.

I can't tell from your description how "blatant" the act was. Like some others upthread, unless you are holding a ladder for her, I don't see how you could possibly have gotten such a glimpse. Maybe she was wearing a short skirt - even so how could she have been sitting for you to get such a look? The mind boggles.

My best advice - don't look at work. Just don't. You might think it's OK, but it's really not. There's a lot of women who don't take too kindly to it. It's one of those things - you might think it's kind of OK, but others certainly don't, and it's not the kind of fight that you will ever win. Sexual harrasment is something that is taken very seriously (and with good cause) - you don't want to be "testing the waters" or pushing the boundaries in any way.

I don't know about an apology. It depends on so many factors. I would be fully prepared to deliver a brief apology (a few upthread have nailed it) but even that could come off as confrontational in some way. Also, it might further stir the pot up and make your colleague even more upset.

Play it by ear. Don't deliberately avoid her. Be professional and courteous in all your dealings with her (and all your other colleagues). If you can sense that she is upset, well, apologise. But if not, don't. She really may want to let the matter drop. Apologising to her is not about making you feel better or getting you off the hook - it's about making her feel better and knowing that you sincerely regret what you did. And not because you were caught, but because you know that blatantly staring at women is not the right thing to do, whether it be at work or on the beach!

Those upthread who say the OP should be fired - get a grip! It's not like he pinched her on the butt. He did a stupid, immature thing. For which he immediately regretted. Give him a chance to redeem himself.
posted by humpy at 7:39 PM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I caught myself on the subway yesterday staring up a woman's skirt just because I couldn't believe how incredibly short it was and was amazed she felt comfortable sitting with her damn knees apart like that. I certainly wasn't titillated, as the OP has implied he was. I'm just saying that it's hard not to notice something like that.

I've had stuff like this happen to me at the office. I do sometimes wear low-cut shirts and dresses to work, and you know what? I'm not blaming the victim here, but I'd be a damn fool to expect men to ignore all that cleavage. I don't actively encourage it, but I at least acknowledge it will happen. If I catch a man sneaking a glance... well, I can forgive that, as long as he doesn't linger.

Look, what you did was wrong, but human.

Now forgive yourself, and don't say a word about it to her. She doesn't want to think about it anymore. Just don't do it again, and treat her with respect.
posted by Evangeline at 7:43 PM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Mod note: knock it off - go to metatalk, take private sidebars to email.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:47 PM on August 18, 2010

I have skimmed many of the above responses, so pardon me if I'm repeating.

I'm female, early thirties, and have always worked in a male dominated industry (well educated, professional males) and this wouldn't bother me. As mentioned above, I'd probably assume I was flashing more leg than I'd intended and go on with my day. This has happened to me enough times that I don't consider it remarkable anymore. Ditto with looking down my shirt. I don't dress like a streetwalker but I dress like a girl and men look. Some women look too. I think it is natural to notice the opposite sex and when you see something pretty, it draws your attention. I guess I don't think it's as big a deal as others.

Having said that, she did seem bothered by it. So I'd apologize as suggested above- for losing your professional cool for a moment- because it obviously bothered her more than for any other reason.
posted by supercapitalist at 8:02 PM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Did you have your head on the floor or something? Just because someone is caught looking in that direction doesn't mean that all the presumed evils of a sick and twisted soul are evident. I've found myself looking downward at someone's crotch area many a times without having the evil thoughts of rape, or whatever people think when someone willfully looks down there. When I am focused on a thought I could easily glance at a laser without realizing what I was doing.

While you said you blatantly looked up her skirt that doesn't in all situations imply sexual overtones or perversions. It's hard to tell without being in your head but you are in the right to send an email or copied letter saying that you were sorry for the misunderstood appearance of the situation and that you are not a "fill-in-the-blank". You would hope that she would understand that it was more embarrassing for you to be caught under the assumption of being a sick voyeur.
posted by JJ86 at 8:02 PM on August 18, 2010

Also chiming in late to say that I'm a mid-20s woman who works in an educational institution. If I had been in her shoes, YES, I would have immediately been offended, since it IS such a knee-jerk reaction to have the "typical - men are pigs" attitude in this situation.

Then, after I had sorted out my OWN lizard-brain reaction, I would definitely enjoy a brief but sincere apology. It would give me great reassurance to know that even though you did glance, you (a) have enough respect for me to acknowledge the social malfunction, and (b) have enough self-respect to indicate this is not the kind of person you strive to be. Some respectful distance and time would be your best bet for rebuilding friendship and trust after that. This is just my data point.

If your coworker wears a skirt to work, then I would suspect she is not only self-aware of how attractive she is, but ALSO aware of how wearing a skirt will attract glances. Based on your description (rolling her eyes), her response easily ranges from self-righteously defensive to embarrassed and confused. If I were you, give it a few days and get a sense of where she's at (distant, put off, etc.). Give HER a chance to figure out how SHE would like to deal with this unpleasantry that has come up in your professional relationship. THEN, if she seems receptive, offer the brief but sincere apology.
There is also certainly a chance that your coworker is what I would call "bitchy", as in she is fully aware of how much you enjoy the chance to have one-on-one meetings with someone "as attractive" as she is. And catching you "in the act" could just be a notch in her belt rather than something she would eagerly cry ASSAULT over. Just some food for thought, particularly if you sense that she is more put off by the apology than appreciative.

FWIW I don't think your situation is beyond hope, or that you're "just another disgusting male pig". Do calm down, do acknowledge you're human, and know that with all the Metafilter wisdom here, you'll have a solid plan for how best to navigate what is a tricky arena of mixed messages about professional protocol for men and women both.
posted by human ecologist at 8:10 PM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, I don't assume I'm so unbelievably hot that men everywhere are trying to undress me with their eyes, and if a guy I'm working with is very obviously and blatantly ogling me: yes, I would lose my respect for him.

I'm confused: are you mortified that she caught you or are you mortified that you accidentally went, '...oh, wow, I can see black lace panties - OH GOD I DIDN'T MEAN TO DO THAT'? 'Cause there's a really big difference there.

Assuming it's the former (mortification that you got caught peeping): If a dude did this to me, didn't apologise and went around acting like nothing was wrong, I would assume he's going to do it again because he wants to and because he can. You should acknowledge that you did something wrong - find a time where other co-workers are visibly around but not close enough to hear any conversation you and her have. Tell her you want to apologise for your lack of professionalism and that it won't happen again. Be sincere.

Don't try and say something along the lines of, 'your skirt was so short I couldn't help myself', don't say anything about how attractive she is, don't say 'I hope we can work closely together in the future'. Acknowledge your mistake. Walk away. Respect her if she seems skittish or weird around you afterwards. Don't try and reach out to her and be 'extra nice' - no coffee or anything. Treat her the same way you'd treat a male colleague you're not really friendly with but have to work with.

On the other hand, if she's the quieter type she may want to just ignore you totally. If she doesn't meet your eyes the next time she sees you, if she visibly doesn't want to be in the same room with you, if she acts like nothing ever happened - take your cue from her and say nothing. Treat her with nothing but respect and professionalism. She may want to just pretend you suddenly don't exist: if she does, understand that. Don't get defensive about it. Be as professional as you can in all aspects of your job.
posted by zennish at 8:16 PM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think your decision of whether or not to apologize should be based on the woman's personality and how you think it will make her feel- if she's a "straight shooter", direct, outspoken type, she'll probably appreciate it more than she would if she's a nonconfrontational or anxious type of person. You say she muttered an excuse and left during the actual incident, so my otherwise uninformed guess is that she's a more indirect type of communicator, which may well mean she'd rather not address it again. But you know her better than I, so if you do decide to apologize, here's my advice:

I think it's important for you to realize that you have no right to ever expect things to be "squared" again, or to wish she'd "get over it" at some point. Don't ask, or expect, this person to accept your apology. Realize that apologizing doesn't make what you did ok, and that your apology (or the passage of time) may not gain her forgiveness. She might still dislike you or tell others what you did or avoid you or think you're a creep forever, and she is allowed to think any of those things. So even if you apologize, or even if years pass, please realize that you don't get to resent her if she's still cold or weird with you; your transgression may have crossed a line that you can't cross back, and if so, that's your problem that you made, not hers.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 8:27 PM on August 18, 2010

I just wanted to drop-in and say that as a gay guy, I've definitely inadvertently glanced up a girl's skirt before. It wasn't on purpose or in any way sexual, my eyes were just drawn there, probably cause of the contrast. Assuming you weren't doing it on purpose, I'd use Narrative Priorites' apology. If you did do it on purpose, still use Narrative Priorities' apology, and cut that behavior out.
posted by kylej at 9:45 PM on August 18, 2010

Skimmed through the responses, and I'm sitting here thinking what I would like, if I were the woman in this situation...

Not saying anything would make me assume that he thought what he did was ok, and that he's creepy. Don't assume the woman understood that you were mortified. She probably didn't read that off of you since she was embarrassed/flustered and there was no verbal exchange. If it were left with nothing said, I would relegate him to the skeevy category and that's likely how it would stay.


If he chose to man up and apologize to me, that would speak volumes, hopefully just figuratively. No need to go into a protracted explanation - just say that you realize that you'd been caught, that you felt horribly and realize how unprofessional you were, and out. I would definitely feel much more comfortable, and regain some respect for him. In this age of fear of "confrontation" (where confrontation means anything that's slightly uncomfortable), having the courage to say you're sorry will help alleviate the mutual discomfort.
posted by FlyByDay at 10:18 PM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

"...do you generally assume that most dudes are trying to peek at you whether you notice or not?"

No. Gross.

Men are capable of self-control and not objectifying the women they encounter, even those who are remarkably attractive. If a particular male does not yet have this level of awareness and self-control, it is something they should work on.
posted by batmonkey at 10:37 PM on August 18, 2010 [5 favorites]

She is probably wondering right now whether you ever did have any real regard for her as a colleague, or were merely feigning it to give yourself more latitude for your voyeurism and whatever else you may have planned, and I think you must apologize in order to ease her mind about that, at the very least.

Do it verbally, for all the reasons that have been so well stated above, and say first that you are sorry for your crass behavior and for the offense it gave her; second, that you admire her work and that your own work was improved because you were able to work with her up to now; and third, that you hope she may someday see her way clear to resuming those valued collaborations on what you pledge will be a strictly professional basis from now on.
posted by jamjam at 11:05 PM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

do you generally assume that most dudes are trying to peek at you whether you notice or not?

Just wondering, do you assume this, OP? I get the sense that you believe all men do this.

Actually, in my experience, they don't. I have never known any of my male relatives, or any men I respected growing up to do this. In my experience, it's a small minority of men who does this, but they do it a LOT, and are really gung ho about it, and target a lot of women with it so it seems widespread.

Maybe you grew up in an environment where men do this, so you think it's what all men do, but it's not.

I get the sense that you think it is harmless to do as long as you try not to get caught. I just want to tell that

-We can frequently tell you are doing this even when you think we haven't noticed
-It makes our day just a little bit shittier and discouraging.
posted by Ashley801 at 12:00 AM on August 19, 2010 [6 favorites]

I'm sort of thinking about the woman's reaction, and, to me, it seems like there might have been a bit more to it than the single slip. The fact that she's a valued employee suggests to me that she probably doesn't have a short fuse or a difficult work personality. Assuming she's reasonably tolerant (and I'll just use myself as a guide since I don't have the benefit of knowing much about her), and it was basically a one-off thing, I would expect her to adjust her skirt, raise a brow, and signal in every way (or verbalize), hey, knock it off! I personally wouldn't have rolled my eyes and left if I felt like it was an unusual incident. I would definitely be wary around the guy going forward, but I wouldn't necessarily mentally condemn him if it was the only time this had happened.

On the other hand, if it was just yet another incident with the same guy, even if the other times he hadn't been explicitly "busted," I would do something like she did. If I had heard of incidents with other female co-workers (in other words, he had a reputation for this sort of behavior), I would do something like she did.

And possibly, if it's something she has to deal with every day from other men in the office, she might react strongly even if it was our poster's first offense.

To me, her reaction seems to signal "heartily fed up," and I think this might make a difference in how the poster proceeds. If he's been copping peeks all along (even if he doesn't realize it's been noticed), I'm thinking that an apology would be unconvincing, and if I were her, I'd just assume that he's worried about repercussions.

If it was really a one-time unwitting moment, she might very well appreciate the apology. Either way, of course, she will appreciate it never, ever happening again, and actions speak louder than words. Just act decently from now on, with her and the other women you work and interact with, and if you do have a reputation, little by little it will fade.
posted by taz at 1:02 AM on August 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think people are making too many assumptions in the answers here. For those of you assuming the OP is a creep, do you really think he'd contritely write an anonymous question on an internet forum worrying that he offended his colleague, if he didn't care and thought his behavior was fine? Creepy guys, and we all have encountered them, ogle without shame.

As a (mostly) straight woman, I am visually oriented and if I see something attractive I will want to look at it, whether it is a body part, tree or flower. If men wore skirts and low-cut shirts to work, I would have a hard time not looking if I found them attractive. I mean, I don't ogle people and I think it's rude and unprofessional to do so, but it doesn't sound like that's what the OP did. He might have stared too long as a result of getting a little caught up, and then pissed off the woman, which is understandable and I do think it's a good idea to apologize. But I really don't get the feeling that he is a creep.

OP, as a woman, if I am displaying cleavage or whatever and a man looks, I don't think he's a creep IF it's a glance and clearly inadvertant. If he's constantly ogling and staring, then yes, creepy. To be honest some of the responses sound a little sheltered too. I mean there are a lot of different environments besides the American white-collar office and different cultures and places have different ways of expression. I'm NOT saying sexual harassment is ever okay; I just think some of you need to lighten up a bit.
posted by bearette at 1:12 AM on August 19, 2010

For those of you assuming the OP is a creep, do you really think he'd contritely write an anonymous question on an internet forum worrying that he offended his colleague, if he didn't care and thought his behavior was fine

I think he cares about the consequences of getting caught, its not clear whether he actually thinks what he did was wrong.

Its also not clear what he actually did. To me, trying to look up someone's skirt is trying to glimpse panties - or the lack thereof, not just looking at a bit of thigh cleavage. Saying it was blatant suggests it was not just a quick glance at a wardrobe malfunction (also he said he had to look up, so definitely more than a quick glance)

If I wear a top that shows my breasts, I expect that people (not just men) will look but I also expect them to be fairly discrete and not ogle. If they were staring when we're supposed to having a conversation, I'd give them a friendly 'eyes up here' reminder but any flesh that I'm choosing to display is fair game (for looking, not touching) but trying to peek beyond what I'm choosing to display (either down my shirt or up my skirt) is unacceptable and unbelievably immature - I mean, seriously, what were you expecting to see up there?!

If I caught you trying to actually look up my skirt, not just looking at my legs or being distracted by an accidental flash, there is nothing you could say that would change how I felt about you at that point and I probably would report the incident to HR/my boss. However, I would not use the apology about being sorry for forgetting your professionalism because to me that would suggest that you think its ok outside of a professional setting to try to look up women's skirts.

If what you actually mean is she was accidentally flashing her knickers or her skirt rode up and you looked a little too long at the thigh cleavage then I wouldn't bring it up again and proceed as normal - she probably left because she was terribly embarrassed.
posted by missmagenta at 2:16 AM on August 19, 2010

No apology, be professional and friendly with her going forward, don't be trying to look at women's hoo-hoos or boobies at work.

If it were me, I'd forgive you and forget it if I liked you in general, if I didn't I'd forgive you but go on thinking you were basically a chimp.

That she rolled her eyes suggests she's used to just this sort of thing and you basically cemented her opinion of you or the possibilities of men in general, so it would be nice if you worked to develop professional working relationships with her and the other women in your office, both for her viewpoint and your own development as a person. Learn and grow, friend.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:28 AM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

And for the love of God admit nothing.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:29 AM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have never seen a dress code that states your skirt must come over your knees while seated. That why in most office desks the panel in front is called a modesty panel (or used to be, maybe these days it's called a creep deflector panel), so you can sit at your desk and no matter how distracted you get by work you're not flashing. The design of these office desks with front panel suggests that someone somewhere out some thought into this and decided that we as humans might need the assistance, both male and female I would argue. Whether it comes from a period where men got a boner every time the pretty secretary brought in the coffee, to today when a woman wants to wear a knee length skirt, we have developed a series of startegies to help us get the work done and diminish distractions.

To be sitting near someone sifficinelty near to have a one-to-one meeting and still be blatently copping a look suggests to me that your were not remotely concentrating on the job at hand. Hugely disrespectful hugely assholish.

And to saladpants who wondered why the majority of women here wouldn't want an apology (great comment by the way!) simply put, the kind of men who treat us like this tend to take the opportunity for an apology to pursue some ridiculous notion that we'll be flattered, or were looking for the attention, and especially from him, and it really gets tedious extricating yourself from that kind of scenario while trying to maintain a working relationship. The way he behaved would make me think he's just that sort of creep I should avoid at all costs from now on. I would never be alone with him again without witnesses and I would cringe should he approach me again assuming he was going to go further in his creepy behaviour. Of course I would be wrong in this case because he is being apologetic but there is a certain element of the way the question is phrased that makes me think the apology would be perfuctory. YMMV.
posted by Wilder at 3:04 AM on August 19, 2010 [4 favorites]

I prefer the words "I owe you an apology. I'm sorry about yesterday. It won't happen again." over just "I'm sorry about yesterday..."

There's something about "owing" her an apology that acknowleges her humanity SMS the work relationship you have. Otherwise, you could sound like a 4 year old being forced to apologize.

BTW--you sound chagrined in your post...i appreciate that. Be chagrined in your apology.

And try to approach her to apologize without asking anything of her, like, don't ask her to come step aside with you, and don't ask her for a response to the apology.
posted by vitabellosi at 3:09 AM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just chiming in here to say do not put your apology in writing for the sake of your career. I agree that any apology at this point might just add to her discomfort so simply behave yourself and over a period of time (possibly years) it may perhaps be forgive by her. If you email an apology the odds of you being fired would increase exponentially in my opinion.
posted by the foreground at 3:45 AM on August 19, 2010

And try to approach her to apologize without asking anything of her, like, don't ask her to come step aside with you, and don't ask her for a response to the apology.

Yes, if you are going to apologize (although I think you should make that judgment based on her demeanor around you the next time you see her), make it very brief, do not try to explain yourself, and do not wait around like you're expecting her to validate you or tell you it's all okay. If any kind of response or action is expected of her, it can be taken as an additional attempt to harass her or get her attention.
posted by cottonswab at 4:13 AM on August 19, 2010

I’m a hetero male. A couple of vocabulary points here: firstly, it’s not clear what the OP means by “blatantly”, but he could well have meant “undeniably” or “unmistakably”. Secondly, I don’t read “getting busted” as meaning anything more than a colourful way of saying “being unequivocally seen to have done something out of place”. And thirdly, his co-worker’s “rolling her eyes” could have indicated anything from total outrage (as many posters at once assumed) to embarrassment at having suffered an unintentional wardrobe malfunction, and going off to “make a call” could well have been going to adjust her clothing in a more private location.
I was once in the situation that, sitting in a wheelchair after an injury, a female doctor was bending over to fix the bandage on my ankle. My gaze was obviously downwards towards the theatre of action, and when her shirt fell open revealing some frilly underwear my eyes automatically flicked there for a moment and then flicked away. Not fast enough. At that moment she looked up and I was, in the OP’s word, “busted”. I was far, but far more embarrassed than she was, and of course made very sure it didn’t happen again, even though she wasn’t able to do anything to prevent the shirt staying open as long as she was working on my ankle. I read the OP’s account in the same vein.
My point is that I was embarrassed not at having looked, which was unintentional, reflex and momentary, but at having been caught looking, which was unacceptable. If a person is (as many posters have suggested they are) proud of a good asset, be it legs, boobs, butt, hair, smile – or even culture, wit, knowledge of a foreign language – they are going to put that on show and hope or expect it to be noticed. Our cultural norms allow or encourage us to note and react to some of these aspects, but paradoxically expect us to pretend we don’t notice some others, specifically those with sexual connotations like legs, boobs or butt (unless we’re watching a floor show). We notice them, even in a professional environment, but are expected not to get caught noticing them. A woman is not expected to be caught looking at a suspicious mound in a guy’s pants, either – it cuts both ways.
When I read the post, I gave the OP the benefit of the doubt, shared his embarrassment and worries about how to proceed. I read his account as uncomfortable with the situation, not feeling guilty about his eye straying but about putting his co-worker in the position of noticing it had strayed, if only for a moment. I was totally perplexed at the outpouring of blame, disgust and harsh criticism most posters poured on the poor guy who was aware of having done a fail and was looking for guidance on how to put things right – for his co-worker more than for himself, in my read of it.
A couple of scattered voices in the wilderness have made these points upthread, but unless the OP was a total jerk, contorting himself for a better view or staring long and hard at an obviously unintentional wardrobe malfunction, I think most posters have been crassly overcritical and censorious. I am totally aware that females are quite rightly sick of oglers and jerks, but I don’t read him like that: a jerk wouldn’t be mortified. To take this poor guy’s call for help as an excuse to tar him with that brush and come down on him like a ton of bricks doesn’t in my mind reflect well on the community’s will to provide support.
To answer the OP’s question, I side with the helpful posters who advised a brief, respectful, matter-of-fact apology (such as vitabellosi suggested), which can’t be mistaken for an opportunity to pursue some ridiculous notion that she'll be flattered (Wilder), made very soon and without waiting for a reply (unless she insists).

And yes, A189Nut: the difference between the US and the UK/European attitude is obvious.
posted by aqsakal at 4:29 AM on August 19, 2010 [9 favorites]

I just really feel that if you are genuinely remorseful for your behaviour, you should apologise - briefly, then move the hell on. She's not a special snowflake, clearly the lady didn't like it, and dealt with it accordingly - she put a stop to it in her own way. Good on her.

I'm reading you as being genuinely remorseful, and not sleazy - I hope I'm right. A brief apology says this: I own up to my mistake, and you should rest assured that you will never be put in this position again by me.

I just don't believe that you can't be redeemed for your error, unless you actually are a sleaze. Apologise, dude, apologise.
posted by mooza at 4:39 AM on August 19, 2010

Why were you looking up someone's skirt at work? This is not a very good place to do it. Women, like men, come to work to work; being professional means checking your club behaviour at the door. (And that goes for public transport too, btw.) 'Blatant' is worrying. Sure, people work with hot people and it can be hard to ignore, but actively ogling someone is not cool. I think you need to let her know that you know it was inappropriate. She's probably really creeped out just now and an apology would stop you seeming like 'that guy' who thinks this is all OK. If your drive to apologise is predicated on avoiding litigation rather than mending behaviour, take a look at some of the threads on the blue about street harrassment which indicates why women react really negatively to this stuff.

He's not a creep, he's a guy.

So? Women are as sexual as men. Yes, biology makes us look, but biology also makes us eat mainly meat, piss when our bladders are full and club things over the head. We have control over our biology. Some call it manners. I think it's really discrediting men to say that because some can't be aware when certain behaviours are and aren't appropriate, all should get a free pass. It's a dangerous route of thinking.

I'm in the UK. I don't hold with the 'but they're showing skin!' argument. seriously now. If you're tall and want to wear a knee-length skirt, you have a big bust, you're attractive, whatever - it's hard to disguise those things short of wearing a burkha. I have a large bust - most items of clothing will accentuate my chest, because it's stuck on the front of me regardless of neckline. Some comments here seem to think that this is equivocal to wearing a bikini to work (I might work in a casual office, but really, no.) On a hot day, I want to come to work wearing something that will keep me cool, not something that compensates for others' lack of decorum and manners.
posted by mippy at 4:49 AM on August 19, 2010 [5 favorites]

posted by nomadicink at 5:12 AM on August 19, 2010

I used to sit in an office environment in which a woman was sat directly opposite me about fifteen feet away with a clear line of sight to her, and she was sat facing me. On occassion she would come into work with a skirt that I knew would just be insufficient to cover her modesty when she sat down and after trying to avoid looking in her direction for the first few times, I eventually gave in and had to go and pull her to one side and say "I don't know if you know this or not, but you should really wear a longer skirt in here" or words to that effect, emphasising the fact that nobody wanted to look up her skirt, but that she was making us uncomfortable by virtue of the fact that she dressed in the manner she did and sat where she did. Not sure exactly how that relates to the story in question, but it just seemed kinda relevant.
posted by Biru at 5:25 AM on August 19, 2010

I would lose all respect for a coworker that blatantly did something like that. I do not assume my male coworkers are checking me out whether I notice or not because that is totally unprofessional. If you work with people you find sexually attractive, regardless of your gender, you need to remember your professionalism first, genitals way, way, way second.

As far as what you can do? Be professional. Maybe try to avoid scheduling one-on-one meetings with her for awhile (week or two?) and if they're unavoidable, be on your absolute best behavior. Follow her lead: if she seems to feel standoffish or uncomfortable around you, back off. If she brings it up to you, apologize profusely: "I'm sorry. What I did was totally unprofessional and it will never happen again." Do not try to look up her skirt (or down her shirt or whatever) or the skirt of any other coworker ever again.

In the long term, think about your relationships with women, professional and not. You say that you were blatant in your actions but your title says you were "unwittingly pervy." No, you were being blatantly pervy. Do you feel like it's acceptable for coworkers to do what you did to other coworkers? Do you think it's common place or that if women were uncomfortable receiving that attention they'd dress more conservatively? Were you mortified just that you got caught or that you were doing something inappropriate in the first place? Do you understand the power dynamics of sexual harassment? If you really want to right this wrong, think about your attitudes and assumptions and change how you think and behave around your female coworkers and other women in the future.
posted by radioaction at 6:16 AM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can't speak for the reasons other women wouldn't want an apology, but I can explain why I'm on the fence about it. The dynamics of the situation create a little bit of a conundrum...were I in this situation (and I have been, more than once, and no, I don't dress inappropriately), I would want an apology, but it's not that clear cut to get one. I'd want an apology in a way that maintains distance, out of respect for me and the situation. But I also recognize that the best way to do this (in writing) creates a problem and risk for the apologizer. An apology face-to-face demands my attention, that I listen and respond in a civil manner at my workplace. In a strange and subtle way that neither parties can control, a face-to-face apology further exercises the uneven power dynamic in the workplace, and especially between men and women. So, we're kind of stuck. The good news is, I'd get over it either way, but I can imagine my irritation were I to receive an in-person apology. The irritation wouldn't overshadow the importance and sentiment of the apology itself, but it would be there. And the [insert long history essay about women, power, language and the workplace] would be why. Just be aware of the existence of that, and the privilege you carry as a male in the workplace. There are many resources to learn more about this if you wish, but for now, being conscious of its existence is enough...you got a lot of things going on here to think about already.

The bottom line is, it's not really about the OP. It's about the woman you offended. Your apology isn't about you either. Sure, it's about doing the right thing and all. But at its core, the apology is about making the person you offended feel at ease, in a manner that she would be most receptive to (which you can't really know; hence, sensitivity and empathy are your best guides) - and not in the manner that is the most convenient/comfortable for YOU. Apologize or don't apologize, but do it soon and move on. The absolute worst thing I think you could do would be to ruminate over this, and make that a visible part of your daily interaction from that point forward - as if you're forever apologizing or trying to prove to her or everyone around her that you're a good human. That's ego-driven behavior. And women deal with BS like this all day and night, in various forms and to varying degrees of threat.

You made a mistake; you feel bad. Suffer for a bit, be enlightened by what you've learned, do what it takes, and carry on.
posted by iamkimiam at 6:36 AM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

There was a young professor at work who started shortly after I started. I think he had a bit of a mini-crush on me, in that I'd catch him looking at me for long periods of time or a particular look would appear on his face only when I was around. But he never did anything creepy, and I never thought anything of the tiny bit of extra attention, and I didn't do anything about it because a crush is a crush and it eventually went away and I like him as a colleague. Sometimes people just like people, even in an office setting.

Then there was the time I was in the coffee room brewing myself a pod of coffee when I felt something touching my back and heard, "Oh, very nice!" One of the senior professors I work with had just looked down the back of my shirt because he saw the tiniest little nearly impossible to see tip of my tattoo and wanted to see the rest of it. I was so freaking creeped out and upset by it. I thought about going to HR with it for a few days, but I didn't. I didn't go to HR because this person had lost his son very unexpectedly a mere few weeks before and his behavior was generally erratic, impulsive, forgetful, and all sorts of crazy for a few months. I don't excuse the behavior in anyway. It was incredibly inappropriate and upsetting to me, but in this situation and under those circumstances I didn't think much good would come out from reporting this guy to my boss or to HR. He was never that liberal with me before or ever again, but if the behavior had continued I certainly would have made a complaint.

I did not under any circumstances want an apology. That would have creeped me out far more and just been too awkward. I did, however, expect and require more professional behavior, and I tried to make this clear in my interactions with him by standing a little further away than usual, not engaging him in any conversation other than professional, and really trying to limit the physical time I spent with to be as short as possible. Either consciously or subconsciously, he got the message. Do not apologize. Do not make this a thing. Don't do it again. And don't use language like "busted" that makes it sound as you regularly try to look up a lady's skirt. And if you regularly try to do that, stop.
posted by zizzle at 7:06 AM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Didn't read all the comments so sorry if this has been said upthread. As a woman who once worked as a lawyer, yes, I have seen men give the "quick glance" where they should not be glancing. It was rare and no, I do not assume most men do this and it was slightly uncomfortable. But most of the time, I let it go and didn't give it a second thought because it was not repeated and was not prolonged staring.

If by "blatant" you mean prolonged staring as opposed to it being a quick glance that you obviously got caught making, Ick, Ick, Ick...do not do this EVER (at work, at a party, EVER). It is enormously disgusting and no, I do not assume men in any setting will be ogling me.

That said, sometimes things do catch our attention and I find it hard not to glance. I once went to a wedding where a very voluptuous woman wore a dress that barely covered her boobs and pushed them up nearly out of her dress. Both my gay friend and I (a heterosexual woman) both joked that it was hard NOT to look at them. Obviously, it was not a sexual thing but I had to consciously not look and keep my eyes locked on hers...I'll admit it was tough, but out of decency, I did.

I could understand if you caught a brief glimpse of white panties that you eyes might be tempted to be temporarily drawn there (like mine were to the boob display), but even so, cut it out. Don't be Perverted Creepy Guy.
posted by murrey at 8:12 AM on August 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

I guess because I've worked in electronic media (film and TV) that I wouldn't worry very much about this (I'm female). One of the joys of freelance life is the lack of a permanent record.
You can apologize, but don't get gloppy, and don't put it in writing. Don't do it again. Treat the women in your office as if they were all nuns wielding rulers.

Go and sin no more.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:34 AM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think you should apologize. No big deal, just stop by and say, "Jane, I'm sorry about Tuesday's meeting." She's unlikely to want to discuss it, and you certainly don't want to.

Then, practice not doing this by looking at women when they speak, focusing on content. Yeah, go and sin no more.
posted by theora55 at 9:57 AM on August 19, 2010

I'm not a woman, so my direct experience from her point of view is nil. But if I were in your situation I would mind my p's and q's around all of the women in the office, never let it happen again, and not mention it. It will eventually be seen as an aberation. If she even mentions to the other ladies, after a while they will all think "Well he never acted that way towards me or anyone else I know of, so it must have been either a one time slip up on his part or it was just a case of her misunderstanding what happened."

Somewhere, there's a happy medium between wearing a burqa and a skirt that's too short and inappropriate for the office.

I seems to me that if a woman's panties can be seen either her dress is too short or she is not sitting in a ladylike fashion. Likewise, if a woman's blouse is to loose or too filmy, she should consider wearing a camisole. If it was a one time thing on her part and a one time thing on his part, then the whole thing should be forgotten, especially if he was just sitting normally and her panties were in plain view. In that case, both parties are equally to blame. If a man contorts himself so he can look up her dress, that's a completely different matter. If she is always showing her goodies around the office, maybe you should be the one who says something to HR.

If a guy in a kilt was inadvertantly flashing his underwear, how many women could honestly say their eyes absolutely, positively wouldn't be drawn down there, even for a second? My guess is that a lot of women would not only find looking unavoidable, but would also make comments to their friends about the guy in the kilt who flashed his goodies.
posted by Daddy-O at 11:28 AM on August 19, 2010

Woman here.

When I catch someone doing that, I not only lose respect for them, but I feel nervous around them because I don't know what to expect from their future behavior. There is a sense in which I expect that sort of thing, but not in a way that makes it just roll off me, or something I forget quickly. It's something like the way minorities "expect" to hear racist comments; you cease to be surprised some of the time, and you might be more emotionally numbed to it than you used to be, but it still feels shitty and unfair and you don't like being around the source of it. If you're forced to be around it, like at work, you just feel vaguely sick and wary, dread doing a lot of things... one can take for granted it's "not that bad" and get on with her job just because you're so used to it and because we have a vague idea that work is supposed to make you feel bleh, but then later if you're an environment where you don't have to feel it, the contrast is so strong that you realize how shitty you feel most of the time. It's not entirely the same, but if you've ever had to work with someone who made you feel beneath them, that's sort of what I'm talking about.

So probably this woman "expects" that sort of thing because we learn that life just keeps throwing that stuff at us, and she may have even shrugged it off to some extent, but likely not entirely. She probably doesn't want to be in the same room with you. She probably remembers it when someone mentions your name and feels shitty. She probably dreads anything at work that's even remotely connected to you. Maybe not in a blaring-pain way (but maybe even that), but in dragging, background hum sort of way.

Here's the thing, though: Guys are almost always too mortified to apologize for something like that. They think it's better just to never bring it up again, and I understand why they think that. But that means if someone has ever felt really bad about it, like in a sense that he realized how it made me feel and regretted it out of empathy for me -- and not because he got caught or because he thought I didn't like him anymore -- well, I have no way of knowing that.

It would actually make me feel a lot better to hear an apology from a guy like that. I'd at least gain back some respect for them for being a self-aware, unselflish person, and it would make me feel less uneasy around them to know they recognized why it was upsetting and would do their best to make sure they didn't upset me again. Most of all, I'd feel somewhat more confident that the guy didn't actually think I'm beneath him, whereas not apologizing leaves me to think yeah, he probably doesn't even realize why he's not entitled to do what he did, and he doesn't entirely understand that I'm just as worthwhile a person as he is.

The only thing that would upset me past that is if the guy made flirty comments or something, or did it again -- like if he got relaxed about it because he thought I'd just always forgive him. I forgive people for fucking up, I don't forgive people for not even trying.

Granted, I can't tell you what this woman's life has been like or what other factors may influence her response to an apology. She might actually get pissed you brought it up again, or generally feel uneasy talking about things that upset her. She might have had to deal with so much of this behavior that she's sick of it, has ultimately decided there's never an excuse, and doesn't even want to hear it anymore. As you can see from some of the comments here, some women feel it's unforgivable. But I think it's still the right thing to do, and probably the only way to hope to make things better.
posted by Nattie at 1:05 PM on August 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

"I'm really sorry. I hope it didn't seem like I was staring at you. I was zoning out a bit and then I realized it might have seemed like I was looking somewhere inappropriate." This is probably a lie, but it might make everyone feel better. I'm a female and if you told me this, I wouldn't believe you, but I would be glad that you realized it was inappropriate and are enough of a non-asshole to try not to seem like a blatant creeper.
posted by elpea at 1:10 PM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, just a subtle piece of advice if you do apologize... don't phrase it like "sorry, you're attractive so I looked at you." Just say you're sorry you looked, and it was wrong of you, and you regret that you did anything to make her uncomfortable because no one deserves that.

The reason is that a lot of guys will apologize and hedge it with compliments because they're actually hoping the woman will return their attraction after all. That sort of phrasing can make a woman dread a possible dopey hanger-on behavior in the future, which they're going to have to keep politely deflecting, and that's really draining. Then the apology also begins to feel like an excuse for the guy to be around you for another minute. If you apologize that way you might not actually put her at ease, in other words, she'll just feel crappy about something else.

Anyway, just wanted to point that out because I think a lot of guys don't really think about that; they have no intention or hope that the woman will find them attractive, they're just sort of talking and people feel they have to explain why they did something, and in that case "you're attractive" is the reason. You don't actually have to give a reason, though.
posted by Nattie at 1:14 PM on August 19, 2010

Dudes, you have clearly never worn a skirt, because guess what: they ride up when you sit down. Sometimes a perfectly "modest" (hate that term) skirt becomes less so simply by virtue of your sitting down, or changing position. You can mitigate with a tugdown, but some loss of coverage is wholly unavoidable. Similarly, I have a not-ungenerous bosom, and on MANY occasions I have been kindly alerted to the fact that my shirt is showing a little too much skin by a pal -- the neckline slips down, a button slips loose, or the shirt is otherwise defeated by my mighty mammaries. Clothes move, it's not always deliberate.

Also, worth noting: shirts that look fine to me sometimes aren't when I lean forward, which is not something I'm aware of until I notice someone glance, at which point I think "oh crap!" and tug up. And regarding the cleavage situation -- many times my boobs are more visible to men because you are TALLER than I am. When I am wearing a simple V-neck shirt, you can't see that much of my breasts from my height, but someone standing just a few inches above me is going to see more acreage of skin and possibly down the V. That is NOT. MY. FAULT.

As a woman who has caught people glancing in a professional environment (though not UP MY SKIRT) :

-If you were deliberately staring, respect is GONE.
-If it was a glance -- I'll usually write that off as "inadvertent glance, not a serious perv." It does depend upon our working relationship, however, and how you generally treat me as a colleague -- if it's as a human being, and with respect, then I won't hold a quick slip of the eyes against you. If you are often slightly problematic, it goes in the file of "further evidence that this dude is a creeper, do not trust."
-If it was really noticeable, to the point that I visibly & obviously reacted to your behavior, I would appreciate a very brief apology along the lines of "I just wanted to apologize for my earlier behavior. I mislaid my professionalism for a moment, and it won't happen again." And that is ALL.
-Yes, women in the office & industry discuss incidents like this, and particularly patterns of behavior. Basically, we warn each other about asshats and commiserate when a friend has experienced asshattery. As others have said, you should be particularly careful not to give your female colleagues any reason to believe you are actually an asshat over the coming weeks.
posted by tigerbelly at 1:24 PM on August 19, 2010 [7 favorites]

After reading the Metatalk about this, I thought I'd throw in my 2 cents worth. It was a vitriolic trainwreck the first time I popped in and some of the comments made me irrationally cranky.

Decades ago, when I was young and skinny and not bad-looking, and usually wore above-the-knee skirts and skyhigh heels to work, catching a colleague 'perving' was an occupational hazard. If it happened once or twice, I dismissed it as a natural thing, a bloke looking at a chick the same way I'd look at a hot bloke a little too long. (And I would also quietly take it onboard as a compliment, but then again I'm the type who took an anonymous wolf-whistle as a compliment, not an infringement on my personal rights.)

If it happened every single day, every time I saw him, only then would I decide he was a pervy lech to be avoided at all costs. I don't think what you did falls in this category.

And if I'm at the supermarket and some chick rolls in with enough cleavage showing to make Hugh Hefner blush, I can't help but look! If your colleague gets so freaked out by one incidence of staring, perhaps she should adjust her work wardrobe appropriately. I'm not saying she asked for it... but I am saying if that sort of reaction makes her so uncomfortable, she should wear longer skirts.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 4:52 PM on August 19, 2010

I'm still really mortified that this happened. What should I do now? Should I say something to her? Apologize?

Personally, an apology would just validate that you are the creep that I thought you were. I wouldn't apologize- that you are mortified, and hopefully will remain for the rest of your life to not give a repeat performance to ANYONE should work just fine.

(If I were her, I may even get worried as to why you would mention it explicitly by apologizing and whether this was the beginning of something more, evil)

Ignore the fact that this encounter ever happened?

No. Be especially aware of it when you are around the said coworker and try your very best to not creep her out again- EVER.

What's the least awkward way of proceeding, knowing that we'll likely be working together for a lot longer?

Avoid her like the plague. That would be much appreciated from a possible creep at work.

Women: Have you ever been in this position?

At work, thankfully no. Actually I can really appreciate that no one at work has ever been like that. Creeps outside work are enough- work should hopefully be a place where people know how to exercise restraint.

Did you lose your respect for the peeper, or do you generally assume that most dudes are trying to peek at you whether you notice or not?

To lose respect, were that to happen at work, would be a grave understatement. As for the latter, I would personally like to believe that *most dudes* know better than that.

Nutshell- you made a mistake, and to many you may come across as a creep so don't forget and don't repeat.

Advice- If you want respect, give respect.
posted by xm at 4:56 PM on August 19, 2010

I worked as a student on a summer maintenance crew with two other women and three men. We were often in close quarters painting or cleaning and once in a while there would be the inevitable butt bump or falling-down pants with the butt-crack showing. What differentiates creepy asshole from respectful coworker was how they behaved in other ways beyond the wardrobe malfunction and how they reacted immediately afterwards when they know that I know that they saw.

For example, one of the dudes and I were painting a floor when my work pants ripped at the rear seam and I didn't notice for a good ten minutes. I was mortified when I did find out and nowhere during the progression of
Me: oh shit I ripped my pants
Him: oh shit you ripped your pants
Me: gotta find something to cover up
Him: yeah. maybe use a rag. did that just happen now?
Me: yeah totally.
Him: them's the pits
Me: sorry for shoving my underwear in your face be right back
did I feel that he was being a creep. Despite the fact that he almost certainly got a good view and didn't let me know my pants were ripped during the interium. Why? We were generally on good terms and I instinctively gave him the benefit of the doubt for not wanting to embarass me in case I intentionally wore ripped pants.

Now if I'd been with the coworker who made that joke about the whore one time and who I'd seen leer at women on the street when we drove by in the van I absolutely would have been creeped out. I probably would have been a lot sharper in our hypothetical conversation (possibly rolling my eyes if he brought it up or making some excuse to leave ASAP without drawing attention to the fact my pants were ripped if he didn't). Not to say that this coworker and I weren't on generally good terms because I was absolutely fine with making small talk and working together. But I am simply not comfortable in my exposed female body around someone who has made jokes and obvious come-ons about and to other female bodies because even in as casual a workplace as I was in, it is simply not professional.

Finally, I absolutely do not assume men are "trying to peek at me" at all times. I was thankful every day I worked at the maintenance job that I did not have to worry about something like that on the whole.
posted by dustyasymptotes at 5:52 PM on August 19, 2010

Mod note: this is in metatalk, take side conversations to email or metatalk
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:32 PM on August 19, 2010

Don't allow yourself to fall for the idea that "all guys act like that, so it's only bad that I got caught." I sure as hell don't want to be an example of our gender's lowest common denominator. Do you?

Wrong is wrong.
Don't be that guy.
posted by 2oh1 at 10:33 PM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

If I were you I'd accept that you worded this post in a clumsy way that hasn't given anybody the ability to answer your question in a meaningful way, and on that basis I would take no specific advise that anybody has given you in this thread. Hopefully though, the varied responses will have given you a few different perspectives on the situation (whatever that situation actually was!) and you can figure out for yourself the way forward.
posted by chill at 2:10 PM on August 20, 2010

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