A thousand Silkwood showers would not be enough.
June 2, 2012 1:43 PM   Subscribe

A married coworker made a pass at me - help me stop feeling like I need to peel all my skin off.

I work at an institution with several locations, and last week on a work trip a married coworker made a pass at me after a work dinner and drinks with a smaller group of people who primarily work in the location I do. He was probably drunk, I was not, and we were not been alone together at any point in the night, though he initiated several conversations with me.

After the evening concluded, he sent an email thanking me for letting him join drinks with the smaller group. I thought this was strange, but sent back a friendly response along the lines of "No problem, it was fun, too bad you have to head back tomorrow," as he had mentioned several times that he was leaving the trip early to return to work. After this, he emailed again, explicitly saying he was attracted to me and inviting me to join him in his room for "some company." I was asleep when he sent it, so I didn't respond, and half an hour later he sent a follow up message saying, "So I guess that's a no, then?" When I woke and saw the messages, I showed my supervisor, who instructed me to write back saying that his advance was inappropriate and I was uninterested. He sent a follow-up to that apologizing if he had insulted or offended me, and said he hoped I wouldn't hold it against him in the future. I did not respond. My supervisor has asked me to let her know if he ever tries to make contact with me again that is not strictly work-related. He works in a different location in my city, so I only see him every few months, and never while alone.

I feel like I did well in bringing the situation directly to my supervisor and I have no reason to think he won't drop it now that I've shown I'm not going to play along, but I can't stop feeling icky about the situation. Everything reminds me that this happened - I just watched last Sunday's episode of Mad Men and felt like barfing the entire time because the plotlines made it hard not to think about this situation. I keep going over and over the night in my head, trying to figure out if I did something to make him think I would be welcome to this kind of advance. I feel sick that I responded to the first email in such a friendly way and am terrified that could somehow be construed as an overture. I wish I could go back in time and pretend to be ill, skipping the entire evening. I wish I'd never said two words to him, much less friendly ones, and I don't feel like I ever want to spend any social/team-building time with male coworkers ever again for fear of somehow unwittingly doing this again.

How can I reframe my thinking about this situation to feel better and give this creep less power over how I feel?

Other relevant information: I'm female, in my mid-20s, and live with a longterm boyfriend. The people I work with in my location all know this. The married coworker in question is several decades older, has a kid, and is a director-level employee while I am significantly further down on the ladder.

Anonymous just because I've been open about my location and industry under my regular username. Throwaway: anonymoussaysnothanks@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (34 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

From your supervisor's reaction and advice if this creep follows up, I'd guess that at some level it's known that he's pulled this shit before with other people, and they're keeping an eye on him.

You haven't done anything wrong or questionable here, you didn't invite this creep to make his advances, and you were wise to never be alone with him.
posted by easily confused at 1:50 PM on June 2, 2012 [6 favorites]

This kind of stuff happens. You can't know what he thinks. And from what you've written, I don't detect any impropriety from you. The one thing I notice is that you said, "Too bad you're leaving." As I was reading that, I thought, "Uh huh, he might take that as an opening," and I wasn't surprised when he did. But that's just because he sounds like that kind of person, not because what you wrote is making me think you were interested in more than just being polite. You've told your supervisor, which is more than I would have done, honestly, so I think you did what you could and I think you did great. I don't see anything you can do now except let it go.
posted by amodelcitizen at 2:01 PM on June 2, 2012 [5 favorites]

Please stop beating yourself up over any imagined invitations to this guy. You have no control over how creepers choose to interpret innocuous conversations, encounters or emails.

Let me repeat that: you have no control. Which may be partly why you're searching for some explanations here, even though they are highly, ridiculiusly self-critical - to give yourself a (false) sense of control. "Next time, I must never say X." "Next time, don't go to any parties." "Next time, call in sick, no socialization." "Next time, just stay at home and hide."

Honey! Creepers gonna creep. Just take whatever precautions you feel are necessary, and don't let this guy clip your wings.
posted by likeso at 2:02 PM on June 2, 2012 [54 favorites]

'Ridiculisly' = ridiculously. Heh.
posted by likeso at 2:04 PM on June 2, 2012

If you want power you're going to have to take it yourself. Immediately running to your supervisor does not necessarily give you any power. Yes, having someone else in the organization being aware of the situation has merit, and I certainly wouldn't suggest otherwise. But that doesn't really do much to empower yourself.

You've learned to chose your words more carefully, that's important. But the inappropriate inquiry from your employee is the bigger problem. You've just learned how not to respond to a situation like that.

Whether or not you "invited it" is a question you only harm yourself by suggesting. A bit of soul searching is certainly worth considering. There's certainly room for your own behavior to be managed more appropriately, that's true for all of us. Drinking with co-workers when out of town is a time to be very careful about how you behave. Unfortunately your co-worker hasn't grasped that.

You definitely want to make sure to avoid that individual in the future. Not 'like the plague' but recognizing that he's not the sort of person that behaves acceptably.

TV is scripted fiction. It's not real life, no matter how much the advertising industry would have you believe. What happens on "Mad Men" is no way to model your decisions in the real, modern world. Just shake off that nonsense right now.

But as for power, you already have it. Don't wait for anyone else to validate it.
posted by wkearney99 at 2:05 PM on June 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

I had a situation in which I was hit on and asked out by a direct supervisor, where he was the local head of the company (fortunately he was only there for a short time). It gave me the same icky feeling. I brought it to the attention of the owner (small company) and he was not surprised, because that was the type of person this guy was. I really doubt you did anything to lead him on (perhaps that "too bad you're leaving," but you have to hit that balance between "friendly and risking misinterpretation" and "hold card bitch but no chance any guy will incorrectly interpret friendliness as an advance"). Just know that there's a type of person that does this kind of thing, and it wasn't your fault.

I really, really recommend filing a formal sexual harassment complaint. It puts this on record, especially if he does it again, and gives you leverage if he does repeat his actions and the company doesn't take action in response. When I did this, I felt much better about the situation and no longer had that icky, creeped-on feeling.
posted by DoubleLune at 2:09 PM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thirty years ago I had married men making passes at me too, and it was equally icky. You did nothing to deserve it. It's on them. Good for you for taking the actions you did. You did good.

Sometimes we just run into creepers. Heck, I still have to put older men in their place once in awhile (and I'm in my fifties! Yeesh!) They are the ones who need to feel abashed, not you.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 2:23 PM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

How is someone making a pass "sexual harassment"? He asked, you said no, he apologized and backed off. The guy might have an open marriage. He might be a sleaze. Either way, he didn't abuse his power or try to leverage sex in return for favors.

It may be an unpopular sentiment to express, but the OP's "I don't feel like I ever want to spend any social/team-building time with male coworkers ever again" sounds like an issue that has more to do with his/her need to work out a response to unwanted advances on a personal (rather than professional, which was well-handled) level. The power comes from shaking it off and moving on, not trying to "get" the guy for doing something you disapproved of.
posted by ellF at 2:23 PM on June 2, 2012 [28 favorites]

I keep going over and over the night in my head, trying to figure out if I did something to make him think I would be welcome to this kind of advance.

There are people in life who will do this just because they want to see if they can do it. 99% of the time, it actually has absolutely nothing to do with you whatsoever. And they're not necessarily really sleazy guys, thinking they have some kind of power over you, most of the time they have no real concept of power imbalances and inappropriateness. They're just asking because why the hell not - might get lucky, might not.

When a guy in his 40s-50s is hitting on a woman in her 20s, he's not necessarily thinking about him being in his 40s-50s - he's reminiscing about being your age and conveniently forgetting for the purposes of fantasy that he's not. Of course, while he's off in fantasy-land, you're highly aware of any age/power disparities so it just comes across as really creepy. And it is because you don't exist to fulfil his fantasies.

But, basically, this is not really about you, it's about him.

The only thing I would suggest is that if you are genuinely not interested in someone in the future, do not be nice to them.

If a guy violates your boundaries and you follow up with - "No problem, it was fun, too bad you have to head back tomorrow," - he's going to go - well, let's have another crack at that.

And the only reason you did that was to be nice. You don't have to be nice. You can be professional. But you don't have to be nice.
posted by mleigh at 2:25 PM on June 2, 2012 [7 favorites]

Ugh. The thing that helped me was to realize how Not Alone I was - other women in my organization had been propositioned by the same guys. Sadly, being 20-something and the slightest bit friendly is ALL it takes for a jerk like that. It put me on my guard a bit more at work, which stunk, but then so many of the women around me were in the same boat.

Feel free to take any actions you think will help you. But know that you did Nothing wrong, and you are the professional person in this situation.
posted by ldthomps at 2:25 PM on June 2, 2012

How is someone making a pass "sexual harassment"?

A person at work making a sexual pass at a subordinate is the very definition of sexual harassment.
posted by peacheater at 2:28 PM on June 2, 2012 [29 favorites]

Sweetie, first thing's first: all my congratulations for so professionally dealing with the immediate situation by going to your supervisor, and then writing an email saying that the man's behaviour was inappropriate. Some folks above have said that this action was not necessarily empowering, but I disagree. As a professional woman it is SO easy to let this kind of thing slide, and I think the most empowering thing you can do is to: 1) recognise the behaviour as inappropriate; 2) inform the powers that be that your colleague is a seedy little tosser; 3) tell the person yourself that they were out of line and to (figuratively or literally) get the hell out of your sight. You did ALL of this, so good work - I salute you!

Second, know that you're not alone in this kind of experience. Professional women - particularly when they are in their 20s - experience this kind of thing far more often than we should. I'm in my 30s now and seem to have developed the experience and confidence to recognise this kind of behaviour early on, and to head it off at the pass (usually with a well timed and loud comment of "you REALLY think that's an appropriate thing to say to me?" or in more extreme cases "fuck off you patriarchal bastard"). In my experience, I found the most empowering thing was to be in the situation where (instead of going straight to HR) I could go to a supervisor or HR and say "situation x happened, I dealt with it by doing y, you need to know so that if anything else happens in the future you can do z".

Basically, I think you did everything perfectly well. Please stop beating yourself up about it. When we're in our 20s (and later, but I think particularly when we're in our 20s) it's not uncommon for things like this to happen. You dealt with it in a way that some people can't manage to do until they are decades older, if at all.
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 2:30 PM on June 2, 2012 [21 favorites]

This guy was taking advantage of the power differential between you. He wanted you to be intimidated into either going to his room or keeping quiet because he is older, male, and in a supervisory role. It does not take a quid pro quo to make this behavior sexual harassment.

The great thing is that you did not let him get away with it -- you indicated that the attention was inappropriate and unwelcome, and got the situation on the record with your supervisor. If you feel like it, a sexual harassment claim would be the next step, or just keeping your supervisor in the loop.

A situation like this makes you feel dirty because it is dirty -- but it's dirty because of his actions, not of yours.

It disgusts me that some responses are trying to blame you for being friendly, or for having a negative reaction to sexual harassment. You can certainly live your life never being friendly to anyone who is male or older than you. You can also live your life expecting that any older male you come into contact with is going to make inappropriate suggestions, and you just need to accept it quietly. But I certainly don't want to live in a world like that.

There's a reason women talk about Mad Men -- we are trying to change the working world, and we've made a lot of progress. You are allowed to be friendly to work colleagues, and if they cross the line, it's on them. Don't apologize for any of your actions (which sound totally appropriate to me), and don't blame yourself for other people's inappropriate behavior.
posted by freshwater at 2:51 PM on June 2, 2012 [8 favorites]

I am probably going to get a lot of flack for saying this, but I disagree with saying that he was taking advantage of his position or even harassing you (legal definitions aside). It sounds like he thought you maybe were interested in his drunk state of mind (the "too bad you have to head back tomorrow" statement could mean a lot of things to a person if they are interested in you). In my mind I would constitute it as harrasment if he keeps pressuring you, making offers or threatening or using his position to manipulate you. Sounds like the guy just thought that he had a chance, got rejected and then apologized and dripped it pretty quickly when you told him you felt really uncomfortable.

I really don't want to undermine your feelings about this - if you feel uncomfortable you feel uncomfortable and that is totally OK. Everyone has their own level of comfort and he raised a lot of red flags with you. But I don't think you have anything to stress about. Just think of it as some sad dude failing at making a pass at someone.
posted by littlesq at 3:17 PM on June 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

There's a difference between "making a pass at somebody" and sending an email explicitly saying he was attracted to me and inviting me to join him in his room for "some company."

Women used to be expected to put up with this kind of thing as an inherent part of being female, but (thankfully, and due to the hard work of many people) both attitudes and law have shifted. Sending an email that effectively says "Wanna fuck?" is way, way over the "expressing attraction/making a pass" line and into the range of sexual harassment, and any HR manager with any sense will treat it as such.
posted by Lexica at 3:18 PM on June 2, 2012 [18 favorites]

I am not an expert on workplace harassment law or your organization's internal rules. I do think that the right path here would be to go back to your supervisor -- the one you showed the initial email to -- and check in to make sure that this event is 100 percent on the record and that there is a formal paper trail. Perhaps the two of you could meet with someone in HR, say, or write a joint memo summarizing the events and your actions. You want this documented in a big way, including your response, in case there is even a hint of anything inappropriate again.

You did nothing inappropriate or unprofessional; there was nothing in your description of your behavior to suggest that you brought this on in some way. Regardless of legalities, you clearly are feeling stressed out and unhappy about this, and I hope that you will talk with a therapist/counselor, just like I would suggest if you had had any other unpleasant experience that has left you creeped out and is negatively impacting your life. (Access to that may be offered within your workplace -- I know mine does -- and there may be reasons for or against using the internal services for this kind of issue; your supervisor might be in a position to help with that decision.)
posted by Forktine at 3:29 PM on June 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

A person at work making a sexual pass at a subordinate is the very definition of sexual harassment.

Actually, it's not. EEOC:

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

You didn't do anything wrong. You don't need to put up with this. I think telling your supervisor is fine, but in the world of working adults, authority figures aren't always able to make things better or make you happy. I think you might take a look at your reaction, which seems a bit extreme to me. You're not in control of what other people do.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:30 PM on June 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

This is clearly inappropriate, you did the right thing, and it sounds like people are taking the matter seriously. Hopefully he feels very foolish.

I sort of don't understand the "thousand Silkwood showers" response, though. He was not sexually explicit, he didn't send you photos or touch you. While he made his intent clear, the email he sent you seems pretty tame -- a little lonely, a little drunk. I get uncomfortable when someone makes a clumsy or unwelcome pass at me, especially if I know I might have to see them again, but I also know that people are odd and do odd things even if they should know better, and these things sort of happen.

I don't mean you shouldn't feel intruded upon, because you should. I just worry that a sort of disproportionate aftershock might mean that this has touched on feelings that are actually about something else in your life entirely.

Did you talk with your boyfriend about this? Would that help?
posted by hermitosis at 3:32 PM on June 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

This really popped out at me: "...for fear of somehow unwittingly doing this again." You didn't do anything! It's all on him. And did I read that he's Director level and you're lower down the food chain? That is an icky imbalance even if you don't report to him directly. Terribly, terribly inappropriate on his part. Please stop blaming yourself. You didn't somehow lead him into sending a junior co-worker creepy inappropriate messages, he did that all by himself and in my opinion anyone who suggests some portion of the blame lies with you is wrong, wrong, wrong. Keep this in mind when you want to take that biohazard control shower - YOU have no shame to wash off. HE is the one who ought be ashamed of actions on, apparently a number of levels (married, for instance, uuuugh). Not you. Repeat: Not. You.
posted by t0astie at 3:45 PM on June 2, 2012 [6 favorites]

Mod note: Folks. no more discussion about sexual harassment definitions. Answer the OPs question please.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 3:54 PM on June 2, 2012

There is NOTHING wrong with your reply to the creepo. Saying too bad you have to head back tomorrow in an email can in no way be construed as leading him on or opening the door to a pass. You did NOT invite his overture. Any normal married man would feel flattered and think of you kindly. A cheater is going to see invitations no matter what you say or do. He's the asshole, and I'll bet he plays this game every chance he gets. Chalk it up to experience, and maybe be a little standoffish with the too-friendly married man.
posted by BlueHorse at 3:57 PM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

How can I reframe my thinking about this situation to feel better and give this creep less power over how I feel?

Remember that some people are jerks but most aren't and most men (I say this as a woman who works with lots and is frequently the only women in meetings*) are perfectly nice to work with and might be funny or smart or ambitious or boring, but few of them would take a friendly email as an opportunity to try to get into your pants and you'd be missing a great many opportunities by giving a lone jerk too much space in your brain.

*That's it's own problem which I'll complain about some other time.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:07 PM on June 2, 2012

Of course you feel icky; somebody was sleazy towards you. Some men and women can't or won't learn the difference between "friendly co-worker is friendly" and "wanna do it?" Keep notes about the interaction, in case there's any repercussions. My recommendation for coping with a jerk like this: get angry. A director totally harassed you. Be a little pissed off, then return to your own life. You can't control other people; some of them are jerks, some of them take advantage of nice people. Don't be a jerk.
posted by theora55 at 4:37 PM on June 2, 2012

I agree with the folks who said he took your "too bad you're leaving" as an opening and made an offer based on that. When you told him what you thought about his overture, he apologized and didn't pursue the matter. I'm really sorry it's causing you so much anxiety, but from the information you've given, I get the impression he read you wrong and made a really bad move, but maybe not one worth potentially screwing up his career over.

You were trying to be friendly and that is totally understandable. You're not "at fault". But I do think it was a misunderstanding and nothing more sinister. I hope you feel better after some time has passed.
posted by Glinn at 5:20 PM on June 2, 2012 [5 favorites]

I think your supervisor failed you when she told you to write back to him.

Nthing getting in touch with your HR.
posted by brujita at 5:28 PM on June 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

You handled it really well. And I disagree that you had any culpability. A determined creeper can turn "hello" into a perceived come on. Don't let him get to you.
posted by emjaybee at 7:53 PM on June 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

You handled it like a class act, with complete appropriateness. He was most definitely out of line.

I think your supervisor failed you when she told you to write back to him.

I suspect this was recommended to demonstrate unequivocally that the overtures were unwelcome. It's on the record now, in writing.

As to how to reframe your thinking: perhaps just reading about the predictable nature of this kind of situation, and understanding clearly your workplace rights and how to advocate for yourself within them, would help. I wonder if you'd feel good about being more active in the issue, maybe, somehow - mentoring other women, peer counseling, etc.
posted by Miko at 8:30 PM on June 2, 2012

He's a creep. You did nothing wrong. I assure you: creeps exist of both sexes and all persuasions, and they're all alike. Turn his name into HR, to help protect others from his creep attack. You owe it to others. And yourself.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:45 PM on June 2, 2012

You handled it perfectly. Get some counseling to work through these feelings. They are common.
posted by Ironmouth at 4:12 AM on June 3, 2012

I agree that you handled it perfectly and have done nothing wrong.

I also agree with what some other commenters have said--that between adults there is an icky grey area that stops short of predatory behavior, and this seems to fall into icky but not necessarily predatory.

If he was a direct supervisor, I would say show no mercy in taking him out. In this case--working in another place, not a direct supervisor, meeting only occasionally--it may be enough to have notified HR, which you did, and then letting this become something that did not happen. If he ever starts up again, then go for the throat, as it were.

Probably just a few weeks from now you'll start to feel less gross. As for hanging out with male coworkers, if you've got the right serious demeanor, which you seem to, then this sort of thing will hopefully be the exception.
posted by skbw at 8:29 AM on June 3, 2012

I think your supervisor failed you when she told you to write back to him.

Yeah, that seems like a total abdication on the supervisor's part. Can it really be true that the supervisor is completely washing her hands of this? And doing nothing herself except telling *you* to write back turning his advances down?

Good lord. That seems weirdly passive on the supervisor's part.

At the very least, the supervisor should be telling the married guy this was reported and that the supervisor is aware it happened. How else is the married guy going to learn this is inappropriate behavior in the workplace?

mleigh: If a guy violates your boundaries and you follow up with - "No problem, it was fun, too bad you have to head back tomorrow," - he's going to go - well, let's have another crack at that.

The poster didn't say the guy had violated her boundaries during the dinner/drinks; she does mention he was probably drunk and initiated several conversations, which she is not presenting as any sort of problem. He went along with her small group, thanked her in an email, to which she replied pleasantly, and *then* he violated her boundaries.

Ironmouth: You handled it perfectly.

Yes, but did the supervisor? Wouldn't you agree, Ironmouth, that making sure there's some sort of paper trail here would be the smart employer move?
posted by mediareport at 8:34 AM on June 3, 2012

I think this can be so destabilizing because you're in one mode - work/professionally friendly mode, and someone else, who is older and higher up than you are, and whom you probably never looked at that way, unilaterally shoves you over into sexual interaction mode with no warning at all. It can tap into a lot of unfortunate systems in our culture that sexually objectify women and make us both vulnerable and defensive.

Depending on how sleazy this guy is, this could be anything from a quasi-deliberate move to destabilize you in your career and undermine your sense of professional competence to a completely oblivious, unthinking, and well meaning (as well-meaning as they get) sexual overture.

I will affirm what many others have said - this is not something you brought on or are responsible for in any way. You have the right to be professionally friendly without making yourself subject to sexual propositions. (Part of the reason that this kind of thing often is sexual harassment is because many employees have the *obligation* to be professionally friendly).

People who are saying you're making too big a deal of this are either inexperienced in this kind of thing, or they've been dealing with it so long they forgot that they might not have always had the experience and perspective and skills to shake it off. As long as you're still showing up to work, still managing professional friendliness, and not letting this derail you professionally, you can be as disturbed by it as you are.

That said, this is an unfortunate reality of the world, and you will be served by using this experience to start building that ability to shake this kind of thing off. Maybe think about what this might be tapping into for you that's bringing up all these feelings. A couple of sessions with a counselor might be helpful, and/or some reading about sex/sexuality, workplace dynamics, and sexism. Vent about it with your friends, and keep reminding yourself that you did everything right, and other people's actions are not under your control.
posted by Salamandrous at 9:34 AM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wouldn't you agree, Ironmouth, that making sure there's some sort of paper trail here would be the smart employer move?

I supervise people, and I want to again say that having the employee write a clear rebuke of overtures is an important part of establishing the paper trail. Having something to show that very clearly indicates the advances are unwanted is essential to any later activities seeking to prove harassment.
posted by Miko at 10:38 AM on June 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't think it's safe to make any assumptions about how the supervisor might or might not be handling this. Maybe this guy has a record of sexually harassing co-workers, and this will be the final straw that gets him dismissed. Maybe the supervisor is speaking with him or with HR, right now. Maybe he's never done anything like this before, he was a bit drunk and misread the situation, and he's mortified. You can't know. I've handled this kind of thing many times, and it's not normal for the complaintant to be kept fully in the loop on how it plays out: these situations are legally sensitive, and really, it's not her business. She reported it (which was good), and if the behaviour doesn't happen again, then there is no problem for her.

If he behaves like this again to her, or she sees him behaving like this with other people in future then yes, that's a problem, and it would suggest that her company doesn't handle this kind of thing well. But that hasn't happened, and there's no reason to assume it will.

OP, don't beat yourself up. This wasn't your fault, and you handled it fine. If I were you, I would try not to let this one incident affect your interactions with other men in the workplace. Yes, there are definitely men in the workplace who behave inappropriately, but you're not responsible for their behaviour, and they are not normally in the majority. You shouldn't let this one incident prevent you from having productive collegial work relationships.
posted by Susan PG at 1:52 PM on June 3, 2012

« Older Why am I immune to all medication?   |   Finding a side-career as an occasional artist Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.