coworker won’t stop sulking after I turned down a date

A reader writes:

I moved to my current role in late November last year. Many of the other employees have known each other for years and socialize together out of work. In principle I prefer to keep my work and personal lives separate, but I will go to lunch from time to time and to the ‘yay we met our targets’ drinks.

The problem. One of my male colleagues has taken a fancy to me and asked me out. There is no policy against dating your colleagues where I work, just not your direct supervisor/ee. However, apart from the fact that I don’t care to star in the office gossip mill (there seems to be what I would consider a LOT of over-sharing going on), I have spent enough time around him in the last five months to know that I am not at all attracted to him.

The first time he asked, I had no interest in either him or the show, so declined and told him that I preferred to keep my social life well away from work. Unfortunately, this apparently was not enough, as he asked me out again two weeks ago, proferring tickets to a concert the following weekend. This time, I told him that I was sorry if my previous statement had been ambiguous in some way, but I was really not interested in dating him and not to ask me again.

To make matters BAD rather than just a trifle awkward, it appears i) that this was a crushing blow to his ego and ii) that he told his confidants at the office what he was planning to do, in the expectation that I would be delighted with his offer. I found out this when I was asked on the Monday in a ‘nudge and wink’ fashion how I’d enjoyed the concert on the weekend. Further, one of his confidants attempted to reproach me for turning him down, to which I told her that my personal life was really not her business. However, ever since then the Unwanted Admirer has been wandering the office like a huge dark cloud, sighing and glaring, and pointedly avoiding talking to me even when I am the best person to ask a question of.

Frankly, this just convinces me that I was right not to date him and that office relationships in general should be approached with extreme caution – if he’s still behaving like this two weeks after I turned down a date, what would he have done if I had dated him and broken it off? However, we still have to work together and our mutual boss, who has been out on leave, will be back next week and will want to know WHY he is behaving like this. I realise that the action to which I feel most inclined – whacking him about the head with a file and yelling ‘PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER’ – would not help and would probably get me fired. What alternatives do you suggest?

It’s always interesting when someone’s bad behavior just serves to confirm that you made the right decision.

Also, good for you for telling him unambiguously not to continue his overtures. People often aren’t straightforward enough about this kind of thing, assume the person should read their cues, and then are upset when the person doesn’t.

Anyway, as for what to do:  I’d say to ignore his sulking, treat him completely professionally, and figure that if he wants to look like a fool, that’s up to him. (I suspect this is what you’re already doing.)

And if your boss asks you why he’s being such a douche to you, you don’t need to protect him from his own bad behavior: It’s fine to say, “It started after I turned down a social invitation from him, and I’m hoping it’ll be short-lived.”

For that matter, you don’t need to wait for your boss to ask. You could go to her yourself and give her a heads-up about what’s going on. You sound averse to drama, but remember that this isn’t your drama — it’s his.

It’s also worth mentioning that — at least if you’re in the U.S. and you work for a reasonably large company — your HR department would probably put an immediate stop to this if you told them about it. While the date requests themselves don’t sound like harassment in the legal sense, his behavior since then does raise some harassment/hostile workplace issues. (The legal concept of a “hostile workplace” isn’t just about being hostile, so simply being a jerk doesn’t qualify. However, when that hostility is linked to hitting on you, it can.) HR isn’t going to play around with this kind of thing, and it might help to have boundaries clearly spelled out for him by someone in a position of authority.

That said, it doesn’t sound like you do feel harassed, but rather like you’re just annoyed at this guy’s childish behavior, so this may not be an option you want to exercise. (By the way, be prepared for the possibility that your boss may feel obligated to involve HR if you tell her, in case it does raise potential legal issues for the company. And if that happens, again remember that it’s not your drama, it’s his.)

And as a side note, I will also add: Trust your gut too. Given how immature and egocentric this guy sounds, if you have any fear about retaliation resulting from you talking to your boss/HR, mention that to them in the same conversation. Don’t ignore your gut on this kind of thing.

What do others think?

{ 24 comments… read them below }

  1. Surya

    Completely agree with AAM here. Do not try to find excuses for other's bad behavior.

    Also good idea to give the boss a headsup, there is no telling what they are going to notice and whom they will ask first.

  2. Anonymous

    Adverse to drama is one thing, but if he ends up souring the rest of the office against her, that's going to suck. When you're at the center of the drama vortex, you need to get involved somewhat.

    It's political, but I think she should pull aside the confidant coworker (who is obviously a huge gossip-hound) and ask for help with the turned-down dude and his behavior. Say he's just not really your type (girl code for 'I do not find him attractive'), say you tried to be nice, say you already turned him down once (bet they don't know about that), and wonder about all the glaring and sulking. Ask if the dude has tried to 'punish' other girl coworkers he's asked out before like this. Ask if you should be worried for your safety, if he's someone you should watch out for. Say you're getting really worried.

    The coworker will feel complimented/into the drama, spread version 2.0 of the story around, and hopefully immature dude will get an earful about how he's freaking you out and cool it.

  3. theolderepublicke

    I agree with AAM's advice, too. I might recommend holding off for a week or two before telling the boss, but you are completely (in my opinion) in your rights to tell him/her right away.

  4. Anonymous

    The boss is probably going to sense something since this colleague of yours got his buddies (male and female) to reprimand you for turning him down. He's just not the only hostile one here.

  5. majigail

    From being on the boss end of a situation like this that when from bad to worse, your boss will appreciate hearing about this, from you, as soon as the problem starts.

  6. Charles

    Spot on advice.

    Let his behaviour speak for itself.

    P.S. I do wonder about someone's mental state who tells others his plans to ask someone out who has already turned him down.

  7. a. brown

    Seems pretty cut and dried. Heads up to the boss, and you shouldn't have to worry about it anymore. This is a form of sexual harassment.

  8. Anonymous

    Ugh, I was in almost this exact situation at my last job. I told the guy flat-out that I did not date co-workers and was not interested, so he began making crude sexual comments instead.

    I told my boss straight away and he supported me. HR, however, did not. When he had originally asked me out, our female HR director at the time noted it and spoke to him. By the time his crude comments came, she had been replaced by a male director who apparently did not understand what constitutes sexual harrassment. Only after I threatened to take it further did he sit down with this individual and put an end to it.

    Not helpful to the OP, I know! But, tell your boss right away. You will come across as the mature one who just wants to work and avoid the drama, while he is busy being petulant.

  9. japonica

    This is the OP. Boss is not yet back, but I will update when she is.
    In the meantime, I just shake my head as to what the point of all the sulking and glowering is. It makes him look a fool, as AaM said, and it certainly isn't doing anything for me.

  10. Anonymous

    I would be speaking to HR right away. Not just about this guy's behavior, but about all the others too. Admonishing someone for turning down a romantic overture is harassment, even if that person doesn't have supervisory powers.

  11. Kara

    It's actually not in the eyes of the law, which says that to meet the definition, it must be "severe and pervasive." It also says "Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality."

    This dude is still a tool though and so are his friends.

  12. Andy Lester

    I disagree entirely with "I think she should pull aside the confidant coworker." Someone like that lives for this sort of BS drama, and involving 3rd parties can do nothing besides fan the flames.

    Let his bad behavior stand for itself. Nobody who matters will be fooled.

  13. Anonymous

    I disagree wtih Anonymous May26 7:57 am. Ths issue is between you and him, and you should definately NOT involve other people in the office. Don't let his bad behavior of trying to involve others sabotage your work in the office. Otherwise you may get into trouble too.

    You told him no – not once, but twice. He is now involving others in this mess. And being admonished for not going out with him is also a problem. Both behaviors could become sex based harassment, as other women could feel intimidated by this behavior, even if you don't.

    By all means notify your boss, and tell him in a very factual way what happened. You protect yourself and the company that way.

    And please, start keeping a fact based journal of every incident. You may need it to prove a pattern of harassment. If he lets it go, great! But if he doesn't and issues continue, you will have the data needed to take it to HR.

  14. Dataceptionist

    Charles I would surmise he thought if he told people, she would hear about it and perhaps be shamed into saying yes.

    This makes him seem even more unbalanced though.

    What a weirdo. I'd report it immediately. I think if you escalated it he's realise what a freak he's being.

    Also for the "talking to the confidant" ploy, I can see how that would work, but it would be very risky. And there's no guarantee the confidant would actually tell your side accurately.

  15. Anonymous

    I would definitely NOT talk to a confidant of his. Like someone else said, if they are big drama hounds, this will not help you and will only make things worse.

    Definitely tell your boss ASAP, and also look out for your own safety. This guy sounds kind of scary, actually, and as a woman, I'd be concerned. Try not to hang around by yourself, say, after work, in parking areas, etc. Better safe than sorry.

    While his behavior may not be ILLEGAL, I definitely feel that, because it is weirding you out, and because he has involved is kooky friends, it would fall under "hostile working environment."

    I don't take kindly to men who act this way. You handled turning him down much better than I would have. ;)

    Good luck to you!

  16. Anonymous

    AAM, this response is inconsistent with your previous ones. A few letters back when someone is complaining about an abusive and bullying boss, you explain, much to everyone's disbelief, how HR can't and won't do anything about it. Yet in your response to this letter, you assure everyone that HR is quick to jump on something like this. Which one is it? There seem to be conflicting messages here, one being "go to HR because that's the proper thing to do" and the other being "HR can't help you with coworker relation problems, try to resolve it yourself or get another job." Are you implying that HR departments fundamentally take sexual harrassment more seriously than bullying issues? Or what?

  17. Ask a Manager

    Yes. Because sexual harassment is illegal, whereas bullying is generally not. And HR is there in part to keep the company from breaking personnel laws.

    But assuming that the previous post you're talking about is this one, what I wrote then was that some HR depts would be helpful in that person's situation and some wouldn't, and that it's important to pay attention to what kind of track record the HR dept in question had. I don't think that advice was given "to everyone's disbelief"; in the comments, one person of 14 commenting asked about it.

  18. Janet Wendy Spiegel

    The challenge with sexual harassment (which this borders on because of the lingering, unprofessional behavior on the part of the co-worker) is that there are fuzzy lines. This may end up falling under the definition of "hostile work environment". Another writer mentioned keeping a journal. Dates and times are important for HR involvement, and I agree. You need to give a head's up to your boss and if the behavior persists and is disruptive to you, your work performance, or how other colleagues behave toward you, you may need to reach out to HR.

  19. Japonica

    This is the OP again.

    The boss came to me in the late afternoon and asked whether I thought the Unwanted Admirer was behaving oddly towards me. I agreed that this was so.

    She asked why I thought this was. I explained that he had asked me out twice recently, had been turned down twice, and since the last occasion, on which one of his friends had tried to rebuke me for not dating him, he appeared to have gone into a sulk.

    Boss will be speaking to him, and most probably to Friend too. She did not seem surprised.

    1. Blue Dog

      Interesting that no one seems surprised. You are probably not the first one who has had the experience, just the most recent.

  20. Lani

    He asked her out twice, and stopped after he got a clear 'no'. Now he is sad and embarrassed about the rejection and doesn't want to talk to her anymore.

    Immature? Definitely. Sexual harassment? Not even a little bit.

    Why is it that whenever a female tells AaM about problems with a male colleague, there's always at least two or three people who start jumping up and down yelling sexual harassment?

  21. Elaine

    Lani, maybe not sexual harrassment, but definitely unsettling. This kind of junior high school behavior is extremely inappropriate in adults. And a bit frightening. It kind of falls into the “but he was such a nice neighbor, so quiet and polite” area. Or at least, it could. Who can tell?

    I’m glad the OP told her boss, so the boss won’t be blindsided about anything that may happen.

  22. anonymous

    Newsflash: no. most employers do not protect women against guys like this. Try it. You’ll deal with some unattractive jealous woman in HR who will simply be jealous that you’re getting attention some guy. She’ll sympathize with him and demonize you. Expect no help from female managers on this and you won’t be disappointed.

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