My shoulders are up here
December 15, 2013 7:41 PM   Subscribe

My manager put his hands on me in a way that felt strangely intimate. Should I be concerned, or am I reading too much into this?

My manager is male, I'm female. This took place at work with other people around. We were both standing and my manager was behind me. He wanted me to move up a bit. Instead of asking me to step closer, or touching my shoulder or back to prompt me to move, he held my upper arm with one hand and and my waist with the other hand, and walked me forward a few steps. It wasn’t like a quick nudge or shove. He had a firm but gentle grip on me that felt strangely intimate in a work setting.

He is not a touchy feely person at all. Since we shook hands at my job interview, there has been zero physical contact, no high fives, no pats on the shoulder, nothing. In the past he has gone out of his way to avoid situations where an accidental touch could happen, which is why I don't know what to make of this.

It's not that I disliked it, and I would have been comfortable telling him to cut it out if it bothered me. It's just that I don't know how to read it, and it's making me nervous about how I should interact with him now. Lately we’ve been spending more time together and I started to feel a different sort of vibe between us. I can’t really explain it as much more than a gut feeling. I do think he’s attractive but for personal and professional reasons that are obvious to both of us, there’s no going down that route.

My questions: Am I right to think that this was not a normal way for someone to touch a colleague? Or more specifically, for a superior to touch their employee? Could it be a sign that he has more than just platonic feelings? If so, what do I do? Or am I reading too much into it?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (44 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
That sounds like someone who has some ballroom dancing experience to me. Since you said everything else is on the up and up, I think you might be over thinking it.
posted by frecklefaerie at 7:45 PM on December 15, 2013 [24 favorites]

I work in a setting where if you say one thing that is taken the wrong way it can lead to disaster, and I feel bad for people who accidently do or say something that is politically incorrect.

I don't think you can judge based on one incident. Who knows what was going through his mind. He may have been thinking of something important and just acted out of instinct.

I say forget it for now unless it happens again.

Also, when you start to develop feelings as you mention here "a different sort of vibe" it's easy to 'feel' things differently than how they were intended if that makes sense.

Wait it out, see what happens next.
posted by Youremyworld at 7:48 PM on December 15, 2013 [7 favorites]

Disagree. In this day and time, there is NO manager alive who is unaware that any touching is a big no-no. Be aware of potential future issues and if it happens again, you need to take some type of action.
posted by raisingsand at 7:49 PM on December 15, 2013 [6 favorites]

My first reading was that the move could stem from something more like mild condescension than anything else, guiding you firmly like you're his kid or something, which isn't not sexist but also isn't him making a pass at you. I wouldn't worry about this instance of it but anything further raises a bigger question.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 7:52 PM on December 15, 2013 [9 favorites]

As a first response, I would do my best to assume that this was an anomaly. Maybe he's got a blind friend or a disabled mother that he's taking care of, and the leading step comes automatically to him, and he went back to his office after he did this and quietly banged his head on his desk because he was on autopilot (if so, he should have apologized). Assume he just slipped up, and see whether his continued office behavior supports your impression that he's not creepy, generally very professional, not likely to touch you normally, etc.

It is not, realistically speaking, possible to forget that he did that. It is not, socially speaking, reasonable to go to him and say, "you know that thing you did the other day? remember? don't do that." It's much more realistic to now be the alert deer with your head up waiting for the next sign of trouble, so that if you see anything unusual, you'll be able to say "that thing you're doing right now - don't."
posted by aimedwander at 7:54 PM on December 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

Honestly sounds like a dance move to me, as weird as it sounds. If he was distracted and used to Guiding/leading his dance partner or as aimedwander suggested a person with movement difficulties, or heck maybe he was just in a hurry back and out the way like that like that he may have just done it instinctively. I bring it up, because it's a weird way to move someone even if he was a dirty perv trying to cop a feel. I'd be alert but not alarmed and wait and see if his future behaviour.
posted by wwax at 7:56 PM on December 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

Since you say that you weren't actually uncomfortable and that you would have been totally OK with telling him to stop if you had been uncomfortable, I say give him a pass this time.

However, from the HR perspective: touching your subordinates is bad. Very unwise. Something to avoid. The kind of thing we teach managers and supervisors to never ever ever ever ever do. The kind of thing that is about one tenth of an inch from either a violence in the workplace investigation or a sexual harassment complaint (or, if we're having a very bad day indeed, both at the same time.)

My employer doesn't have a written "never touch anyone" policy, but we're pretty close to that state in practical terms. I don't even want coworkers who have no position of authority issues to touch one another. Very few people in my workplace touch anyone at all except for handshakes - and the ones who make a habit of that sort of touching are, tellingly, the ones who show poor judgment in a lot of other ways too.
posted by SMPA at 8:00 PM on December 15, 2013 [10 favorites]

I have had some paternalistic male employers do this, because they had a condescending attitude toward women *and may not realize it*. They would just reach out and steer women. They tended to be tall, older men. I'm not sure they intended anything sexual - they just had this attitude that they should be able to move women around if they were in their way...kind of like a pat on the head or something.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 8:00 PM on December 15, 2013 [25 favorites]

Little tough without context. Office holiday photo? He might have just gone into a herding mode, like when a photographer will kind of shove you around clinically to get you positioned.
posted by ftm at 8:02 PM on December 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, you should never assume that the reasons something is a bad idea are "obvious" to the other person, absent some actual evidence. That comes in the form of knowing that you've all had to attend the training and sign the acknowledgment form, typically, at least in the workplace. So if you keep getting weird feelings about something (from anyone, in any context,) you're probably going to need to become a bit more assertive about whatever boundaries you might have previously thought were stone-dead obvious.

You would not believe the things that you find out some people don't know, working in HR. I'm no longer confident that everyone knows you're supposed to wear clothing every single day that you're at work.
posted by SMPA at 8:04 PM on December 15, 2013 [7 favorites]

You are correct: it's a highly inappropriate way for a superior to interact with a subordinate, or any colleague, really. It's weird and controlling. "Here, let me move you where I want you to go." Ick.

If it happens again, verbalize that it's not OK.
posted by nacho fries at 8:04 PM on December 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

You can beanplate this all day, but my inclination, without having a conversation with the gentleman, would be to view it as a one-off event with no ill intent. If it happens again, then it's time to have a word with someone about it.
posted by HuronBob at 8:05 PM on December 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

a reasonable manager knows that he is absolutely, positively not allowed to do this in a modern american workplace. if he comes up from behind and does it again, do something for which you can blame your unconscious reflexes with plausible deniability.
posted by bruce at 8:08 PM on December 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would go with patronising weird superior.
posted by heyjude at 8:27 PM on December 15, 2013

"Maybe he's got a blind friend or a disabled mother that he's taking care of"

I don't want to pretend to be the authority but it's my understanding that most blind people would appreciate being offered a hand in guidance, and not having their upper arm grabbed as that can throw them off balance.

My vote here is also in the 'patronizing superior' camp.
posted by komara at 8:34 PM on December 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

I came in here expecting to issue an all-caps warning that of course this sort of thing is not OK, sexual harassment, power differentials, HR, etc etc etc.

But what you actually describe is definitely a grey area. It's the sort of thing I would hate, but "I hate being touched" isn't really the same thing as sexual harassment, and it's really not clear cut.

I once had a supervisor who was really touchy and would do things like massage my shoulders or touch inoffensive body parts that are not usually touched by people who don't know each other well (but not erogenous zones). Because I got on very well with this person and loved my job, I stayed mum about it and just tried to discourage it through body language and broadcasting my clear distaste at being touched in general.

That said, if it continues despite socially acceptable cues from you that you don't like it, I wouldn't hesitate to escalate to verbally saying, "Please don't do that, it makes me feel uncomfortable," and potentially above his head/to HR if he still won't stop.
posted by Sara C. at 8:53 PM on December 15, 2013

If you're looking for a clear but non-confrontational response to have ready if it happens again, you could twitch or stiffen, and gasp or say "Oh!". Then hopefully he apologizes for startling you, and you tell him it's not his fault that you startle easily when touched, and he takes the hint that you don't want to be touched.

In my completely unprofessional opinion, it does sound like a dance thing. On a dance floor, I have moved people around like that and would do so again. I'd probably use a few fingertips on each shoulder, but the waist doesn't seem unreasonable.
posted by d. z. wang at 9:06 PM on December 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

He wanted me to move up a bit.

Why did he want you move up a bit, what was the situation?

If he had more than platonic feelings, then what would you like to do about that?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:13 PM on December 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

it's inappropriate because he touched your waist. I'm willing to bet if you were male he never would have touched your waist, and probably wouldn't have physically moved you from one place to another to begin with. I can think of workplace situations in which one person might give another a pat or a tap on the shoulder, or touch another person's arm, but anything below that is just awkward and uncool.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 9:52 PM on December 15, 2013 [20 favorites]

OP, there is absolutely no reason why he couldn't have used his words and asked you to move up. I would go to HR.
posted by brujita at 9:52 PM on December 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Going to HR over this sounds way out of proportion to what seems to have happened and you could very easily sink yourself politically by making a deal about it. Assume its a one-off awkward accident and drop it. If it happens again then ask him to stop.
The whole 'no touching' ever might be popular in large business and organizations but in small business it definitely isn't a universal thing.
If you like or need your job, watch your step on how you deal with this.
posted by HMSSM at 10:08 PM on December 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

Since other people were there, was it a loud or distracting environment? Maybe you didn't hear him say something to you.
posted by michaelh at 10:13 PM on December 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

I also thought it sounded like a dance move. So yeah, formal but intimate just by the nature of the move.

I don't know how to read it, tho.
posted by jbenben at 10:24 PM on December 15, 2013

We could speculate all day long about what his motives might have been. We could get endlessly creative. We could conjure up scenarios about having the poor hapless man put in jail for having a complex partial seizure or for coming from a microculture where this kind of thing is considered normal. We could argue that we ourselves would consider it a compliment to be treated this way and/or that we would have given the guy an elbow strike or reacted some other way.

Nothing we could dream up would change the reality of the situation, which is that it is a breach of professional and social etiquette to touch other people unnecessarily, and to move them around as if they were objects.

The respectful way for him to get you to move would have been to say "excuse me" or "anonymous, please move forward a few steps".

If he does it again, you can say loudly "Please take your hands away" and/or "Please don't move me around like that."

If he says "Oh, come on, [your objection is not legitimate]," repeat "I don't want you to put your hands on me or move me around." If he says "well, what on earth are my alternatives? How else could I possibly get you to move?" you can say "You can just ask me to move."

If he keeps doing it after you have asked him not to do it, you have a variety of options, including going to HR.
posted by tel3path at 10:36 PM on December 15, 2013 [6 favorites]

Different culture alert, but that would be utterly normal here in the UK where my manager is very touchy feely and my old manager hugged employees as a matter of course.

Doesn't mean there aren't people that are uncomfortable with it, but even a colleague who strongly objects to my manager touching her touches me to get me out of the way, get my attention or demonstrate something someone else was doing.

(I find it pretty weird that casual, short-duration, non-sexual touching is strange in some places, but that's cultures for you!)
posted by kadia_a at 11:01 PM on December 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm in the camp that dictates to treat this as an one-off/slip-up. If it happens again, approach your boss about it, or go to HR.

Mistakes happen, we're all human. Like a few has suggested upthread, it's possible your boss could have had a slip-up from working with someone who needed help moving around, or he had spoken to you prior to the situation, but due to noise, wasn't heard. I say, let it go this time, but if it happens again, do something.
posted by dubious_dude at 11:04 PM on December 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have worked at tons of places where this would not be weird at all, nor considered politically dangerous nor harassing. A lot of this depends on the culture of your workplace or your line of business. That doesn't mean you have to like it and you should totally tell him to cut it out if he does it again, but considering that it's a one off...shrug. Sometimes people are weird without it being part of a more problematic pathology. I'd wait and see if anything weird happens again. Flag it and move on, in other words.

As far as the "what if it's not platonic? What do I do?" part of your question: don't borrow trouble. Go about your business and be professional. Trying to read into this the way you would the minute actions of a dude you have a crush on will not get you anywhere productive, you know?
posted by Countess Sandwich at 11:21 PM on December 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

From the OP:
Thanks for everyone's thoughts on this. There are a few things I could clarify. We were gathered in a colleague's office with several other people for a conference call. We were near the back of the room behind some people and he wanted to prod me closer to the speakerphone, so maybe he was just trying to be quiet.

He is definitely not a dancer, and would sooner run screaming from a ballroom than dance in it. He talks about his family often, and all family members are able-bodied and have their sight. I agree that it's more likely he was "herding" me like a parent might herd a child, than trying to cop a feel.

I feel a little bad having asked this question because my manager is truly a kind person with a big heart. He's consistently been a helpful, supportive manager, and we have a very good working relationship and personal relationship, so I'm dismayed that I might have portrayed him in a bad light. I think he'd be mortified if someone in the room saw it and thought him controlling or condescending.

"If he had more than platonic feelings, then what would you like to do about that?" - Nothing, try to forget about it? Acknowledging feelings would probably result in a terrible mess, hence my anxiety. If anything more were to happen, I would just wish for things to go back to the way they were before. I love my job and my team, and I don't want to report to someone else. I guess I'm wondering if there's a way I can maintain the same level of camaraderie with him without giving the wrong signals. It seems like most of the advice is it's probably nothing and one incident is not a cause for worry, which makes me feel much better about the situation. If it happens again I'll ask him to stop and if he won't stop (which I honestly doubt) I'll go to HR.
posted by taz (staff) at 11:24 PM on December 15, 2013

Normally sensible people can do weird awkward stuff sometimes. I had a not-super-close friend hurt herself once while I was standing there and then in the moment I was... hugging someone who I would not ordinarily have dreamed of hugging and it wasn't wrong but it was awkward afterwards. Brain caught up after the fact. Not that single incidents never matter if you're really made uncomfortable by them, but if you're just questioning then look to see if there's a pattern. No pattern? Don't sweat it.
posted by Sequence at 12:00 AM on December 16, 2013 [4 favorites]

Since I've had kids, I'm much more likely to touch people than I was. This is the UK, which has much less of a culture of 'touching is wrong' than the US (I know it's more complicated than that). When you have kids, you get used to gently moving them around to where you want them, because kids can be pretty clueless about not getting in the way. If you're somewhat younger than your boss, maybe this is a subconscious factor.

Propelling someone forward by a hand at shoulder and waist sounds like a pretty efficient way of moving someone wholesale, rather than ending up just shoving their upper body forwards. However, doing this in a situation where there are power and gender factors, as well as cultural ones, shows a little bit of tone-deafness.

But I'd agree that this is nothing to hold against someone. Intent (or lack of it) is important. The fact that your boss may have behaved towards you as he would to a child doesn't necessarily imply that that's how he sees your relationship in any other context. The overall pattern of his behaviour (which sounds pretty great) is the important stuff.
posted by pipeski at 1:43 AM on December 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Report it to HR just as you've written it here. If you want, ask that they not identify you and/or that they don't speak with your manager, but have a record of this on your file. Document it yourself. And say something if it happens again. This was clearly unwelcome and even though borderline, that's not an excuse to ignore it.
posted by xiaolongbao at 4:03 AM on December 16, 2013

This was clearly unwelcome...

xiaolongbao: OP says it did not bother her. She writes, It's not that I disliked it, and I would have been comfortable telling him to cut it out if it bothered me. This does not seem worth going to HR over. (And I say that as someone who strongly dislikes being touched by most people. I would have been quite uncomfortable with being touched like this, and even I would have done the "wait and see" approach others are recommending.)
posted by schroedingersgirl at 4:36 AM on December 16, 2013

If he does it again, you can say loudly "Please take your hands away" and/or "Please don't move me around like that."

If he says "Oh, come on, [your objection is not legitimate]," repeat "I don't want you to put your hands on me or move me around." If he says "well, what on earth are my alternatives? How else could I possibly get you to move?" you can say "You can just ask me to move."

This sounds good in theory but in practice I would find this incredibly difficult especially with someone I generally like and respect and want to have an easy rapport with.

I think I would be tempted to go more with something like vocal but warm surprise, 'Oh, what, whoah, are we dancing now?' Something quick in the moment that lets him know that his action was startling and jarring AND that you're willing to respond to it vocally, clearly, and audibly to others. If he keeps doing it after that, then yeah, I think it's appropriate to step up. 'Hey, can we NOT do that dancing thing? Just tell me if you need me to move, or tap me on the shoulder if you need my attention.' After that, yeah, HR all the way, absolutely.

How long ago was your interview, and how long have you been there? Sometimes creeps take their time coming out of the woodwork, gives them some more plausible deniability, makes it harder for you to confront the behavior, etc. If you've been there for less than two years, I wouldn't assume he's 100% above board just because he's been good until now.
posted by Salamandrous at 5:25 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Reading your question, it sounds like you are worried that he may have more recently developed non platonic feelings because you two have been spending more time together. This makes sense to me, it could well be what's going on here, especially if you are picking up other vibes more recently as you say.

I think others here give good advice about speaking up about it next time in a light way so he knows you want him to stop but doesn't get offended. Something like the "hey are we dancing now?" Etc. Good luck, sorry you have to worry about this!
posted by onlyconnect at 5:40 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

As a man, I just wanted to jump in to share what I've learned about things like this:

A man touching a woman in a work setting is inappropriate. Period.

A superior putting his hands on a younger, subordinate, woman's waist is more inappropriate for several reasons.

And if such touching makes you feel uncomfortable, trust your instinct. It's your body, your boundaries. No question about it.
posted by kdern at 5:41 AM on December 16, 2013 [6 favorites]

The OP seems to be saying it did not bother her, she didn't dislike it, and she would have felt totally comfortable saying something if she did. I feel kind of obligated to take her at her word rather than assume he's up to anything inappropriate simply because from an HR perspective, this wasn't very smart of him (which I agree with). HR saying "don't touch employees" to avoid investigations and lawsuits doesn't actually mean that casual contact with employees is always motivated by creeper-ness, and the fact that he should know better pragmatically doesn't mean he was, like, grabbing for some grody reason.

So me, this isn't "What do I do about my handsy boss?" This is "This attractive man may or may not have done something more personal than I expected and it made me feel slightly Moved; does it mean anything?" I doubt it. I think the notion that he would normally have asked you to move forward but was trying not to disturb the conference call is exactly right, and I think because you think he's attractive, it felt a little bit zingy to you in a kind of meaningless but notable way, but I think that's all it is. Sometimes there are zingy things in the world. I wouldn't overthink it. Obviously if anything ever happens that you don't want him to do, that's a very different question.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 5:59 AM on December 16, 2013 [7 favorites]

based on your descriptions it sounds like the only objective your boss had was to rearrange things so he could be a better participant in the conference call. it would have been kind of awkward for him to speak up so he did it silently with some physical clues. it also sounds like your boss is comfortable enough with you that he didn't think of the possibility of repercussions. as it didn't bother you then i'd not fret about it or try to make it anything more out of it then traffic management.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 6:13 AM on December 16, 2013 [9 favorites]

I'm also an "I hate being touched" person, but this doesn't sound like a big deal, and as others have mentioned is probably just a one-off, given his behavior up until now. If it happens again, I would say something similar to how onyconnect suggested, but it doesn't seem like anything untoward was happening.
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper at 6:21 AM on December 16, 2013

some men move women around like this. i like it when my husband does it. i tolerate it when my father does it. i get white hot rage-y when any other man does it. i don't think you can glean from this that he has feelings for you, but if i were you, i might pique my ears up for other gendered ways he treats me or those around me.
posted by nadawi at 6:43 AM on December 16, 2013 [4 favorites]

Given that he needed to move relatively quickly to participate in the call how he needed to, but couldn't speak and risk disrupting the call, and couldn't efficiently gesture to you because he was positioned behind you, it sounds to me like he picked the best option, which was to gently shove you out of the way. I don't think there's any subtext to it, and that he would have made essentially the same gesture (though maybe brushing you to the side rather than pushing you forward) if you were a man. I definitely don't think it's something to go to HR about.

It sounds to me like you're crushing on him a little, and that's what's giving you the vibe when you're working one-on-one and why you're having "what does it mean?!" feelings about this. That's totally normal/natural/no big deal, just make sure to keep the crush in check and let it blow over, and definitely don't act on it in any way.

For context, I'm female, late twenties, and hate being touched.
posted by rue72 at 7:45 AM on December 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

Once, I had to take a phone call from a Very Important Client at another woman's desk. (This was normal, we were supposed to never let these calls go to voice mail, everyone else was at lunch, etc). What I did next though was anything but normal - the client was firing off all these things at me, I got flustered because there was no pen, so I grabbed this woman's purse, opened it and started looking for a pen (just as she came back from lunch, to our mutual horror). I still don't know what came over me but I do know there was no ill intent. So I say if there are no priors, I wouldn't read too much into it. For all you know, your boss is just as confused as you are - or worse, mortified and scared of HR.
posted by rada at 9:05 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Eh, there were other ways he could've silently signaled to you to move in a bit without disrupting the conference call. So while there was most likely no ill-intent, it's still patronizing and disrespectful. Would he put his hand on the waist of a male superior and walk him forward like a puppet? Hell no. Methinks he's probably getting overly-familiar with you as a colleague. Just keep an eye on it, and if it crops up, re-assert professional boundaries.

You say it didn't bother you, which on one level is cool, but I would also suggest that it's important to make yourself be taken seriously as a woman in the workplace, and to nip this type of dynamic in the bud to show that you are someone to be respected.
posted by nacho fries at 10:52 AM on December 16, 2013 [6 favorites]

raisingsand: "Disagree. In this day and time, there is NO manager alive who is unaware that any touching is a big no-no. Be aware of potential future issues and if it happens again, you need to take some type of action."

I'm not sure you're disagreeing, except on his perceptions. The people before you basically said, "Don't do anything yet, but be observant from now on." So did you, with the caveat that you don't think it could have been "accidental".
posted by IAmBroom at 2:50 PM on December 16, 2013

It sounds like you are feeling a little uncomfortable because you are sensing that there is something there. You are feeling a little chemistry, a little frisson, and this was a physical manifestation of that.

Yes, this might be because you two get along well and have good rapport and find each other mutually attractive, and he has become comfortable enough to break the touch barrier.

Breaking the touch barrier with a new person is a big deal. It's a close friendship or a romantic relationship - not something coworkers do (unless you are friends with them). It's ok that you found it a bit unsettling.

If you don't want to end up in a workplace romance (even a workplace flirtation), I'd pull back a little. Avoid spending time one on one, avoid inside jokes and sustained eye contact. Don't stand near him, etc.

This happens - it's not a big deal. Just take steps early to shut it down a little.
posted by amaire at 1:52 PM on December 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

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