my rude and intrusive coworker makes me feel horrible

A reader writes:

I have a question about how to deal with a coworker. Some background info: I’m a 25-year-old woman, outgoing, and I’m well liked around the office and have been there for 18 months. She’s a 64-year-old woman and some people around the office don’t like her much as a person (good worker though), and she’s been with the company for 12+ years. We sit beside each other at work.

Our work rarely overlaps, so there’s no work-based issue here. It’s her personal comments. Today, I had a piece of pie with my lunch. When she saw it, she said, “If you don’t watch it, you’re gonna get fat.” This is not the first time something like this has been said. Last week, a coworker complimented me on a presentation I made to his team and she said, “She (me) probably didn’t know what she was talking about or understand the topic.” A few months ago, she said to me, “Your boobs hang out of your shirts like the girls on The Bachelor.” (My colleagues and HR contact assured me this is not the case.) When she apologized, she said, “I’m sorry I said that, but it’s kind of true.” This has been going on for about the last 12 months. I get about 3-4 comments like these a week.

My question is: how do I deal with this coworker? I’m pretty friendly, so I joke things off. For example, to the “you’re gonna get fat” comment, I said, “Good thing I’m a marathon runner and run a lot!” I love the company and my work, but she has started to make work miserable for me. I don’t want to complain or take the low road and return the nasty comments, but it’s really getting to me, to the point where I have been in tears by the time I get home.

Any advice would be great. My self-esteem has been beaten up and I’m upset I let myself be bothered by her, but it’s constant negativity directed at me.

This woman sounds like a horrible relative who you’d have to put up with for the sake of family harmony — how awful that she’s shown up in your office, sitting right next to you.

Fortunately, because she’s not a relative, you have more leeway in dealing with her. (I actually believe you have a lot of leeway in dealing with this type of relative too, but that tends to be more complicated and fraught for people.)

In any case, by trying to laugh things off, you’ve probably signaled to her that she can continue saying things like this without consequence, so even though this isn’t your preferred way of dealing with it, you’re going to need to be more direct if you want these comments to stop.

For instance: “Please do not comment on my body again.” Or, “Please don’t comment on what I eat.” You might be tempted to smile or laugh when you say this in order to soften it, but don’t. You need to convey to her that you’re serious. If she tells you you’re overreacting or need to lighten up, you simply repeat it: “Please don’t comment on my body (or what I eat) again.”

The next time she makes a rude comment about your work like the one she made about your presentation: “Wow. That was unwarranted.” Again, no smile. Say it and turn back to your work.

Also, keep in mind that these comments aren’t about you. They’re about her. Even if your work was bad and your boobs were hanging out of your shirt, who says things like this? Normal, socially appropriate people do not — or at least they don’t go about it like this. So you can be confident that every time she makes one of these comments, she’s revealing something about herself, not you. If you can come to really see that that’s true, you can actually start genuinely feeling sorry for her — because she’s probably unhappy and almost certainly doesn’t have much quality of life. Alternately, you can also start seeing her as a source of amusement — what’s rude, curmudgeonly Jane going to say today?

I know it would be better to find a way to silence her altogether, but since you can’t do that, the best thing to do is to change the way you respond to her externally (no more joking signals to her that you’ll put up with these comments) and internally (no more letting a semi-crazy woman have so much power over your peace of mind).

And one last thing: Can you ask to change where you sit? Seriously. If that’s an option, there’s no shame in taking it. You don’t need to make a big thing about it with details about why you don’t like sitting by your coworker; just say to your manager, “I noticed the desk over there is open. Would it be possible for me to move over there?” If your manager asks why, you can just say, “Jane is pretty talkative, and I’d love to be able to better focus.”

But otherwise, I’m afraid this one comes down to being willing to assertively set boundaries, tell her when what she’s said is Not Okay, and make sure that you don’t let a boorish loon control how you feel about yourself.

Read updates to this letter here and here.

{ 308 comments… read them below }

  1. Zahra*

    I cannot stress enough the importance of wearing your “serious face” when you ask her to stop it already. As women, we’re often socialized to make all requests with a smile instead of asserting ourselves. People sometimes (heck, often) consider the non-verbal message more than the verbal one. So, even if it feels artificial at first, look serious and non-joking when you tell her to knock it off. It will feel more natural after a point and may actually benefit you in other areas of your life as people will take you more seriously.

    1. JamieG*

      Also, try not to make it a question. If you’re not used to asserting yourself it can be hard to say “Please don’t do X” rather than “Hey, would you mind not doing X?”, but really, you’re not asking her. Not having your day constantly interrupted with rude comments about your body/work/food is a perfectly reasonable boundary to enforce, not a favor you’re asking.

      1. Jamie*

        I read that advice in a parenting book a million years ago and I’ve applied that to everything since.

        I don’t pose anything as a question unless the other person actually has options. Do you mind doing X for me? is fine if they can opt to say no. It’s disingenuous if X is non-negotiable.

        1. Marmite*

          Yes! I apply this to my child and just about everyone else, too! I think a lot of the time “Can you…?” is such an ingrained way of speaking for some people that they don’t realise they’re not actually asking a question.

          1. Cassie*

            I tend to write a lot of email requests like this, though – e.g., “can you book the meeting room?”. I don’t like it because I really mean “please book the meeting room”. But I think it sounds like I’m ordering the person to do something and there are some people that take great offense to that kind of email.

            What are my options? Sometimes I go with the “we would like to book the meeting room” but I would really like to just go with the brief/directed request. (I’m specifically talking about emails to internal people; I’m willing to be more polite and use “can you…?” type requests for external people.

            1. Jessa*

              “Please book the meeting room for x day y time. If this is not available please let me know asap. Thank you.”

              That’s really all you have to say, “please” works a lot. Thanks helps.

            2. Ellie H.*

              I think “Can you” and “We would like to” are perfectly fine for this kind of business communication; it’s clear what you mean, it’s expressed politely. Most importantly, it doesn’t involve the kind of difficult and oppositional interpersonal relations like those in the OP’s problem, so there is not a special need to be as unambiguous as possible. I don’t like passive language in general, but to me, this kind of politely expressed request is an acceptable way to communicate with reasonable people in accordance with professional conventions.

              1. Helen*

                As a Senior Executive Assistant, I can assure you that the, “please book the meeting room,” is perfectly fine. We know this is part of our duties and do not take any offense to being ‘told’ by our boss to do something. ‘Please’ and ‘Thank-you’ go a LONG way and will keep you a very happy assistant for years to come.

                However, if it is a co-worker (or someone on your same ‘tier’) it is customary to be a little more polite to ‘ask’. In our company, the access to the conference room calendars are limited to a few people and even though one of those is a very good friend, I always say, “would you please book the conference room for me on x day at x time?” Just imagine how you would feel if someone on your same ‘level’ came up to you and ‘told’ you something rudely without a ‘please’ or ‘thank-you?’ When in doubt, the “Golden Rule” is always the best.

        2. Lynn*

          I do actually make this mistake with my kids sometimes. “Will you please put your shoes in the shoe rack?” “No thank you, I am playing Candyland right now.” Well, shame on me for phrasing it as a question when it wasn’t one.

          1. Jessa*

            Although, that’s not an unreasonable response from your kid it it’s polite and not something that’s really time critical (like “turn the stove off the pasta is boiling over.”) The follow up is “Okay, but when the game is done, get it done.” And then consequences if they forget. That teaches them negotiation, time management, and the fact that they are sometimes allowed to say “no,” or “later,” to an adult without being in trouble if they’re polite about it.

          2. VictoriaHR*

            I catch myself a lot – “can you put your shoes on please?” “No.” “Let me rephrase – put your shoes on please.” (grumble and compliance)

            In the OP’s situation, I would probably figure out a phrase that can be said with no smile, as Alison said, and that it would be noticed that I was repeating the same phrase over and over. Probably something like. “Hmm. Thanks for the feedback.” But I like Alison’s advice also.

        3. Joey*

          On the other hand it can also be incredibly effective to say “can you do me a favor?” then pause for an answer. Most people will say “sure, what do you need?” Or “yeah, what’s up?” Since they’ve already committed to doing the favor they have a harder time saying no.

          1. Jamie*

            Ha – my response to “can you do me a favor?” is ALWAYS “I don’t know – what do you need?”

            I would not fall into your verbal trap…which I admit is very good! Crafty, but very good.

            1. JamieG*

              My answer is “It depends on what the favor is.” I don’t want to get tricked into picking someone up at the airport at 5 AM.

                1. AdAgencyChick*

                  Nor AdAgencyChick. I am onto this trick and will NEVER answer that question with anything but, “Tell me what the favor is and I’ll tell you whether I can do it.”

                2. Jessa*

                  This exactly. It doesn’t take a long time of being taken advantage of before “what is it?” before you do it.

          2. Carmen*

            Or, when you ask “Can you do me a favour?” you’ll get a response more like “Well, that depends on what the favour is .”

            They might have a harder time saying no, but they’ll resent you for it.

          3. Malissa*

            Unless the person was like me. When asked if I can do someone a favor, with no details, the answer is always no. Ask me if I can do X, you have a better shot at getting the answer you want.

            1. RLS*

              Same here. Growing up, my sister would always beat around the bush asking for favors. First, she’d find out if I was available: “What are you doing Friday after school?” Then, she’d try to wheedle me out of it: “Ohh, a study group – are you sure you guys don’t want to meet Saturday morning at the library?”

              Five questions later and I am thoroughly annoyed before she finally asks if she could borrow my stereo. It was ALWAYS like this and anyone who ever tries to pull that stuff on me almost immediately gets (nicely) stonewalled.

              I just straight-up ask people. If you acknowledge from the get-go anything regarding the persons’ circumstances (“I know it’s a bit out of your way”) or offer some kind of return (“I’ll buy you coffee/some gas!”) and just get to the point…it works much better. I tell others to just ask me directly what they want instead of trying to manipulate me…because I know when I’m getting manipulated and at the point all bets are completely off.

              1. Kelly L.*

                Yeah, I start with “What do you need?” in a bright friendly tone. Without committing myself to anything. I hate verbal traps.

          4. the gold digger*

            “Can I ask you something?”

            That’s how cons and panhandlers start.

            The proper answer is always, “No,” and that’s only if you’re willing to talk.

          5. Melissa*

            I had a boss years ago that would ask, “Can you do me a favor?” I always answered, “No, but I’m happy to do my job; what do you need?” Sounds snotty, but it drove me up the wall when he asked that question.

            1. louise*

              + a bajillion.

              I can’t put my finger on what I despise about the phrase “a favor.” At work, I know I hate it because of exactly what you said: it’s my job. I’m ready and willing to perform a number of tasks, not grant little gifts all day.

              But outside of work, why does the phrase incite such rage in me? I can’t decide if I think people who use that wording are trying to butter me up, or trying to sneak something on me, or just trying to appeal to my nicer side. Whatever it is, I wish the phrase would disappear.

              1. Jessa*

                “Favour” is a loaded word. We’re enculturated to believe that you don’t turn down “favours,” that good people do them for other people.

                It’s a sneaky (and it may not be DELIBERATELY sneaky, they may not know better,) tactic to get you to do something that you might not want to do.

                Now in some cases this is reasonable – sick friend asks “can you do me a favour,” they know they’re going to put you out but there’s mitigating circumstances, they’re in bed ill.

              2. College Career Counselor*

                I think you’ve answered your question with the next-to-last sentence. Those words, to me, demonstrate that you’re responding that way because you feel as if you’re being manipulated (ie, being set up to be the bad guy if you say “no”). And if you’re like me, you HATE that!

              3. Tiff*

                I ask people for favors all the time at work. Usually the favor is not the task itself, but the time it would take to do it at that moment. Is asking for a favor absolutely necessary? No. But I have to pester people a lot on my job (without being their manager) and I take every chance I can get to make my necessary questions and intrusions as pain-free as possible.

                And sometimes, I actually do just need a favor. Especially the infamous, “Can I use your department code to make these purchases since our department is over budget?” Can’t ask for money from someone I just barge in on all the time.

                1. louise*

                  If you’re in the habit of saying “favor”, this will feel counter-intuitive, but I promise if you change your wording, people will actually feel less pestered. Wording it that way draws attention to the fact that what’re you’re asking is inconvenient. Try just making your request without labeling it a favor or giving it any kind of introduction and anyone you work with who feels like me will quit dreading you.

            2. btdubbs*

              The question that always drives me nuts at work is “are you busy?” when someone interrupts you to ask for a favor. It feels like a trap! There’s no way I’m going to respond with a “No, just goofing off waiting for you to ask for help” (though that would be amusing). I usually go with a, “Yes, but what do you need?”

              If you’re worried you’re interrupting, just ask if now is a good time!

              1. Jamie*

                This is one of my mini-pet peeves – I forget it annoys me till it happens and then it’s like, “oh yeah…I hate that.”

                I sometimes dream of the kind of jobs where you aren’t busy unless someone needs something…but in my world someone needs something all the freaking time so yeah, I’m busy…let me know what you need and I’ll either make it a priority (Computer is on fire! Alex Van Halen is in the lobby asking for you! X is broken and production is bottlenecked!) or I’ll let you know an estimated time I’ll get to it. (My printer is and so and so has a new one and it’s faster? Use his. Can you show me how to save these files to a flash drive for an offsite next week? Sure, or ask any 8 year old you can find and they can show you as well as I can.…)

                1. Diana*

                  Seriously. I am constantly interrupted. And I HATE that I don’t know how to get the nerve to just tell people THEY WASTE MY TIME WHEN I HAVE TO SHOW THEM HOW TO SAVE THIS FILE, OPEN THIS, LOAD THAT… ! Figure it out!!! BY YOURSELF!

        4. twentymilehike*

          I don’t pose anything as a question unless the other person actually has options.

          YES YES YES! My boss ends almost every sentence with a verbal question mark and it just drives me so batty. I’ve found that following this advice is an amazing way to communicate efficiently.

          1. Jessa*

            And even innocently people make mistakes this way. You get to your review and suddenly it’s “worker never made chocolate teapots with square chocolate handles.” And you go “but round is nicer,” and they say “we told you to make square,” and you respond “you said you liked square not that square was a requirement, just an option, and I make better round ones.” Then you get into “NO we told you square.”

            I hate hate hate hate when bosses make something that they mean as an absolute thing to do sound like it’s optional and then DON’T get back to me when I don’t do it. It’s not my fault I did what they said not what they meant.

    2. Job seeker*

      I agree with Alison’s advice. I also think this lady might be a little jealous of you. All the insults she is throwing your way sounds weird to me. I had a older lady do me like this once when I was in my 20’s. This lady was a witch. If someone is gunning for you don’t give them the gun. I agree you have to stop smiling and making nice. Be polite but firm and let her know this is very disrespectful of her.

  2. Runon*

    I’m entirely with AAM here. Stop laughing at her today. Stop smiling when she’s rude, insulting, or generally a jerk.

    Wear your fun and happy face the rest of the time but when she tries that with you put on the most serious face you can muster. Channel the ghost of the least funny person you know.

    If she comments on your food try, “What I eat is between me and my doctor.”

    And if she tries to say “Lighten up honey it was a joke”, you can try “Jokes are funny.” But use with caution.

    Every bit you smile she takes a mile of insults.

    This person is a jerk. Some people are jerks. Don’t let them get under your skin. Try having a not work friend to vent to and do it in a listen to what this crazy person said today. It might help you to dismiss those things in your head a little better.

    1. Leslie Yep*

      Another good response to “It was a joke!” is a totally straight-faced “I don’t get it.” Either it shuts the conversation down, or the “joker” babbles along until they pretty much admit they said something stupid.

      1. mel*

        Argghhh I hate the desperate “you can’t take a joke” response people use to save face. It’s bad enough that someone was a jerk, but NOW they also have to insist on telling me how I’m supposed to feel about it.

        1. Jamie*

          Not to add to the Big Bang Theory theme – but Bernadette had the perfect comeback:

          “It was a joke.”
          “Are you sure?” with adorable and incredulous face.

          I’ve often thought life would be easier with a team of writers feeding me lines in awkward situations.

          1. Runon*

            I would love a team of writers telling me what to say so I can be as wacky and witty in real time as I can be in my head later.

          2. Anony1234*

            There’s a commercial that shows someone having a team of writers who tell him jokes and good lines via an ear mic!

        2. Runon*

          The it was just a joke is such a common thing used by jerks like this it is handy to have a good response ready for that kind of thing.

          I always think in my head, “and that explains your horrible sense of humor, you poor poor person.”

        3. KellyK*

          I hate that too. “You can’t take a joke,” is code for “I feel entitled to treat people like crap and paint them as humorless and oversensitive if they don’t like it.”

          I mean, I like sacrasm and snarky humor as much as the next person, but there’s a line between friendly teasing and being a jerk. (And someone who really was just joking is going to be apologetic if they insult or hurt someone unintentionally.)

      2. Gene*

        My response to “It’s a joke.” is always “I don’t get it, please explain the funny part.” Works nearly every time.

        1. Rana*

          Especially if you repeat, after they’ve explained it, “I’m sorry, I still don’t get it.” Bonus points if you can work in a puzzled, head-tilting expression.

          1. Vicki*

            This is the Miss-Manners-recommended method. It is especially recommended if the joke is off color or offensive in any way.

  3. LMW*

    That’s totally inappropriate! I feel for you and I want to echo Alison’s comment: Don’t let a boorish loon control how you feel about yourself.
    Sorry you have to deal with this.

    Speaking of annoying cubicle neighbors: My loud coworker (who has significantly quieted since I wrote in) has a fabulous new job and is moving on. Good for him (and for the rest of us!).

    1. Jamie*

      Can I just say I plan on working boorish loon into every conversation I possibly can from now on? It’s so perfectly nuanced and descriptive and totally fun to say.

      It really is hard not to internalize other people’s crappy comments – but Alison is totally right. This isn’t about you at all. If I were sitting at your desk she’d say it to me, or anyone else fate plunked there. Some people just enjoy being bitchy for the sake of it. Don’t give her the power to hurt you.

    2. Jolanda*

      I wish my snarky co-worker would move on as well. She had the audacity to blow up at me in front of my boss. Problem is my boss is retiring soon and won’t write her up. He’s a short-timer. I think she’s thinking it was okay of her now to be so hateful. Her saga continues, and in fact, I have to sit right next to her, arghhh. This is miserable. Here’s hoping she finds another job.

    1. Charlotte*

      It sounds as though she already had, as HR has assure her that her boobs are not, in fact, hanging out…

    2. Joey*

      I dont like it when employees address every issue by first documenting them. Its unneccessary and frankly makes you look like youre looking for trouble. You’ve got to communicate in a straightforward, unambiguous way first.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I agree with this. Sometimes I think about doing a post called, “No, you really don’t need to document that.”

        There are cases where it makes sense, yes. But it’s not a first move, or a thing you do as often as it seems to be suggested.

        1. khilde*

          You should totally do this post. Because I think it’s an easy fallback answer to problems. But as you and Joey indicated, it might not always be the smart move to do first.

          1. Jess*

            I think the line is if illegal or against policy, document. If merely someone being a jerk, not yet necessary.

        2. tcookson*

          We had a front desk receptionist who started documenting everything within a few weeks of starting work . . . asking for read receipts on emails, asking people to email her instead of phoning or talking in person, or following up conversations with a “per our previous conversation . . .” email.

          I’m not sure what was wrong with her, but she was just super paranoid that everyone was constantly trying to undermine her. She is a major part of the reason that I refuse to provide a read receipt on emails, ever.

          1. A teacher*

            I never did the read receipts but even too this day I print all sent emails, screen shot and print all behavior reports (had toothy deleted out), and typically I won’t call parents. I either e-mail or send home a letter on school letter ahead. I also documentary things in my room and any major conversations, not minor in the hallway stuff but if it involves a student, parent, or co-worker I write it down and hold onto it. Paranoid? Maybe. I can tell you that administration leaves me alone, parents don’t question as much because they know I document, and after several bad bosses/crazy parent dealings I’m all about cya. That’s just me. I don’t tell everyone how anal I am about documentation but with a triple check system that hasn’t failed me yet, its nice when my boss asks a question because he knows I can go back and look it up.

            1. mollsbot*

              I don’t blame you one bit. People are crazy about their kids, and school administrators tend to be a little wacky too. My mom works for a local public school and I have heard some interesting stories.

            2. Jess*

              I worked as a student teacher for a while, and we were told to document just about everything. I think schools, or anything else related to kids and the safety of kids, are probably different than a corporate setting in this regard.

            3. RLS*

              You are not at all paranoid. People simply don’t get it: it didn’t happen if it’s not documented. I work in a position with high risk and LOTS of training and only a very tiny small fraction of it is documented. It’s only a matter of time before something Very Bad happens.

          2. Jamie*

            I “per our previous conversation” all the time. There is nothing more behind it than I’m about to reference a previous conversation.

            I never knew this was considered a thing.

            1. Jess*

              I work in college financial aid. The ‘per our previous conversation’ thing is a regular feature of my e-mails.

              In general, I do try to do things via e-mail rather than phone whenever possible. When you’re talking about large amounts of $$ and whether or not a parent has to ‘crush their children’s dreams’ by not being able to afford their ‘dream school’, the he-said-she-said thing gets dragged out and never dies. There have been instances where my school actually wound up having to give a kid scholarship money just because the parent insisted that someone at the school had promised a scholarship and we didn’t have any documentation that that promise had never happened. Now we do everything in writing.

              1. Jamie*

                Thinking about it – I will sometimes send a summary email and always “per our conversation” after meetings in which specs for a project were discussed and/or specific action items are in play.

                It’s for myself – so I have a reference – and also to make sure it’s in writing that everyone is on the same page and the people responsible for the action items are clear about their moves going forward.

                Especially with specs. If I give people exactly what they ask for it’s often not what they really want. follow up in writing is a little bit CYA (although I rarely need it) and mostly to confirm and clarify.

          3. Esra*

            I guess it depends on tone, but that doesn’t seem paranoid to me. I ask people to email me instead of talk/phone and send “per our conversation” emails just so I can keep on top of things and keep projects on track.

          4. Julie*

            The receptionist probably worked somewhere previously where she discovered that she needed to be able to defend her actions. It’s too bad! I have worked in that kind of environment, and it’s no fun. Now I work for a manager who believes what I say and doesn’t make me prove it (and she also believes me when there’s a dispute between me and someone else about what was said/done).

          5. Anonymous_J*

            She may have come from an environment where she was not treated very well, where her job was always being threatened, and who knows WHAT else.

            I say that, because I’ve been there.

        3. Another Sara*

          Unless you work at my company, where no manager or HR person will lift a finger unless you have an extensive paper trail of asshattery to back up any complaint.

      2. Jessa*

        The problem with this is that if you DO end up having to document, the longer you have documentation the better. If you’re lucky the documentation goes “She said x, I asked her not to do that, she stopped doing it.” And you put your notebook back in a drawer.

        However, if 6 months later “She said x, I asked her not to, she stopped,” then you put the notebook away. But it happens again, you stop it, it happens, you now have a pattern in your book going back 2 years that you can use during your complaint.

        The longer the person you want to act against has been there the more documentation you’re going to need to act on it. Seriously. If she’s been there that many years and you haven’t there’s a lot of inertia and other people who never complained about her but just quit in your way.

        I think if someone is just being a jerk and you’ve stopped it you’re good, but if they continue to be a jerk where you think it’s going to rise to hostile, then you document.

        I rarely ever had to document stuff like that but I had a notebook that was chronological where I put down anything I thought I might need to cover later (something happened that I was worried would show up on my review and I wanted to remember the details cause I had a boss that had a lousy memory, for instance.)

        The other nice thing about that is if a conflict happened, I could remember exactly what it was. “customer threatened to call corporate because of” and if I was called on it a month later I had notes. It was just a plain cheap ledger book of the stitched together kind (with the numbered pages too.) The other nice thing is since it was chronological if I did have to use it, nobody could accuse me of faking it up after the fact.

        Yes I am paranoid. Because I have been burnt before.

        1. Long Time Admin*

          “I rarely ever had to document stuff like that but I had a notebook that was chronological where I put down anything I thought I might need to cover later (something happened that I was worried would show up on my review and I wanted to remember the details cause I had a boss that had a lousy memory, for instance.) ”

          I did that, too, when my job more secretarial. Jotted down everything as it happened during the day, especially phone calls to the boss or one of the guys (just date, time who called whom) or visitors. I kept the notebooks forever, and could look up a name for my boss even if it was a year ago.

          CYA, all the way!!

      3. Anonymous*

        It would be pretty fun to write it all down though, then at her retirement party you could mention some of her more memorable ones.

        At least that’s what I did. It was a HUGE hit. The man (in my case) had more than one victim. Everyone thought it was a hilarious roast.

  4. EnnVeeEl*

    After someone called me fat, I wouldn’t have to force the “serious face.” This is harassment. Why hasn’t your manager or HR asked her to stop?

    No, I am not going down the “is this legal route.” If I were a manager there and someone told me about the first comment, I would have had her in my office telling her to squash it or else so fast her head would spin.

    This is beyond a “personality conflict.” I would be more assertive and if that didn’t help, maybe take this to the next level.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The comment on her breasts was way over the line, but the other stuff is stuff that you generally want to handle on your own with a coworker, rather than asking a manager to deal with it.

      1. EnnVeeEl*

        I got the sense that maybe she had spoken to a manager or HR about this with the line: “My colleagues and HR contact assured me this is not the case,” regarding the boob comments.

        And that should have prompted a further discussion, and maybe a chat with the loud mouth.

        1. Anonymous*

          I’m reluctant to say it, but both these sentences made me laugh:
          “(My colleagues and HR contact assured me this is not the case.) When she apologized, she said, ‘I’m sorry I said that, but it’s kind of true.'”

          I realize this is a serious situation, but wow!

          1. EnnVeeEl*

            This is why I am wondering if they didn’t intervene – I don’t see anyone like this apologizing (or sort of apologizing) without being forced to.

          2. anonymous*

            Original poster here!

            Yes, that comment happened before we had an proper HR person. Our HR contact at the time was our finance person and receptionist person. They talked to the offending co-worker and then she ‘apologized’ (half of an apology in my mind).
            It is something that I took pretty hard. I am small framed, but thanks my mom, I have a large chest. I’m VERY conscious of what I wear and this particular comment really hurt. I have always worn scarves, cardigans, sweaters to make sure I dress above my age (25), especially because our workplace is 80% men.
            The good thing is, my friends had a good laugh when I told them, because they know how conservative I dress, especially at work. My boyfriend even said I dressed like a nice 45 year old woman (he still claims that’s a compliment! lol).

            1. Lynne*

              “I’m sorry, but…” is not even half an apology. It’s kind of like an anti-apology.

              I hope you can get her to stop, or at least get a desk farther away from her.

              1. Jessa*

                Thank you. Someone needs to tell this employee that when you’re asked to apologise you actually DO. You don’t pretend to.

        2. Jamie*

          I don’t know. I’m friends with our HR Director and she’s the first person I’d go to as a reality check if someone made that comment to me. As a fellow woman who I trust to tell me the truth without embarrassing me…not in her official HR capacity.

          She could have just checked with people she trusted to make sure there was nothing amiss with her tops.

          1. EnnVeeEl*

            Could be. And I totally support that she should not be a doormat and learn to stand up for herself, especially with a coworker, but this seems to be going overboard. It’s inappropriate and unprofessional.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Oh, absolutely. But the first thing her manager will say if asked to intervene is, “Have you asked her to stop?” So that’s the part she needs to work on right now.

              1. anonymous*

                Original Poster, again!
                Thanks so much again for all the comments, I have learned so much already today.

                I know that our manager would ask if I could handle it between the two of us before we brought him into it, since he’s a busy guy.
                I will definitely work on resolving this between us before we have to involve management.

                As for going to a trusted female colleague … that was the first person I talked to! Her response to me being worried about my clothing was “Jane is an idiot and she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, your clothes are more than fine”. So that made me feel better, and confident that I am dressed appropriately for work. (For the record, my co-workers from our other offices have complimented me on my business suits/outfits, and they’re all female at our other office).

            2. Jamie*

              Oh totally – I don’t care if she showed up in nothing but a wonder-bra the comment was completely out of line.

              I’m just saying if it were me I’d still check with someone to make she I wasn’t exposing more than I intended because I’m paranoid like that…not that it excuses anything.

          2. Joey*

            Ooh, that probably puts her in a tough position- asking her in an unofficial capacity. Her ass could be on the line if she didnt act on something you told her about “unofficially.”

            1. Jamie*

              In a lot of cases that would be true – but for me (since it’s me) and I have the authority and (trust me) the impetus to address whatever I thought needed to be addressed I wouldn’t worry about it.

              Besides, friends or not (and I have some very good work friends, she’s one of them) I don’t tell anyone I work with anything I would mind hearing in court. Always act like you’re wearing a wire may sound paranoid, but it keeps you from tripping over your words at work.

              Besides – in an unofficial capacity asking another woman “does this shirt look okay?” is fine. A LOT of us have donned the cardigan of shame once we realized that something that looked totally appropriate and modest in the mirror at home had a whole different look under the office lights or when you bend over a little. No need to even mention a comment.

                1. littlemoose*

                  +1 Always good form to keep a cardigan at work for many reasons, including sartorial shame.

              1. Lexy*

                “cardigan of shame”

                When you thought that white top had more coverage than it really did…

                When you didn’t check how that neckline looked from ABOVE…

                When your only clean bra is black…

                The cardigan of shame saves us all. That we shall not perish (be fired) but have eternal life (ongoing employment).

  5. Malissa*

    Good phrases to use are, “What do you mean by that?” “I’m sorry did I hear you right?” and “That’s uncalled for.”
    Tone of voice is very important when responding. Keep it neutral as Switzerland.
    I got the nosey person beside me to leave me alone through months of just not responding to personal questions and giving out information that was only related to the job. I also spent a lot of time pretending not to hear her questions. Well maybe not so much pretending as I’ve learned to tune people out…
    Anyway the key to this kind of situation is constant consistency. And maybe some head phones.

  6. Ash*

    I’m always a fan of the advice given by one of the famous advice ladies (I can’t recall if it’s Abby or Margo or Amy…), which is to say, “Wow.” Completely neutral, completely blank-faced, just “Wow.” It has been so helpful for me!

    1. WM*

      yes – “Wow” or “Why would you say that?” are genius. If only I could remember to use them in the moment!

      1. :D*

        That’s what I do!

        “Why would you think that’s appropriate to say to another human being?” (cue bitchface)

        Embarrasses them without stooping to their level. It’s beautiful.

        I had a coworker (male – I am female) I had never even spoken to before, come up to me at a corporate lunch and tell me that if I keep eating like I was, I wouldn’t be able to fit in my wedding dress next month. I don’t even know how he knew I was getting married. But I was so taken aback, I could just get out a feeble “I love tacos…” before leaving and crying in the bathroom stall.

        Now I use the “Why would you think…” with my best bitchface and it seems to stop people in their tracks. Bwahahaha

        1. Cruciatus*

          While I was living in Germany a few years ago, I was eating in a little park behind the Neues Rathaus in Munich, and this woman who was collecting bottles from trash cans so she could cash in the Pfand (deposit) came up and harassed me while I was sitting and eating my Rischart hoagie. She made piggy noises and definitely said something in German about how I’d get fat eating them (though she was not slim herself). Didn’t catch everything she said because I’m not fluent. I was so stunned I only managed to think of 2 letters–“OK”–though that is pretty translatable in most languages. She moved on from me and I later saw that this bag lady had comments for everyone around the park but I still think of that damn woman now whenever I think of things from the time I lived there. I wish I had been more fluent so I could have said “Step off, lady!” (even though I realize she was most likely crazy). It’s “funny” how the memories we often remember best are the ones that deal with criticism towards ourselves.

          1. Jamie*

            Thanks. We’re doing knackwurst and thuringers for dinner…so now I’ll hear that damn woman in my head in about 2.5 hours.

            Homemade spaetzle will distract me from any feelings of guilt.

            Isn’t it amazing the things that stick with us, though. I can’t remember my kids’ SSN or our group number for health insurance, but I have total recall of a shitty comment some girl named Wendy made to me in 8th grade. I REALLY need the ability to clean out my brain the way you do a hard drive – keep the good and useful stuff and clear out the crap every so often.

            1. JessA*

              You make homemade spaetzle? Yummmm! How do you make yours? Do you have a recipe? That sounds absolutely delicious.

      2. Jamie*

        I always fall back on “Thank you” said like Donna Reed in It’s a Wonderful Life where George is in her living room and rudely blurts out “it still smells like pine tress around here.” The delivery is a polite response to a rude comment. Kind of haughty, but nothing that would hold up in court.

      3. P*

        Yup, I really like “why would you say that?” because it’s open-ended enough that they feel like they have to say something.

        I had an old “friend” (hah) who would blurt out mean comments about me when we were in a group and then flash me a smug smile. I found that “what are you trying to accomplish by saying that?” in a genuinely inquisitive tone would always stump her – because, obviously, what she was trying to accomplish was dragging me down to make herself feel better. I think it also cued her in to the fact that everyone saw through what she was doing.

    2. Kelly O*

      “Wow” is my personal favorite.

      It can be delivered in that Switzerland-neutral tone, and says so much more than a longer answer would.

      1. ThatFormerHRGirl*

        I’m a fan of the “Wow” too. Last summer I was training a temp to cover for me on while on mat leave. I am late 20’s, she was early 60’s…
        She made CONSTANT comments related to my body, pregnancy, the birth process, how I was feeling, i.e. “Did your doctor tell you how much it’s going to hurt down there – between your legs – when the baby’s coming out?”
        “I saw you walk in today and you were waddling! Does it hurt between your legs?”
        “Are you planning on breastfeeding? You know, that your (redacted body part) will be cracked and bleeding from that!”

        After the “Wow” didn’t work i finally had to say, “Jane – Please don’t comment on my pregnancy again. Also, please stop using the phrase ‘between your legs’. It’s extremely inappropriate for work”.

        *Sigh.* She’s still looking for a permanent gig if anyone’s interested! :)

      2. Anonymous*

        Wow, or the slightly stronger “I wonder why you would say that?” delivered in a slightly puzzled introspective tone. Makes them think they are being psychoanalyzed.

  7. Liz in the City*

    I’m so sorry you’re going through this. I had a woman at OldJob who always, always commented on what I was eating/drinking every time she saw me. Like when I got a soda from the machine, “Oh, I can’t drink soda. Just empty calories!” I remember flashing her my “drop dead” look and continuing on.

    Good luck, OP! And seriously, if you can switch desks, do it!

    1. Lynn*

      Gah. I REALLY wish people would stop commenting on my food. The amount, the time vs. their perceived ideal lunchtime, the healthfulness, the estimated tastiness. Worst is the speculating on whether I’m on a diet or whether the food will make me fat. I guess people are just trying to be friendly and make small talk, but it makes me feel really weird and self-conscious. What was wrong with using the weather as a small-talk ice breaker?

      1. EnnVeeEl*

        My grandmother always taught me it was the height of rudeness to comment on people’s food, etc. No one appreciates it and so yes, it is rude. Find another topic of “small talk.”

        1. Lynn*

          Especially at my workplace, it’s the same couple dozen people every day for years. So it’s not like they’re flailing blindly in the dark for something to talk about, knowing nothing about me other than what they can see. By now, they know enough about me to be pretty successful striking up a conversation, in case they’re tired of more generic small-talk topics. I have two kids; I am into running, martial arts, and camping; my husband goes to Europe on business a lot. Somewhere in there is 5 minutes of break-room chit-chat material.

          1. Vicki*

            I’d think that, if they knew about the martial arts, they should be less willing to aim stupid comments your way…

        2. Long Time Admin*

          My grandmother taught me that it’s not polite to deliberately speak another language if there’s someone in the room who doesn’t understand it. Her parents were straight from Germany, so she & her brothers were bilingual, and her brothers would sometimes speak German when other family members were there. They’d just switch to English.

          A friend of mine had the completely opposite thing happen. She & her husband went to family party and everyone spoke Serbian. Not one person spoke to her in English the whole time they were there, even though most of the were bilingual. On the way home, her husband started talking to her in Serb and she just went off on him shreiking “Don’t you dare speak to me like that!”.

        3. Anne*

          YES. Anytime someone microwaves something from home, we can smell it through most of our (tiny) office. And without fail, my manager will either say that it’s making her hungry, or that it smells disgusting and should be banned.

          She always says it in a “joking” way, but I always want to scream at her – didn’t your mother ever teach you it’s rude to criticize other people’s food?!

          I seem to remember I even had a picture book on the topic.

          1. Jaime B*

            lol, I just posted on my facebook that the only downside to switching shifts was the increase in microwaved popcorn. SO. MUCH. SMELL.

            I did learn this lesson the hard way. I used to roommate with a cousin and about 30% of the time when I came home I’d scrunch up my nose and say disgustedly, “what’s that smell”?! (I do have a fairly sensitive nose) She was quite patient with me and waited for me to realize how rude I was being so I do try to keep that in mind now.

      2. Eric*

        The only acceptable comment on someone else’s food is “that looks/smells good!” And that’s only acceptable if you happen to be in the kitchen with them as they are preparing it.

        Anything else, keep it to yourself.

    2. Diane*

      Gah. Another good response is to look at her with pity and say, “It’s too bad YOU can’t have soda. It’s so delicious!”

    3. Lindsay*

      I can’t believe some of the comments I get from people when I drink energy drinks in front of them.

      “Why do you need so much caffeine?” Actually it has less than that cup of coffee you’re drinking.

      “Those things are so bad for you.” Says the smoker.

      “Those things have so many chemicals in them.” Everything has chemicals in it.

      1. Another Sara*

        Don’t let them find out that the water they are drinking is full of dihydrogen monoxide!

    4. Elikit*

      I was once having a bowl of grapes at work, and a co-worker walked into the kitchen and was like, “Uch, those are just full of water and sugar.”

      So I put a couple in my mouth and said, “Mmmm, delicious sugar water.”

      It’s worth noting that we had after work drinks every Friday and this guy was the biggest wino ever, so clearly had no issues with grapes in other forms.

  8. JR*

    This reminds me of my best friends boss. A truly disturbing man. He would bring her in his office, call her stupid, or “forth grade education” (not true, obviously). The extent of the abuse was TRULY out of this world (I could write a book on it). Eventually she got out, but to this day still has lingering problems from it (she thinks shes unintelligent, but really, is quite bright). Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that these kinds of comments really do have a lasting effect on people. I feel for this woman!

    1. Long Time Admin*

      You know, they say “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me”, but they do. And it takes for-blinkin’-ever to get over it.

      In case anyone is wondering, my nose is too big, my mouth is too wide, my feet are too big, and my legs are ugly. My teeth are crooked, but no one ever told me that.

      1. Diana*

        Yep. I will never forget my mother’s coworker who told me to my face that my sister was prettier than me (at the age of 13)
        And I will never forget that my sister told me I didn’t have the guts to become an architect.
        Never. But I swear I wish I could.

  9. Marcia*

    So not excusing her behavior one bit, but is it possible she’s had a minor stroke? Blurting out inappropriate comments like that can be an early sign of one.

    1. EM*

      Some people just don’t have a mental filter. It’s also a symptom of ADD, but really, even if being a jerk has some sort of medical diagnosis to go along with it, it doesn’t excuse the behavior.

    2. Lanya*

      After my grandmother had a brain aneurysm, she completely lost her filter. She would sit at the kitchen table watching me wash the dishes and tell me she could see my back fat rolls!!! It wasn’t funny at the time, but I laugh at the memory now. :)

    3. Anonymous_J*

      From the boob comments, I was wondering if she might not be attracted to the OP?

  10. Hlx Hlx*

    Wow, definite shades of what I’m dealing with at work too. Except not as much with the directly insulting comments, more subtle (thankfully? I almost wish they were more overt so I could better call her out on them). But my version comes with constantly telling me how to do things, following up on my work and looking for mistakes. She’s really affected my job satisfaction and morale.

    Thanks for talking about this AAM!

  11. Ursula*

    OP, you said that this has been happening for 12 months, but you’ve been there for 18. What were the first six months like? Was she reasonable? Did something change?

    1. anonymous*

      The first six months were really good. When I actually started, she was off for the first 6 weeks or so, so I didn’t meet her until a month and half in.
      After about 4 months working together, I started to get a lot of praise from the managers for my work and started to be more involved in the company (event planning committee, things like that) and forged close relationships with managers and the company owner. She started the comments at about that time (and when I undoubtedly had more confidence in my work, since I hired out of grad school).

      1. Anon*

        Yeah, this sounds like plain old jealousy in play. You’ve been doing well, they’re happy with your work, so she’s trying to tear you down.

        1. littlemoose*

          Totally agree on the jealousy aspect. The details and timeline provided by the OP really provide some good context for this lady’s behavior. I feel like the fact that the OP is young, well-educated, and apparently kicking ass at her job is very threatening to her coworker, even if their job duties are not the same. Perhaps her hostility is also partially rooted in insecurity about being fired or replaced because of her age, or in leaving the workforce soon for the uncertainty of retirement. I’m just speculating, of course, but I absolutely think her behavior is About Her, not About You. She may be unhappy generally, or perhaps just lacks coping skills to appropriately deal with her insecurities. Obviously she should NOT be taking that out on you, and this kind of behavior is unacceptable for the workplace, but maybe it is nonetheless good for the OP to have some insight into her behavior. It is far too easy to think that other people treat us poorly because of the way we behave or just the way we are, but I assure you that this is all about her internal crap, and it is not the way other professionals view or will treat you.

          1. Anonymous*

            I thought this too. And I also thing about the M.O. For these types of people – “if I can’t come up to your level I will pull you down to mine. In short, she’s willing to lose if you lose too. She’s trying to get you into a cranky match so management sees two women fighting. Then you’ll be denied opportunities because you are behaving unprofessionally. Then she “wins”.

            So rule #1 – Do Not Engage
            Draw boundaries but never argue. State “that’s inappropriate and walk away. Don’t argue. If she says “it was only a joke” say “can you explain it to me?” Then go “hunh” and walk away. Like Pavlovs dog, she will need to be trained that her cruel comments will not be turned into an argument.

            See this as an opportunity to demonstrate your boundaries but also to show grace under pressure (mgt material)

            1. Rana*

              Yup. I remember once someone telling me, when I was dealing with some crappy stuff like this, “That’s not your shit; it’s theirs.” I’ve also heard it as “not my circus, not my monkey.”

              In other words, whatever is annoying or bothering Sourpuss is not your responsibility, so ignoring her beyond what you need to do to establish your boundaries is best. Plus, it has the additional bonus of pissing people like this off.

              1. EngineerGirl*

                Yup. They really want you to engage. When you are engaged, you are attached. When you are attached they can pull you down.

  12. anonymous*

    Hi There,

    I’m the original poster (thanks AAM for providing an answer so quickly!) I’m so happy that I got a response and that my concerns are warranted.
    I will definitely take all the comments/suggestions into account when I’m at work. The paragraph that AAM wrote about my co-worker’s comments being more about her is something I need to remember on a daily basis. Some of my colleagues who know about these issues tell me it’s because she’s blatantly jealous of me.

    About going to HR – we officially now have a full-time HR person (rather than one person doing it on the side), so from here on out, I will document the incidences.
    The only negative thing going is that she has been at the company for 12+ years and almost everyone laughs off her comments (she smirks/laughs to make them seem more like a joke too, when they’re not). As for going to our manager about this (we have the same direct manager), he knows what her comments are (he’s not oblivious), but she purposely says them when he’s not in earshot. Some other mid-managers have called her out on the comments, for example, the one where a colleague complimented me on my presentation, he said “wow, Jane really knows how to stab you in the back, and then when you think she’s done, she twists the knife!” So, they all know it, but I plan on making it clear to my manager at a meeting/review to let him know what is going on. I have confidence that he would do something to limit this behaviour.
    Changing desks is something I would LOVE to do, unfortunately, it’s not in the near future, but I think after so many incidences and documentation, it may be something the managers would have to consider.
    I got a lot of great advice and I plan on implementing it, sooner rather than later too!! Thank you AAM and everyone :)

    1. Chinook - Chocolate Teapot Social Committe Chair*

      Since Jane seems to be very aware of what she is doing, be alert in case she decides to be more active in “cutting you down to size.” I am not saying it will happen, but just be aware in case shr starts undermining your actual job.

      1. Canuck*

        Not related to your comment, but I love that the discussion about you being on a social committee made it’s way onto this thread too :) :)

    2. Heather*

      This person is a bully and they know how to work it – the smirks/laughs, the comments when people of authority are out of earshot, the not really apologies, etc.

      Start documenting things. If she doesn’t stop when you ask her to go to your boss. It doesn’t matter how long she’s been there or that people are laughing it off. It doesn’t make it right.

      I’m sorry but anyone that makes someone cry as soon as they leave work needs to be dealt with asap. That’s so inappropriate.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Seriously, as I’m apparently going to have to say all over this thread, don’t bother with the documenting. It’s going to make you look like you’re potentially litigious (over something that isn’t a legal issue). When people show up with a log over something like this, managers think:
        1. You spent your time logging all this?
        2. Are you thinking of suing? (Because that’s what logging this stuff is normally associating with, even when there’s no actual legal issue.)
        3. Are you going to approach other things you don’t like in the future this way too?
        4. Why aren’t you handling your relationships with your coworker directly instead of coming to me?

        Solve the problem by being direct. You don’t need a log.

        1. Heather*

          I’m more thinking of when she goes to the supervisor and he asks what’s going on? Instead of saying she says mean things you’d have concrete examples. Not at 8:02 Jane said blah blah. More like on April 22nd Jane said blah blah blah

          to me it would also show as proof (not for legal purposes but then I’m in Canada and we don’t automatically think to sue) of pattern over an extended time to show your employer.

          But yes I’d say something directly to the employee first and if it didn’t stop I’d go to the manager.

            1. Jamie*

              Yep – I see a list I assume #2 no matter what anyone says.

              Maybe because I wouldn’t ever have a list until that was somewhere in the back of my head…and I’ve never had a list.

              1. Anon*

                This was a great sidebar to the posting comments. I’m going to log this for future reference.

              2. Caroline*

                I’m glad you guys pointed these perceptions out, because I have been told by my manager to document certain problems, and after I heard that I just decided to try to figure out a different solution. It just wasn’t worth it to me to engage in that kind of paranoid behavior. It’s nice to know that my instinct wasn’t completely unwarranted.

            2. J.B.*

              Eh, documenting can be just for you. You never have to show anyone the list, but the ability to go back and cite specifics can be useful. It depends on how you look at it-as an aide-memoire fine.

              1. Elizabeth West*

                Yeah, it can. I did this at ExJob. I had a file on my flash drive called “AAUGH!” that I kept Notepad logs in whenever certain coworkers got up to shenanigans. It helped me remember things when they popped up again. And being able to write it out provided a catharsis.

                No one but me ever saw it. I went back and read it recently and wondered how I ever managed to survive all that.

              2. Julie*

                I was just thinking the same thing. I had a dispute with my company about my compensation that they were basically ignoring, knowing the only thing I could do about it was to leave. I kept a log of what happened – for myself. I wanted to have it “just in case,” but I wasn’t planning to show it to anyone. The whole thing ended up working out fine. When cost of living increases came up a few months later, my boss gave me the maximum (because he thought the company was wrong about this issue), which put my salary above the amount that was in question.

            3. khilde*

              Like J.B. mentioned below, do you think there’s ever any value in documenting for your own sake? For instance, so you can get an objective picture of what’s going on and have some specific examples/behaviors to cite to the person when you do have a discussion with them? Whenever I think of documenting, that’s the image that’s in my head: because I sometimes freeze under pressure or would tend to have a feeling-laden/emotionally focused discussion, when really it should be more objective. I always think having it written down would help me be more clear when I do have to confront the person. I’ll eagerly look forward to your post on it or your response becuase now you guys have me thinking. I never thought there was a drawback to documentation!

              1. LMW*

                I had a situation with a supervisor where her criticism always came out of left field and often made no sense or contradicted something she said before. She could never give me concrete reasons for why she didn’t like how I was doing things. I was convinced that she just disliked me and was trying to make me quit. At the same time, right before her I’d had three months with a very insulting and critical manager (after getting nothing but stellar reviews up to that point). I thought maybe I was being oversensitive or maybe I really was just terrible at my job. So I started documenting so I could confront her or take it to her boss or something. I never did anything with it, for all the reasons Alison and others have mentioned. But it did help me get clarity. I could look at all the comments I was getting, when I was getting them, etc., and see if there was consistency and how it compared to the finished results I was achieving. After a few months of documentation, I could look at back at everything with emotional distance…and see that there was no rhyme or reason to anything she was saying, all other evidence supported the idea that I was doing a great job, and I probably needed a new one.
                So, to support khilde’s comment: Documentation in itself can be useful, even if it’s just for personal use.

              2. Ask a Manager* Post author

                I think if you’re really doing only to organize your own thoughts / get a better handle on the situation yourself and aren’t planning to show it to others, sure. I’d just say to make sure you’re keeping it at home, because if it were found by someone else at work, you’re back to the issues 1-4 I talked about above (even if it was never your intention to do anything with it).

                1. Elizabeth West*

                  That’s why mine was on my flash drive. It was my personal one and it stayed in a lanyard around my neck and went home with me every day. No one thought anything of me having it, because they knew I wrote on it on my laptop at lunch.

              3. ThursdaysGeek*

                I keep a work journal anyway, with what I’m working on and when, notes on problems, solutions. I find it useful when I do something and think “I’ve already done something like this before…how did I solve it then?” So, I’d just add a short note here and there in it, if it seemed appropriate and I didn’t have to go out of my way to do it. “jane made a comment on my boobs again, i just looked at her, looked away. i’m getting better at ignoring her.” (I don’t bother with caps in my journal, but I still have to use punctuation and mostly complete sentences.) Since I’m always writing anyway, it wouldn’t be anything abnormal.

                1. ThursdaysGeek*

                  Oh, and I keep the journal because I have no memory, not for other, more nefarious reasons.

              4. Vicki*

                If it were me, I would positively document for my own sake. I document _everything_ that happens at work anyway. And I would never remember specifics. I wouldn’t take the notebook to the meeting with my manager (or wouldn’t show him the log) but to be able to cite specific examples is better than “Jane is always mean to me”.

                And yes, I get that it would be up to me to say something to Jane before bringing in my manager… my log would help psyche me up for that!

  13. Mrs. Lion-Tamer*

    This reminds me of a book I read about applying animal behavioral techniques to human behavior. One of the most important techniques was not reacting to a “wrong” move on the part of the animal. No punishment, no yelling, the trainer just pretends that nothing happened, and because the animal doesn’t get any stimulus from having done X, the behavior eventually dies out. The author wrote that she used it on her husband to spectacular effect. (And I’ve tried it on my own better half from time to time. Works a treat.) Maybe instead of responding at all (because clearly what this woman wants is attention), just act as though nothing has happened.

      1. Lily in NYC*

        Ha, I am having a great vision of OP spraying her rude colleague in the face with a water bottle!

            1. Sissa*

              So you’d like him to use a shock collar on your colleagues? (Reading up on his techniques away from the camera makes me shudder).

          1. ThursdaysGeek*

            It does, but you’ve got to get them right in the face, preferably up their nose. They learn to turn really quickly when they see the feline behaviour modification device.

      2. Gene*

        Or use the Sheldon Cooper training Penny method, when she does something you like, give her a chocolate.

    1. Jamie*

      I don’t know about this. When my dog was a pup he would get into the garbage can and make a mess. If I ignored it I’d still come home to coffee grounds and shredded paper towels all over the floor.

      This co-worker is flinging hypothetical chicken bones all over the OP’s workspace and she needs to be knock it off.

      1. Mrs. Lion-Tamer*

        There were more techniques than just the ignoring. For something like that, the training technique would be to give the animal something even more preferable than the garbage can. The author’s human equivalent was to keep her husband from hovering over her while cooking by putting a bowl of chips and salsa at the other end of the counter, for example.
        And if the situation was truly serious, like a lion attack, obviously the trainer could yell, react, etc.

        1. Zahra*

          Yeah, the ignoring technique really has to go with a distraction or positive reinforcement when the desired behavior has been demonstrated. It shows that negative behavior will not be rewarded but positive will get you attention.

    2. Legal Eagle*

      This is what I would do. When someone makes a negative comment to me, I am really good at not hearing. Just a blank stare. It’s my equivalent to the “Wow.”

      1. Seattle Writer Girl*

        Yeah, I tried this technique with my mother (who has made the “if you eat that you’ll get fat!” comment more times than I care to remember). Basically, she’ll say something rude/inappropriate/ignorant and everyone in the room will just sort of gloss over it like it was never said.

        I thought this constituted being polite (vs. trying to explain to her why she is wrong–which she never is, of course). However, my mom took this as “rudeness” and accused me and my husband of “treating her like a piece of furniture” because we weren’t acknowledging her “concerns.”

        Sometimes you just can’t win with these people….

  14. Chriama*

    Hey, OP: sometimes when I have a negative interaction with someone, I go away and wish I’d said something to defend myself. The blow to my self-esteem isn’t that someone said something mean to me, but that I let them get away with it.
    You can’t control how other people act, but you can control how you respond to them. So set boundaries with this woman, because even if she never stops being a jerk, you will feel better about yourself because you stood up for yourself.
    And, once you’ve taken control of that interaction, it will be easier for you to pity her or find her amusing — because you’ll obviously have it together much better than she does :)

    1. anonymous*

      Hi! I’m the original poster!
      Thanks so much for your advice, this really resonated with me and made me realize that I need to do this early on in my career (now) rather than in my 30s, 40s, 50s, etc. If I can set boundaries with her, I’m sure I can with other future colleagues.

      1. Malissa*

        Honestly boundaries get easier to set as you get older. I know 25 y/o me had issues with this as well. That early in my career I was eager to please and get along with everyone. Some where around 30 I realized I don’t have to like everyone and it’s okay not to have my coworkers up in my business all of the time. It’s even very preferable to not have them in my business more than necessary.
        Or it could be that I’m just getting old and curmudgeonly. (Would you believe I spelled that right on my first try!)

        1. EnnVeeEl*

          No, as you get older, you care less and less about being “liked.” Because you know this type of behavior has nothing to do with you, and more to do with the person engaging in it. And you’ve learned to let things that have nothing to do with you go.

          I say she’s lucky her work doesn’t intersect – we’ve seen much worse here.

        2. Rana*

          Yup. You both get more confident in your right to be heard and respected, and develop a lower tolerance for crap. I have to say, I’m rather enjoying having reached this stage of my personal development!

  15. Liz in a Library*

    Whoa. What a jerk!

    I used to have a co-worker sort of like this. Not as aggressive, but she sure was the pits. I think the worst one was when she asked me if I was able to buy clothes at normal stores, or if I had to go to (lowered voice), the plus sized ones…

    1. anonymous*

      Hi! OP here.
      I’m reading that a lot of people have/had similar co-workers, so it’s obviously something that occurs often (sadly). That’s really mean about what your co-workers said about plus-sized stores. The weird thing is, I’m much smaller than she is, and in really good shape (I really am a marathon runner).

      1. Jenonymous*

        It is weird but it isn’t about you so no amount of logic enters into it. Like others have noted, her behavior and others in your office have confirmed that this is just how she behaves. It’s more than unfortunate that her bullying behavior has been tolerated for so long by the entire company.

    2. Esra*

      That’s so random. She would definitely have gotten a bitchface accompanied by a stone cold “What a strange question.”

      1. Liz in a Library*

        We hadn’t even been talking before it came out! That was her MO. The tone was what was really so awful. She lowered her voice to a mock whisper and said it in a “gosh, how embarrassing for you” kind of way. I’m pretty sure my reaction was a stony WTF face and continued working in silence.

        1. Natalie*

          I obviously don’t know how much you weigh, but if it was at all true I would have been tempted to shout “YES, I’M FAT. THANKS FOR POINTING THAT OUT.”

    3. Anonymous*

      I’d be tempted to lower my voice and ask “You never learned to control what comes out of your piehole, did you? Maybe you should get some professional help with that. Just a suggestion sweetie.”

    4. Heather*

      I never would have had the presence of mind to think of it in the moment, but how great would it be if you said, “I don’t know, what counts as a plus-size store? 2000 square feet? 5000? How big is Macy’s?”

      1. crookedfinger*

        I got a few people to stop swearing so much around me by doing stuff like that. “It’s f*****g cold out here!” “Now, does that mean that it’s so cold out here that you have to f**k to stay warm? *headtilt*”

  16. Andy Lester*

    You went to HR and ask them about your boobs being OK, because this woman commented on it, and HR didn’t pick up that ball? This sounds like sexual harassment suit waiting to happen.

    Maybe they don’t realize the severity and frequency of the problem. I’d document every comment, verbatim, with date and time so that you have a trail to go to HR and say “This is what I have to deal with all day.”

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      One comment like this isn’t sexual harassment (in the legal sense). Documenting isn’t the answer here; being direct about asking her to stop is. (And if she goes to HR with a log of instances before trying to resolve it more directly, she’s not going to look great.)

      1. Andy Lester*

        Yes, of course, I agree 100% she should act directly.

        And, in addition, I would also document it so that HR knows what’s what. Perhaps her tormentor’s boss is part of the solution.

        I think the documentation makes sense not for a legal paper trail, but because a documented list of things is worth 1000 words of anecdotal complaint. Talking to someone asking for help and saying “She says crappy things to me” doesn’t carry as much punch as “She says crappy things to me, and here are the dozen insults I’ve had to endure over the past week. After each of these instances I’ve asked her to stop” and hand over a printed list.

        Documentation need not be anything more than tick marks on a sheet of paper. “Monday: 2 times, Tuesday: 3 times, Wed: 1” And say “I’m not looking to sue, but I want you to know that this isn’t just a passing thing, but a consistent pattern. That’s why I need your help.”

          1. Andy Lester*

            Allison: Again, I agree 100% that she should talk directly to the person and say “Stop talking about X”. Providing solid, non-anecdotal evidence of the problem is a fall-back.

            Are you suggesting that if the “Stop talking about X” comments are ignored that OP just live with it and *not* appeal to others for help in handling it?

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I wouldn’t go to HR or a manager over comments about my food, no. If you do and you want to grow professionally in that organization, you’re going to have people thinking, “You can’t handle issues like this with coworkers on your own; how are you going to handle much harder issues as a manager (or a job at a higher level of visibility, etc.)?”

              Constant comments on her breasts, yes, absolutely. But one, plus a bunch of non-sexual comments? No. Some coworkers are annoying. Some are really annoying. Not everything is a problem to be escalated.

              1. Andy Lester*

                So there’s the disconnect. You’re talking about the more innocuous but annoying food questions, I was more thinking about the body comments.

                Yes, if it’s just rude comments in the lunch room, walk away.

                We’re on the same page.

              2. Vicki*

                What about the one where the co-worker commented about the presentation (“She (me) probably didn’t know what she was talking about or understand the topic.”).

                Food is personal, body s truly off limits, but comments on how well you know/do your work are… what exactly? What side of the line are these on?

              3. ThatFormerHRGirl*

                Thank you for saying this!! In a past role, one of my big responsibilities was identifying top performers from our group of laborers who might have the potential for a management role down the line.
                A lot of them had some damage to their reputation due to always “going to HR” or complaining to their manager about every little negative action with a peer…
                I ended up creating a training class about conflict resolution and how not solving little things yourself can reflect poorly on you and can hurt your career, and how to recognize when the problem really DOES need to be brought to the next level.

          2. Zahra*

            The only reason why I would document is so I can refer to it before going higher up, because I *know* I’ll have forgotten the exact wording or subject of insults when put on the spot to explain what kind of things she has been saying. So I’d keep a “notes file” somewhere that includes other stuff (procedures, stuff not to forget, etc.) where I can note examples of insults such as “comments on my boobs hanging out like the girls on [show]” (because that one is down to how it’s said), “Saying I probably don’t know my subject when complimented on presentation”. I would not, absolutely not, bring it with me if I had to take it to my boss. I’d re-read it so I have the answer handy if needed (just like you prepare for an interview and review your talking points just before you get to the place).

        1. Joey*

          Unless you have a hard time remembering and you keep it to yourself, then no. Coming in with a notebook of documentation is going to make people think you’re litigous regardless of what you say.

      2. Lyda Rose*

        AAM, I have to wonder this: what if the OP takes all the really good suggestions offered here, puts them into practice, and the co-worker still won’t shut up, or even escalates the comments? There are certain types of bullies that thrive on push back or being ignored; somehow it provokes them to just try harder. What are the OP’s options then?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          If it’s primarily stuff like snarking about her food, etc., then at that point she basically accepts that she has a rude, annoying coworker.

    2. Joey*

      No, no , no. The first step is always to say “stop!” Documenting and running to HR with a list of details is premature. Their first question will always be “have you told the person to stop?” Documenting is only appropriate for the most egregious offenses or if you’ve already tried to get the person to stop unsuccessfully.

      1. Jamie*

        I agree. There are times when documenting is called for – I can recall two of them from AAM – but this doesn’t rise to that level and it just makes it look like a petty squabble.

        The couple of times I was firmly in the document camp that I can recall was the one woman who was being stalked by her co-worker both at work and in public and had every reason to fear for her safety. Her boss, iirc, was very supportive and taking measures, but she needed to log for the cops. The other was the creepy office mate watching porn on his computer and touching himself. That was so far beyond into real harassment (which was reported) and you wanted times in case someone gave a shit enough to have IT pull logs (which they didn’t).

        Those are two examples of when logging stuff is needed – but that would just escalate something like this when it could be easily solved with some directness and no paperwork.

      2. Anonymous*

        You could also document it and keep the log to yourself. You don’t have to take it to HR or even let them know you’ve been documenting it.

        The thing is that it might be helpful to keep track to show if the comments got worse or more frequent after dealing with the coworker directly and then again after discussing it with a boss or HR if she doesn’t stop after dealing with her directly. You certainly hope you never have to use it, but if you do then it may be useful to have a more extensive record of these comments.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Nah, because then they’ll still wonder why on earth you were keeping this log back before it became so egregious that you needed to escalate it (and really, the only time you’d escalate this is there were lots more breast-related comments).

          1. Vicki*

            “Because I’m OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Documentor) and I track everything through my day — see? verbatim meeting notes, conversations, interruptions, everything — and I’ve been doing that for so long it’s second nature. Also, I type really fast.”

            1. Janelle*

              Documenting it privately is a really good idea. There is a possibility that this co-worker presents as a completely different person to management than to colleagues. I am suspecting that AAM & other commenters have never encountered a true sociopath who can switch personalities seemingly without effort. That doesn’t seem like the case here, but covering your ass is ALWAYS a good idea.

              Yes, keeping a log and presenting it to HR unannounced will look weird. But, after the sociopath denies everything and tries to make her victim look like the crazy one, having concrete examples could actually help.

  17. AnotherAlison*

    I’m curious what the not-quite-a-HR person’s reaction would have been if a male had made the comments about the OP’s chest. Hopefully, the new HR person knows what she’s doing. Having inconsistent treatment of harassing comments made by women vs. men is not a good idea.

    1. Jesicka309*

      My thoughts exactly. The fact the bully is a woman doesn’t change the nature of the sexual harassment. I’d be mortified if any person (man or woman) made comments about my weight or my breasts. And honestly, I’d lose complete respect for my company if HR and my boss were aware and didn’t sack the bully, regardless of gender.

  18. Marie*

    I’ve had good luck with, “You’re doing X and I need you to do Y,” said, of course, with the serious face. It sidesteps any conversations about whether their behavior is appropriate, funny, well-intentioned, whatever — you’re not even addressing that, that’s not even part of the conversation. The only conversation you’re having is “You’re doing X and I need you to do Y,” and the only responses you should hear or respond to are responses about whether or not they will stop doing X or start doing Y. Everything else is irrelevant to the conversation.

    It also provides a built-in broken record phrase. So, for example:

    Her: (Super inappropriate remark about your boobs!)
    Me: I’m not comfortable with you commenting on my breasts. I need you not to not do that.
    Her: (defensive reaction)
    Me: Yeah, I need you not to do that.
    Her: (pretend it’s a joke)
    Me: I hear you, but I need you not to do that.
    Her: (insinuate that you’re being touchy)
    Me: Yeah, I just need you to not do that.
    Her: (half-assed apology)
    Me: Cool, thanks for not doing that, I appreciate it.

    And then, the next time it happens (’cause it will), you escalate to a new broken record phrase:

    Her: (needling at you for obscure reasons of her own)
    Me: I still need you not to do that. Are you able to stop?

    I love the “are you able to stop?” line. I switched to that from “will you stop?” because “will you stop?” invited all kinds of derailments, like, “Well, I would if it’s a big deal but it’s not!” and, you know, somebody who is a jerk enough to do this is a jerk enough to answer “no” to the “will you stop?” question, and then come up with five thousand reasons why they don’t need to stop anyway.

    “Are you able to stop?” carries the implication that you just may be talking to somebody who is unable to control their behavior like an adult would, and saying “no” to “are you able to stop?” really makes the other person look like the weirdly inappropriate person they are. So I just keep broken recording “are you able to stop?” until I get a yes or a no to that, and sidestep entirely *should* they stop or *will* they stop — just are they physically or mentally capable of doing this thing I am asking them to do.

    Eventually, they’re going to have to drop the whole conversation, or admit that yes, they are able to stop, which means the entire interaction has now been boiled down to, “I need you to stop doing X and you are capable of that.” And, if at that point they refuse to stop, the next step is, “Okay, so how should we resolve this? I need you to do X and you’re able to do that, but have decided that you won’t. I feel like checking in with HR would be our next step, because I’m not sure how to fix this. When are you available?” And thus, “when are you available?” becomes the next broken record phrase.

    1. Jamie*

      I am stealing this effective immediately. Are you able to stop is brilliant! This would solve so many of the world’s problems if everyone had this approach.

    2. Malissa*

      Am I so stealing “Are you able to stop?” It sounds so much nicer than, “What the heck is wrong with you?”

    3. Runon*

      Are you able to stop is a great one! I’m putting this one in my cap for future use. This is a great way to go about it.

      The serious face is very important here too.

    4. Marie*

      Thanks, you guys! This didn’t used to be my response pattern — I fumbled around a lot more — but in the last year or so I’ve been doing a lot of work with kiddos, and had to pick up some new, very concrete, very action-oriented ways to redirect inappropriate behavior in classrooms and groups. And then one day I ran into an inappropriate colleague making everybody (and me) very uncomfortable, and I found my working-with-kids voice spilling out, and my working-with-kids personality, which doesn’t spend a lot of time hemming and hawing about, “Oh, I should lilt my voice up at the end so I seem nicer,” because I’m too busy thinking, “If I don’t call this out right now it’s going to end up with food everywhere and crying and shouting and NO NOT TODAY.” And surprise! It worked!

      “Are you able to stop?” is a legit question with kids — some of them can’t! Let’s talk about it! — but with adults, oh my gosh, they sure enough hear the “are you a child” undercurrent, even if you don’t talk down at them (which you shouldn’t if you’re having a work confrontation, obviously).

    5. Spanish Teacher*

      As a teacher, I use the broken record technique with students often, but I looooove the “are you able to stop” line and will commence implementing it immediately!

  19. Andrea*

    OP, you’ve gotten some great advice here already about what to say and do in your situation. I want to echo AAM’s advice about trying to see this co-worker as a source of amusement. Not because she’s funny and not instead of dealing with it head-on, of course, but because trying to change your perspective might help you feel better. I have done this so often in my personal and professional life, and it really has helped me. Once, I literally made a game out of it by making a bingo card (I found a bingo card generator online) and privately looking at it as a sort of exercise to remind myself that it wasn’t about me. I want to clarify that I’m not suggesting doing something like this instead of dealing with it directly, but if you can try to be amused by it (privately, don’t laugh or smile when she’s saying these things, of course), then I think it will help you feel better at the end of the day. I hate to think about you being in tears because of this awful, jealous bully; she really ought to be pitied and is obviously miserable. But try not to let it get to you anymore; it really is about her. (I also use the bingo card thing to deal with awful relatives, BTW, on those rare occasions when they absolutely cannot be avoided.)

    1. Spanish Teacher*

      Love this idea! And you can build in a treat for yourself if she helps you get a bingo.

  20. Snufkin*

    “Even if your work was bad and your boobs were hanging out of your shirt, who says things like this? Normal, socially appropriate people do not — or at least they don’t go about it like this.”

    This has been one of the hardest fought battles I have with my mother as an adult. She’d never go to that extreme, but she thinks because she thinks something (like she doesn’t like my latest haircut), it’s A-OK to say it to my face. I’ve finally had to tell her in the manner described above that Just Because You Think Something Doesn’t Give You The Right To Say It. Especially if it could potentially hurt somebody else’s feelings. Maybe this woman thinks she gets a pass because of her age? Or is she just passive aggressive or socially clueless? No matter what, yes just tell her That’s Not OK.

  21. Katie the Fed*

    I want to figure out a way to stop people commenting on my weight loss. On the one hand, yay weight loss. It’s been a hard fought battle and I’m proud of myself. But on the other – it’s really nobody’s business and the kinds of comments and questions I get are just ridiculous! (“wow, you used to be so big! what have you been doing?” “how much weight HAVE you lost?” and so on)


    1. Marie*

      “What have you been doing?”

      “A little of this, a little of that, mostly fielding *a lot* of comments about my weight, ha ha. Anyway, about the thing…”

      “How much weight HAVE you lost?”

      “Enough that it seems like EVERYBODY wants to talk about it. Anyway, about the thing…”

      Of course, all that’s assuming the comments seem to be coming from a friendly, clueless place. If they’re snide or pushy, resort to, “Since the weight loss, people talk about my body A LOT, and I’m not really into it anymore. I’m going to need to talk about something else.”

    2. Jamie*

      Ugh is right. People usually mean well and are trying to be nice, but it’s still an appraisal of one’s body along with a little evaluation. Not fun for many of us. I have found that a little polite but frosty change of topic and a “that’s not something I’m comfortable discussing” dissuades people who know you…but ffs strangers think it’s okay to talk about it.

    3. Runon*

      Clinical depression.
      The doctors can’t figure out why and are very worried.
      I can’t afford enough food to eat.

      On a more realistic note (though those have all been true to myself or close family) trying something as simple as “I’d rather not discuss it lets talk about the meeting instead.”

      Why people think that it is ok to comment on that to strangers I just don’t get.

      1. Lynn*

        Ugh. I had #3 once. I couldn’t keep down solid food for six weeks, and no one knew why. (My doctor had me tested for pregnancy, diabetes, hepatitis, pancreatitis, cancer, and HIV, all of which came back negative, whew). SO MANY inappropriate comments. SO VERY MANY. “But weight loss! Is happy!” Only up to a certain point. When you’re looking at being fed intraveneously, possibly for the rest of your life, you have gone beyond that point.

        It went away as mysteriously as it appeared, and I hope it never comes back.

        1. Malissa*

          That sounds like the span needed for Beaver Fever to clear your system. A coworker’s husband got that and lost 25 pounds in three weeks.

      2. Jamie*

        I don’t know when this became small talk – but I agree it’s awful.

        And I’m so not one of those people who think because something is an issue for me that anyone should have to change normal behaviors to accommodate that. I’m a colony of quirks which I see as wholly my problems…but compliments about weight loss are a huge trigger for me and are one of the vestiges of an old eating disorder that will never leave me. So when I’m dancing away from the topic I REALLY need the conversation to change.

        Tens of millions of people in the US alone have struggled with eating disorders – and many are like me who haven’t actively “practiced” in decades…but it’s always right there. The behaviors change, but the mindset doesn’t always for a lot of people.

        That is NOT to say that people who love to talk about this shouldn’t – and there are loads of you out there who enjoy the topic and that’s great…I just wanted to throw out a little PSA that if someone clearly doesn’t want to talk about it then dropping the subject is exactly what you should do.

        Oh – and lots of people with zero history of eating disorders also don’t want their bodies appraised and commented upon at work…add that to the millions mentioned above and no one should just assume that people are amenable to discussing food or weight in the workplace. Whether it is because of a personal issue or just because it’s freaking annoying and no one’s business you run the risk of pissing someone off.

        / end PSA

        1. Katie the Fed*

          I don’t really mind if it’s a close friend who knows how hard I’ve been working at it. What’s weird is when it’s someone I don’t know at all. It makes you realize just how much attention some people pay to your body.

    4. Kathryn T.*

      I lost about fifty pounds, and when people would ask “Wow, how did you do it?” I said “Eating fewer calories than my two year old and working out for two hours a day.” That got a lot of “oh” responses, and then people stopped asking.

        1. Kathryn T.*

          Yep, me too. For some reason, hearing that there’s no magic secret and that the only thing that works is painful and time-consuming tends to make people much less likely to witter on. ;-)

          (that is literally what I did. It should be noted, though, that my two year old eats anything that doesn’t eat him first, so the bar there is pretty high.)

          1. Rose*

            This reminds me of when I came back to work after having my second child. Someone came up to me and said “wow, you have lost a lot of weight… for a while there you were getting huge, whatever you are doing… it is working and you should keep at it” I just stared at him blanky for a moment and then said… well gaining weight tends to happen when one is pregnant and I just popped out a large baby about 6 weeks ago and that tends to make one lose weight. It just amazes me how people in a business setting can have such little understanding on what is considered rude.

  22. Katelyn*

    Is it the same response if the rude commenter is your direct supervisor? I’ve gotten a couple times in the past after having a meeting with one of the higher ups in the company “Must be nice to be young and pretty.”

    I would love a response that would have been appropriate in this instance.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      “What do you mean?” And if she doesn’t backtrack, follow it up with a sincere-sounding expression of concern that she thinks you’re not talented enough to be having that meeting on your own merits.

    2. Marie*

      “It can be, but I can’t wait to be older. People take you more seriously, and you wouldn’t believe the comments people feel they can make at you when you’re young. It’ll be nice not to get that anymore.”

        1. A Bug!*

          “I can’t wait until I’m old and ugly* so that people will stop drawing unfair conclusions about my career.”

          *(like you)

  23. darsenfeld*

    lol.. I like how everybody is defending the abusive co-worker and citing that the OP is in the wrong.

    It’s probably best to discuss this directly with the co-worker in a calm manner, and say “I’ve noticed you seem to insult me a lot. Is there something that I have done or do to offend you? I just want to clear the air so we can have a good and productive working relationship”.

    Is this doesn’t work, then I’d agree you need to document and talk to your manager and/or HR. I don’t think a good manager will dismiss it or see you as a baby/tell-tale, as any good manager should be willing to resolve conflicts whenever they arise.

    If that doesn’t work however, you need to just suck it up (kill her with kindness as they say), or ask for a transfer to another department.

    1. Liz in a Library*

      Who here has defended the co-worker? I’ve only seen people commiserating with the OP’s terrible experience…

  24. Yup*

    I love Marie’s X and Y approach above. In addition to her excellent strategy, you could consider repeating/rephrasing too, to let her hear how barkingly inappropriate her comments are. When you repeat the ‘real meaning’ of her comments back to her, you bring the passive-aggressive message right out into the open. “You’re saying that I did a bad job with the presentation?” “You’re telling me that I’m getting fat and should not eat desserts?”

    Co Irker: “You’re hanging out of your top.”
    You: (long silence, letting words hang in the air)
    You (curiously): “You’re commenting on my breasts?”
    Co Irker: “Well, it’s kind of true.”
    You (incredulously): “You’re talking about my breasts? Out loud at work?”
    Co Irker: “I’m just saying.”
    You (definitely): “For future, it’s not OK to talk about my body.” (turns away)

    1. Vicki*

      All of these wonderful ideas here in the safe written confines of the AAM blog. But could I ever remember or use these suggestions in Real Life?

      I doubt it.

      I hope no one ever hits me upside the head with a nasty insult at work. I’d probably stutter. Or get really angry and yell.

    2. Anony1234*

      In a convo like this, I would be so inclined to say, “Please keep your eyes up top” while I’m pointing to my face.

  25. Anonymous*

    As someone who is fat, female, and large-breasted, I can say BOTH the fat and the boobs hanging out are equally hurtful, even if neither are true. While as far as legal issues go, the boob comment is more problematic, really both are symptomatic of the women can be marginalized/discriminated in the workplace by being women, even by other women. Being fat is not (usually) hurtful to a man’s career, but it can be to women’s. So calling someone fat should NOT be tolerated, just as much as making a comment about someone’s breasts. (NOTE I am not saying this happens all the time or even most of the time, but it can be discrimination, and needs to be stopped before it ever gets that far.)

    1. -X-*

      True, but in this case, one peer saying bad things while everyone else is supportive is not an example of marginalization.

      1. Anonymous*

        Exactly. But you don’t want to start it even going in that direction. If this person does something similar to other co-workers then it’s her fault, when the management fails to stop it and management and HR makes it OP’s fault it’s now become, not legally, but still effectively discrimination.

        1. -X-*

          Not every obnoxious action toward a woman is discrimination or marginalization due to gender, or even tending in that direction. Some people are just assholes.

  26. OneoftheMichelles*

    I’m going to have to read all the above comments later, after work–when all you Eastern Time Zone people are off the blog…
    As someone who’s had a couple very difficult people in my life, I just wanted to say kudos to Alison for “boorish loon.” I think that’s the best summing up of this sort of personality that I’ve ever heard–and it makes me laugh!

  27. Another Anonymous Person*

    I am a very nice person…to a point. If a person pushes past my boundaries, regardless of who that person is, (s)he has it coming. Seriously. I won’t take BS from anyone.

    So if I were you, and she just made the comment about how you’ll get fat since you just ate a piece of pie, I would walk over to her desk, look her dead in the eye (give her the death glare and say in a don’t mess with me tone:
    “What I eat is NONE of your business. And, actually, how I dress or, how I wear my hair or, how I talk or ANYTHING personal about me is also NONE of your business. Frankly, I am tired of hearing your derogatory comments about me so, please keep your mouth shut. “

  28. Steve G*

    When I was young I said a “your mama joke” the lady at my job didn’t flinch and said “she can’t, she’s dead!” and laughed! How mortifying if the person hadn’t had a sense of humor.

  29. Anonymous*

    On food issues at work, I’ve found that it helps to just be shameless about it. More generally speaking, the way I keep my self-esteem up in the face of random belittling comments is by imagining myself to be a Pixar-esque villain. Think Gru (main character of Despicable Me).

    Passing stranger co-worker: “Doritos and Coke for lunch?!”
    Me: “Well, the vending machine was out of chocolate bars!”
    Me: “Yup! Want one?”

    I’ve also found that offering people a bite of the food that they are Aghast and Scandalized over will do one of three things that improves my life:
    (1) Make them an “accomplice” to my food crime if they accept a morsel, and thus in no position to complain.
    (2) Scare them away quickly because they are terrified of becoming an accomplice to my food crime.
    (3) Give them a chance to turn the conversation back to chattering about themselves. I nod and smile and let them go on about their latest inane food issue, just like if they were talking about their child or their latest vacation or whatever.

    Then I get back to my latest diabolical scheme.

    1. Malissa*

      I’ve used the technique of offering to share. Now that I think about it, the comments have dropped significantly about my food since then. I hardly ever get a comment beyond, “that smells good.”

    2. Heather*

      “Yes! And when I finish my Doritos and Coke, I am going to steal (pause…for…effect…) THE MOON!”

  30. Rose*

    I just wanted to add that if this was my office (I am the HR Manager), we could consider this harassment (especially the comment about your boobs). I would suggest meeting with your HR manager, give her the details on what is happening, and be sure that you use the word “harassment” a few times. That is a scary word for us HR people. When employees come to me with these sort of complaints, I meet with the offensive employee and personally ask them to stop and also depending on the severity of the comments, I would write them up. Good luck. I am eager to get an update on this one!!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The problem here is that it’s not harassment in the legal sense, and most offices wouldn’t consider it harassment, so she risks coming across as inappropriately escalating something that she should be dealing with herself (minus the one comment on her breasts).

  31. Elikit*

    One of the benefits of working this out between you and your co-worker is that they/higher ups/HR etc. may not have your back as much as you might want with this woman. She’s been there for a while. She’s known for being this way and she still has a job. Everyone else has learned to work around her.

    People are super invested in keeping the peace and so if you’re making a big stink about the woman they’ve all collectively decided to ignore or put up with, you may find you’re the office’s problem co-worker, and not the woman who is being the office ass.

    I am nearly 3 months into my new job. I had a co-worker who sounds exactly like yours. EXACTLY. I think I copped at least 2 comments a week while she was there. I basically ignored her because I knew she was retiring soon and I wouldn’t have to deal with her anymore. Also, she had been at the company for ages, and for some reason, everybody loved this woman.

    There had been some talk of her coming back to do some part-time work. I hope not, because her presence in the office is like a bad smell lingering, but if it does come to pass, I’ll definitely be using the techniques up thread.

  32. Sarah*

    I really hope this doesn’t happen, but from my experience with people like this who just antagonize others, they don’t stop with a “please don’t say that anymore” or “that isn’t funny”. Oftentimes, this just escalates the behavior or makes it even more passive aggressive. They feel like you’re trying to out them or catch them or something and get upset over it and then go for blood… Again, I really hope this doesn’t happen to you. I am also very uncomfortable about causing an awkward sort of confrontation at work. I would rather just ignore it and move on. The only thing you can do in this situation is handle it head on like everyone said and respond with “Excuse me, that wasn’t funny” or something to that extent. I’m just not so sure she’ll stop, hopefully she will, but there’s something wrong with this woman. She may react unpredictably. (I work with crazies LOL, my understanding of just how strange things can get is high). Just prepare yourself and if she tried to turn your comment into an all out fight don’t fall for it and stick to your guns throughout the day. I think she’ll either come at you right then, or ride you all day and make you go through a bunch of confrontations. Whatever you do, don’t let her get the better of you, don’t yell at her out of frustration. Hopefully, she will dig herself a BIG hole with her behavior and do something which will seriously damage her reputation at your office and hopefully result in her being fired! Best of Luck!

  33. Gmac*

    I think AMA has given good advice. I predict if you respond as advised then other colleagues (if there are some in earshot) may also pick up on this and point out to her she should moderate her behaviour.
    Lets define it clearly… its bullying in the workplace and the only way to deal with bully’s is to stand up for yourself.

  34. Lois Homer*

    Year ago a very rude cashier at a supermarket made a nasty remark to me because I wasn’t fast enough in unloading my groceries so she could have the cart in front. When I told her I was moving as fast as I could she smirked “You’re could have a heart attack with your age so chill out.” I was 69 years old and thin. I retorted right back, “You’re the one that could have a heart attack with your weight.” She went ballistic, crying. It wasn’t appropriate but she deserved it. Someday these jerks are going to get put down by someone with a bigger mouth like me because what goes around comes around in time. By the way I’m pleasant to cashiers and most of them are the same with me.

  35. Aaron*

    As a man, I totally agree with the serious face. When the women at my office harass me I used to act like they were playing around like team mates in baseball. When I had a bad day and a woman remarked, “nice view” while I was picking something up, I spun around and delivered a dead pan, “not today”. Well, even though it was still indirect with the words, my face said it all and the level of respect from that individual has increased beyond pre-offense levels.

  36. Tee*

    She is an elderly woman. I would just not respond to any of her comments or react. Some people can be highly blunt and not realize it could be offensive. Don’t take it the hard way. It could be she has health issues. Old peoples’ thought process changes and their health deteriorates. They tend to be much more negative and also reflect on things. My mother is 59 and dad is 62. They both have health issues and are in pain. When they are in pain they tend to spew negative comments. She also may be the conservative type considering her age group. I know it’s annoying hearing it 3-4 times a week but hang in there.

  37. Freedom*

    If you make it clear the woman’s comments are unwanted and you want her to stop and she stops, no harm no foul. If she continues, take specific notes about the comments made and when and go to your manager/supervisor. If you don’t stop this woman’s harassment, she will harass others.

  38. Sasha LeTour*

    I know this is from a year ago, but I wanted to comment in case it helps anyone who is reading it for advice. (I love reading back pages of AAM as it is a treasure trove of tips for negotiating the workplace these days!)

    This year, I got a significant promotion. Two other senior-level people in my division were also gunning for this promotion and I was chosen because I put in the most time, got the best results, and avoid being frequently absent and making multiple loud, personal calls throughout the day as they tend to do. Regardless, they are not happy with the outcome and have begun to make rude comments aimed at me.

    One has been making digs about my work, and the other will make digs about my age (this person is in their 50s so anyone under 45 is a “child” to them), my appearance (the new “line” here is that it’s “frivolous” to dress up for work, a “waste of time” to give yourself a manicure, and on and on), and other aspects of my personal life, especially financial/weekend stuff (e.g. I bring my lunch to save money and am careful with my earnings because my spouse is out of work at the moment so co-worker calls me a miser and says I am intentionally ‘sucking the joy’ out of life). They both do this off and on. The latter individual does it while bragging about themselves gratuitously many times a day.

    They will also rush over to each other’s desks/offices when I’m away and talk in low tones, making it so I “catch” them. I imagine they are hoping that I become paranoid that they’re talking about me, and every single time, they become upset when I ignore it entirely. As for the rude comments, I have been confronting them straight up about it and they usually back off. Mostly, these days, they just display their irritation by being nasty and short-tempered to me for no discernible reason and I counter with being my usual cheerful, business-focused self. It drives them nuts because they want so badly to upset me, but can’t.

    Previously, I dealt with a co-worker who hated their job and would try to take it out on me by saying things like “God, aren’t WE so OPTIMISTIC. Just Little Miss Chipper, AREN’T we?” in a snide tone. I usually just cocked my eyebrow at this person. Drove them nuts. Last I heard, they quit and have left the city. I guess they’re in an office in Connecticut, trying (and failing) to make someone else miserable.

  39. anonymous*

    I have had a similar situation at my work… I am 39 and befriended a lady that is 58. At first it was fine and then it became worse… Almost every morning she was then in my office when I was trying to get ready for work and then during lunch times and then in afternoons and throughout the day sometimes. The it started to almost feel like she was trying to compete with me and she said she wanted a fairytale life like mine and wanted to feel wonderful like me. One day, she came into my office joking around as she saw my fitness magazine and commented on getting a fat stomach in your fifties and said “this is what you will get”. Well I just dont like negativity and said when I am 60 i will have a perfect body and she said no one does saying it isnt possible… I am very slender and athletic and and lead a healthy life. She went and told another co-worker that I said she wasnt fit for her age… which i didnt, and which she isn’t at all healthy and as fit as she could be for her age, but I would NEVER say that to anyone. Bottom line, I didnt like someone telling me what I cant do! Really unwarranted and negative and like the manager commented to you that it is not your issue but your co-workers issues of insecurity of her body and overall unhappiness in her life… As much as I hated to do it I started to redefine the boundaries of our relationship as I only want good karma and postitive energy in my life, plus I wanted MY time back to learn italian on my lunch break, read my book in the morning and just relax . Several others things also had occured where she would tell me what to do jokingly but when i rebuted she would keep saying no over and over again like a 10 year old. I felt that the relationship was only taking away from my life and not adding to it and there were far more importants things that I wanted to do with my free time at work than to sit and talk to someone was not positive and not a good influence. Dont let people take your power! Remember it is their own issues which fuel their negativity… I am sooo much more healthy and happy that I am choosing what I want to do with my time instead of someone just taking it from me…

  40. sara*

    move desks.
    tell her to not make any personal comments
    and stay away from her.
    she is envious of your youth , life and hope and future, while she has none…it makes her feel better to make you feel bad.
    i have had something similar happen to me..i left the job as i had to help her 70% of the time so i decided to get another job. she harrassed me over my personal my boyfriend and it was very weird that she did not want me to have a husband and baby and be happy… now i barely think about that crazy psycho “old bag” she was 56 but lonely and miserable and a chain smoker with terrible outfits. however i once worked with a 65 year old woman who looked like marilyn monroes mother ie glamorous and she was so awesome and supportive and the opposite,she made me feel fabulous.

  41. Jolanda*

    I so wish my boorish, chain-smoking co-worker, who I have to sit by at work, would find other employment! She blew up in front of me the other day–in front of our boss. He, however, is getting ready to retire soon and I think has decided not to write her up. I hate, did I say hate (?), to be yelled at and would never resort to such insidious stupidity at work, especially, and now we aren’t really talking. Well, sometimes we do, about work stuff…Thank goodness I don’t have to listen to all her personal life issues!!! That was driving me crazy, but I think if he hasn’t written her up, that she thinks it is okay to bully me by yelling at me. Anyway, I hope she moves on!!! She is gone a lot from work here lately…so??? What would any of you do about such a person?

    1. Jolanda*

      Sorry, I meant that she blew up at me in front of our boss. Luckily for me, I stayed calm, and just kind of moved on from there. I was so shocked, since she has such a habit of telling me everything! I’m glad that has stopped. I know way too much about her.

  42. Jessica S*

    You NEED to complain and report her. These comments are emotional and verbal abuse towards you, and you should NEVER allow someone to belittle you and disrespect you. This behavior in the workplace is very unprofessional and is NOT okay. This woman is toxic and is causing the environment, where you spend a good part of your life in, to be unhealthy for you. She needs to know that this is not okay and if she continues with this behavior she needs to be removed. It is possible that, because she is an apathetic person and lacks empathy towards the other people who surround her, she does not understand how these comments have a negative and unhealthy effect on others. Maybe you could also have someone from HR sit down with her and explain to her how these comments have a negative effect on others’ mental and emotional well being and cause them harm because of this. You need to advocate for the others who were hurt by these comments and push to have this type of behavior be disallowed in the work place. Also, do your best to have a positive effect on the other people, with whom you work , and spread kindness, respect, and compassion in your work place. You will find that once you start increasing positivity in your environment, you and everyone around you in that environment will be much more happy and mentally and emotionally healthy than before.

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