How do I cut off contact with my colleague?
March 13, 2019 5:12 PM   Subscribe

My colleague insulted me yet again and I'd like to cut off communication for good. How can I go about doing this?

Yesterday my male colleague insulted my appearance in front of everyone on our new work course (unprovoked I might add) because he thought it was funny (and because he's an asshole). Some of the guys laughed which just made me feel horrible. This led me to tears and I needed to excuse myself from the group twice. I am completely embarrassed about this but I was reassured by the only other girl on the course. I felt like he took my "power" from me and that I also allowed it to affect me (but it is a trigger for me anyway as I am not a good looking girl so it's not a new experience). I spoke to the HR person in attendance who asked if I wanted to speak to my colleague or if I felt he'd understood what he had done. I said I felt he'd understood.

The colleague and I started speaking as normal again but I am angry that I have forgiven him so easily or at all. He is always disrespectful and I have had to speak to a previous manager of his about him putting me down, saying things like I should be fired and just being rude. He has casually called me a bitch twice then tried reframing it positively ("I'm saying it's a good thing") but this one really hurt. I feel like I am constantly having to set boundaries with him which he then barges through. I keep just forgiving him as he starts speaking to me as if nothing happened (and yes this is a pattern from my family home where abusive behaviour was just "forgotten").

I now want to stop speaking to him. I don't want to have a conversation about what he did or anything. I essentially want to cut him off. He crossed the line and I'm sick of dealing with him. How do I do this if I have already started speaking to him as if nothing happened? He's not going to understand why I've suddenly stopped talking again.

He sits near me but we don't really need to speak for work as we do different things but he keeps talking to me. He just starts talking and starts being nice again. I want to stop being someone who just carries on as if nothing happened and who feels guilty for blocking someone out. It's like I feel bad for not talking. He gets moody if I stand up for myself. He sulks. Everything about his being is triggering and I'd rather not have to deal with him any more.

The part of myself that is triggered after a boundary has been crossed and the "red alert" signal goes off is calling out for my attention... REALLY LOUDLY. I usually ignore it. I don't want to any more.

I don't want to get our managers involved. His manager is also rude about people's appearances and I've overheard him talking negatively about mine twice, once to my colleague. I spoke to my manager (who is junior to his manager) yesterday. He is a really decent and understanding guy but I don't see what he can do. It's on me to set the boundary. How do I do this?

How do you stop talking to someone who keeps talking? One word answers then walk away? Headphones on?
posted by ihaveyourfoot to Work & Money (36 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I've found a hand held up, as in stop, is a universal sign that most people recognize. Turn your head slightly to the side, and hold up your hand. That's being a bitch all right: Being In Total Control of Herself.

Next time he insults you, even if it makes you tear up, pause and stare at him. Just stare. Especially if there are other people present. Make him stutter and apologize. Stare that mofo down.

I've seen guy behavior in the workplace, they love insulting each other and go back and forth, and then they do it to women and then it becomes a power play. Don't fall for it, it's not respectful of anyone, and if he sulks maybe you can call him a bitch (in your head).

Or maybe something like, "Bob, I gave up this 8th grade behavior when I was 13? What happened to you?"

But my favorite is talk to the hand, because the face ain't listening. You just hold up your hand and dismiss him. Begone! Loser.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:26 PM on March 13 [21 favorites]


You can't stop speaking to a co-worker in a professional way. The professional way is to go to HR and say you cannot continue being harassed by this person. It's the company's problem what to do with him and not yours. Make it in writing, list incidents with dates and who you spoke to about it. Then consult an attorney. This isn't a silent treatment situation, it's cause for a lawsuit.
posted by KMoney at 5:27 PM on March 13 [146 favorites]


The magic words for your manager and for HR are “hostile work environment”. Get it documented and protect yourself. HR isn’t necessarily on your side, but clear documentation will give you a better outcome. Don’t threaten, don’t retaliate, walk away- but this is inappropriate, and this is what managers are paid to take care of.
posted by jenkinsEar at 5:28 PM on March 13 [96 favorites]


As above, and also: document everything.
posted by turbid dahlia at 5:28 PM on March 13 [4 favorites]


First of all, your HR sucks if they witnessed the incident and asked if you wanted to speak to him. They are the ones that should have spoken to him.

Go to HR tomorrow and tell them you wish to document his harassment of you. He has called you a bitch and insulted your appearance. In the US this is sexual harassment.

Fuck this guy. If you ignore him he will escalate. Just make management super uncomfortable and make them go on the record siding with a bully over you.

This sounds like The Office level shenanigans. I'm so sorry.
posted by perdhapley at 5:28 PM on March 13 [23 favorites]


You need to get your manager involved. This person is undermining you professionally in front of your other colleagues. It’s your manager’s job to back you up and to enforce company policy so that you aren’t subjected to this treatment. If the manager won’t do it, it’s time for HR. If those steps aren’t ones you’re willing to take (like if HR won’t do anything about it) it’s time to look for a new job.
posted by Autumnheart at 5:29 PM on March 13 [6 favorites]


And it’s NOT on you to set the boundary. It’s on management to make him aware of company policy, and to bring the hammer down on him for not complying.
posted by Autumnheart at 5:31 PM on March 13 [6 favorites]


I agree with the HR advice, and involve your manager. The key words really are hostile work environment. For work conversations you do need to respond but as briefly as possible.

For casual chat situations, you can shorten it up:

He says: "good morning,"
You say "Morning!"
He says "How was your weekend?"
You say: "Great." Then you turn away and start working.
He starts commenting on something, you put on your headphones, maybe saying "I've got to get to work now."
He starts saying "so you're not talking to me?" you say nothing.
Keep saying nothing.

If he says anything like that again you look at him and say "I can't believe you said that to me. Do not speak to me like that again." And then you go document it right away, and after that go straight to HR.

None of this is your fault and he is the one who needs to change.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:33 PM on March 13 [7 favorites]


"You have treated me badly and I do not want to talk to you." Repeat the same exact phrase over and over again when he tries to get you to engage.
posted by metasarah at 5:44 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]


as a woman in a male-dominated industry (read that to mean i've been through this), know that HR is definitely not your friend, nor can they be counted on to protect you in any way that doesn't benefit the company's bottom line. really the only way i can think of to communicate to your company the seriousness of what's happening to is tell them this is contributing to a hostile work environment. do you have an employee handbook that spells out their harassment policy? if so, you can use that to force the hand of HR, and you might have to.

in my experience, HR was completely useless ("you know he was just joking, right?" was actually said to me by HR) until i pointed out that what my coworker was doing was actually illegal and violated harassment policy. this finally got their attention and they dealt with the problematic colleague.

it sucks, but you'll have to document his behavior while also setting a firm boundary with him and HR that you will not tolerate it.

good luck.
posted by hollisimo at 5:54 PM on March 13 [14 favorites]


Another reminder that HR exists to defend the company’s interests, not yours. They are best considered as a neutral-to-hostile body from your perspective. They are never your friend, unless in the case they believe that helping you is the best way to increase shareholder value or quarterly earnings or whatever flak they are paid to care about.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:07 PM on March 13 [7 favorites]


Thanks for the responses so far. I should point out that I am in the UK so i'm not sure if the legal situation is the same. Also the person from HR didn't witness the incident. Someone told them it happened (when I was absent/in the bathroom).

I feel really bad about taking this situation so seriously because for some stupid reason I feel sorry for him. It makes no logical sense,I know. He has, however, worn me down.
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 6:12 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]


in my experience, HR was completely useless ("you know he was just joking, right?" was actually said to me by HR) until i pointed out that what my coworker was doing was actually illegal and violated harassment policy. this finally got their attention and they dealt with the problematic colleague.

This. Treat this as if you're collecting documentation for a lawsuit. Every time he says something shitty to you, document it in writing in an email sent to HR and cc'ed to a personal, non-work, email address. It shows HR you're serious without you even having to file a lawsuit! You should send these documentation emails regardless of whether anyone witnessed your coworker's harassing remarks; specific, concrete documentation helps. Bonus: if you decide to actually talk to a lawyer, you'll have all the documentation you need to support a solid case against your employer.

Here's a template for your first email to HR: "On DATE in MEETING/EVENT/ETC, CO-WORKER NAME [used specific sexist language when talking about me]. [If true, add Supervisor X was present and did not intervene.] This is the Xth time this has happened. I have already spoken about it to HR PERSON'S NAME, who suggested I politely ask him to stop. With these and other sexist comments, CO-WORKER is creating a hostile work environment. HR has long been aware of this and to date has done nothing to intervene. Sincerely, YOUR NAME."

On preview, this may not fit the UK's specific harassment guidelines, but I guarantee there are sexual harassment laws re creating a safe work environment. You are not overreacting, and you should absolutely take this situation seriously. It makes plenty of logical sense to react this way, and frankly if your workplace is making you minimize this, they're part of the problem.
posted by tapir-whorf at 6:21 PM on March 13 [19 favorites]


I don't want to get our managers involved.

well, he's not going to fire himself! who else do you think can do it?

I spoke to my manager (who is junior to his manager) yesterday. He is a really decent and understanding guy but I don't see what he can do. It's on me to set the boundary.

he. should. be. fired. making him go far away is not a boundary you can set, that is an action a manager must take. if this kind of sexualized abuse is so normalized in your workplace that there is no manager willing to do that, I am very, very sorry. but you don't dig deep to find a "boundary" against sexual harassment in your soul; you find it in the LAW. and also you find it in the employee handbook of any place not in need of being burned to the ground.

you are being attacked. your choices are to defend yourself, attack back, leave, or hide. I fully understand and respect that hiding may be your only possible choice at this time. but you are only going to feel worse and worse if you dress up this awful harassment situation as some kind of mutual relationship where the language of "boundary setting" applies. he is unsocialized, super fucked up, mean and nasty, and over every possible line. being harassed does not put it "on you" to set a boundary, whatever the fuck that could possibly mean.

you have the moral right to tell him to go fuck himself, to shut his filthy mouth and not to speak to you ever again. you also have the slightly more realistic right to keep reporting him to HR in writing each and every time he does this AND never undercut yourself by agreeing with your horrible HR rep that your choices are to speak to him yourself or let it go -- that is not a reasonable choice! HR and his own manager are supposed to speak to (fire) him, not you! you may not be able to force any real action or consequences, but you don't have to give in and pretend it's OK that he did this and isn't leaving and won't stop. it is not OK and it is not ever on you to say it's OK because it feels like it's expected.

this isn't your fault and you may or may not be able to change it or get out immediately. but one thing you do not have to do is pretend you're somehow complicit by somehow having allegedly weak boundaries. come on.

I have been a middle manager, like your manager, one with no authority to get anybody fired except by talking and talking until someone above me with real power decided to agree. if your manager were the decent man you call him, he would be throwing his body in between you and this total prick. he would be making NOISE about this to everyone above him. he would be doing all he could do to ensure that if someone was going to get fired for being a "troublemaker" about a harasser, it would be him and not you.

that's what halfway decent managers do. if you think he's not doing that because he doesn't know the full extent of the situation, let him know already.
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:27 PM on March 13 [25 favorites]


Another reminder that HR exists to defend the company’s interests, not yours.

While true, that doesn't make them against you. Having a legitimate and credible complaint of harassment IS a threat to the company's interests. You're not asking them to do anything for you, you're giving them the opportunity to do something before the EEOC has to investigate. They will often decide that dealing with the person's behavior is the easier path to protecting the company. (Often you have to bring it up enough and ask for status enough that they realize "do nothing and hope it goes away" is not going to work)
posted by ctmf at 6:32 PM on March 13 [10 favorites]


You feel bad for him, but he doesn't feel bad for you, you know? He only feels bad for himself when you ignore him.

You have rights in the UK. Hopefully someone can point you in the right direction.
posted by perdhapley at 6:33 PM on March 13 [5 favorites]


Also, I agree that you cannot give a co-worker the silent treatment on your own, with no explanation to managers. You will look like the problem person who can't work professionally with others. You have to ask for their help, and report every instance of bad behavior.
posted by ctmf at 6:34 PM on March 13 [4 favorites]


" for some stupid reason I feel sorry for him"

That means you're a decent human being.

He's not up to that level so have at him with both barrels.
posted by notsnot at 7:00 PM on March 13 [3 favorites]


[One deleted; please bear in mind the poster is in the UK.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 7:33 PM on March 13


"I'm just joking" is asshole for "I'm not sorry"....use a sfw euphemism there.
posted by brujita at 7:57 PM on March 13 [4 favorites]


you also have the slightly more realistic right to keep reporting him to HR in writing each and every time he does this AND never undercut yourself by agreeing with your horrible HR rep that your choices are to speak to him yourself or let it go -- that is not a reasonable choice!

Also! Also it's always alright to go back to HR tomorrow, having already nodded your head and agreed that this responsibility is yours to bear today, and say "On further reflection, I realize I agreed to something that is not my responsibility." It's always, always fine to return to a conversation that happened in the past, especially the recent past, with an "On further reflection..." or "I've thought about our conversation the other day, and..."

Finally, here's a great negotiating strategy to use as often as you can: silence. What I mean is, don't feel like you need to explain yourself, or justify your reaction, or apologize for your feelings. If you're starting to do that, just be silent. In Western culture, we're so afraid of silence that we often seek to fill it in unproductive ways to mitigate our or others' discomfort. Don't do that. Don't try to solve others' discomfort. If you're not sure what to say, say hmm, or I'll have to think about it. You don't owe anyone anything in this situation, and you certainly don't owe HR comfort of any sort. This should be an alarmingly awkward situation for them, not in the least because they're opening themselves up to a lot of legal liability. It's not your job to threaten them with that liability, but it is your job to document (and if you document these situations with their knowledge, it'll provide useful leverage and implication without your having to state anything besides specific facts, e.g. "Co-worker said X sexually harassing thing to me yesterday morning at approximately 10:30AM.").

Good luck, and persevere, and don't be afraid to quit and collect unemployment benefits if it's at all possible for you to do so.
posted by tapir-whorf at 9:47 PM on March 13 [6 favorites]


He sits near me but we don't really need to speak for work as we do different things but he keeps talking to me.

Others have given great advice. To drown out the chatty nearby co-worker headphones can be a great help.
posted by bendy at 9:51 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]


Yes, this repeated undermining of you in front of your colleagues using gendered insults is against the law in the UK as harrassment based on your sex.

Don't worry that HR didn't observe it themselves, it sounds like it was even witnessed by a 3rd party who reported it to them - you can tell them that on reflection, as it has happened before, you'd like them to deal with it.

There's a government guide here to your rights and steps to take to ensure it stops. Good luck
posted by JonB at 11:54 PM on March 13 [5 favorites]


Also, I agree that you cannot give a co-worker the silent treatment on your own, with no explanation to managers. You will look like the problem person who can't work professionally with others.

Ooh, also you need to report these to a) take away their "I didn't know" excuse for inaction, and b) make any action against you such as "doesn't work well with others" remarks in your evaluations, reassignment, etc., too obvious retaliation. Doing it on your own might make them tempted to remove the wrong half of the problem.
posted by ctmf at 12:04 AM on March 14 [2 favorites]


I honk the main difference between the US and the UK with stuff like this is that it is harder to fire someone because you always have to go through due process or risk a tribunal. Harder does not mean impossible and the approaches suggested with HR are still the right ways to go about getting this to stop.
posted by plonkee at 12:13 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]


Thank you. I am keeping a record of what he has done. HR actually contacted me today to ask if I wanted to talk about it and I've emailed back asking them to speak to him. They are not aware of the other incidents. I will alert them to the fact that it's not a one off.

I can't stress enough how guilty I feel. It's like i'm betraying him. I think he believes we're "good". He continues to talk to me as if nothing happened. I'm giving one word answers but feeling like a fraud. I don't want to be two faced. I want to just not speak to him.

Thanks again for your responses.
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 5:17 AM on March 14


I'd bet a heck of a lot of money that he doesn't actually think you're "good." He's trying to pretend that nothing happened in order to gaslight you. And if/when he gets called out, he's going to double down because, again, gaslighting. HE KNOWS he's wrong. HE KNOWS. He's not a child. He's banking on the fact that you feel guilty and he's hoping that you'll be the nice one and not talk to HR because HE KNOWS what he's done is wrong and illegal and possibly a firing offense. He's going to keep harassing you - and make no mistake, what he's doing IS harassment! - unless and until someone who has the power to fire him makes him stop. And he'll rant and rave and say it's your fault because even though HE KNOWS it's his fault, he will never, ever want to admit that to anyone.

Unless he grows up and realizes his mistakes and becomes a decent person, that is. I wouldn't hold your breath. He called you a bitch. Never mind that he did that in front of other people in the fucking workplace. HE CALLED YOU A BITCH.

Do not waste any more of your beautiful, worthy self on feelings of guilt and sorrow for this man. He made his choices and now he should have to deal with the consequences.
posted by cooker girl at 5:44 AM on March 14 [22 favorites]


You are absolutely not betraying him. HE has been an utter asshole to you, not just with this one comment but repeatedly.

You are doing him a favour, actually. The favour of realising that shitty actions? Have consequences. Most of us learn this in kindergarten, but this sorry excuse for a human being apparently didn't, but hey, better late than never.

You are not being two faced. You have the right to be upset and hurt. He is so self-involved that a) he doesn't seem to realise he's been behaving like an A-grade wanker, to use the British term, but also b) he doesn't seem to be capable of getting the clue that's currently in ten-foot neon letters that he fucked up, and bad. Don't feel bad about having brushed it off in the moment; as women, we're socialised from birth to let things go, to agree that it's a joke, to shove our legitimate hurt and anger in a box just so men's fragile egos can continue their existence unfettered by such things as realising that no, that was not fucking funny or appropriate.

I'm sorry you're going through this, and remember: HR wouldn't be saying a damned thing to him if he hadn't opened his fool mouth in the first place. You have done absolutely nothing wrong.
posted by Tamanna at 5:47 AM on March 14 [3 favorites]


He is counting on you feeling like this. Serial harassers know that the people they are trying to victimize are generally equipped with human compassion. The way you feel is normal.

However, by taking the hard steps to protect yourself you will also be protecting other colleagues from his behavior. You are being brave and your feelings are all very valid.
posted by hilaryjade at 5:48 AM on March 14 [5 favorites]


On preview... I take the comment about him not realising back. He's not a clueless wanker, he's an abusive, gaslighting one who is preying on your kindness and empathy to try and continue harassing you.

A trick I have found useful when dealing with jerks is: imagine they did whatever it is to your very best friend in the whole world. Would you be telling her to forgive and forget? Saying that she was betraying him? Or justifying his behaviour? No, you'd be telling her to burn the mofo down. I'm telling you: BURN THE MOFO DOWN. And like hilaryjade said, protect all the people this asshole will target next if he's allowed to get off scot free.

Nobody made him say any of the things he said, let alone all of them. That they're coming back to bite him in the ass is well-deserved in the extreme.
posted by Tamanna at 5:57 AM on March 14 [6 favorites]


I feel really bad about taking this situation so seriously because for some stupid reason I feel sorry for him.

Dutch resistance during World War II had these women who would ask Nazis out, take them to the woods for a "stroll", and shoot them. Here is a quote from one of those women:

I've shot a gun myself and I've seen them fall. And what is inside us at such a moment? You want to help them get up.

Your feelings are not a reflection of what's decent or fair or serious. You just have basic human empathy. Nuke the bastard from orbit and don't think twice about it.
posted by rada at 6:33 AM on March 14 [12 favorites]


Oh good grief, you don't owe him anything, including small talk. Just dispassionately refuse. Not because you're mad or hurt or have personal feelings about it, just because you're there to work and aren't interested in chatter with him.

If he loses his shit over this and starts trying to provoke you, be a confused robot who doesn't understand what he's going on about or why he's upset. "You asked me how I was and I said fine. And then I said I was busy and couldn't chat. What's the issue again? ??????????"
posted by desuetude at 10:40 AM on March 14 [2 favorites]


"Get your mad up." That's what my mother used to say if we were upset by something mean someone had said. You have a right to your anger, and a right to use it.
They have no right to speak to you like that: get mad, get fired-up as if this were your beautiful child being tormented by a bully. This guy is a bully. Do everything you can to stop him, and if at all possible, get out of that company. It sounds toxic.
posted by Enid Lareg at 12:53 PM on March 14 [5 favorites]


I can't stress enough how guilty I feel. It's like i'm betraying him. I think he believes we're "good". He continues to talk to me as if nothing happened. I'm giving one word answers but feeling like a fraud. I don't want to be two faced. I want to just not speak to him.

You shared that you grew up in an abusive family so I just wanted to let you know...that feeling of betrayal also comes from your old family code. Your old family code was "you as an individual are less important than maintaining the fiction that abusing people is okay/forgettable/insignificant."

It has no place in a workplace,* which is where people trade their time and skills for money. Part of trading time and skills for money is maintaining an environment where people are free to give their best effort to their jobs. And people can't do that if they are being demeaned and harrassed. Also, it's f-ing illegal.

* Also should not have had any place in a family.
posted by warriorqueen at 1:22 PM on March 14 [2 favorites]


I spoke to the HR person in attendance who asked if I wanted to speak to my colleague or if I felt he'd understood what he had done. I said I felt he'd understood.

I don't know UK law at all. But in the US, talking directly to the person is generally considered an essential step. You usually need to show that you have made a reasonable effort to clear up understanding and communicate your boundaries in a direct way.

You are being harassed; this is not in your mind. The way I would handle this is to (a) document as many incidents as you can remember, including people who witnessed them; (b) request a meeting with him, your manager, and his manager, and possibly HR; (c) in the meeting, describe as objectively as possible the situation, the problem behavior, and your response; (d) say that the behavior is creating a hostile work environment for you and you want to talk about how these incidents will be handled going forward.

Document that entire meeting too and any follow-ups.

Don't feel sorry for him. Feel sorry for all the people he's going to do this to alongside and after you. Nobody deserves this and he needs to be contained.

Yes, experiences with HR can be very mixed. But not doing anything is also a recipe for misery. The only way to really find out whether HR can be of assistance is to follow the procedures and make every effort to resolve it. The difficult part for you is that it sounds like the work culture is already very hostile, and that HR has not previously addressed it and it is not seen as a problem. In that situation, people like yourselves end up forging new ground, and that can make you a lightning rod for a lot of anger about having to change. It's a tough call, and some people calculate it's worth it and some don't. I would err on the side of "worth it" because others are likely to experience the same things you are experiencing in this workplace and you have a chance here to make progress against it.

I also wonder about organizing with other people in the workplace who feel the culture is negative and combining observations and supporting one another.

You might want to explore your resources for free or low-cost legal services (or paid if you can invest in it) and talk to them before doing anything.
posted by Miko at 5:59 AM on March 15 [1 favorite]


I can't stress enough how guilty I feel. It's like i'm betraying him. I think he believes we're "good". He continues to talk to me as if nothing happened.

This feeling is because you have been abused. This is basically a classic symptom of abuse in the abused. It's OK that you are feeling this way, and you need to honor what you are feeling, but also understand that you are feeling it because of they cycle of abuse, and this feeling you have allows the abuser to perpetuate their horrible cycle. You are wasting your empathy on your abuser.

I'd strongly encourage you to look into therapy for what you've had put on you. Your employer should be paying for this at a bare minimum. A lawyer will probably have to help you make sure that happens. I know this sounds like a lot and it's scary and a place you never wanted to go and ITS ENTIRELY NOT YOUR FAULT IN THE FIRST PLACE, and it just sucks. And I'm sorry for that. But it is OK to not be OK, and it can help to talk to someone who can help you get life back on track.

And yeah, you don't owe that guy anything more than swift justice. Fuck 'em.
posted by allkindsoftime at 5:21 PM on March 18 [1 favorite]


« Older Governments with different weights of...   |   Scream science Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments