male coworker won’t stop staring at me

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A reader writes:

I have a coworker (a man) who stares at me (a woman) from across the room in office meetings, regardless of where we’re sitting in the room. Sometimes, he even turns around to look at me (for instance, acting like he is tying his shoe but then staring at me while turned). I read your advice about dealing with staring, but it seemed to assume that the employee could address the coworker in the minute it was happening. During an office meeting, I can’t. Apart from ignoring his stares and limiting my contact with him to what is necessary for work, is there anything I can do to get him to stop? I would prefer not to make a complaint to management; I just want him to stop.

Go up to him right after the meeting ends and say something like, “I noticed you kept looking at me in the meeting. What’s up?”  He’ll probably deny it, at which point you can remain matter of fact and say something like, “Yep. You kept looking at me. It made me uncomfortable, actually.”

The point here is not that you expect him to have a constructive answer, but to put him on notice that you’re going to call him out on doing it, which makes it fairly likely that he might stop.

But if he doesn’t, then you need to decide whether you’re willing to ignore it or whether you want to talk to your manager.

I would not talk to your manager about it if your vibe is that he’s just socially awkward and maybe doesn’t even realize he’s doing it — that’s the kind of thing that doesn’t rise to the manager intervention level and is just annoying. But if you’re getting a sexual harassment-y, creepy vibe, I do think you should talk to your manager.

If that’s the case, I’d say something like this: “Hey, I feel weird bringing this up, but it’s making me uncomfortable enough that I feel like I should talk to you. Bob is doing this aggressive staring thing with me in meetings, even going out of his way to turn his head and stare at me, and it feels creepy, frankly. If it seemed like basic social awkwardness, I’d let it go, but that’s not what it feels like. I’ve asked him directly to stop, and he hasn’t, and I’m at a loss about what to do from here.”

I know you wrote that you don’t want to have to talk to your management about this, but if telling him to knock it off doesn’t work, it’s really the only remaining option if you want to get him to stop. And if it’s a sexual harassment-y kind of thing, it really is appropriate to speak up and you shouldn’t feel weird about that.

{ 86 comments… read them below or add one }

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Ha, that was the exact thing that I struggled with the whole time I was writing this answer. What I decided was that yes, if a man was feeling creeped out by a woman doing this to him, and he felt it had a harassment-y vibe to it, I do think he should follow this advice. That said, realistically, I think that he’d be a lot less likely to take this advice, for social reasons that are outside of my control. (A man also might get a very different response when reporting this than a woman would, also for reasons outside my control, so I think my advice to him would need to address how to deal with that as well.)

      And the truth is, it does feel more aggressive to me because it’s a man. I’ll admit up-front that I probably can’t defend that, but I do feel that way, and I think a lot of people would agree with that take on it.

      Reply
      1. Scott M

        I think your opinion is defensible (about it feeling more ‘agressive’). Men are more likely to be in positions of power in the office. Men are more likely to be psychically stronger. Women are many times the minority gender in the workplace, and often the majority of anything has more power. So there is a good reason for feeling that the act of staring might be considered “more aggressive” when its a man staring at a woman. That doesn’t mean it is actually intended to be aggressive, just that the perception is understandable.

        Reply
        1. Elizabeth West

          Men are more likely to be psychically stronger.

          Huh?

          There are plenty of aggressive women out there who come off just as strong, and are fully capable of creeping a man out. I am not sure what that even means.

          Reply
          1. Jamie

            I think he typoed “physically.” Scott – correct me if I’m wrong.

            And personally I think there is something to how women are conditioned to be alert to the danger some men pose due to warnings from an early age – and how men generally are physically stronger and can over power us. We’re conditioned to be wary of them, when they are showing aggression, in a way most of them are never taught to fear us.

            It’s been posted here before – ask a mixed group “what steps did you take today so you wouldn’t be raped?” and women will have answers for you, from deliberately parking in a well lit part of the lot to discouraging conversation with the strange man at the gas station.

            Men rarely have an answer to that – it doesn’t seem to be part of their consciousness.

            Reply
            1. Scott M

              Yes, I meant to say “physically” stronger. Firefox spelling correction accidentally ‘helped’ me on that mistake.

              Reply
              1. Elizabeth West

                Ah okay. LOL that makes more sense!

                Yes, men are typically physically stronger than women (not always and that doesn’t necessarily mean they have the advantage). But because they can hold us down or drag us around, yeah, we’re going to be more wary of you than you are of us.

                Reply
      2. Joey

        No, men shouldn’t follow the same advice. They’d look full of themselves and a bit of an egomaniac to be honest. I don’t see anything wrong with giving genders different advice on this subject because as you point out, most women will perceive this to be more aggressive when a man does it, merely because of stereotypes.

        But, I think your approach is the perfect way for a woman to handle it.

        Reply
        1. A Bug!

          I don’t know, I think it could be approached in a way that doesn’t come off that aggressively, but you’re right, in that it would still boil down to being different advice depending on the genders involved.

          “Was there something on my face during that meeting?” “What? Why are you asking me?” “It just seemed like you were looking my way a lot, I thought maybe I had ink on my cheek or something.”

          Same effect – it tells the other person that yes, you’ve noticed, and no, you’re not going to just ignore it – but it’s much less accusatory in tone and the self-deprecating aspect softens the message in case the other person wasn’t staring consciously.

          Reply
        2. skylark

          So if the woman sees him as ‘egomaniacal’ and ‘full of himself’, she would no doubt want to retialiate by cutting his ego and sense of self down to whatever size she feels appropriate. How then must he safeguard against these reduction measures and retain his stauture in the workplace in responding to her unwanted attention?

          Reply
          1. Michelle

            It’s not really “cutting” someone’s “ego” to politely let them know their behaviour is making you uncomfortable and ask them to stop.

            Reply
          2. fposte

            I don’t think I really followed that. But if a man has a concern about a colleague’s creepy behavior and politely asks her to stop, only to be subjected to further harassment, then he needs to go to HR.

            Reply
            1. skylark

              HR cannot restore your reputation after a kamikaze attack. Yes, I’ll admit that in one case I was way too polite in my approach, not telling her directly and in no uncertain terms that I was not interested. In any event, she soon got the message which she found unacceptable. Her response? We had a meeting of prominent visitors who asked us to introduce ourselves. She immediately volunteered to go first, highlighting her Oxford degree etc etc. At the end of her introduction she turned to me and I paraphrase: you went to what school again and studied what exactly? I for one wouldn’t dream of doing what you do here if I were in your shoes. What exactly qualifies you to do what you do?
              Anyway, I calmly introduced myself and laid out my qualifications to the visitors without any sign of anger or irritation.
              Afterwards, two co-workers who attended the meeting came to me and revealed that she had told them that she would ‘show me up.’
              All gloves were off then and I gave her an epic bullocking in full earshot of everyone, including the boss who said to me after, “What took you so long?”Well the answer was that I just thought the interest would soon blow over as it does in most cases…except this one.

              Reply
              1. Anonymous

                Just because you had a crazy co-worker who was of the opposite sex doesn’t mean you need to project that onto every other work situation that involves two people of opposite sexes. That’s weird and irrational, plus your situation doesn’t parallel this one in any way. If you wanted to share your story, you could’ve done so without trying to ensnare Allison in some sort of “Gotcha!” trick by asking her about the situation being reversed sex-wise.

                Reply
                1. skylark

                  Ensnaring Allison in some ‘gotcha’ as you claim was not my intention and I’m sure she doesn’t see it that way. As far as this alleged imposition, I’m likewise certain Allison inferred from my initial question to her answer that I believed the answered might differ depending on gender. Lastly, my story was not prompted at all by what she said, but rather it was in response to a poster’s suggestion that HR could resolve the problem.

                  In any event, I will respond as I see fit. Your bully tactics are what’s out of order.

                2. fposte

                  I’m actually not clear on what your story has to do with going to HR, though. I’m not saying that’s the only thing anybody could ever do in any situation, and your story is pretty different from the OP’s. Anyway, it sounds like, as Cindy notes, your colleague made a total public ass of herself with her behavior, so she hurt herself more than anybody else could have hurt her.

                3. Ask a Manager Post author

                  Hey now. I don’t see any bullying going on here and I understood where Anonymous was coming from — your comments taken together did sound a bit like you had an agenda re: gender dynamics in these situations to push here; apologies if that’s wrong.

                4. skylark

                  The first word of the thread is ‘male’ so for me gender is implicated and rightfully so. Am I wrong? And I’m sure if the ‘me’ were also male the advice would’ve been different. Right or wrong? In any event, feel free to let my story drop. It’s a non-issue now anyway.

              2. CindyB

                You’re colleague’s outburst to the visitors said far more about her than it did about you. If I’d been one of the visitors I’d have thought “wow – that was really unnecessary and inappropriate – how unpleasant.”

                Reply
              3. ARS

                Reading your posts, skylark, I’m intrigued by your focus on reputation. Reputation is based on your actions over a period of time. Your example demonstrates that. She had an Oxford degree but was obviously nutty balls. Her degree didn’t help her reputation at all and the colleagues you were meeting wouldn’t know anything about her reputation or yours based on only knowing where you went to school.

                Reply
          3. Joey

            I’d use one of the less confrontational approaches below. I always suggest playing dumb when you want to prevent the other person from being embarrassed or putting up a wall.

            Reply
  1. fposte

    Depending on the meeting, there are ways you can acknowledge on the spot, too. A calm but slightly puzzled “What are you looking at, Bob? Is there something in my teeth?” or even the kind of slightly manic wave and grin you’d give to somebody zoning out at you could fit into some meetings. What I like about doing something is it takes away from his “nobody knows I’m doing this” Sekrit Power if he is creeping, and if he’s not, it alerts him without being rude that he’s presenting strangely. (If you go to HR, though, what they say to do trumps this–you don’t want to make the mistake of looking like you’re causing trouble from behind HR’s protective shield.)

    Reply
    1. Jamie

      This is what I’d do – kinda wave or make the “huh?” face clearly wondering if I had something in my teeth (as you said) or had smudged ink on my face or something.

      Because while this could be totally creepy – this could also be someone kinda nearsighted who either isn’t wearing glasses or needs them adjusted. In meetings I am consciously aware of this for myself and make sure I am looking at a fixed point which can’t be misconstrued for someone thinking I’m looking AT them when they are all just blurs to me.

      And no one has ever accused me of this – it’s just something I’m aware of since I recognize that look on other people when it feels like they are staring at me and I know they aren’t really “seeing” me. If that makes sense.

      But yeah, if he’s being creepy this puts him on notice to knock it off.

      Reply
    2. Scott M

      That’s a great idea. I might suggest also “Did you have a question for me? You seemed to be staring in my direction.”

      It’s possible that he doesn’t know he is doing this. I know I tend to stare off into space when lost in thought, and with my short attention span it happens a lot. I can see that it might happen when I look in someone’s direction, then I don’t look away when I get that ‘thousand yard stare’. If he’s doing it ALL the time there might be something else going on. But I also know that just being ‘stared’ at a few times could be unsettling enough that the OP might be exaggerating in her own mind how often it really happens.

      But definitely call him on it, gently at first, as many times as possible. It will bring it to others attention also.

      Reply
      1. fposte

        If meetings are frequent, the OP might experiment with sitting in different relationships to him to see if he really does single her out and follow her around the room or if it mostly happens when she’s right across from him.

        Come to think of it, sitting where he’ll really have to turn his head to keep staring at her might be a good plan in general–it’ll look weird for him to look to the side all the time, and if you sit farther back from the table along the same side, it’ll be genuinely uncomfortable for him keep the head-pivot up.

        Reply
        1. jmkenrick

          I got the impression she had done this, mostly because in the letter she mentioned that he would sometimes turn around to look at her.

          Reply
          1. fposte

            Oh, I wasn’t thinking of that as being during meetings, but I bet you’re right. Oh, well, it was wishful thinking.

            Reply
      1. A Bug!

        Or start wearing a fake mole for a few weeks. Then once there’s been enough time for everybody to get used to it, every time the other person’s not looking, subtly move it around on your face, like Prince John in Men in Tights.

        Then when the other person mentions your travelling mole, you can say “I have a mole???!!!”

        Reply
  2. Michelle

    This behaviour seems like a much less extreme but similar version of how sexual harassment often happens in public- like people deliberately pressing against someone’s body or giving them borderline inappropriate comments. The person acting inappropriately is enjoying the discomfort of someone else, and also relying on that person’s discomfort/embarrassment to avoid being called on it.

    Either this guy genuinely isn’t aware of his staring, in which case calling him on it will probably make him realise and stop, or he’s doing it to make the OP uncomfortable and is expecting she won’t say anything about it- either way bringing it up with him directly is a good action.

    Reply
  3. De Minimis

    These last few days have been icky…..it’s pretty sad when the least ick-inducing question involves someone peeing all over the place!

    Reply
  4. Anonicorn

    I would be so tempted to make a ridiculous face at him ( Google “ermahgerd” for an example) every time I noticed the staring.

    Reply
    1. Mints

      Haha! That’s really really funny. But I would only do this if it was a friend who seemed spaced out

      The letter gives me more heebie jeebies. Especially this bit Sometimes, he even turns around to look at me (for instance, acting like he is tying his shoe but then staring at me while turned).
      The fact that he’s turning around to store gives it another weirdness

      Reply
  5. SJ

    I don’t have advice, just a funny anecdote. I moved to a new place in the office; I hadn’t been at the job for very long and then got moved amongst unknown coworkers. I got positioned across from a guy who seemed a little strange – but mostly in the socially awkward, geeky way. So one day I noticed that, again, he seemed to be looking right at me, unwaveringly. I said (with seductive inflection and bedroom eyes), “Enjoying the view?” He started laughing, and with mock offense, I said, “Why is that idea funny?!”

    He said, “Because I know no matter how I answer I can’t win.” Then he explained he was just zoning out and hadn’t actually been staring at me. I just got lucky, though the REALLY bothersome coworker is on the other, equidistant side of me.

    Reply
  6. badger_doc

    What about staring right back at him? If you can keep a straight face and have a pretty good glare, would you recommend giving him a dose of his own medicine? See who blinks/looks away first?

    Reply
    1. M-C

      Not really a good idea, as if he -is- a creep he would just use this as proof that she really is secretly, madly in love with him..

      Reply
  7. Lanya

    When I was in college, I had a long break between my afternoon classes, so every day I would go the library and sit at the same computer desk and work on projects. I noticed after a while that there was another student who would sit several desks away and stare at me. He looked socially awkward but harmless, so I chose to just ignore it. This went on for several weeks until one day I happened to look over at him staring me and noticed that he was clearly “making rapid hand movements under the desk”. I was disgusted and looked away at first, but then I got angry and I fully turned my chair around, and stared him down. He turned bright red, stopped what he was doing, got up, and walked away. I never encountered him again on campus. I was so embarrassed about it that I did not report him, however, looking back at the situation I absolutely 100% should have reported the behavior to someone on campus. I regret that decision now. But long story short, I hope the OP knows she’s not alone in having been uncomfortably stared at. Really gross.

    Reply
  8. Lily in NYC

    Ugh, I had this problem but we were both women. She was way too interested in my appearance (not in a romantic way, she is one of those women that just do not like women younger than she is. I really have never met a more bitter person. She flipped out when I got promoted and told everyone it was only because of my figure). We had an editorial meeting every morning, and when I would walk in she would look me up and down and then just sit and glare at me for a few minutes. Finally, after a few months, I got fed up and just started mouthing “what?” at her every time she was staring. She stopped after a few times. It was much easier than having an awkward conversation.

    Reply
    1. fposte

      And there’s one answer to the “what if the starer isn’t male” question. I particularly like the “What?” mouthing.

      Reply
      1. Brooke

        I like it too…mainly because this is what I do when I notice someone staring at me when in a situation where I can’t verbally ask them what they are looking at.

        Reply
    1. Anonymous

      Thread’s over everyone. This is clearly the only thing you should do when someone’s behavior is making you uncomfortable.

      Reply
      1. Jamie

        Just because someone somewhere is in ICU doesn’t mean you still don’t want a cure for your headache.

        Everything is relative.

        Reply
        1. A Bug!

          Eric’s comment is invalid because if he has time to judge other people for complaining in the face of “real” problems, then he has time to go out there and do something that will actually help address those problems.

          Reply
      2. Anonymouse

        “First world problems” is, by now, irritatingly trite and almost invariably uttered by a young white male of the first world who feels oppressed by having to be considerate of the feelings of women. You may be the exception to this, but I kinda doubt it.

        Reply
    2. Peg

      Ignoring this creepy guy at work who stares at me seductively does not make him stop. He tries harder to get my attention.
      A woman at work took it upon herself to tell him his staring makes me uncomfortable. That sucks too. I wanted to gently ask him to stop! He acts creepy/scary.

      Reply
  9. Steve G

    Uh oh I always stare at people because 1) I’m trying to guess their age, and 2) trying to guess their nationality(ies). I never thought of it as harmful or think they notice me staring!

    Reply
    1. A Bug!

      But now that you do know, you’ll try to make more of an effort not to do that sort of thing, right?

      We all have these “oops” moments where we inadvertently don’t consider how our behavior might be coming across to others. It’s always a bit of a red-faced moment when we realize it retroactively, and that red-faced moment is your confirmation that you’re an ok dude.

      The jerks and creeps are people who choose not to care (or worse, get indignant when someone points it out).

      Reply
    2. Jamie

      Ha! I’m sorry, as much as that would bug me irl I think that’s one of the most awesome and endearing confessions I’ve ever heard.

      Reply
      1. A Bug!

        I used to be super-stubborn about not wearing my glasses, when I really did need them.

        So for the longest time, I’d squint at people, trying to figure out if I knew them or not. I’d usually figure it out and stop staring before the person got close enough for me to discern the weirded-out looks on people’s faces.

        (And when I finally figured it out? Well, then I developed a habit of not looking at anybody’s faces unless I was being addressed, whether I had my glasses on or not, which still persists to this day and ends up offending people I do know because they think I’m ignoring them! Oooooops.)

        Reply
      2. Steve G

        OK I’ll stop. But now when I meet new people I’ll give them a card to fill out where age and nationality is required, so I don’t have to ask:-)

        Reply
          1. jesicka309

            It’s much easier to remember someone new if you can store some information away about them. Quite often, I’ll be discussing a party with a friend, and she’ll say “Did you meet Cindy? The brunette wearing red.”
            And I’ll be like hmmmmmm, heaps of people were wearing red… “About 20 something, Spanish looking?” “Yes, that’s her.”
            It’s a recall thing.

            Reply
  10. Lsmith

    It can easily turn into really inappropriate staring- I had a VP who I caught constantly staring at me in a definitely sexual way and he didn’t care if other people saw him staring. And he was married, with his wife working in the same office. Really gross. Thankfully it stopped after a few months (should have reported to HR a long time before then), but I was forever uncomfortable around him. He had far more power than I did there, and since it was such a small workplace, I’m not sure HR would have actually been on my side. Not a good situation.

    Reply
  11. Greg

    When I was a kid, we had someone come into school to speak to us about child predators (this was when people were focused on strangers who drive up and offer you candy rather than the creepy, over-friendly gym teacher). I always remember the speaker telling us that in those situations, the best thing to do was make a lot of noise. Child predators, he said, were likely to be cowards; that’s why they were picking on children in the first place. If you made a commotion, they’d likely get scared and run away.

    I think the analogous advice applies here. Staring is the very definition of “passive-aggressive”. It’s possible he doesn’t realize he’s doing it, but it’s more likely that he’s convinced himself that *you* don’t realize it. My guess is that if you call him out, he will slink away embarrassed.

    Reply
  12. SJ

    Actually, I did think of some advice. I would go silent until he looked at me to see why I’d stopped talking, and then I’d start again. I’d do it every time his gaze settled on my chest, until he got the message.

    Reply
    1. A Bug!

      It sounds to me like this is happening when someone else has the floor. The writer said that she’s not in a position to address it while it’s happening.

      Reply
      1. SJ

        Augh, you’re right. I was just reading an old Carolyn Hax chat that happened to address this very issue, but it was a one-on-one situation. I confused the details, my bad.

        Reply
        1. A Bug!

          Your advice is definitely appropriate for one-on-one gaze-wandering! It’s kind of amazing how many people don’t even realize they’re doing it. It’s not always sexual, either – I’ve had it from straight women, and I’ve been guilty of it once myself, oops!

          (Dear full-busted barista, I am very sorry and I desperately hope you didn’t notice. I didn’t mean to ogle your boobs, but your bra fit really well and I wanted to ask you where you shopped for it. Signed, A Bug!)

          Reply
          1. SJ

            Thanks! Yeah, it is mystifying to me too, especially in egregious instances, like if a guy stares the ENTIRE time at a woman’s chest. What does he think is happening?

            Reply
            1. Anonymous

              As a woman, I have no idea. If I am eight inches shorter than the person with whom I am having a conversation, a direct line of sight should not lead to my chest. And yes, it’s obvious :)

              Reply
          2. Elizabeth West

            I’ve done it, when I was trying to read someone’s shirt, or figure out how it was made. It’s embarrassing–although it’s a little easier to cover it up when it’s a shirt-reading thing.

            Reply
          3. Jen in RO

            I’m a straight woman and I look at other women’s boobs. Because sometimes they have really, really nice boobs and I wish mine were like that too!

            (It’s annoying when it’s a friend/coworker talking to me one on one and I need to keep telling myself to look at her face. I have sympathy for men when that happens.)

            Reply
    2. TL

      I’ve found snapping my fingers and saying “eyes up” to be particularly effect.
      Though I’ve never tried this in the workplace.

      Reply
    3. Anonymous

      If the starer were in range for side conversation, I’d say “Yes?” in a polite, helpful tone of voice–as though I’d been tapped on the shoulder or waved at–every time I caught him staring. That would let him know that he’s being noticed without immediately escalating things. Even when someone else has the floor, it’s OK to ask a brief question in most situations, so the OP could just “pretend” that’s what’s going on.

      Reply
  13. Katie the Fed

    I tend to err on the side of “this guy is probably just socially awkward” because I work with a lot of social idiots. Social idiots need to be handled a little more gently, like Allison pointed out. For creeps you can take off the kid gloves and use them to slap.

    Reply
  14. Schnauz

    This is a great topic for the socially awkward. I have a manager who stares at me in meetings if I sit across from him. I think he’s trying to look engaged and I might also be the only team member making consistent eye contact, but it’s annoying. So, now I just make sure I sit to either side of him.

    If he was acting as oddly as the Op’s situation though, then I would definitely pull him aside after the meeting to find out what’s up.

    Reply
  15. Sadya

    OP could discretely ask a friend/coworker during the meeting or maybe at any other time, to observe the starer. Maybe with a coworker to confirm the creepy staring behavior, OP could notify her boss and HR.

    Reply
  16. Dennis

    I like the direct approach. If it bothers you confront him…if not ignore it. I’m a little mystified that someone can take staring and transform it into sexual harrassment. What?

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Staring isn’t sexual harassment on its own (in the legal sense — it doesn’t meet that bar), but it can certainly “feel harassment-y” — the phrase I used in the post. Meaning that it can feel like the person is doing it in a creepy and unwelcome way.

      Reply
  17. Tiff

    Couldn’t get through all the comments, but as for the staring guy…

    1st time – small smile and wave

    2nd time – inquisitive raised eyebrows – need something?

    3rd time – the patented Hard Stare. Stare him down and make him break eye contact first.

    Reply

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