Don't Have a Man, Don't Need One, Thanks.....
June 4, 2012 12:36 PM   Subscribe

I get hit on a lot at work. It's not flattering at all. I find it very embarrassing and demoralizing. I don't know how to cope.

I am a female in my mid-20s. I work with an organization that helps low-income adults pursue post-secondary education. I meet one-on-one with new students every day, literally hundreds of people a year. A small but significant amount of men from this particular population often hit on me. They make comments about my appearance, ask about my relationship status, or straight-up ask me out. I guess these guys think "Hey! There's this cute young girl who is being nice to me, is helping me, and seems to give a shit about me! I'm going to try to hit that!" They are usually not lewd or threatening, but it makes me uncomfortable and I deal with it constantly, at least several times a week.

I try to stay polite and professional, and that tends to diffuse the situation in the moment. I can laugh it off afterwards, but in the long-run, this has all taken a toll on me. I no longer wear make-up to work. I wear dowdy ugly shapeless clothes. I don't engage my male students in polite conversation when I'm working with them, lest they mistake my polite banter for flirting. My demeanor becomes cold and distant, which is the exact opposite of my normal personality. I get a weird panicky feeling any time a man asks me a personal question, even if he's just trying to be nice. I just try to get them in and out of my office as fast as I can. I want to be warm and engaging, I want to help them. I don't want to have to put my 'bitch face' on every time I meet with a man. I know that the majority of men I meet with are kind and polite and professional and will keep their opinions of me to themselves. It's just a few bad apples that spoil the bunch.

My office is small (only 5 employees total) and my other co-workers are male and/or older than I am, so they don't have to deal with this issue. I just don't want to keep feeling a sense of dread and loathing every time I look at my calendar and see a male name on my schedule. I've talked to a therapist about this before, but he wasn't very helpful. Whenever I talk to people about this, I always feel like I'm just coming across like "Waaahhh! It's so hard to be thin and beautiful and popular! Everyone wants to have sex with me!" I hope this makes sense and I hope someone can give me some advice.
posted by chara to Human Relations (62 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Wear a wedding ring at work.
posted by mollymayhem at 12:41 PM on June 4, 2012 [47 favorites]

Ugh, I'm so sorry. I've been there, and you are definitely not whining. You're just trying to do your job, but people are hitting on you. I know some people who wore (cheap, fake) wedding rings to cut down the incidences of being hit on at work. Maybe that would be a good stopgap measure while you figure out other methods?
posted by runningwithscissors at 12:42 PM on June 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

First of all, don't ever feel like you should blame yourself for the actions of others in these situations, because that is self-defeating bullshit.

Can you wear a plain n simple wedding band when you're at work? It won't stop the serious creepers but it might give a certain percentage of regular guys a second thought before they say something flirty.
posted by elizardbits at 12:43 PM on June 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Look as nice as you want but get a simple gold ring and wear it on your left hand when you work. Put a picture of you and a male buddy in a frame on your desk (or where the folks would see it). If someone asks you out, just reply "Oh.. he probably wouldn't appreciate it.", chuckle, move on. If they persist, tell them it's not appropriate and ask if they'd prefer one of the male counselors. It sucks to have to lie on a day to day basis but it really will deter a good percentage of the folks you work with.
posted by adorap0621 at 12:44 PM on June 4, 2012 [20 favorites]

Practically, wear a fake wedding ring.

You're not whining, and it's clearly become a legitimate problem for you which makes it a legitimate problem period.

In the long term, your psychological reactions to this doesn't sound healthy (this is not in any way blaming you), and since it's impacting how you function, that is definitely a clarion call to talking this out with a DIFFERENT therapist who can hopefully work through it. CBT could help.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 12:44 PM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was coming in to say what the first two folks suggested--but I'd take it a little farther. Get the fake ring, but also get some fake photos to sprinkle around--have some fun staging them, borrow a wedding dress and find a big, handsome guy to pose as the groom. Since your office is small, you can easily explain the reason for the pics to your co-workers and they will send a clear message to your clients.
posted by agatha_magatha at 12:46 PM on June 4, 2012

Wearing a fake wedding ring is not going to prevent, I estimate, 10 to 20% of men from hitting on you.
posted by thewalrus at 12:46 PM on June 4, 2012 [12 favorites]

Oh.. and depending on how the scheduling is done, find out if you can work mostly with females or established, non-creepy dudes.
posted by adorap0621 at 12:47 PM on June 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

I know you talked to your therapist about this. Did you talk to your boss about it?
posted by anya32 at 12:51 PM on June 4, 2012 [10 favorites]

Whenever I talk to people about this, I always feel like I'm just coming across like "Waaahhh! It's so hard to be thin and beautiful and popular! Everyone wants to have sex with me!" I hope this makes sense and I hope someone can give me some advice.

I don't get this from you at all. I'm sorry that you not only have to deal with feeling uncomfortable from all the unwanted attention, but also how other people are reacting to your complaints.

The wedding band is an OK idea, but I bet that the people who are immature enough to act this way with someone in a professional setting is not attentive enough to even notice that you have the ring on. It might cull the herd a bit, but I can't imagine it will be enough to make a serious change.

My office is small (only 5 employees total) and my other co-workers are male and/or older than I am, so they don't have to deal with this issue.

Do you know this because you have talked to them, or are you assuming it? Have you spoken with any higher-ups at your organization about this? It's likely you're not the first ever attractive woman who has worked there, maybe they have encountered this before and can help you. This is the route that I would take.

Good luck, I hope you can find something to mitigate this situation that doesn't make you feel so sad. =(
posted by King Bee at 12:52 PM on June 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

While your co-workers may not have to deal with the same issue, can you have a meeting with them to discuss it? I'm wondering if there may be some verbage that can be added to the intake documents -- stuff all your clients have to read and agree to before getting counseling -- that could include a statement about how advisors are to be treated.

Beyond fostering a better working environment for you, these guys need to learn that their behavior is not A-OK if they are hoping to advance in their academic lives and beyond.

If your small office is part of a larger parent organization, see if you can find someone higher up to discuss this with.
posted by quivering_fantods at 12:52 PM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

anya32: "Did you talk to your boss about it?"

+1. Your organization needs to make clear to its clients that harassment of its staff will not be tolerated. You shouldn't have to take this shit from your clients any more than you would from your coworkers.
posted by FlyingMonkey at 12:53 PM on June 4, 2012 [35 favorites]

A lot of people here are suggesting faking a relationship, and from a practical standpoint I can understand how that might help a little, but that sort of thing doesn't work for everyone and I know it wouldn't work for me so I figured I'd offer a different perspective.

Personally, I'd suggest being very direct when the first inappropriate comment is made -- something along the lines of, "Okay, look, I'm here to help you further your education, and we really need to keep things on a professional level. Please stop commenting on my appearance or you're going to be asked to leave." Also it would probably be a good idea to at least make your co-workers aware of what is going on, and that you're going to be doing this from now on. If it's a healthy workplace it's doubtful your colleagues will tell you you're overreacting; this sort of thing is serious, and deserves management no matter how small an office you're in.
posted by aecorwin at 12:58 PM on June 4, 2012 [21 favorites]

Your co-workers might not have experienced your exact situation, but I would imagine they have experienced issues with clients pushing their personal boundaries, and might be able to offer advise on how to handle that.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:59 PM on June 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

I've talked to a therapist about this before, but he wasn't very helpful.

Have you tried talking to a she?
posted by circular at 1:00 PM on June 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

I think fake wedding ring is a good idea, and I love the idea of wedding pics. For most level-headed, non-skeezy guys, this should send a clear message.

For those who aren't detered by this, you can come up with a short speech saying "XYZ corp strictly forbids staff to date students. Now about your enrollment forms." (I assume your office has a policy against staff dating the students. If not, you can amend the speech to something like "It would be unethical for me to accept a date from you.")

I think it's also worthwhile to ask yourself why you find it so uncomfortable to say no. I do too, although I don't need to do it quite so often. But I've noticed that some women (and men) manage to play this very smoothly - they seem flattered and pleased at the offer, but they make it clear that it's not in the cards. (Awww, I don't go out with clients, but it's very nice of you to ask." If you could see this as a neutral or amusing event, this might help. Especially since you don't seem to find any of these advances to be threatening. (Obviously if they are threatening you should immediately contact security. It might help to think through what's an acceptable request for a date and what is threatening and merits a call to security).

What do you fear will happen when you say no? That the guy will attack you, or that he will be deeply wounded, or think you are a bitch, or ... ? Anyone who asks that easily is probably used to asking and getting a variety of responses, and can handle a polite but firm no.
posted by bunderful at 1:02 PM on June 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't think dressing dowdy helps. Dress professionally. If someone starts hitting on you, pause and say seriously, "That's not what we're here for and I need you to keep this professional." If they don't stop, disengage and send them to one of your male co-workers. Make sure that your office will have your back.
posted by Salamandrous at 1:05 PM on June 4, 2012 [28 favorites]

While I can totally imagine that putting out "I'm married" signals (ring, desk decor) would cut your rate of getting hit on, that wouldn't get rid of inappropriate guys altogether. More importantly is whether it's something you personally want to do. It sucks that this would be a somewhat-expedient somewhat-effective solution. I know where you're coming from - you should not have to lie as part of the baseline of your work persona. But you're already letting these jerks alter your life, by trying to dress less attractively; being "married" is potentially more fun play-acting, or more stressful, depending on your frame of mind.

Even if you do that, you will still have to deal with this issue in the whatever% of men who don't think to look for your "I'm married" markers, or just plain don't care. You could try it for a while and see if it helped.

In another job, I'd have a big official notice on the wall that said "Propositioning your counselor is unprofessional and unethical, and will not be tolerated" but that wouldn't help much in an adult-literacy setting. :)
posted by aimedwander at 1:07 PM on June 4, 2012

In my previous career, I also did educational planning for low-income adults. My empathy for your situation is overwhelming, and I am thinking about you. I absolutely understand what it is to look at your Outlook Calendar and truly believe that your mental health would be better served by taking a lunch that lasts the rest of the day.

Your insight that they are responding to your support of their success is absolutely correct. Disguising yourself by hiding your appearance or adopting to a persona of a married person won't help you, because those masks are just going to get heavier, and it won't help your population adapt to appropriate professional student behavior.

You need to be able to be yourself, because being yourself all day and every day is important to your health, and you need to be able to work without hourly confrontation with these propositions. Also, these students could benefit from learning professional social behavior.

This is a systemic and process oriented problem, not a you problem. This is a problem I and the other educational planners had in my setting, as well. We met and approached it as an organizational issue to benefit educational planners and other public-fronting staff and as an issue to assist our population. Your setting is small, but is there a step where they check-in before seeing you? They must need to make the appointment and prepare for it, either online or with a front desk person. It is at that contact, that you can pass on a lot of education to your clients.

Take a look at that check in process and see where you can fit in the education. If they make and prepare for appointments online, perhaps they can be required to click through a short online module that provides context and expectations for their first "professional meeting," and includes how they are not only expected to treat staff, but to treat their educational peers and mentors (along the lines of "your peers, mentors, and our staff are in place to make sure you succeed. Every learning environment and workplace has expectations for interpersonal behavior that include, for example; avoiding sexual harassment, avoiding personal (dating) advances, and keeping relationships professional so that everyone can succeed and get their work done. This expectation is also true from your very first appointment with your educational planner").

If they check in at a front desk, these kinds of materials can be made available as an "I Agree" worksheet with a brief professional conduct statement and a signature where they indicate agreement. Or, obvious bulletin board displays with this concept, plus other professional conduct information if there is no front desk or sign-in. A looping video with these ideas may work, well too. A lot of Human Resources organizations have professional conduct training videos like this.

We made these efforts in my setting, and it really helped. It helped us frame our negative personal experiences positively so that leadership was motivated to help us do something about it, and it helped our clients understand the expectations and carry them over into their training and classrooms. It helped us find the words to professionally shut-down a student when he/she 'didn't get it.' Also, it stops victim blaming. It's nothing you're doing or wearing. It's not your perceived martial status. There is an educational gap combined with the insight you have already observed about your clients' emotional needs. Those two things can be addressed systemically so that you are not trapped and can breathe and feel safe.

Don't hesitate to memail me with questions or to talk. I hear you!
posted by rumposinc at 1:07 PM on June 4, 2012 [95 favorites]

XYZ corp strictly forbids staff to date students.

I don't think this is a good idea. For the sort of guy who already isn't deterred by a fake wedding ring, this sounds an awful lot like, "Oh if only this pesky regulation weren't in place...". Obviously not a rational thing to think, but this is a guy who's already been oblivious to (at least) one brush-off.
posted by supercres at 1:08 PM on June 4, 2012 [9 favorites]

Your boss absolutely needs to know all about the situation, and is the one whose primary responsibility it is to fix it. You are undergoing sexual harassment in the workplace -- even though the harassers are clients, not coworkers -- and it is affecting not only your ability to do your job but your quality of life and mental health as well. That is not acceptable in any workplace, and your boss must try to fix the problem.

Maybe you need to only be assigned the female cases. Maybe there needs to be a sign in the entrance to the office saying "Sexual harassment of employees will not be tolerated. This includes commenting on their personal appearance, asking them out, and any and all behavior that would generally be considered as 'flirting.' Failure to comply with this rule may result in immediate removal from these premises and prohibition from ever returning." Then your boss needs to follow through on the threat.
posted by cerebus19 at 1:08 PM on June 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

This is something you definitely get better at the more you do it: putting up boundaries and deflecting personal inquiries. You are their teacher. They are your student. It is not rude to not answer personal questions; it's none of their business. It's not rude to smack down any attempts at flirting; it's not appropriate. I work in social services and I've had this happen. You're not doing anything wrong. I think you're 100% correct with "Hey, this cute chick is being nice to me! Doesn't hurt to try, right?" Well, it's not appropriate to try to date you in this situation. You really need to speak to your boss about it. Anytime someone flirts with you, your boss should know about it so they can document appropriately.

Start saying things like, "That's not appropriate. Please don't say/do that again." "I'm sorry, I don't discuss my personal life at work." It's ok to be a little cool and distant. You definitely don't want to discuss personal matters. You can chat briefly about things like movies or tv shows (but not tv shows like True Blood or anything overtly sexual). You don't want to chat about your boyfriend or girlfriend, your health issues, vacation plans, etc. It sort of sucks in that you don't want to be cold or unkind, but it useful in that there's a solid boundary there that's the same for everyone.
posted by Aquifer at 1:08 PM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wearing a fake wedding ring is not going to prevent, I estimate, 10 to 20% of men from hitting on you.

Even given this made-up estimate, let's say it only stops 10%. The OP says she gets several solicitations per week. So let's say about 150 per year. So this cuts it down to 135 per year. Not a solution, but definitely better.

But I think by changing her environment to signal unavailability she can do better than this estimate. Fake wedding ring + fake picture + fake crayon drawing on office door from a fake kid sends a clear signal. It eliminates guys who only have "so, you got a boyfriend or what" as their only opening line.

I agree with everyone else about being direct, talking to her co-workers, etc. but it seems the OP is good with dealing with the come-ons directly, but the main thrust of her question is how to reduce them from happening. She's already tried changing her physical appearance and demeanor with (seemingly) little success (and from what women have posted in past threads, this is not surprising) so changing the environment is a reasonable next step.

Yes there will always be people who won't be deterred, and since you see so many people you just have sheer volume working against you. But going from three or four incidents a week to one could be enough to make the job enjoyable again.

And if anyone ever pries about the pictures, you just have to say "Oh, I don't discuss such personal things here at work."
posted by mikepop at 1:11 PM on June 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

"This is not appropriate or professional. If you want my assistance as a professional, you'll have to cut that out."
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:11 PM on June 4, 2012 [7 favorites]

Calm down, it's an unfortunate fact of life that guys will hit on women. You don't have to be pretty, you don't have to be thin, you don't have to like it. It just is.

It used to make me so uncomfortable when it happened to me, but then I started to roll with it. Depending on how and what, I found I could blow guys off in a humorous way, amuse myself and not be a bitch. It's a thin line.

My favorite way is just to say, "Dude." If you do the inflection just right, it says everything you need to say:

1. Not if I were the only woman on a greek freighter.
2. No way in hell, not now, not ever.
3. Really? You're you, I'm me, how do you think this would work?
4. What could you do for me?
5. I have a man.

Whatever it is. I agree that these folks should be educated that there are places and settings where we don't try and get our mack on. You could be the one that educates them. But it's not your job to provide the "home training".

For sure see if you can speak to other women in your position, or in similar positions and see what worked for them. You shouldn't have to turn in to Mariah Carey in Precious just to do your job.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:15 PM on June 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

XYZ corp strictly forbids staff to date students.

I don't think this is a good idea. For the sort of guy who already isn't deterred by a fake wedding ring, this sounds an awful lot like, "Oh if only this pesky regulation weren't in place...". Obviously not a rational thing to think, but this is a guy who's already been oblivious to (at least) one brush-off.

It's true that it might not deter all advances, but I think if anyone does continue to make advances after this statement OP can feel quite clear about who she is dealing with, end the meeting and report it to her boss and ask for him to be reassigned without questioning herself.
posted by bunderful at 1:18 PM on June 4, 2012

Calm down, it's an unfortunate fact of life that guys will hit on women. is not an appropriate response to a hostile work environment. Women do not imagine the horrible sick feeling they get from being sexually harassed. Women who report sexual harrasment are not hysterics. They are not imagining things and telling them to "ignore" it is not a valid response.

This is absolutely a hostile workplace environment, and your employer is responsible to deal with it. You shouldn't calm down and ignore it, and the dread that you're feeling is very justified.
posted by lyra4 at 1:20 PM on June 4, 2012 [61 favorites]

I think the dowdy-clothes/no makeup approach could actually be making the situation worse. That makes you look like someone with low self-esteem who Needs Help With Dating, and a lot of guys think that it's their job to "fix that problem."

I agree that this is not your problem to fix all on your own. Ruthless Bunny's suggestion of a female mentor was the first thing I thought of when I read your post.

I disagree with LeanGreen: don't throw in the towel yet. This is an opportunity for personal and professional growth for you, and I think you will continue to face the problem no matter what population you deal with if you work with the public.
posted by Currer Belfry at 1:21 PM on June 4, 2012 [8 favorites]

And I think though the marriage paraphernalia might be worth a try, at least for a while, the best ultimate outcome would be for OP to be herself, wear what she wants, have the job she wants, and feel comfortable setting clear boundaries and kicking out anyone who infringes those boundaries with the certitude that her boss will back her up 100%.

(Another reason to talk to the boss).
posted by bunderful at 1:21 PM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is sexual harassment. If your office tolerates you being sexually harassed by your clients, they are legally liable.

Document the frequency this happens (try to get some hard evidence). Then, take it up with your boss, explain (very sweetly) that this is sexual harassment, and show him the sign you are thinking of putting up in your office that says "XYZ corp specifically prohibits dating students. If a student attempts to violate this rule, it may lead to expulsion from the program." Ask him if he will allow you to put it up in an obvious spot in your office. If he doesn't let you, ask him what alternative plans he has to stop the persistent sexual harassment you are experiencing.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 1:23 PM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

[comments removed - folks if you think you're going to "get flamed" for your answer maybe put a little more effort into making an answer that won't go that way? Thanks.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 1:24 PM on June 4, 2012

I should be a bit more specific about the population I work with. I originally left this information out. I work with mostly adults, not college-aged students. Some of the men are ex-felons or in various rehab programs. My very first appointment several years ago was with a man who was a registered sex offender who just got out of jail. So...yeah, it's not just average Joes who are making the moves on me. Thank you for your answers so far. I have considered the wedding ring, but it felt weird to me. I'll give it another try.
posted by chara at 1:29 PM on June 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

You have all of my sympathy here. I used to teach a class to a group of young men who had just gotten out of residential single-sex juvenile detention. It was difficult. Also, whoever can say whatever about harassment but it isn't harassment for guys to ask you out; it's harassment for them to keep asking you out, but that doesn't sound like it's the problem.

The wedding band is an OK idea, but I bet that the people who are immature enough to act this way with someone in a professional setting is not attentive enough to even notice that you have the ring on.

The wedding ring is actually a perfect first line of defence. Not because it will stop people hitting on you, but because it makes turning them down so much more comfortable for you: "Mr Clooney*, I'm happily married."

It is very, very important that you resist the urge to apologise. We are totally socialised to feel badly about turning down even desperately unwanted male sexual attention, but apologising leaves room to wiggle. Do not say you are sorry: just be definitive. Practice, because THIS IS VERY HARD TO DO.

Also, more than therapy, I would suggest a women's self-defence class. Not because I think you are at risk from your clients, but because those are the classes where women are taught to say NO loudly and powerfully and unapologetically. It makes all the other Nos you have to issue all through your life so much easier. Including the ones in your office.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:32 PM on June 4, 2012 [16 favorites]

You may want to keep pictures of you and and a boyfriend/fiance/husbandy looking picture on your desk. If you have a male friend, see if they'll volunteer to pose for such a picture (that is if you have a desk to put pictures on and are allowed to do so at work...)
posted by samsara at 1:33 PM on June 4, 2012

*Oh sorry, I meant to add, you may want to address your clients by their surnames. It doesn't matter if they are going to be calling you Jane instead of Mrs Chara; it helps set the tone for your relationship to them.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:34 PM on June 4, 2012 [7 favorites]

This scenario is pretty common for nonprofit, service-oriented jobs, though seldom talked about. I run into this a lot myself (in addition, I frequently get an odd parent/child sort of dynamic from senior clients). One thing I've concluded is that disenfranchised groups have few sources of power to exercise, and it is especially difficult for them when a young woman (especially a young white woman) is in a position of power over them. On a subconscious level, these men probably don't expect to actually date you, but it is a vulnerable situation for them that becomes more comfortable if the playing field appears level.

I mention this because thinking in terms of power dynamics can help remove emotion from scenarios like this, and it gets easier to let these comments roll off your back. It sounds like you are wary of maintaining professional distance and find it a lot of work, but you just need to build confidence about doing so. Clients really need to be treated formally and professionally - you can still be warm and friendly, but you aren't their friend. It might sound kinda silly, but you might benefit from reading something like Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office.

Apart from that, I agree tenfold that you should dress professionally (but conservatively). The conduct waiver idea for all clients is good too, it would be a good way to make it clear they should be treating you like a professional, not a friend. A wedding ring is a practical idea that would help somewhat, but won't change the larger issue that people will still want to treat you like a young girl if you let them, sadly. This is absolutely not your fault, but books like those linked above offer surprisingly good strategies for subverting those sorts of actions.
posted by susanvance at 1:38 PM on June 4, 2012 [15 favorites]

I've so been there. Not in the professional setting that you're in, but I'm quite familiar with the cultural/socioeconomic subset of men that I assume you're dealing with. It doesn't matter how many wedding rings you wear or how ugly you look--as long as these guys think you have a vagina, you are fair game.

You need to force these guys to acknowledge remind these guys that you are their professional counselor and not a vagina. "Why are you asking me personal questions? We're here to discuss your [whatever]." "Do you want me to help you with your [whatever] or do you want to ask about my boyfriend?" "That has nothing to do with why we're here."

BTW, I also got the same treatment from my (older male) therapist, who tried to be sympathetic but was pretty much like, "Um, yeah I can see how it would be annoying to have men flirt with you all the time....?"
posted by thebazilist at 1:41 PM on June 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

I think other people have offered some excellent practical plans for minimizing the number of times you get hit on, but I also think your reaction to it is something you may want to work on further.

Try finding a female therapist who can help you reframe your reactions to this situation, because there are lots of women who manage to deflect this sort of unwanted attention in a relatively straightforward, professional manner, and then simply move on without having it affect them overly much. And no matter how many techniques you employ, you're never going to completely eliminate getting hit on, so being able to cope with it emotionally will need to be part of your arsenal. A good therapist should be able to help you react in a way that's less emotionally draining and damaging for you.

In an ideal world, you wouldn't need to get therapy to help you deal with creeps, but this world is far from ideal.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:51 PM on June 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't like the emotional toll this is taking on you! You sound as if you are handling these men professionally when they're there, but the fact that it has such a toll on you that you have taken to dressing in dowdy clothes, not wearing makeup, and generally trying to appear asexual so that they will leave you alone is disturbing.

That is no way to have to live your life!

And it is also a common reaction to abuse. You say the men are not threatening or lewd, so where does this reaction come from? Have you ever been victimized by a man in some way? That history may be affecting you still, which is why these harmless (though annoying!) altercations seem threatening to you now.

Another explanation could be that you haven't had to deal with men much before, and now you have been thrown in the deep end of the pool. With men an unknown entity, that lack of experience makes this overwhelming. I don't think this second scenario works, though, because you seem very empathetic about what these men are experiencing.

If you have been a victim of abuse in the past, I do recommend trying another therapist, someone who will actually help you.

Now, in the meantime, how do we go about making you feel safe? That's the real issue here. You shouldn't have to change yourself to feel safe at the workplace!

Definitely discuss this with your coworkers! Explain it to them, as a group, as you have here: I have been dealing with uncomfortable situations when it comes to some of the male clients, and I'm looking for suggestions to stop, or at least limit, these uncomfortable situations in the workplace. They are older, and experienced enough that they ought to have some suggestions on how they can help.

I like the idea of addressing this in those intake documents, too. They should be instructed to treat their meetings with you, or any of the staff in your office, as if it were a job interview. Men are much less likely to hit on a potential boss!

Now, are you meeting with these men alone in your office? Men are less likely to hit on you, and you are less likely to feel trapped, if you are in the center of a busy, well-trafficked area, where anyone might see you. Is there a break room, a table, somewhere else you could conduct the meetings? Can you switch things around so that you are always closest to the door? I would even suggest that if someone comes on to you, you get up and leave the room for a moment, so that you feel in control of the situation rather than trapped.

Also, can you deal with a few, or even just a couple, clients, men and women together, rather than just one-on-one sessions with a single male client? Or have a group come in and deal with the group along with a coworker or two?

Can you have a button you can push on your phone or some kind of signal? The idea would be that if you push that button, your coworkers respond by coming into your office. You will probably never use this button or signal, but knowing it is there may keep you from panicking or feeling trapped.

You could also, yes, wear a fake wedding ring, or put a namecard on the desk that reads, "Mrs. chara", pictures of you and boyfriend on the desk, etc.

But the main thing is that your workplace needs to be a safe environment for you, and it is not "whining" to ask your coworkers for help in making this happen.
posted by misha at 1:57 PM on June 4, 2012

I have volunteered in a men's state penitentiary for nearly a decade. If there's an overlap between the population I've worked with and yours, I think there are a couple of elements to it. There is a segment of men, for instance, who seem to think it would be rude NOT to hit on a woman who has been helpful to them. When you set firm professional boundaries, and model what interacting with the opposite sex in a professional capacity is supposed to look like, some people are actually relieved. You're also setting them up to be more successful in the rest of their professional lives.

In your shoes I would see is as part of my job to set them straight on what's okay and what isn't, and don't see it as anything more personal than someone wearing inappropriate, using inappropriate language, bling or clothing.

Possible script: "No. And that's inappropriate. If you want to succeed, you'd best keep your professional relationships strictly professional. This is, and will remain, a strictly professional relationship." If they persist, tell them (or have a male coworker tell them) "If this is going to be a problem, we will no longer be able to help you." Don't smile. Don't be embarrassed to say it any more than you would be if you were pointing out someone's shoe was untied.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:02 PM on June 4, 2012 [44 favorites]

That said, I still don't wear low cut tops.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:03 PM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seriously? 44 comments and no one suggests that this is a teaching moment? As in "young man, we are here in a professionals situation. One does not proposition their boss or mentor in a professional environment, and you certainly wouldn't proposition your teacher or professor. This is a lesson you would be well to learn if you hope to further your education."
posted by Gungho at 2:04 PM on June 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

I think rumposinc's suggestions are right on and taking that a step further might let you feel more in control of these situations when they crop up. The men you are working with are there because they lack a skill set to be successful in a working environment. One of those skills is behaving appropriately in a professional setting. Working with your employer to set up expectations for professional behavior in your interactions with these clients is absolutely important, and puts the weight of the whole organization behind you. I'd also say that coming up with a standard way to address these situations when they do occur (because they will continue to happen), should be part of this planning. Then, when you're faced with it you have strategies and consequences prepared and don't have that uncomfortable feeling of having to brainstorm a solution on the spot.

What also might help you to feel more empowered is to treat these situations as teachable moments. Point out that they're inappropriate and why. Give them alternative ways to address instructors, colleagues, supervisors, etc. in the future. If they pull the same kinds of behaviors in training or in jobs, their chances of success are really, really poor. Frame that for them and the consequences of similar behavior in the future.

Good luck. You are definitely not whining. You are pointing out a legitimate problem.
posted by goggie at 2:07 PM on June 4, 2012

I agree with folks who say to bring this to your bosses/supervisors and see if they have a solution that works. I used to work in an outpatient mental health facility and dudes would ask me out while I was processing their paperwork. Come to find out the therapists were telling clients to "make more friends" and "press past their boundaries" and the clients were REALLY misinterpreting it by asking out the people they saw every day, mostly admins and cafeteria workers. The therapists had to reframe their message a bit, and this made it better for us all. I am wondering if your clients are getting similar messages-- "to get into school, build a network, reach out!"-- and are doing the best they can, not realizing what this actually means. It should not be up to you alone to teach them, especially not if they are getting seemingly-contradictory messages from others in your organization.
posted by holyrood at 2:08 PM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

You are exactly right: this is not directly about you. You are in a position where you are offering assistance and affirmation. This combination often lends itself to these types of situations. Many waitresses deal with this on a regular basis: being friendly and bringing food is often misconstrued as having a social or romantic interest in a customer.

I work regularly with folks that are not too dissimilar from what you are describing. Here are some things that work for me:

1. Always be professional - particularly in the way you dress and in your tone of voice. You are in a place of business and mutual respect is key.

2. If someone attempts to engage you in a conversation that is not professional, immediately address it as such. Do not apologize. Be polite, pleasant, and straightforward.

3. Depending on your level of comfortability, this is a fantastic moment to discuss workplace relationships and ethics - what's appropriate and what's not. It's important to address this in a very kind and direct way. I also find that a bit of humor helps. The next time someone asks you out, try responding with, "Okay, so let me give you a scenario. You're on your first day at a new job. Your new manager is attractive and friendly. Why is asking her out a bad idea?" I often find that deflecting the original question and leading into a hypothetical workplace scenario is very useful.

Good luck . . . this will get easier with time.
posted by WaspEnterprises at 2:13 PM on June 4, 2012 [18 favorites]

WaspEnterprises, I think I'll use your script from now on :)
posted by small_ruminant at 2:18 PM on June 4, 2012

I don't have too much further to add. But, I do think that for your own sanity, it might help to write up a list of your boundaries and practice your scripts for asserting yourself. It seems like you got thrown into this situation without a real expectation of what you would be up against so it's understandable that you're floundering a bit. Anyone would be. So, if you get really concrete and write it down, I think that will give you a stronger sense of your boundaries and an occasional way to remind yourself from time to time (keep a copy in your desk).

I also like the wedding ring idea though I understand why it's annoying.

But, my concern is your bosses. It kind of sounds like you are afraid to bring this up with them. You know your office and atmosphere and you may feel like they won't take this seriously or will be irritated. I just urge you to try to get over that. Because, first off, they may surprise you. And, if you come armed with some of the great text suggested here ("I came across some verbiage for this type of common situation and think we might do well to employ it here.") then that may be enough for them to be empowered to act. Some men get very uncomfortable with these situations. Other men get defensive. But, this situation is untenable and bad for your organization. If they push back at you, try to reframe it for them: Have you ever had a client who has tried to cross a boundary with you? Asking you a personal favor? Tried to meet you outside of work? Asked you personal questions about your private life? Maybe they have. Or if they haven't, they can probably better imagine themselves in that type of nearly analogous situation and thus help you out.

Look, to 1 guy, you're just 1 girl that he asked out and got rejected, what's the big deal? But, to you, you're 1 girl who gets asked out constantly and has to reject people multiple times a day. For anyone to suggest that that's not harassment or bad for one's mental health and esteem maybe has a little lack of imagination. Constantly rejecting people you are actively trying to help is kind of a brain twister. Get help from your colleagues with this!
posted by amanda at 2:46 PM on June 4, 2012

Make a picture with not just your "boyfriend", but your "husband and two adorable kids". 5x7 or even 8x10, placed behind you so it is in full instant view of the creepers. For extra, three or four more pics, 4x6, candid grab shots, one each with you and your "husband" and with you each kid and with you with both kids. All in nice frames. I hope you have a sister or friend who will let you borrow her family for just these pics.

This is not unusual for women in your situation.

I do not think the situation otherwise is a "teachable moment" to those men, they don't want to hear it and it could affect your actual work with them if you tried. If they do try something, just indicate the photos and say "Oh no, I have a nice family now" and just diffuse the situation and get to the real work.
posted by caclwmr4 at 2:51 PM on June 4, 2012

Personally, I would find it soul destroying to have to pretend to have a family and marriage that isn't real. It's none of their business why you won't go out with them, full stop.

I do not think the situation otherwise is a "teachable moment" to those men, they don't want to hear it and it could affect your actual work with them if you tried.

I don't know where you get this. From my experience, and other people who work with populations who aren't mainstream, for lack of a better word, it's simply not the case. And if it interferes with your work for them, it's the clients who are interfering with it, not the OP, and it's the clients who will suffer. It's not her job to salve their feelings when they make inappropriate advances.

If someone gets pushy or worse, you involve your coworkers and possily the police. This isn't usual, but it's not insanely unusual either. It's a known hazard of helping disenfranchised populations.
posted by small_ruminant at 3:03 PM on June 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

This is absolutely a hostile workplace environment, and your employer is responsible to deal with it.

I think it's a little more complicated than that. As a number of commenters have said, this kind of thing is pretty common in non-profit environments with disadvantaged male clients. I think this: One thing I've concluded is that disenfranchised groups have few sources of power to exercise, and it is especially difficult for them when a young woman (especially a young white woman) is in a position of power over them. On a subconscious level, these men probably don't expect to actually date you, but it is a vulnerable situation for them that becomes more comfortable if the playing field appears level. is particularly insightful.

There is a lot the OP's employer can do to help -- encouraging the staff to develop/share best practices for boundary-setting, maybe setting up the conduct agreement thing, and certainly protecting the OP if someone repeatedly crosses a line. But it sounds to me like the real problem isn't harassment, it's that the OP wants to be able to engage with her clients in a warm and supportive way, and is having a hard time figuring out how to do that. That's totally reasonable -- I can imagine it'd be hard to be in a social services-type role, if you felt like you disliked your clients, or needed to be extremely wary of them.

OP, it sounds to me like you're over-personalizing this. I really think it's not about you. You wouldn't need to be particularly thin or beautiful or popular to be attractive to these guys -- they have tough lives, they probably have troubled families and social circles, and you are a kind, stable, high-status professional. It's not at all surprising they would try their luck with you. That suggests this does not need to be a big deal, because they likely aren't very invested.

Maybe try something that addresses the issue head-on in a way that unambiguously closes the door, and also speaks to the kind of relationship you actually want to have. "Jim, nice try, but you need to stop talking about how hot I am. That's not what we're here for. I really want to help you, and I think I probably can, but that's not how we're going to do it. Now, here's what we need to do today..." or something like that. I would aim for self-assured and friendly. Maybe talk with female friends in similar roles --lawyers, police, social workers-- and find out how they handle this kind of thing, too.

Good luck!
posted by Susan PG at 3:16 PM on June 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

But it sounds to me like the real problem isn't harassment, it's that the OP wants to be able to engage with her clients in a warm and supportive way, and is having a hard time figuring out how to do that.

Because they are inappropriately pushing her boundaries, I mean. Not because she is bad at her job.

(I just want to be clear I am not victim-blaming here.)
posted by Susan PG at 3:19 PM on June 4, 2012

I wouldn't bother doing any kind of fake marriage playacting or bringing up a fake husband, but I would consider wearing a fake wedding ring.

You also need to get an agreement from your coworkers that basically says that if someone makes you uncomfortable you can cancel the meeting, ask them to leave, and then have them reschedule with a coworker.
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:35 PM on June 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

When they ask if you are married/have a BF say firmly: "That's really none of your business".
posted by brujita at 4:17 PM on June 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

LoL, Ex-felons and "teachable moment."

The OP is about to fucking explode on the next unlucky dude that's going to tell her she's got a great smile. A JC Penney family photo sprawl is not changing the mind of the ex-prisoner looking for an in, nor will the unusually shiny ring you awkwardly flash before his eyes.

Get your bosses to control your "clients" you see or better, change this job for your sanity.
posted by Kruger5 at 5:04 PM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Uuuug, this is awful. Is there some way of addressing the class on the first day?

In my classes the first day I say anyone who fails to treat their classmates or me in a respectful manner will be sent to the Dean. I outline some examples of disrespect, and then follow through. You are here to learn, not to socialize. You shouldn't be discussing last week's personal events with me or your group mates, nor should you be making plans for outside activities while in class/office hours/etc.

I'm not going to send them to the Dean if right before class begins they said, "Did anyone catch the Avengers this weekend?" But I do make it clear that if X says to Y - "You look really nice in that top" the classroom is not the place for that (and somehow "I like your shirt" is less creepy. How odd).

I understand it's a hard line, but I will say I'm one of the few teachers in my area that has not had to go to the Dean with a big deal about a student eventually stalking another. Likewise if a student asks any personal questions about me in private (like my office) I try my best not answer them. Even a simple "where are you from" is typically met with a "Hah, hah, we've got more important things to talk about than me! Did you bring your homework?"
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 5:04 PM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

As a social worker working with a similar population, I want to add that Rumposinc and small_ruminant have it completely- Make sure your boss/coworkers are aware of the situation and have your back. Set clear boundaries however you feel most comfortable doing so. If the second thing doesn't work, then the first thing will and you can either have them transferred to another worker or escorted out of the building. My agency has behavior guidelines in our intake paperwork and has clients sign behavior contracts if they are harassing or threatening staff in any way. If they break the contract, they no longer get services.

I personally don't see a need to create an elaborate marriage/family set up unless it will make you feel more secure. My thought is that any method of justifying why you're not going for the pickup makes it seem like an excuse- as someone said above about listing a company policy, it sounds like "Oh, we could totally hook up but I'm married/not into guys/can't break this dang work rule." Be firm and don't feel obligated to give a reason. Do whatever makes you comfortable. If, as some have suggested, making a joke diffuses the tension, follow some of the scripts above. If you feel it's too serious to make something funny of, go for the professional script about boundaries.

Sorry you have to deal with this. It sucks.
posted by shes_ajar at 6:04 PM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have had very similar issues at jobs, although your every day sounds like my worst days so you have my utmost sympathy.

Honestly, unlike clothes thing is unlikely to do much at all, assuming you always dressed professionally, which I have no doubt you did. Hell if anything there is a certain kind of man who really enjoys letting women know just what they could do to be more attractive. They think they've found a diamond in the rough to pretty up.

I still struggle with these types of issues, but I've found that limiting any sort of chit chat about my personal life helps to keep a certain barrier up. Personal questions can be answered in a vague, but polite manner:

What did you do this weekend? Oh you know just relaxed and got some errands done. The weather was so nice.

There is absolutely no personal information whatsoever included in that answer, but it's perfectly pleasant. There is also nothing that would leave the door open for further questions.

There are times when I will be more assertive about shutting down personal questions. It is a hard line to walk because some men will feel emasculated and angered by your refusal to take a compliment or answer a "perfectly innocent question." There really is not stock, professional answer you can use. People who would hit on you in the manner you are describing are by definition unconcerned about respecting professional boundaries. Most will not give a damn and will be angered at your refusal to indulge them. So you walk the line.

I always answer personal questions with vague, short answers at first. If that does not deter them I usually tell them that I don't discuss my personal life at work. If they really piss me off I tell them it's none of their business. Occaisonally I ask them why they want to know, which usually they don't have much of an answer for.

If they ask me out in a non direct manner I try to play dumb if that's possible: "you like sports? I have tickets to x game I'm trying to get rid of?""I'm not really a sports fan.". "My buddy works at this restaurant, he let's me and whoever I want drink for free, just let me know and I'll make it happen" "Ahh thats nice of him, now back to this form.."

That's really all I've got. I give absolute minimal responses to compliments and if they are anything more than, "those are nice earrings" I'll sort of stare at them like I'm confused and weirded out and then just keep talking like I hang heard them or quickly say thanks in an awkward, confused manner and get back to what we were discussing.

Good luck. I feel your pain as do many of my friends. It may be 2012, but a decent portion of the population is still stuck in the 1950s and I think it is hard for people to understand just how patronizing and degrading it is to be constantly reduced to a decorative object when you are trying hard to both be good at your job and get some respect.
posted by whoaali at 6:49 PM on June 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

When I started working as a computer programmer, I thought that my main problems were going to involve zeros and ones. Nope. Meetings. What a drag meetings are, how stupidly people behave in meetings, it was just an unreal eye-opener to me. Also dealing with people of drastically different backgrounds from mine.

It looks to me like one of your larger lessons to learn in your fine job is social interactions which you've not yet mastered.

I came in here to say "Wedding ring!" and pretty much agreed with what people were saying along those lines. But then I read Rumposinc and small_ruminant and shes_ajar and I believe that they absolutely have it. PM them, ask them to mentor you if they will, not in some huge formal "You are now My Mentor" sort of way but morelike just to keep the faith.
posted by dancestoblue at 7:03 PM on June 4, 2012

Please reconsider dressing shabbily. It is very natural to think this way but it rarely solves anything. It does perpetuate a myth, makes other womens' lives difficult and makes you feel miserable in the process.

The wedding ring idea is tempting and it will definitely keep some men away, if not all. Given the title of your post, I'd urge you to look beyond this option. I used to actually wear one for this very reason and it provided a false sense of security. And one fine day it struck me- do I have to wear this damn thing every time I go out to places where I might be bothered or such? That day I just stopped wearing it. I didn't want to hide behind a man or the impression of having a man because I believe I have a right to be treated well without one.

I strongly recommend the suggestions above to act professionally should someone ask you out and as was mentioned above it will also provide an opportunity to these young men to behave with women in a professional setting. They may not be able to behave with you but they might learn something by the time they meet another attractive woman at work. It is perfectly acceptable to not answer and stay quiet if you do not wish to engage in conversations that you find inappropriate. If the other person insists on an answer, you can tell them you will answer in front of the supervisor and would they still be interested in getting an answer? In any case, stay safe and let your supervisor know. There is absolutely no reason why you should have to put up with this at work.
posted by xm at 9:19 PM on June 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm sorry, but wearing wedding rings and being told you have yet to master coping with sexual harassment in the workplace isn't the answer, you need to bring this to the attention of your boss because I wonder if there aren't some ways to socially engineer the work space to reduce that kind of behaviour; open door, or an open area like a cubicle perhaps?

And the things of it is you do need to be bitchy and confident and let them know there are boundaries they're crossing which won't be tolerated by you; it is possible to be nice while having boundaries without sacrificing your sense of self.

and no you're not whining. Oh sooo not whining at all.
posted by squeak at 6:26 AM on June 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

thewalrus: "Wearing a fake wedding ring is not going to prevent, I estimate, 10 to 20% of men from hitting on you."

True, but it's still a 5 to 10x improvement on her current situation.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:06 AM on June 5, 2012

I'll just put in my two cents regarding the ring. I highly doubt it'll make much difference. I really feel that when this type of dynamic occurs the flirting and other inappropriate behavior is far less about any actual expectation or being able to date the women and is either a result of the man feeling uncomfortable/emasculated by the dynamic of a young attractive woman of presumably a very different social strata having the upper hand and this is a to exert dominance or the man simply does not know how to relate to a young attractive woman in any way, but by being flirtatious. Some men just really don't know how to handle themselves in a such a situation and making it mildly sexual is sort of their default. The ring will in no way override this instinct.

Case and point I had a very attractive engaged coworker who wore a large, obvious engagement ring. She was hit on incessantly even though it was widely known and she was quick to make the point she was taken. If anything the ring was was an open door for someone to ask her a personal question, which generally opened the door to more and more probing personal questions that usually ended up with lots of men criticizing her fiancé in some way (usually his perceived masculinity). This isn't to say I've never made up a boyfriend to get out of uncomfortable situations, but you aren't dealing with a coworker who really wants to be your boyfriend (or you their mistress...). This is a far more complicated dynamic where, in general, most of these men do not actually hold out a realistic hope of any sort of romantic relationship. So being "taken" is not an impediment because the flirtation/power play, whatever you want to call it, gives the person the power or the comfort level or whatever it may be that they are looking for.
posted by whoaali at 5:53 PM on June 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

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