How to cope with creepy co-worker?
August 13, 2011 8:48 AM   Subscribe

How to deal with a hidden hierarchy in a small office, where a male co-worker who is close with my supervisor seems to be using his position to single me out because he may be personally interested in me?

I am a late twenties female who is in pharmacy school and got hired as a summer clerk in an office. I am allowed during the next winter break, spring break and potentially next summer to come back and work. It does not hold pharmacy related experience but deals with regulatory affairs and enables me to earn some income with the freedom of working within my schedule. They need an extra set of hands to do so many of the mundane but time consuming tasks such as xeroxing, scanning, verifying data entry, etc.

The office is composed of ten or so people in this particular division and there is a male who works closely with my immediate supervisor. I am completely confused on the hidden hierarchy of this division because my supervisor works closely with this male co-worker that they often arrange to have meetings where both are present; or both discuss openly with each other, sitting side by side at meetings and conferring with one another about what the next step should be in a situation.

The thing is, I get the "feeling" that this male is personally interested in me. He may have even influenced the decision to enable to be hired as a clerk after being present to interview me with my supervisor. The reason I suspect this is because at several staff meetings, I have caught him gazing at directly at me - making me cringe. I am only a clerk so I sit purposely to the end of the table and not in the middle because I know I will not be participating in the discussion and my place is to simply to take notes. Yet, he has sat next to me several times when there were other chairs around and where he should have sat more where his co-workers were sitting to participate in the discussion. I purposely moved my chair purposely away a bit in one situation, because it made me uncomfortable when there was an empty chair that was placed in a more favorable position for the group discussion. He tried sitting next to me again, and that is now why I purposely come a few minutes late so that the meeting begins and I can choose my seat intentionally away from him. Yes, it did make me feel that uncomfortable.

In another case, when I was in a meeting with my immediate supervisor, the male co-worker and the secretary to discuss several documents, I caught him again staring at me while my supervisor spoke; and at another point I caught him staring at my chest (FYI: I dress very conservatively in the office and show no cleavage yet he was staring right on that level).

Furthermore, my office is right next to the copy/print machine and after my immediate supervisor leaves, this male co-worker has printed materials passing by my office, stopping by to talk to me when really there is no substance to our conversation or purpose. I purposely try not to add to the conversation so that he will leave, but he will linger there, making me cringe after he leaves.

Recently, he has become more bossy telling me of things to do. I know I am there to work, and I have been pro-active in getting things set up and starting on things to get organized for my immediate supervisor but this male co-worker has been dropping in and asking for requests that I don't think make sense. This male co-worker asked me scanned documents and send them out to others when everyone already had them. It confused several people in the office because they thought they were updated documents and ended up printing extra copies that had to toss.

Next, he told me I would be in charge of a chart that I had already edited and had been working on, and that "I'm going to make this due at 2pm on Monday for you." However, I had already been working on it and it was done; and the secretary in the office was actually the lead contact on that item and was finishing it up. It's a major document and is under her authority.

My supervisor was away today and for the next - so today this male co-worker came to me, saying we needed to sit down and go over it. I groaned inwardly because I feel that it would be more beneficial for a meeting to be with my supervisor as he has shown the critical thinking and leadership skills to decide what the next step will be. This male co-worker then told me that "when I'm ready you can come and see me in my office." I went over to his office and essentially I just sat there as this male co-worker just looked the document and wrote an e-mail.

I see that my supervisor seems to work in unison with this male co-worker. I asked the secretary what this male co worker's title was and she said, that he had been hired within the past four months and could be possibly taking over my supervisor's position when he retires (which may be soon) but that he essentially has the same role as other individuals in the office.

Not only is it confusing and frustrating to listen to two different people telling me what to do; I don't understand how to handle the hidden hierarchy in this office culture. More or less, I don't trust this co-worker and his judgment or what he tells me to do. I also am feeling more resentful at his bossy attitude when even my supervisor does not treat me that way.

I know that the long term benefits of having this clerk position would help me in potentially down the future. Although the position does not deal directly with pharmacy, it has a potential job that I know pharmacists are hired in a different division. I am also happy to be earning a paycheck and have the flexibility of them working around my school schedule. I also like everyone in the office, including my supervisor - but just this male co-worker is really starting to stress me out. I'm tired at the end of the day with other tasks (it's a full 8.5 hours) every day and although I won't be there long term, I am considering that I may not come back because of the creeper feeling I am getting from this co-worker.

I will not talk to my supervisor about this, I just want tips on how I can get myself busy or say something that will signal that this guy stop trying to tie up my time when I have other things to do.

I don't know how to cope really or any strategy I could pursue so I can avoid doing tasks for him. I also don't appreciate the "creepy" and "cornered" feeling I get when I am around him and that he is intentionally using his position to get to spend one on one time with me.

I know I should suck it up, but please help on tips on what to say or do to avoid him. Today I was frazzled and annoyed that I sat in his office for an hour when I had other things to do and there was really nothing for me to say or add to the document that he wanted to discuss.

posted by anonymous to Work & Money (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
No, you need to talk to your supervisor about this. You need to schedule a one-on-one meeting with him, or find an opportunity to pull him aside, and tell him that your male coworker often requests that you do busywork for him that is duplicating already completed work or taking time away from your required tasks. Tell him that you are happy to do work that is needed, but that since this coworker's title and job role don't indicate that he is in a position of authority over you, you are confused and need a little clarification about your role in the office and who you should be taking direction from.

I have, technically, five bosses at work -- the three guys who head up the team of 250 people that I support (I also manage one of their calendars), our department's VP's exec assistant, and the VP's "business manager" (she oversees budget and policy for the whole org) who is the person who signs off on my annual reviews and such. A lot of times there is weird overlap in requests or assignments, or I'm asked by two people to do the same task but in different ways, and it's a little confusing as to what exactly is my best course of action, so I ask questions. I still don't like it because I have a weird chip on my shoulder about asking questions because I feel like it makes me look dumb, but as it turns out NOT asking questions is way worse, because apparently I was giving the impression that I don't give a shit if I get things wrong and that I can't be bothered with reaching out to others when something isn't clear. That's not a good way to get a raise and promotion, let me tell you.

So now I ask for clarification when I need it, and I'm not afraid to go to one boss and say, "Hey, you and Boss B both asked me to work on Chart X but you both want different things and they're incompatible requests. Let's all get in a room together really quick and go over this together so it's done right." It makes me look good when I do things like this. Skulking around the office doing things without knowing why I'm doing them and being afraid to ask questions makes me look incompetent.

Talk to your supervisor. It's okay for you to do so. If you get no clarification from talking with him and the situation does not improve, then think about looking for other work.
posted by palomar at 9:19 AM on August 13, 2011 [9 favorites]

I'm sorry you're going through this - you should never have to "suck it up" if harassment is making you feel unsafe. Do you have an HR person to talk to? Have any others in the office noticed this pattern of behavior?
posted by illenion at 9:20 AM on August 13, 2011

I would start writing stuff down and also start summing things up with a daily email at the end of the day.

For example:

- Chart X: already completed and passed to Task Owner for final processing.
- documents: after I distributed these it turned out that everyone already had the final versions, which were later versions than the ones you requested I circulate. To make sure this doesn't happen again, I have set up a folder structure which includes a release folder where the definitive release version can be kept.

And you send this to your supervisor, or, where dealing with CreepyGuy, you send it to CreepyGuy in supervisor's absence and copy your supervisor in on it.

If that doesn't work, escalate and/or look for work somewhere else.
posted by tel3path at 9:26 AM on August 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Next time he stares, ask him, politely but coldly if something is wrong. If he takes over, you are going to have to do tasks for him, if you keep the job. In the meantime, the next time he gives you busy work, explain that you'll get right on that as soon as you finish what you have to do for Mr. Big.
You're in your late 20s--have you really never encountered an awkward creepy guy before? I'm sure you can find a way to squash his unwelcome interest in a professional way.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:48 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I kind of see it as, either this guy is in a position of authority over you or he's not.

If he were promoted to be your boss you would leave anyway, right?

And if he's not promoted to be your boss you don't need to kowtow.

I'd talk to your supervisor first, asking for clarification and letting him know what's up. "I'm always happy to help in the office, but Bob's been making some requests that don't seem to be on the same page as everyone else. I haven't been telling him about the conflicts because I didn't want to make trouble but having seen some confusion resulting, I realize now I have a responsibility to keep everything running as smoothly as possible, so if his instructions conflict with yours I'm going to let him know. Do you agree?" Either he will agree, or he will say "Bob is your boss too" in which case you look for another position.

Next time Bob asks you to re-do the TPS reports, look him in the eye and tell him you conferred with Boss and that per Boss' instructions you were not going to be re-doing the TPS reports. Try not to smile ingratiatingly if you can help it.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:49 AM on August 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

Let me start with saying I agree with everyone above, this is NOT okay. You should not feel threatened or harassed in your work environment, and this is not a case of 'sucking it up.' You should not tolerate this kind of behaviour. Ways to deal with this include but are not limited to:

1) Discuss CreepyGuy's behaviour with him. Tell him he is making you feel uncomfortable and that you do not appreciate the attention he is giving you. Making excuses and trying to avoid him will only get you so far, and it sounds like he is not taking the hint. You need to be direct and firm, even while being polite.

2) Talk to your supervisor. He sounds like he's a decent guy, and he is there to help you. I can understand aprehension because CreepyGuy is his colleague/friend, but you can't shy away from telling your boss when something is wrong.

I can understand you don't want to upset the apple cart, but you can't get fired for feeling harassed. Consider discussing CreepyGuy's behaviour with a trusted coworker, asking if they have noticed the same behaviour and if they would back you up if your story was questioned. You have a right to feel safe in your workplace, and you have a right to deal with it if you don't. You should never feel that you have to suck it up.
posted by dustpatterns at 9:51 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

but you can't get fired for feeling harassed

I'm sorry to say you can. However, it doesn't look to me as though you're in immediate danger of that, so you are probably better off confronting this than not.
posted by tel3path at 9:56 AM on August 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

you shouldnt suck it up, and you should talk to your supervisor.
posted by davejay at 9:57 AM on August 13, 2011

I'm sorry to say you can.

True. In a perfect world, no, but if it were to happen, there are steps you can take against your (former) employer. May or may not wind up being beneficial to you depending on how a lawsuit would proceed. Regardless, you can find another job in your field that doesn't make you feel threatened.
posted by dustpatterns at 10:12 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

tel3 path has a great suggestion. I would suggest keeping a private log of the particular incidents that make you feel uncomfortable, along with just daily summaries.
posted by annsunny at 11:15 AM on August 13, 2011

What tel3path says, yes FWIW, I have never successfully managed a situation like this, but I've been able to stick out it for long enough.

Would it help if I told you that, in my experience, if you are in the same industry and continue to see the letch in wormy circles, he may make jokes in front of other people about how way back when the two of you had quite a flirtation or some other nonsense.

Good luck! And me he's not interested in you - may e he's interested in controlling the one person who doesn't have a history with the boss. That would cut the ick factor, although tel3path's advice still holds.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 1:42 PM on August 13, 2011

Maybe, maybe he's not interested on you. Cursed iPhone.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 1:43 PM on August 13, 2011

You know, ignoring his lechy behaviour hasn't worked, so next time I suggest that you say at the top of your voice in front of everybody, "MY FACE IS UP HERE, CREEPYGUY."

I doubt you have anything to lose.
posted by tel3path at 2:36 PM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would call him out on his behavior when it happens: "Stop staring at me", "Stop crowding me", "I don't want you sitting next to me"

Nthing going to your supervisor or the head of the company.
posted by brujita at 3:05 PM on August 13, 2011

Personally I would sort out the hierarchy thing first and see how that goes in terms of stopping Other Guy's behavior re: you doing things for him. You also want to be Very Busy and have that legitimately come from your boss - I'm sorry, I'd love to chat but Boss really needs me to get this done. It will also mean that you get personal clarification about who you're reporting to, and what work you should be doing (which will reduce your general stress!).

The staring thing - you'll need to perfect the mother's glare.

However, if in fact this guy is going to take over from Boss, I would be looking for somewhere else to work.
posted by mleigh at 3:36 PM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

The office is composed of ten or so people in this particular division

No doubt, you have an HR office. Talk to them about it as something for your file. They don't even have to talk to the dude about it...but if it EVER becomes a him vs. her thing...the hr documentation will have your back.

Also...just tell the dude "I'm supervisor has given me a full workload, and I can't take on any more projects."

A better way to say that would be "Any requests should go through my supervisor...and then he'll decide what priority it will be given".

Also...a good "STOP STARING AT ME, CREEP" in front of others will keep him away too...but thats further down the road...hopefully it doesnt come to that.

Memail me if you want help from an hr pro.

But document everything.

Good luck.
posted by hal_c_on at 4:15 PM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Having spent a few years dealing with creepy bosses in a job I otherwise wanted to keep I found the best way to handle them was to act dumb. I know it sets the womans movement back, I know it's not a mature way to handle things but it's amazing how much you can keep these situations under control with wide eyed innocence and extra enthusiastic "helping".

Eg when he came down to sit next to you at the meeting say loudly so all at the table can hear something like "Oh Bob you don't want to sit here, I'm just taking notes, you'd be much better off sitting over near Jim so you don't miss anything." Then smile a big innocent I've just been helpful smile. You've drawn attention to his creepy behaviour in a non threatening way.

With the outdated reports you sent out because the creep told you to you mention to the guy you assume is the boss something like "I'm sorry sorry the wrong report went out, when Bob told me to send them out I must have misheard which ones he wanted."

With the being in his office for an hour. I've been in similar situations, about 5 minutes in when he's deep in reading or something an innocently cheerfully and extra helpfully "Well while you're busy with that I've got such and such to do, call me if you have any questions." and then just get up and leave.

I don't think its the best way to handle things, but having been in a similar situation where I just had to soldier through for a bit in a creep filled environment I just acted not so much dumb, but put up a shield of wide eyed innocence and acted completely unaware that anything creepy was going on.

If they stared at my boobs I'd ask something like "You alright Bob you look gassy." The trick is to do it loudly so others here, they will know what Bob was looking at and draw attention to his creepy behaviour after a while they get too embarrassed and back off. I also found it mentally and emotionally much easier if I kept that wall up. Oh and document everything, ask him to email you any directions you know so "you don't forget them and get them right" and to cover your ass like mad if he tells you to do something dumb.

Having said all that, I'd still recommend the best way to handle this is to go to HR or your supervisor, but you said that wasn't an option. Good Luck.
posted by wwax at 8:29 AM on August 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

wwax has some good ideas and they're not "wrong", they're status reversal games which you can play to win.

You're not in a position to fire Creepy and, depending on the atmosphere, smacking him down may be a bad idea because only his superior (say he is 9 on a scale of 10) can do that. According to the hierarchy you may be 2 on a scale of 10. There may be occasions when acting like a 10 with Creepy will get you far, as long as you remember the organizational structure ostensibly doesn't support you in that (i.e. you aren't Creepy's boss).

By playing "dumb" you play the status game in the other direction. It is lower-status to be "dumber" than him so you gently mock his domination moves. Acting innocent simultaneously shames him and gives him a face-saving way out.

Having said that, bringing this to the attention of your supervisor and/or HR may be a good move because Creepy's suitability for a promotion will come into question. In general, too, going direct will be more powerful than bobbing and weaving unless the organization as a whole is toxic, in which case you may be better off somewhere else anyway.
posted by tel3path at 3:24 PM on August 14, 2011

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