weirdness at work
March 31, 2011 5:02 PM   Subscribe

I am almost positive my coworker is...well, masturbating in his cube. Yikes!

The guy in the next cube but one from mine is a little awkward and strange but seems harmless and nice enough. BUT! Today, our in-between neighbor was out, and it was very quiet. I could hear a rhythmic dry brushing sound and slightly labored breathing. I really and truly should not have looked, but I did—I walked by and glanced casually into his space. We all sit with our backs to the openings to our cubes, and I could see his arm moving exactly as if he were masturbating intensely. I went away as fast as I could, so I don't know what happened next.

What the hell? I have no idea what to do with this. I am a pro-sex, pro-masturbation woman, but I DON'T want to be a bystander to sex I don't want to know anything about, much less at the office!

Is it possible that I was mistaken? I am 99.9% sure, but I didn't actually SEE the critical thing (nor do I want to). Could there be some other explanation? WTF do I do about this, anyway? I don't work closely with him—we're in the same department but don't work on the same projects—but obviously I see him constantly. He wasn't drawing attention to himself in any way—for all I know he does this every day but the environment is usually louder and covers it up. And I don't think he saw me or noticed that I walked by.

I'm really creeped out, and don't know at all how to handle this—HR? But what do I say? Our boss is not the kind of person I could see handling this well for a bunch of reasons. And the guy is a nice-enough guy. And it might all be a big mistake! But my comfort levels at work are totally wrecked now and I don't know what to do. I need advice on figuring out what to do.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (42 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

Maybe you can tack up a passive aggressive note in the men's bathroom or other shared area that says "I know who you are, stop it" it might shame/guilt him into stopping. Though, if he's the type of person to masturbate at work (EW!!) it might not make a difference. Honestly, if it was me, I would just ignore it and pretend like it never happened and forget all about it. Also, that's seriously gross. I'd be squicked out too.
posted by katypickle at 5:08 PM on March 31, 2011

tack up a passive aggressive note in the men's bathroom or other shared area that says "I know who you are, stop it" it might shame/guilt him into stopping.

That's a seriously bad idea.

As I see it you have three realistic options: talk confidentially to someone else you know well at work about it to see what course of action they suggest, go directly to HR and talk to them about it for the record, or do nothing for now.
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 5:12 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Since the, "Hey, could you stop masturbating in your cube?" talk is WAY too awkward to have, I would ignore it and just not touch anything he has touched.

I wouldn't complain until I was 100% sure, since accusing someone of sexual deviance is kind of a big deal. Watch & see.
posted by amodelcitizen at 5:12 PM on March 31, 2011 [13 favorites]

I say you give him the benefit of the doubt if you only noticed it once, and aren't even sure about what you saw. I can only imagine the consequences for him if you were mistaken.

If you're sure it's happening, go to HR. Dude has a problem.
posted by auto-correct at 5:14 PM on March 31, 2011 [5 favorites]

I wouldn't complain until I was 100% sure, since accusing someone of sexual deviance is kind of a big deal.

This, for real.

I mean, it's possible he was doing something else. My husband, for instance, when he is concentrating intensely, will jiggle his leg up and down furiously. If he had his hand in his lap I can imagine that viewed from behind he might look like he was whacking off.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:17 PM on March 31, 2011 [29 favorites]

Maybe you can tack up a passive aggressive note in the men's bathroom or other shared area

The OP is a woman so I'm not sure how this would be done even if it were a good idea.

Go to HR. Or ignore it.

Eventually someone else will hear/see it and it will be brought into the open.
posted by dfriedman at 5:17 PM on March 31, 2011

OK, I'm not saying the guy wasn't masturbating in his cube, but I will offer this alternate explanation, just so you have one.

I have eczema. Mostly on a couple of fingers but sometimes it shows up on other parts of my body such as my ankle or feet. Once in a while I start to scratch it, and it feels good, and I scratch it and scratch it and scratch it until it bleeds. I know this is bad and gross. Anyway...

Often I will get into a rhythmic motion, and often I will not scratch it with my fingers, but I'll rub it on something metal under my desk, or a rough spot on my pants, or some velcro on my jacket, or anything that'll feel good when I scratch it.

I might do this for five minutes, and it feels freakin' awesome. Like that feeling you get right after an orgasm. And if someone were to walk by my cube they might see me making a back and forth motion with my hands and they would look at me and I'd be in ecstasy.

I don't think they would think I was jacking off, and if they looked at me carefully they would know I wasn't, but now that I think of it I suppose it's possible they could think the wrong thing if they jumped to conclusions before they were able to fully see what I was doing.

So there you have it. There is an alternate explanation for you to use if you need it. If nothing else, it might make you feel better the way the guys in the firing squad can sleep at night thinking they were the guy who was shooting blanks. So to speak.

Also, most mentally stable people I know would not jerk off in their cube at work. They just wouldn't. If he's normal enough to acquire and keep a job he's probably not going to do that. I hope.

That all said, yeah, it's very possible he was jerking off, but rather than possibly make a false accusation to HR and ruin this guy's career and/or life, I would give him the benefit of the doubt for this one.

Maybe if he does it again, walk up to him and ask him if he has a stapler or something. If he then tries to zip up or you see anything, then by all means give him a big "What the fuck are you doing?" and go to HR or your boss.
posted by bondcliff at 5:18 PM on March 31, 2011 [13 favorites]

I saw a cartoon once where someone confronted a man who was making a suggestive gesture underneath a towel or hankie - turned out he was cleaning his glasses. So maybe that's it.
posted by pointystick at 5:21 PM on March 31, 2011

There could be some other explanation. I have no idea what in God's creation it could possibly be, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

If I were in your shoes I suppose I would try to figure out some way to be completely certain that he's actual doing that, and then I would talk to HR. I guess I'd want to be positive because of how awful I'd feel if there turned out to be some normal explanation since the accusation would follow him around regardless.

That said, if he's actually roughing up the suspect at work then yeah you need to go to HR. I understand and appreciate that he's probably a good guy other than the fact that he masturbates at work with other people around, but that's a pretty big "other than." If he's an adult in a professional environment it's not like he's unaware that his office is not a place for hand-to-gland combat.

Beyond that I wish I knew what else to tell you. It doesn't address the issue of your comfort levels, and I guess I'm not positive what really would; when I was in a similar situation to you at my own work (seriously), I just told myself that I only had a suspicious-looking situation in front of me but that I couldn't be certain and gave the guy the benefit of the doubt. In that particular case I never found out one way or the other.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 5:25 PM on March 31, 2011

As an HR type, let me say: I'd need more than this to be able to do anything about it. And I don't recommend you go hunting for more, because eugh.

Having said that, what's up with him sitting there long enough for this to happen, in an open cube environment, confident he can do it without getting interrupted/observed? Perhaps it's time to invest in a "wandering the halls offering people cupcakes as part of our annual picnic fundraising efforts" committee. The environment shouldn't be conducive to any number of "not really suitable for public behavior" activities (like, say, napping) and it's trivially easy to change that without making things intolerable for people who need to concentrate on their work.

(I want to add: this wouldn't be enough for me to do anything about the guy, but it would be a decent justification if you wanted to move to another part of the office altogether. Just "the guy next to me is kind of creeping me out, and I find it distracting" might be enough, depending on your workplace culture.)
posted by SMPA at 5:34 PM on March 31, 2011 [5 favorites]

You aren't sure what you saw, so your imagination is creeping you out, not your co-worker. Don't ruin someone's career/reputation because of your imagination.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 5:38 PM on March 31, 2011 [23 favorites]

So, here's my experience...I'm not saying this is the best way to deal with it (at all), but it was pretty effective.

When I was a student, I worked a job where, in a given week, anywhere from 10 to 20 different people would spend hours-long stretches of time--mostly alone--at a desk with a shared computer. One day, a bored coworker was looking through the search history (on the shared computer; he wasn't snooping on anyone particular) and found a whole bunch of porn sites.

This being a hilarious discovery, of course he told everyone about it. This being a hilarious (and juicy!) piece of info, everyone told everyone else. The person responsible, though no one knew who it was at the time, was among the people gossiping.

Eventually (like, within a day), this got back to our never-made-any-confrontations boss, who sent out a mass email saying that the communal computer was to be used for the job, school work, or pg entertainment purposes only.

The porn-viewing didn't stop.

The boss then decided to review the security camera footage. Part of this job of ours was to sit at the desk and watch security cameras, one of which was pointed directly at the desk we all sat at. No big secret that you were being filmed.

Porn-viewer was caught. Masturbating. On camera.

Porn-viewer was asked to leave. Porn-viewer quit.
posted by phunniemee at 5:40 PM on March 31, 2011 [3 favorites]

Good thing you're sure he wasn't wearing cords and bouncing his knee. I do the nervous-energy footbounce all. the. time. No penis required.
posted by rhizome at 5:42 PM on March 31, 2011

Yesterday I spilled mustard on my pants. I was sitting at my desk swabbing at the stain with a damp napkin, making rhythmic dry brushing sounds and breathing a little heavily due to irritation and exertion. Had someone walked past my office and seen a couple of seconds of that in passing, they might have assumed I was masturbating.

You're leaping to a pretty damning conclusion there, OP.
posted by palomar at 5:42 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

An anonymous note in the men's room will work just fine. But name the crime: "Masturbating at work is not appropriate. Next time it will be reported to management". You can sneak in there before or after work when nobody is around to post it.

The benefits of this:

1. If he wasn't unleashing the alabaster yak, he won't think the note applies to him. No harm done.
2. If he was yanking the yo-yo, he will get the message loud and clear. He'll probably be mortified that someone saw him.
3. He remains anonymous, and you remain anonymous.
4. Bonus: Anyone else who has been playing a little five-on-one will knock it off.

yes, I googled for euphemisms
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 5:43 PM on March 31, 2011 [4 favorites]

The next time you see this happening, just say "hey, what's up?". You'll probably find out he's scratching. Don't be a creep yourself by watching him and making assumptions.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 5:43 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

could you possibly say to him something along the lines of ... "wow, when is gone, it's so quiet that it seems like no one is here." i mean, just something that makes him think twice about his behavior when no one is around. that way, it's harmless conversation if he wasn't ... and a subtle-ish word of warning if he was?
posted by crankyrogalsky at 5:45 PM on March 31, 2011

Why do anything? Can you not walk by his cube? Unless you're absolutely positively 100% sure that he was pleasuring himself, beating off, spanking the monkey in full cry and view, I'd ignore it.
If he wasn't doing that, and you speak up, go to HR, post a note--you look like an idiot. And if he was, no one will thank you.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:46 PM on March 31, 2011

Please, just forgetabout it. You could cause irreparable harm to him if you are wrong.
posted by JayRwv at 5:57 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

If I saw a note like that in the bathroom at work, I'd pull it down to reduce the potential for silly office drama and gossip. So, there's that
posted by hermitosis at 5:59 PM on March 31, 2011 [6 favorites]

Why don't you ask to move desks.

Unless you know for sure that he was beating off, leave it alone and deal with getting yourself out of ever being put in that situation again.

I wholeheartedly agree with the HR person above, unless you have definitive proof, HR won't/can't do anything.
posted by TheBones at 6:16 PM on March 31, 2011

This would be a very good reason to start humming or singing quietly to yourself as you walk past cubicles. Theory being you are letting people know there is a human in the personal choice would be the hamsterdance song. (dit da dee doo doo, etc.)

You aren't totally sure what happened, and I suspect you would not want to be sure what happened in future.

(Also, is it possible to have that computer discreetly screened to see if porn has been accessed on it? Not just for the yuck factor but because that's a great way to get computer viruses?)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:19 PM on March 31, 2011

Just wanted to chime in and say that passive aggressive note at work is a really bad idea. Not only will HR see it and probably send out a company-wide email 'reminding' everyone about inappropriate notes and proper ways to deal with harrassment issues in the workplace, but it would cause a shitstorm of gossip and speculation about A) who was doing what to whom and where (including but not limited to stealing, sex/scandals between coworkers, harrassment, drugs, etc.), B) who caught them and who put up the note, C) who's been working late at the office or who has issues, reprimands, complaints filed, etc. If it gets out that it was a porn-on-company-time issue, you can bet that all company computers will be checked.

Basically, putting up a note is advertising a drama-filled mystery for your co-workers to solve. You won't come out of it shining, nor will it be considered classy or professional.
posted by iamkimiam at 6:26 PM on March 31, 2011 [7 favorites]

You're only guessing that he was masturbating. Once you accuse him, that's something you can't un-say. Destroying a guy's reputation without giving him the benefit of the doubt and when it's certainly possible he was scratching his leg or something... not advisable.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:37 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Accusing someone could very well backfire on you: if you accused and he lost his job without just cause he could sue you for lost wages, not the company. Do NOT do anything, including putting up any notes, unless you are absolutely sure. And even if you are sure do not say anything to him, go to your manager.
posted by zombieApoc at 6:57 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

As a first step, why don't you let him know that he's not as alone as he seems to think he is. Just behave as you would normally -- don't avoid going by his cube. But as you walk by, say "Hey Frank" in passing (if his name is Frank, that is). Don't stand at his cube and wait for him to turn around, just a quick "Hey Frank" in passing.

If he's only two bubbles off plumb, not the full ten, then he'll think "shit, almost caught, I'll never do that again". Problem solved, and all you've got is one icky memory and a slightly weird story.

This obviously won't help if he keeps it up, but it seems worth trying before you make trouble for yourself along with him.
posted by benito.strauss at 7:02 PM on March 31, 2011

I just want to say that I have seen about twenty films, TV shows and adverts in which it appears, hilariously, that a man is masturbating when he isn't.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 7:17 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

He could have innocently been trying to rub a stain out of his pants
posted by any major dude at 7:38 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

He was sharpening a pencil with a pocket knife. I do this all the time at work.
posted by woodjockey at 8:01 PM on March 31, 2011

You really don't know what he was doing. IMHO it's far more likely it was something like leg jiggling, to which many people including most of the males in my family are prone. Much to the annoyance of various partners, husbands & wives.

I suggest you should assume that's what he was doing and forget about it. Really, if you make a big deal out of it, and the explanation is innocent then you're the one that might look a little creepy for jumping to the wrong conclusion so quickly.
posted by Long Way To Go at 8:19 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Does he wear glasses?

Even if he was, it might just be a one-off occurrence; if you see him doing it again, clear your throat and say, "Hey Johnny, how's it going?"

That way, you'll know for sure if he was playing with himself or doing something innocuous.
posted by porpoise at 8:22 PM on March 31, 2011

My boyfriend has moderate to severe psoriasis and he's a heavy smoker so he breathes kinda heavy. Doesn't pant, but does breath audibly.
I could def. see my boyfriend in his cubical scratching his thighs (he gets it bad on his legs) almost violently.
HOPEFULLY it was something like this.
posted by KogeLiz at 8:24 PM on March 31, 2011

Also another thing. If he was frustrated or trying to stay awake, he could have been rubbing his thighs and sighing out of frustration. I just thought of this because I actually just did 3 seconds ago.

Another thing.... my office is cold and I have low iron... which makes me feel colder.
A lot of times i rub my thighs and sometimes sigh out of frustration
posted by KogeLiz at 8:28 PM on March 31, 2011

Shake Weight. I use one in my cubicle all the time.
posted by smokingmonkey at 8:52 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

I saw a cartoon once where someone confronted a man who was making a suggestive gesture underneath a towel or hankie - turned out he was cleaning his glasses. So maybe that's it.

Reminds me of this excerpt from a British game show.
posted by intermod at 9:25 PM on March 31, 2011

Walk in. 'A HA!'

If he's fapping, leave it at that.

If he's not, put your hand over your face and say 'CHOO! Sorry, do you have any staples?'
posted by obiwanwasabi at 9:59 PM on March 31, 2011 [6 favorites]

You're going to require more evidence. I suggest you don't try to obtain it. Back to work.
posted by mleigh at 12:00 AM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just as much as the OP might be wrong (and we all sincerely hope she is), she also might be right. Supposing she is right, is the ignore it and it will go away tactic very successful? I doubt it. Assuming he has been and will again, I think the options mentioned above are good ideas:
Double blind anonymous message in the men's toilets as per qxntpqbbbqxl
Frequent wanderings up and down the cube corridors by a variety of people as per SMPA
Asking to move (numerous suggestions)
Getting a different job
posted by b33j at 6:25 AM on April 1, 2011

No, if the OP is right, she goes to HR, full stop.
posted by desjardins at 7:32 AM on April 1, 2011

If you hear it again just say, from the safety of your cubical, "Hey co-worker, do you hear that weird brushing sound?" He may say, oh sorry, just a nervous tick/scratching/spilled water again. He maybe telling the truth about it, and if not, he's on notice.

If it continues, and is a problem, tiny escalations of inquiry are possible. I wouldn't go to HR or even directly confront unless you had more, um, explicit evidence.
posted by shimmer at 11:24 AM on April 1, 2011

Accidentally kick your wastebasket. He will hear it.
If he was, it's over now.
If he wasn't, so what.
posted by Drasher at 7:11 PM on April 1, 2011

If you hear it again, you can also just stop by the cubicle to ask him a question about something. Either he'll turn around and you'll see what he's doing, or he won't turn around, and you'll know what he's doing. Easy.
posted by timoni at 11:41 PM on April 4, 2011

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