when a coworker missed a deadline, I told her it’s a good thing she’s pretty

A reader writes:

I was written up at work yesterday due to a single comment that I made. Last week, I was frustrated with a woman employee who failed to meet a deadline on a simple task (not the first time she’s done this) and, while blowing off steam, one of the things I said was that it’s a good thing she is pretty.

I did not mean this is in a derogatory way. I was simply frustrated and this woman is not above me in any way; she is entry level. She also did not tell me immediately that I had upset her at all; the next I heard about it was from my manager.

I would like to question why formalities were initiated – I feel this was unwarranted for a single, isolated comment and that an apology would have been sufficient. Can I do this? If so, what is the best way to approach it?

I don’t know what kind of formalities are being initiated, but I’d strongly suggest that you apologize and demonstrate that you get that this was wildly inappropriate to say. The problem is, though, that it doesn’t sound like you do get that yet. So, look: You made a remark that assessed a coworker’s level of attractiveness (which is creepy), insulted her intelligence (which is belittling), and implied that her looks are among her best qualifications (creepy and belittling).

You Just Don’t Talk To People This Way At Work. You can’t. Now, a single remark doesn’t meet the legal standard for sexual harassment — but it sure as hell raises concerns that you might cause bigger issues in the future.

It’s also not really relevant that she’s not above you in the hierarchy. While that would have been its own weird situation (belittling someone with authority over you generally doesn’t go over well), it’s just as problematic without that. In fact, if she’s junior to you, then there are power dynamics in play, and that adds an additional type of creepy into the mix.

The best thing you can do now is show that you truly realize that this wasn’t okay and why … because if you don’t, your employer is going to have reasonable concerns that you might relate inappropriately to other people in your workplace in the future.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 626 comments… read them below }

    1. Sigrid*

      “WTF Wednesday” needs to be a tag. Along with “what the hell?!” and “surprisingly, that actually is illegal”.

        1. tcookson*

          Last week, on the first so-noted WTF Wednesday, I had a real-life WTF Wednesday encounter with a co-worker. I felt honored, in a way!

            1. tcookson*

              Our front-desk receptionist, who has been in constant trouble for not getting along with people at work, cornered me in my office (under the pretense of delivering the daily mail) and asked me to write a letter recommending her as a replacement for the deans assistant.

              The WTF parts were 1) part of her request included an insult to me, and 2) I was totally unprepared with a response — I just let her talk while at the back of my mind I was trying to scrounge up some words that AAM has recommended in the past.

              The insult part was, “I will be nicer for you to report to than Former Dean’s Assistant was.” This, after we just had a year-long battle between the department heads and the former assistant over the fact the department heads’ assistants report directly to them, not to the deans assistant.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Thinking about it! It would be easy to do going forward, but hard to go back and find all the posts that should be tagged with it retroactively (which isn’t essential, but I’m neurotic about that kind of thing).

          1. badger_doc*

            Is there a way to search the comments for the term “WTF” and tag them that way? :-)

          2. Sara M*

            Maybe a volunteer would help you, as they did for the salary database. People like to help with this kind of thing.

            1. tcookson*

              A volunteer to locate the intersection of WTF and Wednesday. Not me — I do not possess the skill set.

          3. A Bug!*

            As much as I am enjoying WTF Wednesday, I think actually labeling them as such might be too much like declaring open season on mocking comments, so that might be a factor in deciding.

            1. Cath@VWXYNot?*

              I thought the same thing when the idea first came up – these are real people writing in with real problems, and while I enjoy the WTFness of some of these questions as much as anyone, I don’t think they need to be explicitly labelled as such

            2. Ask a Manager* Post author

              No, I totally agree with that — the “WTF” label would have to be reserved when the OP herself isn’t causing the “WTF” reaction … like OPs with crazy bosses, rude interviewers, etc.

              1. KarenT*

                Makes sense to me, with the exception of a certain OP with a certain sticker on his truck!

              2. Nicola*

                I agree with this. I love the idea of “WTF Wednesday” but only under the “Holy bananas, can you believe my boss” pretenses or something like that. I think otherwise, we’d have a lot of hostility. Like a “wall of shame” if you will!

  1. imran*

    An official response was perfect in this scenario. It was a very creepy thing to say. A better way to blow off steam could be “This task wasn’t very hard”. Even better, show how it’s done.

    If nothing works, complain to manager / HR. DONE. End of story

    1. Colette*

      Even “this task wasn’t very hard” isn’t something you should say.

      If she’s not delivering things you need her to deliver, there are appropriate ways to say that (and to escalate to management), but comments on her abilities or body are not appropriate.

      1. Cassie*

        Yeah, I agree – I told someone recently “it’ll only take you X minutes to do”, and I regretted saying that. I was frustrated because she kept hemming and hawing, but still – it’s too dismissive to make a statement like that (plus, things always take longer than you plan so the 5 minutes is really more like 15-20 minutes).

    2. Bryan*

      That’s very belittling still and doesn’t create a health work environment. A simple task is subjective anyways.

      All you need to say it, “I needed this done and it was not completed in time.” Report that to the manager or if you’re the manger contact HR to fire her.

    3. themmases*

      I really don’t think “blowing off steam” is a thing you do at work, at the person you’re frustrated with. That’s for home, or out with friends. Maybe with a coworker you’re very close to who isn’t involved.

      There are tons of polite, work appropriate ways to let someone know that what they did isn’t OK. In my workplace, people usually do this by responding to the email thread where the person promised to do something (so they can see how long ago that was), asking politely for an update, and sometimes giving some background on the effect this is having on them. E.g. “I just wanted to check in on this because our sponsor has asked me for it.”

      1. JamieG*

        “I really don’t think “blowing off steam” is a thing you do at work, at the person you’re frustrated with.”

        I agree 100%. And it concerns me slightly that OP calls it “one of the things I said”. That makes it sound like some sort of tirade, almost – like he was ranting at her, and that comment slipped out.

    4. Anon30*

      Yes, it’s definitely inappropriate to say ‘This task wasn’t very hard’, as well (although I do see where you are going with your comment). First of all, even that is demoralizing and doesn’t support a healthy work environment – it can seriously impact someone’s esteem and productivity. I heed people to keep that in mind before they spill any negative comments. You want your workers to be efficient and productive, not to feel awful about themselves and have that affect how well they’re working that day or that week. That doesn’t mean that a boss shouldn’t be honest or critical in a professional way though, of course!

      Imran – I do agree that the boss could respond by showing how they want it done though!

      Secondly, the low quality work could also be stemming from bad communication between the boss/manager and employee, as well. A good supervisor/boss can look outside the situation and ask ‘why’ something didn’t turn out the way it should have. I often have that issue where my superior tells me to do one thing and then when I send them the final product, my boss claims that they wanted me to do something else to it/do it differently. But, I have the communications to prove that I actually did what they asked. I don’t argue (anymore – I did/would have when I was in my early 20s) – I just fix it and move on, but it’s something for supervisors to consider. Communication is KEY!

  2. JC*

    Wow. Just wow. I cannot wrap my head around why this guy can’t understand why he was written up for this. Is it really 2014?

    1. Jerry Vandesic*

      I don’t see anything indicating this was a guy. I thought it was a woman when I first read it.

        1. Delurking*

          Agreed. Reminds me of when I was commiserating with someone about being unemployed. (We’re both women.) She rolled her eyes at me and said, “Someone will hire you. You’re pretty.” Still sucks to hear that from a woman!

      1. Gloria*

        I took it to be a man because a woman is unlikely to refer to her colleague as a “woman employee.” Not because men are sexist or something, but it seems logical to me that women are less likely to see other women as specifically other, since they’re both women.

        Beyond that, it seems weird to say “women employee” when you’re going to use “she” and “her” anyway. But that’s just a matter of efficiency of language.

        As a personal point, I’d find it weird to point out a co-worker I was discussing as male (or female) unless it was specifically relevant in some way.

        1. tinyorc*

          Yeah, I also half-raised an eyebrow at “woman employee”… maybe it’s just the phrasing, but it’s weirdly Othering. If, for some reason, I need to specify that I’m talking about a woman from my workplace, I go with “female colleague” or something along those lines.

            1. Anonna Miss*


              I find “woman employee” extremely Othering, as well. I can’t imagine anyone saying “Man employee”. Ever. It’s so freaking awkward. Not just using a word that is primarily a noun as an adjective, but is it really that weird that someone with a job is female, to the point that it needs to be pointed out.

    2. Jaimie*

      My guess is that part of the problem was the OP’s tone and the way the comment was delivered. The remark itself is inappropriate, but I’m thinking that it’s likely that there’s more to the story– either other remarks in the past or the way this comment was made.

    3. thenoiseinspace*

      My thoughts exactly. “Oh, hey there, 1962 – didn’t see you come in! How you been? Have you heard about this newfangled ‘equality’ thing that’s been going around? But I’m sure it’s just a fad.”

    4. Lalou*

      Glad I’m not the only one here working in the 1950s. I must admit that I assumed it was a man OP too but there is nothing apart from the content telling me so (as in, in my experience it has always been men coming out with such a phrase). Either way saying that to anyone is creepy, rude and demeaning and I’m really glad that the woman complained and something happened about it.

      I may be projecting a bit in what I’m about to say next. It may be just one phrase to you, OP, but a lot of sexist behavior these days is very subtle. All of those little phrases that don’t mean too much on their own can add up to a chorus telling women that their only value is in their physical appearance. Unless this woman’s job is to “be pretty”, this comment was completely unacceptable because how attractive you find her should have absolutely no influence on how she is treated at work. Saying “its a good thing you’re pretty” is to imply that she is somehow getting preferential treatment just because you find her attractive. It is telling her that her attractiveness is more important than whatever she did wrong.

  3. Dana*

    100% agree with Alison – this is SUCH a bad comment to make to anyone, let alone to someone you work with. And the phrase “this woman is not above me in any way; she is entry level” does not at all make it okay to comment on someone’s attractiveness/intelligence.

    Don’t question why it became an official thing – that only makes it look like you don’t understand why it’s not okay. Apologize, profusely, and keep future comments like this to yourself.

    1. PEBCAK*

      The comment about entry level almost makes it worse. This guy has NO IDEA why he has to respect other people.

      1. KarenT*

        I agree it makes it worse, both because it shows the OP thinks it’s more okay to be disrespectful to staff “below” him, but also for the company, because if this does end up going the route of a sexual harassment case the case will be worse because the OP outranks the female employee.

      2. Jamie*

        I agree that her being entry level absolutely makes it worse. Entry level employees are more likely to have some angst over whether they should report it, if it will affect them, etc.

        Try that with someone who out ranks you – less angst and more official bootprints on the paperwork.

        1. revmatthews*

          I’m sure you guys have heard/read it before, but “bootprints on the paperwork” is a new one for me. One of the reasons why I enjoy this site–thanks!

          1. KarenT*

            What does it mean? I just googled the expression (never heard it either) and didn’t come up with anything.

            1. Carpe Librarium*

              The implication that sprang to my mind was a particularly heavy ‘stamp’ of authority, possibly where the signature would go. “If you do this again, guess where the next stamp might go…”

      3. AnonAthon*

        Oh yeah, it totally makes it worse. Not only was he saying something completely inappropriate, he was saying it to someone that he knew (either consciously or unconsciously) would be less able to fight back.

  4. Ms Enthusiasm*

    WOW interesting to hear about this type of thing from the other side. Usually we here from the person who received the comment. If the OP cares to elaborate it would be interesting to hear why he thought this comment was ok to say. What did he (in his own mind) mean by saying it? If you are completely honest with yourself, don’t you think you were trying to belittle her, if only just a little bit? Did that give you some satisfaction because the missed the deadline? Do you care to tell us how old you are – possibly a generational thing, not that it makes it ok. Just really trying to understand this.

    1. Elysian*

      I get the impression from his letter that knows it probably wasn’t the best thing to say, but thinks its not THAT bad because it isn’t a pattern.

      I don’t think that he gets that making a comment like this is a problem because it demonstrates a real lack of understanding about what is and isn’t appropriate. Like AAM says, maybe its not sexual harassment by itself, but he’s demonstrated that he could become ‘that guy that the women don’t want to work with’ in the office.

      Maybe this was an isolated incident in the heat of the moment and he’s generally an ok guy to work with. But by saying it, he’s opened the door to the possibility that he’s been doing other things that aren’t as obvious, or that he will do those things in the future. It was poor judgment, and I don’t think he gets that now management is wondering what other things he might have poor judgment about.

      1. Puddin*

        I agree. I think the OP has also opened the door to heightened scrutiny by his colleagues. I would advise the OP to show nothing but the utmost respect for all those you work with. And if you cannot tell the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behavior at work, stop interacting with others until you are more accomplished at making that distinction.

    2. Jess*

      Yes, I’m assuming he meant to belittle her b/c she missed another deadline. My guess is that his surprise stems from the seriousness of the reaction, not that he really believes he wasn’t trying to belittle her. If his remark hadn’t involved commentary on a junior female employee’s looks in the workplace then it probably wouldn’t have been escalated; it would have simply been a rude, condescending comment. And I’d guess that he thought he’d simply made a rude remark to a colleague in a moment of anger or frustration and everyone would move on, and didn’t realize he’d stepped on the landmine he did.

      1. fposte*

        Yes, “God, you’re an idiot” may not have escalated in quite the same way, but I’d discipline an employee who uttered it.

        1. Jamie*

          Yes. Gender neutral insult – but still totally unacceptable.

          I don’t care how frustrated someone is at work – there is no reason to get personal.

          Now if you behave professionally and civilly to your co-workers at all times and go home and tell your dogs all about the idiots at work, I won’t tell. And neither will your dogs.

          1. Kate*

            Pretty much. The gendered nature of the comment is what makes this shocking, but let’s not forget that even underneath OP’s lack of gender sensitivity, who thinks it’s okay at all to insult colleagues at work??

  5. Juli G.*

    The fact that you don’t see it as a big deal because she’s junior to you is extremely troubling. It’s really not more acceptable to insult people lower in the hierarchy than you and doing so is a good way to keep you from ascending any further up the ladder.

    Frankly, if the tone of your email is similar to all of your interactions with her, I understand why this woman didn’t approach you first.

    1. Mike C.*

      I was about to post the very same thing.

      What in the hell is wrong with you? Do you normally treat people you feel are “below you” like garbage?

      Holy crap, this is not acceptable behavior on or off the job.

      1. Elizabeth*

        I’ve been using “What the hell is wrong with you?” a lot lately. It covers a whole range of bad behavior and puts the onus back on the person committing it.

        Just in case the LW’s junior colleague ever sees this: you did the right thing.

        1. Allison (not AAM!)*

          I don’t even like that at all. It’s demeaning and cuts to the core of the person, not to the action (or inaction). You may think it, but what you need to say is more along the lines of “What were you thinking?”. It still puts the onus on the responsible party, but not onto their character.

          1. Midge*

            I might think “What the hell is wrong with you” regarding people at work, but I don’t think I would ever say it because it comes across as very hostile. “Why did/would you do that” strikes me as another option, in addition to what Allison said.

            1. Anon Accountant*

              I like this and use it with the 3 new hires (our staff size is 18 total so 3 new hires is a big deal). It helps to understand their thought processes and where things went wrong at and to help them through.

            2. bearing*

              The difference is that “why did you do that” is behavior-focused and “what is wrong with you” is ad hominem — the “the hell” isn’t what makes the difference.

              I still think it’s okay to call this WTF Wednesday. Instead of “what the F is wrong with these people” it can be “why the F did these people do these things.” At least out loud.

          2. Cassie*

            You’d also have to watch out for tone in saying “What were you thinking?”. I read it more like “geez, you’re stupid, WHAT were you THINKING?” whereas you meant it more like “what was your thought process?”.

        2. Kat*

          “What were you hoping to achieve?” works for me. It assumes that there was some sort of a thought process, and opens the door to finding more appropriate ways to achieve the desired result.

          1. Allison (not AAM!)*

            Actually, that is more along the lines of what I was trying to describe, I just typed and hit send really fast earlier! When I said “what were you thinking”, it was more along the lines of trying to determine the thought process; they may have seen something I didn’t, or it could be that they had “done it that way at the previous job” or something else – I’ve always been open to process improvement and if hearing others’ way of doing something accomplishes that, I’m all for it. OR, of course, it gives me the opportunity to help to correct the wrong thought processes.

      2. Tiff*

        I agree. And better to get hard questions from AAM and possibly see the light than to wait for the next “official overreaction” to something OP thinks is not a big deal.

    2. themmases*

      Yeah, I kind of can’t believe OP is surprised that this coworker didn’t talk to him about this. Sure, managers generally want employees to talk to each other first before taking things higher. But the OP’s remark is inappropriate enough that many people would not feel comfortable talking to him about it, I think most reasonable people would sympathize with that. I certainly wouldn’t want to talk privately again with someone who had just spoken to me this way.

      1. Ethyl*

        Yeah and as a ladyperson who has been subjected to my fair share of inappropriate commentary, I can just IMAGINE how this would go with the person who made the comment. “Don’t flatter yourself, I’m not attracted to you,” “come on, can’t you take a joke,” “oh come on, women love being complimented!” UGH.

        1. JamieG*

          Plus, though it’s clearly belittling, it can be hard in the moment to explain exactly why. Someone acting in bad faith could easily turn a “That’s inappropriate” into a long conversation (“What, because I called you pretty? Would you prefer I call you ugly?”), and in this context she had no reason to believe OP was acting in good faith.

        2. Jax*


          There’s no way to have a private chat with someone who vented about you to a 3rd party. The venter is going to feel exposed/ashamed/afraid and is going to quickly jump to the defense.

          Most people immature enough to vent about a coworker at work aren’t mature enough to go home, reflect on what they said, and realize they were out of line. Odds are the OP never thought about his remarks until management sat him down later. If the young woman had confronted him she probably would have gotten a snide and condescending response.

          **I’m assuming the OP is a man, but this could be a woman! I’ve heard women say things like this about other women.***

    3. Kara*

      Agreed. A good measure of character is how people treat those they perceive as “beneath them,” and not just at work. I cannot stand it when people are habitually rude to cashiers and food servers, for example.

  6. RCB*

    I did not mean this is in a derogatory way.

    I’m confused. Then how DID you mean it? I can’t think of any way to interpret this comment in a non-derogatory way.

    And I think the main problem here is that you just don’t *get* that this is an inherently derogatory thing to say, and that’s why you are confused as to why you were written up. I think you need to re-examine just exactly why you thought that was an appropriate way to “blow off steam.” And think about how you would have reacted if it had been a male employee who had dropped the ball on a deadline. Would you have said something like this to him?

    1. Artemesia*

      Wow! Exactly. The subtext of this is that girls are sluts hired for their looks. It doesn’t get too much more derogatory than that.

      1. KarenT*

        Exactly, and it’s just as damaging when it’s positioned as a compliment. The OP perhaps thought he was complimenting the female employee by calling her pretty, but in this context it’s really an insult (and of course, unless you are a model or an actress, your looks have nothing to do with your job performance and assumptions or implications otherwise, even in the form of a joke, are damaging).

        1. Windchime*

          I have no illusions that the OP thought that he/she was complimenting the woman with this comment. None at all. It was intended as an insult, and that’s how it was received. My interpretation would be, “Good thing you’re pretty, because you’re certainly not keeping your job because of your skills.”

    2. ClaireS*

      I agree. The OP needs to do some serious soul searching on why this happened. And that needs to go way beyond “but I was just blowing off steam and I didn’t mean it.” You need to do some serious introspection about how you relate to women vs men and how you can start re-aligning your behaviour.

    3. Dan*

      I think what he really meant was, “I know I shouldn’t have said it, but it’s not a really big deal. Why can’t they just tell me not to do it again?”

      1. RCB*

        I agree – that’s probably what he meant. But what he doesn’t get is that it totally is a really big deal.

      1. Jen RO*

        …so everyone who disagrees with the majority is sexist? You are missing the point of BCW’s comments…

        1. Anon*

          Oh, I mixed it up – I thought our other regular commenter was “BCR” and it just seemed like too big a coincidence. I retract my guess of trolling.

          1. Anon*

            (And I didn’t say he was sexist, but he does normally comment that particular things people say are sexist are, in his view, not.)

          2. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I’ve said this a couple of time recently but I know everyone doesn’t see every comment here, so I’ll say it again: Everyone, please cool it with accusations of trolling when you don’t like someone’s opinion. The bar for trolling accusations should be a lot higher than what it’s been.

          1. LJL*

            OK, I see it now. When I see RCB, I think of our dearly departed senator. Context is everything. :-)

    4. fposte*

      I’m going to wave my cranky old lady cane here and put some of the blame on popular culture here. People say this kind of crap in sitcoms–there’s even a specific Friends episode where one of the women says it to Joey–and it normalizes in people’s minds the kind of statement that really shouldn’t be normalized.

      1. S*

        That’s true, and I agree it’s not okay – but this was in a workplace setting, which makes it very different and much more serious. It’s not a nice joke to make about your close friends (which is the context in that episode) but it’s entirely different, and way more serious, when the context is someone talking to a female coworker (who, it sounds like, is lower than the OP in the chain of command) and implying that job performance and looks are related or balance each other out.

        1. fposte*

          Oh, I’m not remotely saying that the statement was acceptable, and I think most of us grasp that stuff happening in sitcoms isn’t something you do in real life. But I think there’s a little bit of erosion of resistance when you hear something being said, and that’s why I think people who are saying they might jokingly utter that to a friend at work might want to skip it.

      2. BJ McKay*

        I agree. I taught high school for a number of years and now regularly hire undergraduate and graduate students for contract work. There are a number of them that I can imagine in a scenario like this – on both sides. Many of them aren’t mean, sexist, or unkind but merely ignorant about what constitutes professional behavior and appropriate workplace conduct. I’m guessing the LW is in his 20s.

        This is why I would willingly scrap WUTHERING HEIGHTS and some AP Calculus for a fewandatory classes on topics including professionalism.

        1. Anne*

          “I’m guessing the LW is in his 20s.”

          Really? Because I’m 25 and guessed that the LW was in his 40s. This is *exactly* the type of thing my overbearing and socially awkward father in law would say. I’ve actually heard him say “You’re lucky you’re cute” to my sister in law when they were disagreeing, in a way that he probably thought was humorous and lightening the tension, but would have made me pretty mad.

          1. JamieG*

            Yeah, the only person who’s ever told me I’m lucky I’m pretty was a man in his late thirties-early forties. (And my supervisor, actually.)

            1. BJ McKay*

              Just making a statement based on my experiences with the amount of people I hire in their late teens/ 20s.
              I certainly don’t think older people are immune from boorish and rude behavior nor do I think twenty-somethings are incapable of professionalism.

              I have had similar experiences with both workers and clients and I try to take the opportunity to educate them on appropriate behavior. They get one chance, then they are gone.

      3. Positivity Boy*

        Not that I disagree complete with your, but to be fair Rachel is the one who says it to him when he asks her to pay to replace the refrigerator he broke. Not really the same situation, and I would hope anyone old enough to watch Friends understand the difference in context between a joke you say to your roommate/very close friend in your apartment vs. an angry comment made to a suboordinate at work. If anything I’d say Mad Men is more guilty for perpetuating this behavior when people don’t realize it’s meant to show how horribly sexist male behavior was in the past, not how great it is to be misogynistic now.

      4. Cat*

        “Friends” is an interesting example. I was just talking to a friend who was doing a “Friends” rewatch (we’re of an age that we more or less grew up on the show), who was saying how much stuff didn’t register when she was young that seems really off now. The treatment of Ross’s ex-wife and her partner, being one example (and Chandler’s dad another). A lot has changed in the last couple of decades, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t still internalized a lot of stuff from when we were younger.

        1. bearing*

          This is one of the reasons why, as a parent, I ban TV comedies with lots of sarcasm, snark, and mean comments for years longer than I ban TV shows with excessive sex and violence.

          The sarcasm is more dangerous.

          1. Jax*

            YES!!! My daughter goes on Netflix binges of Wizards of Waverly Place or Jesse and comes to the dinner table with serious attitude!

            Excuse you, little Miss, but you’re not a Disney Tween Star and I’m not the goofy, clueless parent that you have to put up with! /end rant.

            1. Anonymous*

              I literally once had a conversation with my then-tween daughter in which I said, “I’ve noticed some Disney Channel tone of voice, and I’d like it to stop.”

              And she knew right away what I meant!

      5. Elizabeth*

        I’m not familiar with the Friends episode, but there are many comments that I might make to a close friend that would be entirely inappropriate at work.

        Also, the mood of the people involved matters. If I screw up while making dinner and my friends and I are laughing about it, a friend might say, “Well, don’t quit your day job to become a chef!” And we’d both laugh again and order pizza. If that friend and I are cooking for an event and we’re stressed and I screw up and frustrate him, him sarcastically saying, “Don’t quit your day job to become a chef” would sting and I’d expect a sincere apology.

        1. Emily K*

          A few weeks ago, I was copied into a thread involving an error made by a team in my department that my team occasionally works with. A member of the other team, who I am friendly with but don’t know very well at all (she works remotely and for another team so we interact rarely and by email/phone), replied to the thread saying, “At least we didn’t [worst mistake I’ve ever made in my tenure at this company]! #SilverLining #UnnecessaryHashtag #Can’tResist”

          I didn’t respond, and in fact, nobody did–it ended the thread. I can’t help but feel it was an inappropriate remark, because she and I are not close. Had it been my best friend at work I likely wouldn’t have minded, but having someone I barely know remind a large group of people about my biggest screwup in the last 18 months as a way of minimizing her own team’s error, even if meant as a joke, seemed mean-spirited to me. I’ve been puzzling over whether she thought it was just a light-hearted joke that I wouldn’t have minded, or if she meant for it to be a dig at me.

          1. bad at online naming*


            At first I misread – I thought she was referencing her own largest mistake, which people on my team do a lot. If someone screws something up, it’s not that uncommon for someone else to say, “Hey at least you didn’t do what I did three weeks ago!” Or sometimes self-deprecatingly, “Well, at least this time I didn’t XYZ”

        2. Jamie*

          Also, the mood of the people involved matters.

          This is so true when not at work – too dangerous to utter those things at work in any context.

          The only time I’ve ever said something like this is when one of our dogs was little and she’d get into the trash. I’d tell her she was lucky she’s a cute baby…the point being you cannot be mad at her because she’s such a cute baby…no matter how many times you have to rebag the trash.

          But she wasn’t offended because she likes being spoken to in baby talk while you rub her ears and call her sweet names. Good thing I don’t work with her.

          1. Kelly L.*

            That’s the context where I’ve said things like that too. I’m always telling wayward doggies they’re lucky they’re cute!

          2. MW*

            I only use the “good thing you’re so cute” with my son when I’m changing a particularly nasty diaper!

      6. LCL*

        Yup. This situation reminds me of today’s earlier question “how can I keep co workers from making snarky remarks regarding confidential information?”
        Sarcasm and mocking as normal conversation is part of popular culture now. We don’t have a problem with it at my job yet, because our workforce is generally middle-aged and up, and we all remember how painful it was getting our strong anti harassment policies working.

        The OP in this question is reflecting an old attitude, filtered through modern times. Basically, any nasty thing was fair to say to another person in the workplace if the other person screwed up. It was not considered playing dirty to call a person a @#$% if they made a mistake. This mindset is why attaining greater diversity in the workforce was initially very painful.

        OK, I am having a hard time joining my last two thoughts together but they are linked, and I have to go to work now, but I see the (personnel) train wrecks of the future coming.

    5. Anonsie*

      “Nonononono, you guys all have it all wrong. See, it’s not derogatory if she deserves it for missing deadlines!” –OP

    6. Puddin*

      Precisely what I was thinking. What does the OP say when s/he IS trying to be derogatory (at work no less).

    7. theotherjennifer*

      great question – what would he have said to a non-woman employee if he had performed this way? “Good thing you’re a stud”? WTF Wednesday indeed.

    8. Carpe Librarium*

      I agree. The OP’s intention was to make their colleague feel bad for missing the deadline, so… their intention was to make their colleague feel bad. Saying “I didn’t mean to upset you” implies that the colleague should have somehow managed to not be upset by someone who was deliberately trying to achieve that outcome.

      Reminds me of when someone screams “[epithet based on rage/sexual orientation]!” at someone on Twitter or what have you and then says of the resulting call-outs “I didn’t mean to offend anyone.” Ummm, yeah, you did. You meant to offend the person you said it to, indicating you think that being that race/sexual orientation is inherently inferior.

      1. Sarahnova*

        It’s also a lovely way to gaslight a woman with the “women so emotional” trope. “Oh, you’re overreacting! Calm down.”


    9. Gloria*

      Some seem to think being judged on how attractive a person is in a professional environment is a “perk.” It’s an assumption that all attractive people want to be known as getting by on their looks, rather than on their competencies or abilities.

      I think it stems from a very bitter place.

  7. JW*

    I’ve been on the receiving end of “Well it’s a good thing you’re pretty” and it’s very hurtful. This guy needs a reality check.

    1. RCB*

      I’ve gotten the inverse – after having successfully completed a big project, one of the managers involved said “Well done RCB! Not just a pretty face!” I’m sure he meant it as a compliment, but it just made me feel uncomfortable.

      1. ClaireS*

        Nope. This is just as bad. This implies that they only hired you because your pretty and the fact that your competent was a pleasant surprise. No wonder you felt degraded; it’s degrading.

        My rule of thumb on compliments at work: never compliment someone’s body. Sure, compliment their sweater or their new hair colour but it’s always weird when it’s a direct comment on their body (e.g. You look thin today, you have a pretty face, what beautiful eyes you have).

        1. plain jane*

          And be careful about complimenting clothing when the person has just lost weight/gotten trim and what you really mean is that you approve that they have done so. No, you aren’t being subtle.

        2. Kit M.*

          My rule is to only compliment things you can assume someone did on purpose. Basically, the results are the same as your rule.

          1. Aunt Vixen*

            This is a good rule. A number of years ago I had lost a lot of weight and a woman I knew casually remarked on it – and actually she kind of sounded startled, and said “But you haven’t been sick, have you?” I hadn’t, but you never know, is the thing.

      2. JC*

        Ugh, YES. That is so annoying. And most of the time if you call a dude on it, they will be offended that you can’t take a compliment.

      3. Jamie*

        I don’t know – I can see why people don’t like this one

        “Well done RCB! Not just a pretty face!”

        because so often this is said tongue in cheek. I’ve worked with men in their 60’s who will joke and tell you they aren’t just a pretty face – there is not always a deeper meaning behind that than just a turn of phrase…and it’s not always a comment on looks.

        A compliment inferring competence is still a far cry from having your competence insulted while you’re looks are appraised.

        1. rollcake*

          The thing about the “not just a pretty face” compliment is that it implies the speaker initially thought the person being complimented was just pretty (and not competent), but now they have proof they are both pretty AND competent. As in, “Well done RCB! [I thought you were incompetent, but now I see you’re] not just a pretty face!” I’d rather be assumed to be competent first!

          1. Jamie*

            I understand why people it bothers people, I get that. And yes, that’s a rude sentiment to be sure.

            I guess because the only people I have ever known to use this expression were older men about themselves being funny…that it reads tongue in cheek to me.

            When my grandpa would do something awesome like a card trick or something and you’d express appreciation he’d always say “whaddya think? I’m just a pretty face?” with a big grin. And I’ve had older men in the work place do the same thing – so I guess I’ve only seen it used ironically for humor.

            I am sure I’d have a different response if I’d ever heard it used where it could be interpreted to mean something.

            1. rollcake*

              For sure, I’ve also seen it used self-deprecatingly, in which case it is humorous and definitely not offensive for me, as a listener, because the speaker is just cracking jokes about themselves. I could even see making that joke towards another person in specific contexts in which there was no power differential or the people had that kind of understanding relationship. However, if my boss made that joke to me, I’d be annoyed and a little surprised…I hope he doesn’t pay me all this money just to sit around and look pretty!

            2. CC*

              Somebody using it about themselves: no problem.

              Somebody using it about another person: comment on competence, as described earlier.

              That, I think, is the main difference between the case you’re describing and the case RCB is describing.

              (Though honestly, seeing a woman use that joke on herself would bother me, because it falls between “self-deprecating joke” and “women are primarily valued for their looks” in an area I find highly uncomfortable. I don’t think women should be, or think they are, primarily valued for their looks. I’m making a conscious effort to compliment the stuff my niece *does*, not how she looks, too.)

          2. RCB*

            That’s exactly how I took it. In the moment I was like, “Um, thanks?” and then later when I thought about it some more it made me feel really icky.

      4. Kate*

        rationally i know that at least some male coworkers are likely to be, to some extent, evaluating my attractiveness, since we’re all human mammals with a drive to reproduce. i do the same! but i’d never mention it, and i never, EVER want to hear them mention it. even something like this seriously ooks me out.

      5. Anonymous*

        “You, too, Old Dude! Just because you have great legs doesn’t mean you don’t also have a brain!”

    2. Windchime*

      My co-worker got a different version of this when she asked a male co-worker for some technical information. She was given a dumbed-down version and told “don’t worry your pretty little head about it; this is all you need to know.”

      1. ArtsNerd*

        Times like these make me really appreciate my workplace. Everyone’s so gender-egalitarian as to make comments like OP’s completely alien, and ones like “I think Jack’s the only one of us who knows how to sew, right?” totally normal. I suspect this is rarer than I’d like it to be.

      2. KC*

        I’ve been on the receiving end of this myself (in a scenario with myself and an Engineer I was working with at the time). Though I think his prejudice had less to do with the fact that I’m female and more to do with the fact that I wasn’t an Engineer. He had a “if you were actually smart, you would be an Engineer, so why should I tell you anything?” attitude.

        1. CAA*

          I am an engineer (and a woman, and smart enough), and I’ve gotten this attitude from a brain surgeon!

        2. Anonymous*

          Ugh, I used to know someone in undergrad who was all “I’m a F-ing engineer! We’re the smartest people in the world!” She liked to present her engineering degree (that, at the time, she hadn’t yet completed) like it was a badge of honour. Obnoxious to the extreme.

            1. Robin*

              Elizabeth, I know some physicists who would disagree, but that’s an entirely different conversation.

        3. majigail*

          I’ve been getting something similar lately. Someone introduces me saying, “This is majigail, she runs XYZ nonprofit.” The person I’m meeting says, “Oh, good for you!”
          Wait, what? Good for me? No sir, good for my clients, my donors and my volunteers.

          1. fposte*

            I’m not following–maybe I’m missing an intonation? This doesn’t sound like a prejudicial or dismissive comment.

          2. CTO*

            I’ve gotten this, too (I also work at a nonprofit). At least the way it’s said to me, I don’t think that people are meaning to condescend because I’m a woman (or part of whatever other group). I think they’re awkwardly trying to compliment (and maybe even thank) me for “making the sacrifice” to work at a nonprofit. Still awkward, yes, but not targeted at me because of my gender.

            But it’s entirely possible that you’re getting “complimented” in a different way, especially since you’re being introduced as the director/CEO.

          3. Diane*

            I was getting bids from a contractor to build a fence, and when he heard that I owned my own home, he said, “Good for you!” in a condescending tone that implied he was surprised a young woman would even think to buy a house. He thought he was being nice. I thought he was an idiot.

            1. KLH*

              I was getting a quote for auto insurance, and after every response the agent would say, “Good girl!” After the third time I told him I was not a dog and stop saying that.

              Nope, didn’t get insurance from him.

        4. Lora*

          Ha! I’m in a weird sub-field where engineers and scientists have to work together. The engineers are all certain that the scientists can’t do math, and the scientists are all certain the engineers couldn’t logic their way out of a wet paper bag. But if you ask management, the scientists are smarter.

          Having been on both sides–we’re all bonkers! :)

      3. Us, Too*

        I interviewed a candidate for a technical role on another team one time. I interviewed him because the people on my team frequently interacted with people on the team he was being hired for. Our company did these cross-functional interviews so that we could be reasonably confident that the candidate would fit in and be able to work across the teams well.

        I asked him to talk about a project he worked on. He spent about 15 seconds on the technology part. Then he suddenly stopped his explanation and said, “I could explain it to you in detail, but you probably wouldn’t get it.” And he stopped. Just stopped. So I fumbled for a moment in shock then moved on to another question.

        In hindsight, I wish that I’d simply terminated the conversation then. (He obviously didn’t want the job or get an offer for it)

    3. Sunflower*

      I feel terrible for the employee who is ‘entry-level- not sure why that is relevant to the conversation. Probably insanely uncomfortable for her esp if this is her first job.

  8. A Bug!*

    What stands out to me is that it was said in the context of blowing off steam. This suggests that the OP was visibly frustrated at the time. If there is ever a time to be making “wow you’re pretty stupid” jokes, this is certainly not it.

    I have had coworkers with whom I have had the right relationship to be able to make jokes like that. But I would never, ever make a joke like that unless I was very confident that it would be received as intended – a good-natured ribbing that is funny because it’s in the context of a mutually-respectful working relationship. It doesn’t sound like you put much thought into that before you told your coworker that her looks are the only thing saving her from unemployment.

    By the way, it doesn’t make it better that she wasn’t your superior – it sounds like she’s lower than you on the ladder, which makes a joke like that worse.

    1. Lisa*

      I wonder what exactly he means by “blowing off steam”, especially in the context that he doesn’t understand what he did wrong with the statement.

      1. sunny-dee*

        My guess is that his frustration level was pretty high and he said something he viewed as a minor burn in comparison to how he was feeling. So, he’s probably thinking, “you guys are writing me up for this? you have no idea what I really wanted to say, and I held back!”

        None of that makes it okay. I’m just guessing at his state of mind.

      2. Elle D*

        It sounds like to me like he made this comment during a tirade of harsh but technically less inappropriate comments. I may be reading too much into it, but he notes that this was “one of the things” he said. I feel like he was laying into the co-worker (“How could you do this, this is such a basic task,” etc.) and his belittling, sexist comment was the icing on the cake.

        1. sunny-dee*

          Oh, good point, Elle D. I had missed that is was just one of the things he said. I bet that was a fun and productive conversation.

          O/T, I was thinking of this in context of some really, really lazy people that I know. They truly believe they’re working hard. I mean, they may show up late for a 6 hour shift and then take a long lunch, but that seems like so much compared to what they want to do (nothing), that it seems like a sacrifice.

          That’s the vibe I’m getting off this guy. He truly doesn’t see what he did wrong — because it wasn’t near as bad as what he wanted to do.

      3. Anne*

        Yeah, I’m wondering that too. To me, “blowing off steam” isn’t something I would ever do at work – if I need to blow off steam, I have a bit of a moan about my hard day to my husband, at home. Not to the people who are involved, and not in the office. Just not appropriate or constructive.

    2. Emily*

      Worse, it doesn’t sound like this comment was made as a joke; it sounds like the OP was angry, and a remark like this, made in anger, would sound more threatening than teasing.

      The detail about hierarchy adds a whole other layer of “she’s beneath me.”

      1. A Bug!*

        Yes, I agree. I tried to kind of allude to that; what we say and do out of frustration is often more honest than we care to admit. When we say “I was frustrated and didn’t mean it,” it often means “I was frustrated and didn’t mean for you to hear it.”

        1. Jamie*

          I think that’s exactly what puts others on high alert about this kind of thing…and people like the OP under future scrutiny.

          If I never hear you make a sexist or racist comment when angry or frustrated I don’t assume they are boiling below the surface and you’re professional enough to filter them. I don’t assume you have those thoughts.

          Once one slips loose you lose the benefit of the doubt. So people will wonder about the OP at least until the incident fades with no recurrence.

          I absolutely filter my tone all the time because I know when I’m frustrated if I don’t police myself I will come off condescending and terse. I developed this filter when I first had kids and it’s just as handy in the workplace. So I’m not going to say that if everything I thought came out of my mouth that I wouldn’t bother or hurt the feelings of some people. But I can say that I’m not holding back personal remarks, because they don’t occur to me.

          Once the OP put people on notice that there are some problematic thoughts in his head he bought himself some trouble.

        2. Sigrid*

          I’ve been trying to think how to put this into words all day, but you’ve done it for me — I completely agree that “what we say and do out of frustration is often more honest than we care to admit”. It’s the same with what we say and do while drunk. In both cases our inhibitions are lowered and all of our usual social checks have disappeared. If I hear you say something sexist or racist while angry or drunk, I will assume that you *want* to say something sexist or racist when calm and sober, but you don’t, because you know you shouldn’t. And that makes me not trust you, because most of us *aren’t* thinking sexist and racist thoughts. “I was angry/drunk” isn’t an excuse, it’s a window into how you really think.

          1. Anon*

            Hm. I’m not sure I completely agree with the statement that “what someone says when angry is a window into how they really think.” That goes a further than the original statement “what we say and do out of frustration is often more honest than we care to admit.” I can agree with the original carefully nuanced phrasing, but not its rephrasing. Particularly bothering me is changing the “is often” to simply “is.”

            Emotions such as anger (but also fear or sadness or even extreme happiness/excitement) cloud a person’s rationality which can then lead them to do and say things that when they stop and calm down they realize what they did or said is *not* what they really think, nor in line with their deepest held beliefs. Obviously, one needs to be in control of one’s emotions, especially at work so as not to lose one’s ability to be rational.

            But the fact is that it can sometimes happen even with quite reasonable and high-minded individuals, that on a rare, isolated occasion emotions might rise high, and things be said that are out of line with said individual’s true self. I would not think it fair to jump to the conclusion that what was spoken out of emotion on that one particular highly charged occasion was such a person’s “true thoughts.” No, it was their momentary thought at that one particular instant and influenced more by the emotion than by their actual deeply held beliefs. Sometimes words are just words.

            Of course, one characteristic of such a person (who is normally quite rational but just happened to lose it in an isolated instance) is the type who would be quickly and sincerely apologetic and the very next day – or even sooner perhaps – would be saying, “What was I thinking! I should never have said something like that. It was completely out of line and isn’t what I truly believe at all. I am so sorry about that!”

            The OP unfortunately does not sound like this kind of person. They are trying to justify what was said and why. So it does sound like in his/her case what “slipped out” is highly likely an indication of an underlying way of thinking that is rather…problematic, to say the least.

  9. Jennifer*

    Sorry, buddy, you were just wrong here. Think of it this way: if the situations were reversed and she’d said something like, “Well, at least you’ve got a penis that works, so you’re actually worth something to someone and otherwise you’d be useless,” how would you have felt? Kinda like she was ah, hitting below the belt? Kinda like this isn’t something she should be saying at work?

    1. Sissa*

      This is exactly what I thought AFTER I saw red for a couple of minutes. What if the OP’s boss (let’s pretend the boss is a female) would angrily retort to him, while “blowing off steam”, that at least he’s handsome? It could be that the OP is a woman, but judging by the level of “I can do no wrong” I’m going to go ahead and assume it’s a man (not locking outside the possibility of it being a woman, but darn…). I’ve known a bunch of these types, and they never change. It’s infuriating.

      Also, tip: get a subscription to a local gym and blow off steam on the treadmill. It’s much more productive, satisfying (endorphines ahoy) and will not potentially crash-land your career in the “NOPE!” land.

    1. Mrs. Badcrumble*

      I was wondering that myself…and I think the levels of dismissiveness and belittling remains the same, with perhaps a overtone of sexual harassment if the OP is male and contempt if the OP is female. Both icky, but in different ways.

    2. Lindsay the Temp*

      It shouldn’t make a difference, but in most people’s subconcious, it probably does.

      I viewed them as a female mostly because I have a female friend who says this to me ALL THE TIME. But she only does it when it’s INCREDIBLY obvious that I’ve done something absentminded and silly and we both know it.

      Neither of us would EVER use this in a work setting, or in a context where it wasn’t pretty obvious that a silly mistake was made…

      1. Karowen*

        To be fair, I would probably use it at work (because I use it with my friends). HOWEVER, I would never ever say it to someone unless we were close friends and I was comfortable in the knowledge that they would realize that I’m joking. And even then I would apologize immediately and be aware that it was inappropriate.

        I have, to be perfectly honest, thought this of other people (not friends) who do less than subpar work. But even then I have never said anything about it and when I do think it, I am not reflecting on their qualifications so much as the horridness of our hiring process. (And before I’m lambasted – I know that the hirer who insisted that these people be brought on has commented multiple times on how attractive they are and has insisted on giving them other opportunities for which they are not ready because they are “cute young thing”s. While they may have been hired if they were ugly, their attractiveness was definitely put in the pro column when he was hiring. And that’s not in any way their fault, but it is the fact of the matter.)

        1. fposte*

          To be honest, if I were your manager and heard you, I’d tell you to knock it off even jokingly. Unless you manage to keep it so quiet that nobody else, including me-your-manager, hears it, it’s adding a note to a professional discourse that doesn’t belong there no matter who it’s directed to. (There’s a really horrible scene in The West Wing that completely misses this point.)

          1. Karowen*

            Like I said, I would only ever say it to friends. My work place is a good bit more casual than others, and I’m aware of that. I would never go into a new job and say something like this, but here I’d probably even say it to my boss.

            1. fposte*

              If you only say it to friends where nobody else hears, then obviously I wouldn’t object because I wouldn’t know. But if you say it only to friends but in front of other co-workers, I’d shut it down.

              1. Karowen*

                Oh, I get what you’re saying now – It never occurred to me that it might offend or come off wrong to the people around me (but again, we’re casual). Thanks for clarifying :)

      2. stellanor*

        We used to say “It’s a good thing he’s pretty” about my boyfriend’s lazy, cowardly, sickly, but extremely pretty and affectionate cat.

        The subtext being “this is insulting even to the cat.”

        1. Sigrid*

          We say it every time the cat throws up on the carpet! For the same reason. It’s insulting EVEN TO THE CAT.

          1. Anon*

            I am amused that I am the third person here going, “This is how I talk to my cat. Not to people.”

  10. Dan*

    This dude is funny. AAM, are you sure this isn’t someone pulling your strings? If this is really legit, yeah, you get written up so you understand that would you did shouldn’t happen again.

    The part that AAM soft pedaled is where these two people sit on the org chart — if the woman is below the dude, it’s not just creepy, but really adds to the potential for legitimate harassment claims.

    1. Nanani*

      Seriously? You find it so unbelievable that an incredibly commonplace thing would get written in about?
      Recalibrate your reality please.

  11. Bryan*

    I strongly feel the OP does not know why it was wrong. The OP realizes that it was wrong to say it but not why. That is bad enough but then it goes on to say she’s entry level, like that should make it not seem like a big deal.

    Another part is they justify it by saying they were blowing off steam. If you can’t watch your mouth when emotions are elevated that is a very bad thing. It’s like saying, I didn’t mean to do that I was drunk. Why not simply tell her she needs to meet her deadlines?

  12. Chocolate Teapot*

    Why am I put in mind of the offensive slogan sticker on the truck story from a while back?

    1. ArtsNerd*

      Agh! Similar lack of self-awareness regarding their belittling of women, though the truck guy came across as MUCH more oblivious. Oy, the truck story…

  13. Jen*

    This makes my head hurt that you can’t see how inappropriate and demeaning this comment was not to mention condescending and creepy. If she were ugly she’d be fired? You pretty much told someone that they’re shitty at their job but their looks have value so that’s why they’re being kept around. You’ve taken a person with actual duties and tasks to accomplish, someone who was hired based on her skills, experience and education and told her that her value is really only being something to look at.

    It would be like if you messed up something and she said “Good thing you have a penis, you’ll never get fired. In fact, you’ll probably get a promotion.” – She’d be assuming your success is based entirely on your Y chromosome and not on anything that you accomplished.

    1. sunny-dee*

      Okay, the OP is a jerk, but I do want to object to this, “a person with actual duties and tasks to accomplish, someone who was hired based on her skills, experience and education…” Assuming that what the OP said wasn’t a lie, this is a coworker who routienly misses deadlines and turns in sub-par work. That’s not someone who deserves respect for her skills, experience, and education.

      Now, what he should do is complain to her manager, not make creepy, passive-aggressive comments.

      But to defend her as a valuable employee when at least part of the problem is that she sucks does not help. It actually reinforces obliviousness. “Pffft. She’s valuable and experienced? These people don’t know what they’re talking about; she missed her third deadline this week and the XYZ report was only half done.”

      The OP has massive problems here, both in attitude and in action. But the trigger situation — the coworker not meeting her responsibilities and causing him to be frustrated — is because the coworker is doing a bad job. She doesn’t deserve to be defended because of her “experience, education, and skills.”

      1. Henry*

        She probably was hired based on her skills, experience and education: the fact that she’s not (apparently) living up to them has nothing to do with the OP’s lack of judgment in making that comment.

        1. Jen*

          Yes, that’s what I meant. She might not be living up to the expectations that they had for her which honestly could be a variety of things from her being terrible to not being properly trained. But she was likely interviewed based on a resume and hired based on her experience.

          1. Puddin*

            I am disinclined to believe the OPs assessment of her skills. S/He clearly devalues her and is dismissive. Since s/he uttered these words – at work no less, my guess is that he has been thinking them all along.

            So at what point did he overlook her work in favor for her looks? My hunch is, if s/he is apt to say something like this, that happened fairly quickly.

      2. CEMgr*

        “That’s not someone who deserves respect for her skills, experience, and education….” Perhaps not. But she….and everyone…deserves respect, PERIOD. Because that’s what decent and/or professional people do. I know this lesson well because it’s one I’ve had to learn the hard way. All people must be respected…every status, every behavior pattern, WHATEVER.

      3. K*

        That’s a really mean thing to say. A decent person wouldn’t take someone failing at their job as an invitation to trash or disrespect them.

        1. sunny-dee*

          I agree. I didn’t say he was justified in attacking her. I am saying that your argument — human decency requires that you act with civility and courtesy — is the appropriate one to take. I think saying that she deserves respect because of her accomplishments is the wrong approach because it could be objected to (rightly or wrongly, doesn’t really matter).

  14. Helen*

    Comments like that have a tendancy to eat away at you after the conversation is over, too. So she might have been too blown away in the moment to say something to your face, but after the interaction was over she realized it was complaint worthy – which it absolutely is. Another thing to consider is that this was part of a pattern that you aren’t fully aware of, and she didn’t see this as a single isolated comment. You questioned whether this was really worth the formality. In a word, yes. This isn’t ans extreme overreaction, you were really out of line.

    1. some1*

      +1. She didn’t not overreact by going to management before asking you for an apology, which it doesn’t sound like you would have anyway, you think it was okay to say in the heat of the moment.

      And frankly, a good manager would want to know you said this. Managers get petty complaints from employees all the time — the manager your coworker made the report to didn’t write you up for the hell of it.

    2. AVP*

      Also, I can see why it makes more sense to go to OP’s manager than speaking to him directly – clearly he doesn’t see the inherent offensiveness and inappropriateness, so it probably would not have been an edifying direct conversation.

    3. Meredith*

      Exactly. The worst comments are often the ones the person on the receiving end has a delayed reaction to. And once they think it over later after it’s settled, it can be more complicated to handle than it is in the moment (this has been me, many times).

    4. Lalou*

      I can see how this would eat away at someone over time too. I was in a similar situation at work once. I was shocked at the time that someone at work actually said something like that to me, and it was only after the conversation ended that I actually got really annoyed as I thought about how inappropriate it was.

    5. LJL*

      +1 A male co-worker said something dismissive of my graduate degree over 10 years ago, something like “I could have gotten that degree too if I could wear short skirts.” I gave him a look and made sure to never work directly with him and interact with him as little as possible. One of my biggest professional regrets was not making a formal complaint. The next time it happens to a young female co-worker, he’ll think , “well, LJL was OK with it, so this one must be really sensitive.” By not working to break the pattern, I fear I may have reinforced itl.

  15. amaranth16*

    This is unbelievable – this guy has NO IDEA why it wasn’t OK that he said what he did. Wow, come join us in this century whenever you’re ready.

  16. Jen RO*

    I’m going to get flamed for this, but I think this could have been solved with an apology and no write-up. It seems overkill for a one-time thing.

    1. Bryan*

      If it were a one time thing then yes. I agree. A SINCERE apology.

      I obviously have no evidence to back this up but the OP seems so oblivious I wonder if they have made other comments. They also seem to think it’s acceptable to blow up at people in an unprofessional manner. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of their coworkers wrote it with “my manager is a jerk.”

    2. Barbara in Swampeast*

      I know the OP mentioned an apology, but what would he have apologized for since he doesn’t know what he did was wrong. If the co-worker had mentioned how hurtful the comment was, he probably would have said “Sorry, I hurt your feelings” and gone away thinking that she is overly sensitive. Even after his manager told him that he is in the wrong, he doesn’t get it.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Unless this guy is astoundingly good at his job, I’d seriously consider firing him if there were a second or third occurrence, so I’d sure want to warn him about that after the first!

      (And if he were astoundingly good, I’d still seriously consider it, but I’d spend more time intensively counseling him after each occurrence and really try to salvage him if at all possible.)

      1. rek*

        This. As a manager, I’d now have a team member I couldn’t possibly consider for either staff responsibilities or customer contact, and who has a really high likelihood of causing my organization major headaches in the future. He’d better walk on water and not get his feet wet to justify taking up that spot on my team.

      2. Lily in NYC*

        Alison, I know you freelance for USNews – I worked there for a long time and we inherited a new top editor from Newsweek. He had been up for the top job at Newsweek, but then he accidentally sent an email to a bunch of people about his competition for the job, a woman. He wrote “if only her brains were as big as her t*ts” – and proceeded to send it not to one person as intended, but a huge group, including the woman in question. Not only did he not get the big job, he got fired for the email. I think companies take this stuff pretty seriously. I just wish we didn’t hire the guy when he got fired. He was the worst (it was a long time ago and the top guys there now are fantastic).

        1. Lalou*

          I like hearing about complete asses who out themselves as such to everyone. It makes avoiding ever having anything to do with them a lot easier.

    4. Elysian*

      I’ve been assuming a lot lately, but I would guess that (1) an apology wouldn’t have been sincere and perhaps management knew that and (2) this might not be only a one-time thing. It might just be the thing that someone told to management, and someone has had a gut feeling that something there wasn’t right for a while.

    5. Neeta (RO)*

      That’s pretty much my take on as well. So I guess it’s mostly a cultural thing at play here.

      I definitely don’t think such a comment is appropriate, but involving the management would be seen as overly-sensitive here. Also, I’m wondering why the offended party didn’t confront the OP first? Why did she go directly to HR/her manager?

      1. Zelos*

        Given that the OP doesn’t seem to truly understand why this comment is offensive (just that it might be a wrong thing to say, but he was “blowing off steam”), I doubt the coworker felt the OP would take her seriously. Especially since she’s just “entry-level” (as if that makes a difference!).

        Management has the authority to pound this into the OP’s head. In the OP’s esteem, the offended coworker does not.

      2. Bwmn*

        If someone at work and visibly angry made a belittling and creepy remark, I think it’s beyond fair for a junior employee to not want to say anything. Particularly in the moment.

        This is hardly a case of “my cube mate listens to music really loudly”.

      3. Magda*

        OP is already prone to lashing out when he’s “frustrated” and needs to “blow off steam.” Don’t underestimate how unsafe these people can make someone feel, both professionally and physically. I had a manager who used to slam objects when you told him of any minor snag in a project. I prefer to address things with people directly, but when you show me that you react to professional conversations with this kind of behavior, I feel exactly zero guilt for looping the manager in to protect myself.

        Second of all, if you try to have a “let’s discuss why this wasn’t OK” discussion with this person, no matter how professional you try to keep it, there is always a risk that it will degenerate into an even more messy conversation. Then you potentially risk the “well, it takes two to tango” / “it must be a personality clash” / “why did you provoke him?” type of assumptions. In other words, you risk being seen as part of the problem when really, OP’s bad behavior is the problem.

        And finally, OP doesn’t specify their working relationship. It is possible they work in different departments. If I had a situation with someone in another group, I would strongly consider clueing in my manager in to avoid her being caught off guard that suddenly one of her people was involved in a “fight” with someone from another group.

        1. Neeta(RO)*

          I do actually know how intimidating these things can be, because I’ve gone through them. And I never spoke up, because hey I’m supposed to be an adult here, so suck it up, some people are rude.

          I’ve only ever gone to a manager once, for not being able to see eye to eye with a colleague, and he basically told me well you two just can’t get along. The other coworker was more senior and a better performer. So I guess my problem is that I was burned once, and decided to try and solve things by myself.

          1. Magda*

            I have been in work situations across the spectrum. I have definitely been in scenarios like the one you describe, where “suck it up” was the only option. But I’ve also had the experience where I was convinced complaining would never go anywhere, so I sucked it up. But lo and behold, when the company owner finally did get a complaint, he investigated and fired the offender immediately. (It was a well-deserved firing based on far more than a sole complaint, let me assure you.)

            Sometimes sucking it up is a sign of strength, but other times it’s weakness. I actually think it is a sign of strength if you *know* you have been treated inappropriately and are willing to say something about it.

            1. iseeshiny*


              Not to mention that if I were the boss I would want to know that one of my employees was prone to making these sorts of comments. Not speaking up doesn’t necessarily make you a better adult – sometimes it just makes you an easier target.

          2. Observer*

            You really consider that telling someone that their sole use to the company is a a decorative item (which is EXACTLY what “It’s a good thing you’re pretty” means) is just a bit of rudeness? And that the “adult thing” is to just suck it up, rather than to try to get it stopped?

            That’s a sure recipe for either a toxic workplace or the kind of place that comes out with something like the Playstation Vita ad (the one with a woman with breasts on both sides of the body and no face.

            1. Neeta(RO)*

              I don’t actually think my approach is the best, and I’m actually sorry for having a tendency to suck it up.

              I just didn’t feel it warranted going to a manager, seeing as it was a first time offence. Then again, maybe it wasn’t, and the OP just didn’t realize it.

        2. L McD*

          “Don’t underestimate how unsafe these people can make someone feel, both professionally and physically.”

          Yes, yes, yes. I got the sense that the “pretty” statement was made in the midst of angry ranting, which makes it even more troubling. There’s an undercurrent of sexual aggression if the OP is in fact male (and from Alison’s comments I’m divining that he is), and yeah, it matters – a woman saying that to another woman is inappropriate, but it doesn’t carry the same implications.

          Basically, I agree with what everyone else is saying – it’s unlikely this was truly an isolated incident, much more likely that the OP simply doesn’t recognize that this is a pattern of behavior. It’s possible that management hasn’t been dealing with it all along, as they should have done, and only leapt into action now because they recognize things starting to veer into sexual harassment territory. Or it’s possible OP simply isn’t divulging that this is not the first problem. Either way, the isolated incident in and of itself is grounds for some kind of disciplinary action.

          Also, it sounds like he’s only interested in apologizing now because a light’s been shone on it, not because he actually understands how serious it is. So if that’s the case, I’d say don’t bother. An apology is likely to come across as hostile and insincere. It also isn’t going to undo the writeup somehow. If I were the “woman employee,” even a sincere apology would probably still leave me very wary of him.

          Also, am I the only one noticing the strangeness of that phrase? I know we just had a whole thing about “female,” but that’s one context where it would have been a much better term to use! “Woman employee” makes me think of someone from another century speaking disgustedly about “these women doctors they have nowadays” or something.

          1. Zillah*

            Yes. It’s still out of line it’s it’s a woman, but it doesn’t carry the same undercurrent of sexual aggression, which for me, at least, would make me feel much more unsafe than if another woman was doing it.

            1. Zillah*

              Also, agreed about the “woman employee” comment. That struck me as really weird phrasing. “Woman” is not an adjective.

              1. Emily*

                I wonder if the OP read that thread about the word “female” and worded this letter accordingly! But I think I’d object to any word choice used in this context. If “female” hadn’t been discussed the other day but I’d seen it in this letter, even as an adjective, it would have stood out to me. The same way we’re saying that this doesn’t sound like an isolated incident, but part of a pattern of behavior, the problem with this letter isn’t a single word, but general tone and language.

          2. Jen in RO*

            Come on, a rude coworker would make you feel *unsafe*? You must have run into some major jerks to react this way.

            1. Magda*

              I think it’s mischaracterizing to say that rudeness makes people feel unsafe. A single comment isn’t the problem. If OP had blown past the woman’s desk with that comment and kept going, it would have been rude but not necessarily threatening. What people are picking up on is the OP’s self-description of being “frustrated,” “blowing off steam,” and pointedly referencing the woman’s low status on the food chain. It implies that this was an extended conversation in which OP basically lost his shit. THAT is what can make people feel unsafe, becuase when you have lost your shit I have no way of knowing how far you’re willing to escalate — whether physically in the moment or professionally by attempting some kind of retaliation.

          3. JamieG*

            The issue with the female/woman thing is that female is an adjective and woman is a noun. So if you refer to a woman as “a” female, you’re dehumanizing her, and if you use woman as an adjective (“woman employee”) it’s jarring and sounds at least a little derogatory.

            I’m not sure why it comes across as derogatory, though. I’ll have to think about that.

            1. Lalou*

              It sounds a little derogatory to me too but I’m not sure why either. You wouldn’t say man employee. Perhaps it has something to do with the phrase “woman drivers” in my head because that is also jarring and usually followed by some sexist BS.

      4. Tinker*

        I think the OP’s reaction indicates that the coworker’s response was the right call. I mean, after actual official intervention they still failed to get it to such a degree that they decided to write in here – which indicates they don’t even know that there’s no way that they’re likely to get the response they want from that. This seems like a probable indication that lesser forms of intervention would work no better.

        Granted this might be coincidental — there’s nothing to say how the coworker actually did evaluate the situation — but it seems reasonable to think that the coworker may have been able to anticipate what *actually did happen* and acted accordingly.

        I think there’s sometimes a tendency in cases like these to start from an assumption that the party who is the target of the comments must of course not be making a considered decision in doing so — but from what I’ve seen this is usually not the case. Sometimes folks — and I’ve experienced this personally — are in fact overly reluctant to raise an issue like this, for fear of being marked out as one-of-those-$minority_type-you-know-what-I-mean.

        1. Lalou*

          I think the OP’s reaction indicates that the coworker’s response was the right call. I mean, after actual official intervention they still failed to get it to such a degree that they decided to write in here –

          Yes, and if the OP doesn’t understand why the coworker’s response here was warranted then there is the distinct possibility that this wasn’t an isolated comment and the OP has been overstepping the line but without realising it in the past too.

    6. Anonymous*

      Think of it this way. If it only deserves a finger wag that’s essentially saying you’re okay with it happening a number of times before you’d consider firing the guy. A finger wag usually precedes around 3 or so more warnings before the guys job is on the line. Is it acceptable for it to happen that many more times before you’d fire the guy. Additionally the message you send is that you don’t take sex base comments very seriously or that they’re not very serious when they’re directed at women.

      1. Jen RO*

        Yes, I would be OK with it several times before firing the guy. When under pressure, some people react inappropriately, but it would be a huge overreaction to fire him on the first offense. I don’t know how these written warnings work (none of the places I worked at had them), but why wouldn’t a stern conversation with a manager/HR be more helpful?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Right, you wouldn’t fire on the first offense, but given that repeated occurrences could get him fired, he deserves to know that. And those types of warnings typically get documented in writing (at least the U.S.) so that there’s no question later that the warning was given.

        2. some1*

          Would you be okay with other people in the office being subjected to his belittling after this because nothing was done the first time?

            1. some1*

              I meant, are you cool with it happening to another target because the guy wasn’t disciplined the first time?

        3. Joey*

          A stern conversation could work if you don’t typically document, but employees don’t normally consider verbal warnings critical or serious. This is the type of behavior that you’d want to clearly send a serious message.

          1. Jen in RO*

            OK, maybe a company culture thing. In my experience, conversations with HR only happened for *major* issues (e.g. harassment).

            1. VintageLydia USA*

              But this IS bordering on harassment if it becomes a pattern, therefore it needs to be documented now. This way the OP knows where the line is and if he crosses it again, there is a paper trail that can be used to justify further discipline/firing.

        4. Positivity Boy*

          Maybe the confusion here is that a written warning *accompanies* a stern conversation with the manager? It’s not just a message written to the employee and emailed to them/dropped at their desk, which I guess is what it could sound like if you’ve never received one. The write-up itself is more like a transcript or record of the incident and the resulting discussion that occurred between the employee and the manager. Write-ups can be used as proof of a pattern in order to justify stronger consequences like suspension or termination, but they aren’t inherent a punishment.

        5. Simonthegrey*

          One place I worked basically required that any “stern conversation with a manager/HR” have some written warning as documentation along with it. They weren’t necessarily something that was included with formal written reprimands, but they were notices that the individual was spoken to.

    7. Kate*

      I would only agree with that if he apologized right away without her asking for it. As in “Wow, I’m so sorry I just said that. It was completely inappropriate and it won’t happen again”.

      People do make mistakes but his response even to AAM is disbelief he did anything wrong.

      1. Ann Furthermore*

        Yep, that’s my thought too. If he said it, and then as soon as it was out of his mouth said, “Oh man, I’m so sorry. That was a really awful thing to say,” then I could see letting it go then and there. Otherwise, no.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        This would indicate that he realized he did something wrong.
        It’s not so much the apology- it’s being able to show clear understanding “yep, this was truly wrong of me. I hurt someone. I am sorry.”

        The fact that he did not understand is in some ways more hurtful than the words themselves.

      3. Lynn Whitehat*

        Yup. For all we know, the OP’s manager might have been satisfied with an abject apology, “oh my God, that came out all wrong, I’m so sorry”, etc. But then once the OP showed a total lack of comprehension of how over-the-line it was, at that point the boss decided to make it abundantly clear that this was a big deal.

    8. Leslie Yep*

      I mean, the OP seems genuinely not remorseful for the comment and doesn’t seem to understand why it was inappropriate. An apology works when the offender knows that what they did is wrong and also intends not to do it again, but it’s meaningless if they don’t see anything wrong with what they did.

    9. Sandrine*

      What Jen RO said.

      I would also add that it seems pretty immature that a coworker *on the same level* wouldn’t go to the person and stand up for herself and say something.

      Sure, if it happens once, you say something and it happens again, by all means, go ahead and get the person at the next level to intervene.

      But darn, I’m an adult, I can defend myself… especially with a sentence like this.

      (With that said, I’m the kind of person that you’d really need to push to send me to the next level person anyway. This would just register on the “This person is an idiot” level, I would “file it away” in my head, and just forget about it.)

      1. Elysian*

        If the coworker is new to the workforce, in an entry level position, she may have been really unsure how to handle this. I think you’re right that some people might just defend themselves and that’s fine. But I think her approach of going to the manager was fine, too.

        Especially because we don’t know much about their relationship as coworkers – it’s possible that she was thinking “Finally! I’ve been getting creepy feelings from this guy for a while that I couldn’t substantiate. This is finally something I can report and start a paper trail on because its so clearly wrong.”

        1. Sandrine*

          That’s the thing, though: there isn’t enough in the letter to assume anything about the female coworker’s … ah, I’m forgetting the word here, huh, time in the company. And there isn’t enough about their relationship, either, so I’m going with the written info I have.

          My problem with all the “you are a sexist jerk” comments is that it’s (again) full of speculations as to what might be happening, what might have happened before, and judgments over the whole character of this person when there isn’t nearly enough info in the letter to speculate in the first place.

          I’m not saying the person is NOT a jerk or anything. Maybe he is. But until he comes here and gives us more information, I’m reserving my judgment on that part.

          1. Elysian*

            Fair enough. I was assuming that Female Coworker is on the younger side since she’s in an entry level position. That might not be true, you’re right, but I think its a fair enough assumption. And thinking back to when I was new in the workforce, I would have taken the abuse, ruminated on it later, and then eventually made a decision about action. I wouldn’t have been able to make a decision in the moment about how to address blatant sexism. I just wanted to cut the (probably young) woman some slack.

            1. fposte*

              I don’t think she needs any slack cut. There are definitely situations where I’d still pursue the option of reporting to the offender’s supervisor rather than battling things out right then.

              1. some1*

                +1. I pick my battles bigtime on what I bring to my boss — I would not hesitate to do so if I was the woman in the letter.

      2. RCB*

        Where are you getting that the employee was on the same level as the OP? He mentioned that she wasn’t above him, and specified that she was entry-level, and used that as justification for why he felt he could get so angry at her. I think we can infer that he does “out-rank” her in the office, seniority-wise, and that adds an extra level of power dynamics here that is just not okay.

        And even if they were on the same level hierarchically, I doubt she would have felt comfortable calling him out if he was so angry that he felt the need to “blow off steam” in her direction. Having anger visibly directed at her was most likely intimidating. I don’t blame her for not wanting a direct confrontation after that.

        I am more than capable of defending myself as well, but this type of comment, in this context, is problematic on multiple levels so yes, I would want to get management involved, if only just to notify them that they have an employee who has no sense of how to calibrate their workplace interactions appropriately. I wouldn’t want to wait to see if he did it again before I decided it was a problem. It’s a problem already.

        1. Anonymous*

          He wasn’t just blowing off steam in her direction though he was blowing off steam AT her ABOUT her. That’s not really blowing off steam at all.

          When I think of blowing off steam I think of doing so to a party other than the one I’m upset with. I feel like blowing off steam is not an appropriate phrase when you doing it TO the person you are upset with.

        1. L McD*

          Yes, exactly. I wouldn’t confront this guy directly either. There’s a way to read his letter that glosses over the problems, I’ll grant you, and he’s helped it along with careful wording. But there is no context where it’s okay to “blow off steam” by making belittling comments to another employee. By saying he needed to “blow off steam” by insulting her, he’s telling us he was angry. He was certainly expressing that anger to her, probably more forcefully than he realizes. She almost certainly felt she could not confront him. She either didn’t feel safe, or she didn’t feel it would be productive. And I don’t think she’s wrong to feel either of those things.

          I’m making some inferences here, but they’re reasonable ones. It’s always easy to say “well, we don’t really know the whole story,” but we have enough pieces of the story here to piece together a few reasonable answers to “why wouldn’t she just talk to him?”

    10. Positivity Boy*

      A write-up could just mean documentation of the incident for recordkeeping purposes, so that if this DOES become more than a one-time thing there’s something written down that the manager/HR can use as proof of a pattern and therefore justify a harsher punishment. For something of this nature that could possibly be construed as harassment, you definitely want a record of it, especially since (as mentioned in Alison’s comment above) even a second offense of this nature could be grounds for suspension or termination.

    11. minuteye*

      It would be one thing if the OP was saying “I said this thing in a moment of frustration, but after I calmed down I realized how inappropriate and offensive it was and apologized. She accepted my apology, and then went to management anyway.” I’d still support a decision to go to management (it’s important that they know in case this is a repeated issue), but it would be an error in judgment that the OP had sincerely attempted to rectify independently.

      That’s not what we’re hearing in the letter, though. The OP seems to be suggesting that the person he insulted should have come to him/her and asked for an apology that wasn’t freely offered. If the OP hasn’t even shown any sign of understanding of what they did wrong, the situation has degraded to the point that management needs to be involved.

      1. Positivity Boy*

        +1, it is far from her responsibility to ask him to apologize. He should be initiating it himself if he’s actually sorry, and since he didn’t do that, any apology would have no weight anyway.

    12. Meredith*

      I see your point, but I’ve seen so many sexist comments go ignored in the workplace, that seeing a company actually do something about it besides just making the guy apologize is comforting to me.

    13. Jamie*

      But if it’s a one time thing the write up won’t go anywhere. If he does it again and there wasn’t a write up, well then that’s his 1st incident.

      In a progressive discipline environment, which a lot of companies use, you have to document so you can take action if warranted.

  17. Barbara in Swampeast*

    How about a shout-out to the manager who handled this promptly!!!!

    We normally hear about managers who don’t like conflict, or think those kinds of comments are ok, or a just bad managers.

    GO manager!!!!!!

    1. Sarahnova*

      Good point. These types of occurrences are so often brushed over, even though they contribute to a poisonous atmosphere.

  18. ryn*

    wow, you’re a real jerk, OP.

    Let’s see, you were clearly angry at her, and then made a sexist comment to her. Gee, I wonder why she didn’t just tell you then and there that she was hurt? Could it be that you intimidated the heck out of her?

    I’m glad the women you did this to went to her manager. She may not have even realized how hurtful it was when you first said it, anyhow. She processed it and went through the correct lines. Geeze.

    1. Jen RO*

      I am not entirely happy with the gist of this comment. She’s a woman, you commented on her looks, so she was obviously intimidated and had to run to the manager for help? Um, no… even pretty women can stand up for themselves.

      (It’s very possible you didn’t mean this, but my knee jerk reaction was the above.)

      1. Elsajeni*

        I think the idea of intimidation comes from the “while blowing off steam” part, not the specific comment. That sounds like the OP went on an angry tirade to his coworker (especially the part where this specific comment was only “one of the things I said” — how many angry, inappropriate comments did he make?) — totally inappropriate in the workplace, and potentially scary or intimidating.

        1. Zillah*

          That’s how I took it, too. When people go on angry tirades, they can be intimidating, and when people say sexist things, it’s not the target’s responsibility to cover for them.

          1. Delurking*

            Even if someone isn’t intimidated, often there just isn’t anything to be gained from interrupting an angry tirade. Once someone gets on a roll and starts yelling, they don’t want to hear reason. They don’t want to hear your opinion. I would rather walk out of the room than try to calmly explain to someone who’s shouting at me that their comments were hurtful.

      2. Magda*

        As I said in a comment above, “defending yourself” and involving the manager are not mutually exclusive categories.

        I’ll tell you what I am unhappy with – the invariable shift to “Why did she react that way to being put in a crappy situation?” and away from “Why did OP put her in that situation?”

        Because his shitty comment is the root of the problem, not the target’s reaction to it. Your comments are demonstrating exactly why women feel intimidated in these kinds of situations, because seemingly no matter how you react, you are doing it wrong.

        1. fposte*

          And the thing is, even if she did inform the OP that that was not an appropriate comment, I’m not sure the OP would have accepted her judgment; I also think that she should have reported the comment to a supervisor anyway, so I’m not sure the OP would be better off.

          1. ella*

            “Why are you trying to derail the conversation away from our discussion about how you screwed up? This isn’t a conversation abut ME” is pretty much what I imagine his response would be if she’d tried to bring it up in the moment.

        2. Arbynka*

          “Because his shitty comment is the root of the problem, not the target’s reaction to it. Your comments are demonstrating exactly why women feel intimidated in these kinds of situations, because seemingly no matter how you react, you are doing it wrong.”

          This. Well said.

        3. Neeta(RO)*

          Your comments are demonstrating exactly why women feel intimidated in these kinds of situations, because seemingly no matter how you react, you are doing it wrong.

          Keep in mind, that we (Jen and I) have a different culture. A lot of comments that in the US would warrant a lawsuit, here are merely considered rude. When I say “merely” I don’t mean that we think women should put up with sexist comments, but rather that such a remark as the OP’s would be considered rude, as opposed to bordering on sexual harassment.

          Going to a manager, over something like this (especially if it’s a first time offence), would generally be seen as immature. IMO, standing up for oneself is seen as a much more effective tactic.

          This is not to say that I don’t see how the woman could be intimidated by the “steam blowing” coworker, because I was in similar situations, and I didn’t say anything. However, going to a manager, would’ve surely made my situation even worse.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I do think there might be cultural issues here — it’s probably not a coincidence that our Romanian and French (Sandrine) commenters have a different take on this, which is a pretty interesting factor.

            1. Observer*

              And it might also help to explain why, despite “family friendly” policies in Europe vs in the US, the US has greater female workforce participation and more women at a higher level that in Europe.

              That’s pretty pathetic – no one thinks things are great in the US.

              For all the US bashing, this is one are that the US does seem to be ahead of much of the world.

              1. The Real Ash*


                Most Western European countries have more female politicians than the US does (including female prime ministers). Heck, some Global South countries (India, Pakistan, etc.) have had female prime ministers and we still haven’t had a female president!

              2. De*

                I think its important to remenber that what Jen and other say here does not directly translate to “European culture”. I am German and find myself bewildered by what they say, actually… I totally think this is something that should be dealt with by management and should get a warning at first offense.

                1. Kera*

                  Yep – I don’t think you can point to a single European culture – I’m British, and my response would have been the same as the OP’s target.

            2. Amy*

              When I worked in a French business, my boss would pat/stroke my bum as I walked past, do the French “air” kiss thing right on the lips and give me creepy shoulder massages with his hands splayed wide enough to massage my decolletage. A different boss at a different business told me that ‘sexual harrassment isn’t a thing in France, you English women are oversensitive”. And completely non-work related: several French policemen wolf-whistled and catcalled me in public while on duty.

              So I’m not really surprised that the OP’s comment isn’t considered a big deal in France. My bosses were asses and not acceptable by French standards either. But the fact is that they were able to act like that and my colleagues were mildly exasperated by their antics rather than appalled, which wouldn’t be the case in the UK. The culture is definitely different.

          2. Magda*

            I respect that there may be cultural differences here. But it’s inconsistent to apply the “but in some cultures it’s different” standard to the OP without considering it also applies to the person who reported him. They are both operating in the same company culture, if not national/ethnic culture. And the fact that management backed her up and disciplined OP suggests that she was closer to the cultural norms in which the company was operating than he was.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I didn’t take Neeta as saying “it’s different in our culture so it should be okay in yours,” but rather as just adding an interesting piece of information to the conversation — in that it is interesting to hear about how this stuff plays differently in other countries. (Neeta, correct me if I’m wrong.)

              1. Neeta(RO)*

                Yes, that is what I meant.
                We did not mean to say that what the woman did was so horribly wrong, but rather trying to offer an insight into the situation, if considered from a different culture.

          3. Joey*

            I know plenty of American women that wouldn’t see the need to involve a manager and that’s fine. Its an individual decision. But, this certainly qualifies as appropriate manager material too in the US.

            1. Arbynka*

              “I know plenty of American women that wouldn’t see the need to involve a manager and that’s fine. Its an individual decision. But, this certainly qualifies as appropriate manager material too in the US.”

              Honestly, it depends on a situation. Well, back in Europe I would have to stand up for myself because management would not think this was a big deal. Of course there would be the risk of getting fired because if man or woman in question did not like my “attitude”, I would be “the trouble maker”. In US, I can see not involving the manager but I would never fault co-worker (man or women) for doing so.

              1. Jen in RO*

                I very much doubt that you would be in danger of getting fired over complaining. Maybe if you worked for some sort of jackass, but definitely not in a normal office. You would get an eyeroll and the offender would get a talking-to (half-hearted or not, depending on the manager/HR).

          4. Arbynka*

            “However, going to a manager, would’ve surely made my situation even worse.”

            Originally from Czech Republic and honestly, it is so sad to see so little have changed over in ole’ good Europe. Especially Eastern Europe. And it rubs me the wrong way because I refused to be subjected to that carp while over there and I am still active in helping my friends who work for organizations that are trying to change this whole sexist atmosphere. I am sorry, some things, while cultural, are also wrong. And until women realize it, all these wrong things will be continued to be considered “merely rude”.

            1. Neeta(RO)*

              I am sorry, some things, while cultural, are also wrong. And until women realize it, all these wrong things will be continued to be considered “merely rude”.

              See, this type of comment sounds vaguely condescending to me. I am adult, who’s perfectly capable of standing up for myself, and I SHOULD do that. I shouldn’t need a person of a higher authority to stand up for me.

              1. Positivity Boy*

                While we’re discussing the subject, could I ask more specifically what you would’ve done or said in this case? I considered myself fairly able to fight my own battles, but if a coworker started shouting at me and personally insulting me, I’m not sure I would be able to have a rational response to them that wouldn’t just escalate the situation.

                I’m totally in favor of defending myself and not having someone with more authority stand up for me when I’m speaking to another level-headed adult, but when the person I’m talking to is just insulting me personally, I don’t see any point in engaging them. A person who’s not thinking reasonably isn’t going to respond to reason.

                1. VintageLydia USA*

                  That’s what I’m wondering. In my case I’d either start to cry (which doesn’t help my case) or end up yelling right back (which is even worse.) Best case scenario I’d say “Wow!” or “Excuse me!?” and stomp off.

                2. Worker Bee*

                  Central Europe here (Germany) The comment itself, is not that big deal to me. Just another jerk. The whole blowing of steam gives another feel to it. The thing I would do, is the same thing I do with a yelling customer: There is no need for me to listen to this. I am read to talk and listen to your constructive feedback, when you find the appropriate tone. Turn around and let him vent. He is the one looking bad. We have a saying in germany for this: The tone makes the music.

                3. Jen in RO*

                  I would do exactly what Worker Bee said – leave the conversation and tell the coworker we can talk when s/he is calmer. If s/he doesn’t calm down, I would involve a manager.

                4. Neeta(RO)*

                  The good thing you’re pretty I would’ve ignored, or smiled at it, depending on my mood.

                  As for the anger issue, I’m not sure, I probably would’ve asked him to calm down or something, or left him until he did so.

              2. AGirlCalledFriday*

                I agree this is cultural. From my travels I have realized that some cultures value people standing up for themselves and others, even expressing opinions. Many other cultures value getting along and not causing discomfort to others. Neither are inherently wrong or right. Surprisingly, I’ve noticed that, excepting a few, Americans put pressure on each other to shut up and put up, and to not ‘make waves’ more than one would think.

                1. Jen RO*

                  This is extremely interesting – to me, based on this blog and my sample of 1 friend, it looked like Americans stand up for themselves and advocate it much more than other nationalities.

            2. The RO-Cat*

              “it is so sad to see so little have changed over in ole’ good Europe”

              Arbynka, even when several (or even all) cultures agree that something is Wrong (and as I see it, people coming from different cultures agreed that the “pretty” comment was highly inappropriate) it so happens that the way to Deal With It differs. Some things are seen as more egregious or less egregious – but everybody seems to have solidly anchored the situation in the Egregious Quadrant, not elsewhere. That is why your comment feels patronizing to me. If you’ll excuse me, I will just not like it.

            3. Jen in RO*

              It is rude *and* sexist – we just see it as being less offensive than you do. Not all sexism is the same.

              1. Neeta(RO)*

                It’s like the school yard bully who keeps shouting obscenities at you. I was taught to ignore him/her, and to stand up for myself. Not just run to a teacher and whine about my poor abused self.

                1. Positivity Boy*

                  Hey now, if you’re going to ask other commentors not to be condescending, please don’t do it yourself. Calling someone who involves management in a work-related dispute a whiner is pretty demeaning, especially since I feel we’ve adequately established that there are cultural differences at play here.

                2. Neeta(RO)*

                  Sorry, yes whining is not the best choice of words in this case.

                  I meant to say, is that we’re expected to work out our differences between ourselves.

              2. De (Germany)*

                Well, I am German and find it incredibly sexist and offensive.

                It’s strange how a lot of people here seem to jump from “three people in Europe say this” to “European culture is different people there see it like that”.

                1. Neeta(RO)*

                  …we also find it sexist and offensive.

                  I can’t control the person who is immature enough to resort to such underhanded tactics, but I CAN control my reactions to such remarks. If I am able to catalogue things like this as “merely rude”, then I am able to get past it.

                2. De*

                  Neeta, Jen wrote that she found it “less offensive” than others here, so I wrote that I find it “incredibly offensive”. I was not implying you or her thought the comment was okay.

              3. LondonGem*

                I’m from the UK.

                Generally, I think women are socialised to do whatever it takes to smooth things over, cause as little offense as possible and not be a pain. That could be why most of these comments go unreported, and the offenders not confronted.

                I do think this is changing (with the help of initiatives like the Everyday Sexism Project), and more women are standing up for themselves (either by confronting the person, or going to their manager about it).

                Management can only recognise that the OPs comment fits a pattern of behaviour if others also report similar comments made to them. If no one reports these comments, the person is free to keep making them without facing the consequences, or understanding that they need to change.

                I don’t see anything wrong in reporting the comment, or the OP getting written up for it.

          5. Joey*

            Oh and just so you don’t get the wrong impression- single or even a few inappropriate comments don’t usually warrant a lawsuit

            1. Neeta(RO)*

              I figured it doesn’t, but a lot of people are still overly cautious just to be on the safe side.

        4. L McD*

          Thank you! Let’s also note that both this woman’s reaction AND MANAGEMENT’S REACTION indicate they thought it was a problem. Management wrote him up for this, not his coworker. Yet the question is always “why did she…?” as if she’s automatically the one out of line.

      3. TL*

        Most of the women I know are uncomfortable around men who are angry and acting out because of it. There’s often a strength differential and you have to be pretty sure of yourself to stand up against someone who is obviously bigger and stronger than you are. (Just like most men are uncomfortable with the same situation if the man is bigger than they are.)

        I don’t have that response – lots of big men in my family who got mad at me kinda trained it out of me – and in college I was told more than once I was ‘brave’ for taking on an angry man. It took me a while to figure it out.

        1. Jamie*

          This! I don’t feel unsafe if someone is rude to me – but when confronted with an actively angry man I have an immediate visceral reaction…the fear is instantaneous and primal. It’s not based at all on my assessment of danger of this particular man and this particular situation. It’s my default.

          And I am not referring to men who happen to be angry and dealing with it appropriately. It’s the behavior, not the emotions. Yelling, physically aggressive posturing, throwing/slamming stuff. It’s the feeling that they are barely in control of themselves that sends me immediately trips my fight/flight response.

          I do not have the same reaction when a woman is behaving in the same way. It’s not even something I can defend or explain, but my gut response indicates I don’t view women at the same threat level.

          1. LeighTX*

            I had to explain this to my husband the other day: we were talking about a co-worker I had at my last job who has a terrible work ethic and an even worse attitude, and my husband was fussing that I’d never stood up to the guy when he was rude to me. I told him it was easy for him to think that way, when he’s not a woman walking alone through a parking garage after dark. This former CW slammed things around and raised his voice whenever he was angry or frustrated; who’s to say he wouldn’t have slammed ME around if I’d gotten angry in return?

            1. Not So NewReader*

              I reported similar behaviors to a boss. Happily, Boss listened to me and started documenting patterns.

              A friend had a boss that behaved this way- throwing things when angry. Someone reported the boss and he, too, was spoken to.

              I never take it for granted when management jumps in on these things because there are still a lot of managers that do not know how to handle throwers/yellers/etc.

              1. LeighTX*

                My former boss was aware of the fit-throwing (and the 3-hour lunches, and the leaving at noon on Fridays, and other bad behavior that couldn’t be proven) but for some reason Boss is choosing to keep the guy on. It is a mystery, and I’m glad to be away from it.

        2. Sigrid*

          It’s as the saying goes — at core, men are afraid women will laugh at them; at core, women are afraid men will kill them.

          That’s not to say that an angry male coworker is likely to snap and kill the woman he’s ranting at. But to pretend that the power differential isn’t there, or that a woman shouldn’t feel unsafe around an angry man just because they’re in a work situation, is to ignore reality.

      4. Observer*

        No, she’s a woman who is “junior”, he was expressing his anger to her, he commented on her behavior AND he implied that her decorative qualities were the only thing that enabled her to keep her job.

      5. aebhel*

        Ok, so I’m a woman, and I’ve had these sort of comments made at me. I’m not particularly intimidated by being shouted at by angry men–I come from a big, hot-tempered family–and I have no trouble defending myself. And you know what? If a coworker ever said something like this to me, I would deal with it exactly as this woman did.

        If a coworker–particularly one who is senior to me–doesn’t know how to behave appropriately at work, it’s not my job to educate him. I see very little likelihood that the OP would have backed down and apologized in the moment, and absolutely no good ever comes out of turning this sort of thing into a verbal slugfest.

  19. JMegan*

    Aside from the appalling sexism, the inherently derogatory comment to a co-worker, and the OP’s complete lack of understanding and refusal to accept responsibility, I have a couple of other things to add.

    First, I doubt very much that this was an isolated incident. Possibly the first time he’s been called on his behaviour, but I don’t believe it was the first time he’s ever said anything like that in the workplace.

    And second, “blowing off steam” in the workplace is not appropriate, even when you’re not insulting other people. If you have a legitimate concern with a colleague missing deadlines, you address the problem of the missed deadlines – the impact on your work, and how to fix it in the future. Either with the colleague in question if she is one of your direct reports, or with her manager if she is not.

    There is simply no room in an office environment for “blowing off steam” like that. If you absolutely feel like you have to do that, you do it out of the office, with a family member or a friend or someone you trust, who knows that you’re not going to take the behaviour and the frustration back to work. (And stay off social media for this purpose as well, please!)

    TL;DR – you clearly need to apologize to the woman you insulted. And I think you should also apologize to your manager for behaving so inappropriately in the office. It might be a good idea to talk to your EAP or someone who can help you manage your anger better, so this doesn’t happen again.

    1. Diet Coke Addict*

      Yes. It’s not the one statement, but the justifications that surround it and the air of not understanding, which I think leads us to believe it may not be an isolated incident OR it’s reflective of a larger perception problem.

      1. Anonymous Coward*

        I’ve had issues with a colleague who was repeatedly failing to do his job (work late, incomplete, incorrect in obvious ways). I’ve been frustrated with this, of course, and have raised this with my manager. In person, though, I’ve said things like “Bob, I really need this fixed very soon. Is there a problem with that?” – and then I blow off steam once I get home and tell my wife how Bob screwed up again. She then tells me about her favourite, Alice…

      2. Judy*

        Yes, if I’ve had cases I need to blow off steam at work, it means I leave the area and walk around outdoors or in the plant muttering to myself. Not something I do at my desk or in a meeting or to someone.

    2. Anon*

      and usually blowing off steam involves doing it with a third party, it seems, to actually say it to the person’s face, means they really have no idea how inappropriate it was.

    3. Joey*

      Its a little unfair to make judgements based only on your assumption that he must be a repeat offender, no?

    4. Windchime*

      Yeah, this. The “blowing off steam” part gives me a mental image of someone raising their voice, red-faced, possibly slamming things around while saying nasty things. I’m guessing he wasn’t “blowing off steam” with a soft voice and a self-deprecating smile, but rather the angry, loud kind.

      I’m having trouble picturing how that kind of behavior is ever appropriate in a workplace, even without the derogatory comment to his coworker.

      This is the OP’s chance to really read these comments and think about workplace behavior. These types of events aren’t usually one-offs, so this is a good time to learn how to handle frustrating work situations in a mature and reasonable manner. Flinging insults and blowing off steam isn’t good.

  20. Sarahnova*


    Thank you, Alison, for setting out clearly and unambiguously why this was inappropriate, and the company’s response is appropriate.

    OP: a sexist, belittling thing to say does not become OK to say because you were just “blowing off steam”. Seriously, if you don’t have more productive ways to address workplace frustrations than coming out with sexist comments, that needs to be addressed ASAP, after you’ve apologised for this one.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s just as problematic if the OP is a man or a woman (although has a slightly different flavor with each), but in this case the OP is a man (based on the name on the email).

    2. NK*

      Based on Alison’s comment above referring to the OP as male, I think we can safely assume she knows it’s a guy.

  21. some1*

    & btw, putting the sexist remark aside, even if she is incompetent, how are you supposed to complain about her now through appropriate channels and be taken seriously? You have straight f-ed yourself here.

  22. TheExchequer*

    OP: Imagine you flubbed a report to your boss and you overheard your boss’s boss say, “Well, it’s a good thing he’s handsome/she’s pretty.” This is not troubling to you? This doesn’t make you flinch inside and make you wonder if they just hired you for your looks instead of how comptent you are? That’s how it came across. That’s why you were written up. That’s why you should apologize and take a long, hard look at the things that come out of your mouth.

    1. JustMe*


      OP, if I were in your colleague’s shoes and received the “at least you’re pretty” comment, my brain would jump to the following conclusions:

      I thought I earned this job! I thought OP considered me capable and an equal. Did I only get my job because of my looks? Does OP think that I am coasting through my job (and my life) on my looks?

      This, on top of the added stress and guilt that would assumedly accompany not making a deadline.

      I would think that not only do you not have faith in me, but also you don’t think I’m capable of more beyond my appearance. I wouldn’t want to address the matter with you. I would be too distraught that you implied my appearance was my only value. I mean, honestly, if someone implied that your only value at your workplace was not being horrific to look at, would you want to go to that person and dig further into that can of worms? I would probably be too afraid of what else you might say about how worthless I am.

      I’m not going to jump on the bashing bandwagon, but that’s the best possible explanation I can think of to reiterate: this is why that was wrong. In any relationship–professional or personal–once those frustrated words leave your mouth, you can’t take them back. And the person who hears them may never fully recover.

      I would say you owe your colleague not only an apology, but also a helping hand. You need to build her confidence; show her that you have faith in her actual abilities, and that you are there to offer suggestions and help for her weak spots. As others have suggested, ask her questions; good communication will help a lot in her reaching the deadlines.

      For this situation, I think the best reparation would be to turn your perspective from a critic into a mentor. She may screw up from time to time, but knowing you are supportive of her efforts will make a world of difference. She’ll want to work harder, and you’ll want to see her succeed.

      1. ella*

        I dunno. If someone said this to me, even if they apologized later, I would work with them as little as possible. I would not want them as a mentor. I would not want them to work with me to improve my performance. I would not want him to support me and I could give a damn if he approves of me.

        1. JustMe*

          True; I could see this reaction happening, too. But, at least the OP would be doing something really helpful instead of just the bare minimum social construction (all this is assuming, of course, that the apology and offer to help were truly genuine). Whether or not the colleague chose to accept the gesture would be entirely up to her.

          For me personally, though, I feel much more inclined to give someone another chance if I know that person is making a good faith effort to make things right.

      2. Jen RO*

        See, this kind of thing actually makes me more mad than the insult. Oh woe is me, someone was mean and my confidence is shattered. Is this really what we want girls to internalize? Instead of teaching them that jerks are out there and they don’t deserve one second of attention, we are teaching then that they are weak and need someone to protect them? That is wrong in so many ways. My confidence *does* get shattered when someone doubts my abilities, but that is my problem for letting idiots get to me. It’s not my manager’s job to coddle me, or even my mother’s. I’m afraid this is just another result of the special snowflake culture and I am worried about the kids that are growing up now in such an antiseptic environment. (Yes, I know my opinion will be very unpopular.)

        1. JustMe*

          That is true, Jen RO. (I never said I am not personally lacking severely in the confidence department–I really am, and I know it, which is why I can only speak for how I would react in the situation.) I don’t think it’s a matter of her *needing* the OP, though. In a way, he needs her more–he needs to learn how to be more aware of himself and others.

          I also agree that once you’re an adult, you’re an adult. No more kit gloves. And I think she did handle the situation appropriately (as I said before, I definitely wouldn’t have gone back to the OP).

          My thoughts about mentoring aren’t meant to be that OP should treat her as a “delicate snowflake” from now on. He needs to learn to think twice before speaking; she needs to learn how to better manage her workload toward deadlines. If both parties were willing and sincere, it could be a mutually beneficial relationship.

          Sometimes bad experiences come with the territory, and you have to learn from those. In the long run, though, I think it’s ideal if you can point to definite choices you made to improve the situation as much as possible. If nothing else, it’s great for interviews. :)

  23. Zelos*

    You say you don’t mean to be derogatory, but you also don’t seem to think this kind of remark is wrong, for all the reasons Alison aptly listed.

    Frankly, your coworker did the best thing by reporting you–either A) management will (and did) give you a talking-to and you would (hopefully) smarten up, or B) your sexism will be thoroughly documented for when similar instances happen down the line.

    I don’t see what your coworker did wrong. I think she did everything right.

  24. Just a Reader*


    I’m pretty sure OP is male…Alison, can you confirm?

    Wimmin in the workplace aren’t a new thing. Why is it so hard to separate gender roles from professional roles?

    I hold a senior role at my company. In a meeting with one male bigwig and one male external contact, the male bigwig said to me, “Get me a glass of water, will you, honey? Thanks.”

    Um, this isn’t Mad Men. Get it yourself.

    1. hild*

      What did you do? Did you actually say that back to him? haha, that would have been awesome. I always wonder how I’d handle myself if that happened to me. I’d hope I’d be so amaizngly professional, but somehow manage to just hit him where the sun don’t shine with a sharp comeback.

      1. Just a Reader*

        No, I pointed him to the water pitcher as if he didn’t know where it was and asked the other person in the meeting a question.

    2. some1*

      Gross. I *do* sometimes get water for bigwigs in meetings as part of my job — and they ask me for it, not tell me. And no “honey”s.

    3. iseeshiny*

      This just totally made me picture Michelle Bachmann pouring water for all the men at that one debate during the GOP primaries. Like, um, no.

      1. AF*

        OMG I’m sorry I missed that. I would have flipped out. (But now I kinda want to see the video!)

  25. NK*

    Sexist remark aside (only because there are enough comments on it, not because it’s not a serious issue), what stuck out to me is that the OP seems to think that the comment was not such a big deal because he said it while “blowing off steam”. But blowing off steam really isn’t appropriate in a work setting. Do it at home or with your friends at the bar after work, but going on a rant in the office is really unprofessional. When I look back on the bosses and coworkers I’ve respected the most over the years, they’re the ones who were able to keep their cool in stressful situations – not those who shot off their mouths under stress.

    1. AndersonDarling*

      I interpreted the “blowing off steam” part as indicating that the LW was not thinking clearly and said something he would not have if they had a clear head.

      I think that is why I have some sympathy for the LW. I had a similar experience where a situation got bizarrely out of control. Someone was not checking their work and when a string of major errors was revealed, a barrage of heated finger pointing happened. It was ridiculous, and I said bluntly, after a string of her screaming excuses, “Why can’t you just check your work?” I don’t even remember saying it, but the recipient sure did! And I’m sure it came out with a terrible tone. She never forgot and would make jabs about me insulting her whenever she could. (btw- all managers were MIA)
      I could have been written up for it. I wouldn’t know what to do if I was put on a PIP for such an out of character remark and knew that everyone was listening to my every word looking for a reason to fire me. All because of one admittedly stupid comment.

      Of course I didn’t say anything sexual, and I worked somewhere where threats of violence were normal between co-workers.

      I’m not excusing the LW, I’m just saying that I know I can say stupid things when pushed really hard.

      1. NK*

        I agree with you – almost everyone loses their cool at some point in their careers. The difference seems to me that you (and other people for whom this type of thing is out of character) immediately realized that your behavior was out of line. The OP (at least, the way I interpreted it) seemed to almost be excusing the behavior because he was blowing off steam. Or at least, nowhere did he acknowledge that the outburst in itself (not just the sexist comment) was inappropriate.

        1. AndersonDarling*

          I was thinking more about it… if such a comment *really* is out of character for the LW, then his boss should know this and the LW shouldn’t worry about it. Apologize and don’t di it again.
          I’m assuming there was a discussion when he was written up and his manager talked about why he was written up and gave their thoughts about the situation.

          Maybe that is the real problem- the manager didn’t discuss the write-up so the LW is a bit in the dark.
          Although I think everyone here has filled him in. :)

          1. fposte*

            The thing is, it’s in character enough for him to have done it, and it’s in character enough for him not to understand why it was a problem, so “out of character” doesn’t really get him off the hook. “Out of managerial earshot” is not the same thing as “out of character.”

      2. iseeshiny*

        Why on earth would you have been put on a PIP for this? Why would you have been written up for it if she was screaming at you?

        1. AndersonDarling*

          In my experience, whoever goes to their manager first gets the “get out of jail free card”.
          I’ve seen people get other people written up for nothing… and I really mean nothing. I saw employee 1 enter a meeting he wasn’t invited to and throw a book of work at employee 2. Employee 2 said, “do you think this could wait till I am done with this meeting?”
          Employee 2 was written up for being rude to a superior.

          Write ups aren’t always fair.

          But …that is a whole different topic…

          1. iseeshiny*

            I mean, I get what you’re saying, but at the same time, what would her complaint about you have been? “She asked me why I don’t check my work! In a mean way!”

          2. Not So NewReader*

            Without going into detail: I had a situation at work where a cohort said xyz to me. This was a totally reportable statement, and not gender based.
            I went to HR. The FIRST thing I was asked was “What did you say in reply?” Since the topic was distressing, even HR was having difficulty getting through my story, HR said again “Think really hard. Did you say/do anything after cohort said that?”

            I was left with the sense that if I had said ANYTHING at all I would have substantially weakened my case. As luck would have it, I was so shocked by the remark that I could not get words out of my mouth. So, no, I did not say anything, not a single word.
            Cohort got an earful about that whole episode.

            I still wonder if I had said anything, would management have gone to bat for me or just let the incident go?

  26. KC*

    I’ll admit that I’ve said “it’s a good thing you’re pretty” to my husband (I’m a woman) in the context of something we’re talking about at home. It is ALWAYS meant as a joke (we tease each other and banter, the tone is understood, and it’s just a part of our relationship). If he said something similar to me in that same context, I’d never even think to be offended.

    That said–I would NEVER say something along those lines to a coworker. Ever. Especially if it was in the context of “you screwed something up and I’m mad about it.” In this instance, I completely understand why she would be offended. And if she was getting weird sexist vibes from the OP, I can also understand why she went to her manager or HR (“formally”), rather than directly to the OP.

    I think the OP does owe her a sincere apology, and should really think twice about how he addresses his coworkers in general (male or female).

    1. JC*

      Yes, I could see that being totally okay with a significant other/someone else you have a relationship with where you know it would be okay. As another example, my mother sometimes says to me, “for someone with a PhD, you sure can be stupid sometimes”–which is fine and funny from my mother in the context of our specific relationship, but would most likely not be okay from most people at work (and wouldn’t necessarily be okay within the context of other people’s personal relationships, either).

      1. the_scientist*

        yep, my boyfriend and I joke like this occasionally and it’s always a joke, but if I made a mistake and my parents responded with “at least you’re pretty” I’d be pretty upset. Like that time I had the stomach flu and my roommate said “well, it’ll be a good diet”…UH, WHAT.

    2. Jen RO*

      I would and had said similar things to coworkers – coworkers I was friends with and understood that I was joking.

    3. businesslady*

      agreed. & while I can see some scenario in which a similar exchange happened between coworkers who were good friends (still not appropriate, but workplace friendships often traffic in grey areas), that’s clearly not the case here, as the coworker in question wouldn’t’ve taken it to her manager.

      I can imagine some boundary-challenged female coworkers I’ve had in the past saying something like this, & while it wouldn’t be okay, I’d probably just ignore it. from a man to a woman, though, & especially downward across seniority lines…ew. it makes my skin crawl just imagining being dismissed that way.

      I hope the “pretty” employee in question is looking for (& quickly finds) another job, & that OP either shapes up or gets fired.

  27. Magda*

    “I was simply frustrated and this woman is not above me in any way; she is entry level.”

    This sentence creeps me out as much as the actual “pretty” comment. It’s fair to take action about a missed deadline, sure. But entry level people do not exist to serve as punching bags for your loss of self-control.

    1. the_scientist*

      Seriously, I’m getting a big subtext of “wait a second, you mean these entry level peons are PEOPLE? You mean I have to treat them like ACTUAL HUMAN BEINGS? I just thought I could say whatever I want to them because they don’t actually count!” from this letter.

    2. AndersonDarling*

      I think the LW is forgetting that you need to be extra careful with what you say with employees new to the workplace. It takes time to understand work culture/stress/friendly banter/what crosses a line and what is in a grey area.

      And new employees will absorb everything they are exposed to and consider it the norm. Which would be really bad in this situation.

      1. fposte*

        As I said upstream, if I were a manager and I overheard this, I wouldn’t care if the recipient of the comment were old or new. That’s not a comment you get to make in the workplace.

    3. Lalou*

      I could very well be reading too much into his phrasing but I think the “not above me in any way” is what got me. In any way? As a person he is still above her? As a man?

  28. Sunflower*

    I just read an article on Buzz Feed ’21 most offensive things you can say to a woman’ and this was on there.


  29. hild*

    “She also did not tell me immediately that I had upset her at all; the next I heard about it was from my manager. I would like to question why formalities were initiated….”

    I’m not going to pile on you, OP, becuase you’re getting excoriated enough and I don’t like gladiator arenas. But what I do want to comment on is your question about why the woman didn’t immediately tell you she was upset and why she initiated formalities (I’m guessing you mean a formal complaint?) with your manager. Just from her perspective, hearing something like that which is so wildly out of place in the workplace can be shocking enough that someone wouldn’t know how to respond. I’ve been on the receiving end of stupid ass comments that rendered me speechless. I’m not quick on my feet and I know many others aren’t as well.

    Also, you said she’s entry level, so I’m also guessing that you are “above her” in some capacity, if nothing else but seniority. That can create a power imbalance enough so that she wouldn’t feel comfortable telling you it bothered her. I’m just trying to think of someone I know in my workplace that isn’t above me administratively, but that is in seniority and I don’t know that I’d push back if they said something inappropriate. Just because I perceive them to have more power. And my line of thinking is that if someone more powerful than me says something hurtful, am I really going to be able to stop it on my own, right then and there. The answer should be yes, but we know that’s not reality for many people.

    Also, it could be (like some others have commented) that maybe you have let slip things before to this person that you didn’t even realize. And it was like a final straw for her.

    There is way more context to this story, but if you’re willing to come back and explain more it might make for richer discussion here. There are plenty of previous OPs that have done something dumb, got the crap kicked out them here, but came back and were really humble and contrite in accepting the feedback. I hope that’s how it turns out here.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Having been faced with conversations that have left me speechless, I would sincerely like to know what could have been said to OP that he would have understood and accepted.
      Not trying to be snarky, these situations fly in all of the sudden. I think it is pretty normal to be without words. I kick myself later for not saying something. I try to review it and prepare an idea of a response for the next time.- if it ever happens again. But I am always baffled by people that don’t understand what is wrong in the first place. I never know what to say in those instances.

      1. hild*

        That’s a good question. My husband’s way of connecting with me is to joke and sometime’s it’s jokes at my expense. For the most part it’s fine and I joke back and it’s safe within our relationship. But sometimes I’m just not in a mood to be made fun of, or it’s the nth time he’s said it and I’m just done with it, so I’ll tell him to knock it off. Well, that usually provokes one of two reactions: 1) he gets all defensive or 2). he gets dismissive. It’s the dismissiveness that pisses me off most because it feels like at that point there’s no way for me to convey to him why it’s a big deal to me. If he was defensive then I feel like he at least recognizes that his comments affected me. The dismissiveness is worse becuase he can’t even recognize my reaction to it.

        So, yeah, I wonder the same thing. What/how do you respond to someone that could be either dismissive or defensive? How do you convey that what just happened WAS a big deal to you and was not perceived in the same way it was intended?

        1. fposte*

          I’m sure there are more restrained versions, but I’d go with “Are you !@#%in kidding me? What on earth has led you to believe that is *ever* an acceptable thing to say to anybody in a workplace?” And then shut up and let the other person flail; if they run out of steam before they apologize, add “I expect an apology.”

      2. iseeshiny*

        So one time a boss (I don’t report to him but I work for a smallish company, we work in close proximity and he’s several rungs above me) made a very inappropriate, potentially actionable “joke” and it was super shocking and horrible.

        I tend to blurt things rather than freezing up, so I said, “That’s not funny,” before realizing that I was talking to someone hierarchically above me (then I froze). And it was really awkward, and he didn’t handle it very well either (ie not apology, some mumbled defensiveness), and I’m pretty sure he’s never felt comfortable around me since, but he’s never made a comment like it again and hopefully he won’t to anyone else in the future.

        I don’t think I did myself any favors, and if I had it to do over again, I would have said nothing at the time and brought it to my direct manager (who is above him in the pecking order) and asked her to deal with it. If he had been a peer of mine I would say I had handled it perfectly and would recommend that approach to anyone. (@hild – including husbands who are sometimes insensitive, I have one of those, too.)

      3. Worker Bee*

        I am ready to hear your constructive feedback, when you are read. Turn around and leave. Let him stand there either shocked (because he didnt expect it) or continue his venting. Either way it is on him and he is the one looking stupid

      4. Worker Bee*

        I am ready to hear your constructive feedback, when you are ready. Turn around and leave. Let him stand there either shocked (because he didnt expect it) or continue his venting. Either way it is on him and he is the one looking stupid

    2. GrizzlyUrsula*

      I completely agree here – Hearing a comment like that is a red flag for a number of women. It’s something that signals you might not be dealing with someone who will react in a reasonable manner if you called them out for rudeness. Unless you know them really well, or you know for sure you could handle it if they flipped out on you, it makes sense to retreat and regroup.

    3. Karyn*

      This. It can even be intimidating when you’re on good terms with the person in question, if they’re above you. I had one supervisor with whom I had a great working relationship. It takes a whole lot to upset me, having grown up with military men in the family, so I was never offended when he would, say, drop F bombs in front of me or what have you (not that that’s appropriate in the office, either, but I just really wasn’t offended by it personally and told him as much, so he knew he could do it in front of me without getting in trouble).

      But there was one time where he was talking about a client “raping us” for fees, and, as a survivor of sexual assault, I was really upset and bothered by this. Now, this is a man with whom I was on extraordinary terms, and I was STILL terrified to go in and actually tell him that he’d offended me. I ended up doing it, instead of going to H.R., but that was primarily because he didn’t have a pattern of deliberately saying things that he knew were offensive to me or “blowing off steam” in my direction.

      When I finally spoke up a couple days later, the look on his face told me he didn’t even realize the ramifications of his comment until I pointed it out to him – he frankly hadn’t even realized he said it. He was horrified at himself and apologized profusely, going out of his way to never, ever use that word in that context again – not just around me, but EVER.

      But the thing is, that was in a BEST CASE SCENARIO wherein you have a great working relationship with someone. I can’t imagine what I would have done in the situation the OP posted about. I really hope that the OP comes back here, reads these comments, and learns something before making another mistake like this.

    4. Jamie*

      I’ve been on the receiving end of stupid ass comments that rendered me speechless. I’m not quick on my feet and I know many others aren’t as well.

      I have also, and haven’t responded in the moment for a different reason. Even when the words I wanted to say came quickly I have an overriding sense of I’m not doing this with you.

      I don’t engage when people are so angry that they aren’t behaving rationally – I refuse to try to make a point with someone in the state of blowing off steam. That’s never productive and I refuse to allow myself to become embroiled in what will look to a 3rd party like a mutual argument.

      In my life I’ve never seen an angry person blowing off steam who changed course because someone pointed out they were being inappropriate. I’ve seen it come later with cooler heads and all – but not in the heat of the moment. I would assume anything she said in the moment would have escalated the situation.

  30. Nodumbunny*

    I will admit that I laughed out loud at the “I did not mean this in a derogatory way.” WTH? You meant it as…a compliment?

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Really. Beauty is not talent, skill, knowledge. It is merely a happenstance of birth. We have no inputs as to how we come out of the womb.

    2. Jen RO*

      I am assuming he meant it as a joke, which was very inappropriate in context. I have definitely joked around with friends (including work-friends) like this, but in a casual manner, not in a blowing-off-steam situation.

  31. Ann Furthermore*

    OK the only thing I have to say to this is: AAAARRRRGGGGHHH!

    Seriously, WTF? What year is it again?

  32. Lane*

    I can understand that it’s frustrating to be formally written up for a first-time offense. And as Alison often says, in a lot of situations it makes sense for the person to directly address their problem with the person who has annoyed or offended them.

    But in this case, the specific comment you made, whether inadvertently or not, sent a clear message to this woman that you don’t respect her. After even just one comment like that, that’s so overtly sexist, demeaning, and dismissive, she’s not going to see you as a reasonable person that she can safely talk to. She’s going to assume that if she’s upfront and tells you the comment offended her, you’re going to dismiss her feelings and tell her she’s wrong—after all, she’s just a pretty face.

    So she needed to bring this issue to someone she did feel safe talking to, who she felt would take her seriously. And that person dealt with this seriously because honestly, it is a really big deal to talk to people that way, and to think about people that way.

    A heartfelt apology explaining that you really understand what was wrong about your comment and that you don’t really feel that way would be a good idea, but you need to believe it yourself first.

  33. Anonymous*

    “and, while blowing off steam, one of the things I said was that it’s a good thing she is pretty. ”

    So many things wrong here.

    -It’s not OK to ‘blow off steam” at people you work with.
    -The pretty comment is only “one” of the things you said to her?
    – The pretty comment

    “Sue, I’m frustrated that you missed the deadline on this since I thought you had ample time to complete it. What happened?”

  34. Canadamber*

    I… why did you expect an apology after you said THAT? Seriously, that’s just rude. Wow, OP, just wow.

    1. Canadamber*

      A similar thing actually happened to someone at my work; he got written up for sexual harassment due to calling a coworker fat (by implying that she must be pregnant).

      1. Canuck*

        Would you be able to elaborate on what he said to his co-worker? If he mistakenly thought she was pregnant (one time only), that’s more of an etiquette mistake than a sexual harassment one. Of course, repeated remarks about her or other women’s size/weight/insinuations of pregnancy would be harassment.

        1. Canadamber*

          Nope, she’s not pregnant. She was walking up the stairs to the break room and he was walking down, and he went, “Ew!” randomly, and she was like, “Get the stick out of your ass,” and he retorted, “Why don’t you get the baby out of your belly?” She’s not even fat or anything! He almost got fired that day.

  35. Juli G.*

    OP, this is my second response after reflecting on this. I would suggest unconscious bias training for you – some of these trainings are really awesome.

    I think you got a great wake up call. When I was early in my career, a coworker and I who were very good friends constantly insulted each other. It was done with pretty dry sarcasm but we thought it was hilarious because both of us had a lot more respect for each other than we had for a lot of others. It was our way of working through frustrations with others – blowing off stems and “taking it out” on each other.

    It did not reflect well on us. It made people uncomfortable and made them wonder how we treated those we didn’t like (which was very well because we vented with each other!) Luckily, we were young enough that we were both able to move to other departments and our reputations recovered.

    The point is, take this as an opportunity to get better. You can still do it!

    1. fposte*

      I like this point, and I hope it doesn’t get buried. Learning from this will make you a lot better, OP. I hope you do so.

    2. Kit M.*

      If this were Reddit I would upvote for visibility. The OP clearly doesn’t really understand the problem with what he said, and training could really help.

      We all have unconscious biases. Mostly, they are just not pronounced enough, or we are not tactless enough, for them to spill over in a ridiculously inappropriate statement.

  36. Anonymous*

    I’m wondering if the reason that the OP is so surprised is because crude comments are common in their workplace. I’ve worked in a place where profanity and even sexual innuendos were very common, and that made it harder to tell where the line was. In such an environment, it might come as a shock to be written up for one particular comment when similar crap flies around all the time. And in my experience, this kind of culture can also make people far more inappropriate than they would be otherwise.

    1. Anonymous*

      This is certainly possible. Especially if either of these two staff were new to this organization. If the woman was new and therefore reported the inappropriate behavior and management then feels empowered to address it (it is often easier for management to address a specific incident than a culture, though not better, just lazier). Or if the OP is coming from a culture that did not care about harassment and was therefore surprised that in this environment it was not appropriate to harass a coworker.

      (I think even the sexist comment aside that the OP was “blowing off steam” AT the person is pretty much guaranteed to be a harassing kind of action, especially when that person is “entry level” and we assume from the way the OP speaks of that, he is not.)

  37. Nikki B*

    “…… that an apology would have been sufficient. Can I do this? If so, what is the best way to approach it?”

    Any apology needs to address your appalling behaviour and what you are doing to change yourself. DO NOT apologize for the entry level woman’s reaction to your belittling comments. ( the non-apology apology) That is, ” I’m sorry you were offended” is not acceptable. In fact it is not an apology.

    1. Colette*

      And trying to apologize instead of having the formal complaint against you is not a good approach. Apologize if & when you understand why this was a terrible thing to do, and once you’ve figured out how you are going to learn to control yourself in the future.

      Don’t do it so in an attempt to get the formal complaint removed.

    2. fposte*

      Right. An apology is “I’m sorry; I [stupid thing] and I know that was wrong and hurtful. I will be better than that.” “I’m sorry if” and “I’m sorry that you” are not apologies.

      1. Ruffingit*

        Thank you. I hate it when people do that. If you don’t want to apologize or you don’t realize that you did something wrong to begin with, then just don’t bother.

    3. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

      I don’t actually think he’s asking for advice on how to approach an apology. I think he’s asking for advice on how to question why formalities were initiated.

      1. some1*

        I think he’s asking how to go about negotiating with his boss: “If I apologize to Jane, can we drop the write-up?”

        1. Colette*

          Yeah, it actually feels to me like he’s looking for ways to justify that what he did was not bad enough to warrant a formal complaint – which is a way of weaseling out of taking responsibility.

    4. Steve G*

      The OP’s apology also needs to be sincere, so we can’t spoon feed lines for him to recite, or they won’t mean anything.

      I also want to caution against strong words such as “appalling.” Appalling is punching a coworker in the face or throwing their stuff out the window. In some places, this comment would even be considered a joke….envision Mr. Garrett saying this to Blair on a rerun of Facts of Life if you will…….

      Also some places do have a Melrose Place drama to them and comments like this that are snippy aren’t considered out-right insulting as many people state here. For example, I work in a high pressure industry in NYC and people work long hours sometimes…and a few weeks ago 2 coworkers had a fight that included such nasty stabs that I thought they’d never speak again. Their seats were separated for a week. Then the next week a manager mediated a conversation between the 2 and their conversation focused on the professional speak of the insults they’d spewed a few weeks back. Both have minor flaws in their work approach that I’ve noticed and so when they were yelling at eachother (yes, I know, unprofessional), I was agreeing with both of them. I think both parties took the feedback from eachother, in a positive way, though they don’t admit it.

      If they hadn’t had the blow up, there would still be that lack of communication between them and the blaming of things on eachother. If the first one to have yelled during the fight had simply been written up, I think the tension and lack of communication on that team would be alot worse, in no way better. It would have continued to fuel the blame-game.

  38. Del*

    She also did not tell me immediately that I had upset her at all; the next I heard about it was from my manager.

    You were “blowing off steam” at her — in other words, you were vocally, visibly, obviously angry, and from the sound of it, she’s junior to you. Standing up to you at that point — provoking you even more, most likely — would be a huge risk for her to take.

    She did exactly the right thing in getting out of the situation and handling it in a way that meant not confronting you directly. How was she supposed to know that your next step in “blowing off steam” wouldn’t be getting violent? You were obviously making it clear, even from just the one comment you’ve passed on to us, that you were absolutely ignoring any kind of civil workplace behavior. At that point, her obligation to engage with you at all was over.

    1. Anonymous*

      I agree with this. From what the OP said it sounds very much like this was a session of the OP berating this coworker. And aside from the sexual harassment that is inappropriate behavior in the workplace.

      When someone who does not treat me as a person is angry and making multiple comments at me I’m not going to speak up because I am going to be afraid for my physical safety. Not speaking up at the time doesn’t make you weak (as some commentors appear to imply) it makes you wise enough to know when to pick your battles.

      1. Ruffingit*

        Agreed. Speaking up when someone is both angry and has proven themselves to be sexist and totally inappropriate in their commentary is not going to be helpful to moving the situation forward. That is a person who needs to be reported so his higher-ups can manage the situation.

    2. Jen in RO*

      I am shocked that so many people worry for their physical safety in a work environment. Is it that common for people to become violent in the office? Violence would be the last thing on my mind when arguing with someone at work…

      1. Anonymous*

        Considering that it is not infrequent at all for workplace violence to occur, yeah I worry for my safety at work. I know several people I work with carry guns*.

        I have at previous jobs been threatened and held at gun point.

        *I do not work with cops or other people who would carry them in official capacity, more in the I have the right to carry a gun and use it kind of way.

        1. Jen in RO*

          Thanks for the reply, I was wondering if it’s something related to guns, but I didn’t want to be seen as US bashing. Guns are extremely uncommon here, I’ve never seen one in real life and I only know one person who owns one (he is a hunter).

          And – not directed to you, just related to a comment above by Arbynka – *I* am very happy that I live in Eastern Europe where gun violence is virtually nonexistant and I don’t have to fear for my life every day. (Sorry Alison, but since culture comparisons were started here, I am trying to see how it feels from the other side.)

      2. A Nonny Mouse*

        Believe it or not, my ex was actually physically assaulted by someone at his own desk at work. The guy cornered him after lunch, and in their cubes, there was nowhere for my ex to go if the guy had taken a swing. It took two managers and a meeting to calm the guy down, and he almost lost his job because of it.

        Now, that said, my ex is kind of an ass and admitted he said something snarky to the guy who assaulted him an hour before it happened, but it still shouldn’t have come to that.

        1. Canuck*

          The other guy only almost lost his job? Wow, he’s lucky. Around here, if you physically assault someone you are gone, except in very rare circumstances. Verbal assault, depending on the nature of it, can sometimes be enough to get you fired as well.

          1. Ruffingit*

            Geeze yeah, I’m stuck at the almost lost his job thing too. If physically assaulting someone isn’t enough, I hate to think what is.

        2. Del*

          Yeah, a snarky or smartmouth comment is not sufficient justification for escalating to violence.

          1. Ruffingit*

            Totally agreed. A lot of people seem to think it is, but you’re responsible for how you respond to whatever comes your way. You cannot blame someone else for your response.

      3. Observer*

        Well, perhaps she was worried about getting fired, and she really can’t afford it. It’s not unreasonable. She’s got this person “blowing off steam” at her, and letting her know just how lousy she. He also tells her that she’s probably only around because she’s pretty. It’s easy to conclude that “If I say anything to this guy, I might as well pack my bags.” Only to realize later, that hey, the manager is not likely to react this way.

        Also, workplace violence doesn’t have to be common for women to be intimidated. Have you ever seen how kids cringe and try to make themselves invisible when a parent goes off, even though the parent has NEVER laid a finger on a child? For most women, there is a similar fear factor when a man goes off that way.

      4. The Real Ash*

        Have you not heard of any of the numerous workplace shootings and assaults that happen in America? (I’m being serious here.)

        1. Ruffingit*

          I read the question not as one of shootings, but more as one person getting violent against another as in punching them in the face, slapping them, etc.

        2. Jen in RO*

          I have, but I always figure that they are over-reported. ‘No one was shot at work today’ doesn’t make great news :) And Ruffingit is also right, I was referring to all types of violence. It’s just nothing I’ve ever heard of in a work context, and while there are cultural differences, they are not *that* big – or at least that’s what I thought!

      5. Ruffingit*

        I’ve been in a situation where myself and other co-workers who were in the area seriously thought a fellow co-worker was going to punch me in the face. He was a very angry, mentally unstable individual. Thankfully, I’d already resigned and was working out my two weeks before returning to school.

        I think, on the whole, it’s not a huge problem, but there are also different types of violence that do occur often – physical is only one definition. People are repeatedly violated emotionally, mentally, etc. at jobs. Workplace PTSD is a real thing. But if we’re just talking physical violence? No, I don’t think it happens that much, but it does happen.

      6. Del*

        Another good point to raise is that even if the probability of something actually happening is low, the threat of it is important to note.

        The call center I used to work in would occasionally get threats of violence from angry clients. I got two of these on the phone myself. Even when they were very unlikely to occur (like the guy in Yukon Territory threatening to drive to our offices in Baltimore to “teach you f*ckers a lesson you won’t forget”) we still took those threats seriously because we never knew which person would turn out to be just that crazy.

      7. Mel*

        > Is it that common for people to become violent in the office?

        It’s that common for people to become violent, I think. Workplace doesn’t really matter. If I’m faced with someone taller, heavier, and stronger than me who thinks they’re entitled to treat me badly, I’m looking for escape routes.

      8. Sigrid*

        It’s also not just the threat of immediate violence, but the threat of delayed violence as well — what happens when you’re in the car park by yourself, or walking home from work, or what have you. I’ve been stalked by a former co-worker, and while it didn’t escalate to violence, it could have. These things happen.

      9. Sarahnova*

        I was sexually assaulted by a co-worker, someone who had authority over me and whom I trusted, so… yeah. Angry men who clearly resent women scare me.
        Plus workplace harassment and bullying can go beyond ruining your day to ruining tour career. Isn’t fear an appropriate response sometimes?

    3. Tinker*

      On that matter of violence, this kind of relates to a discussion we were having yesterday in my martial arts class. One thing that I think causes some subtle misunderstandings between men and women sometimes is that the cultural environment for many women doesn’t have a place for non-serious violence.

      Say for instance, there’s that movie trope where two guys get in an argument, they start raising their voices, they start trading insults, then one of them says the one thing that is too far and the other one throws this big looping punch. Then there are three or four punches and their friends drag them apart, then either a lasting enmity ensues or they do the shake hands man hug thing, depending on the plot point that is meant to be made thereby.

      An individual guy by all means might not buy this thing exactly, and may have any sort of relationship with that material, but he is more likely to have been told that somebody can punch you or you can punch them and there may be no significant lasting consequences. Of course one has to be cautious in making generalizations, but from what I’ve seen it’s less common for women to be taught that way.

      What I was taught, and what seems relatively common among women I’ve interacted with, is not that. One can argue about whether it’s true or not — I personally think it’s an incomplete description of the issue, but to what extent I don’t know exactly — but what I was taught and what seems a common perspective of most women is that if someone (or at least a male person) were to attempt to harm you then it’s a dire threat to your life and limb that cannot be averted by you. I’ve floated the idea of physically resisting a hypothetical violent assault by a completely unfit and clumsy male person and it’s as if I suggested getting in my car and driving to Mars — from someone who knows that I’m a second degree black belt who salvages granite countertops for a fun weekend diversion. It can be that degree of cultural assumption of defenselessness.

      How an individual person, if taught that way, reacts to that concept is again variable — but even for me, it’s only as far as “I have some chance of something about this beyond never having been there in the first place”, not “if I see something like this coming, it’s not something that is necessarily of any great concern to me”. I’ve definitely seen folks relate stories of being massively physically intimidated, and not without behaviors they can point to indicating why, by folks who may not have been fully aware how their loud and aggressive behavior might have been received.

      It might be food for thought to consider this, particularly if one is for whatever reason accustomed to not being very restrained in physically expressing anger.

      1. Del*

        I’ve floated the idea of physically resisting a hypothetical violent assault by a completely unfit and clumsy male person and it’s as if I suggested getting in my car and driving to Mars — from someone who knows that I’m a second degree black belt who salvages granite countertops for a fun weekend diversion. It can be that degree of cultural assumption of defenselessness.

        Keep in mind that one of the things that women are taught in our self-defense classes (by which I mean “how to not get mugged or raped,” not formal martial arts) is that striking back or actively defending ourselves can and quite possibly will escalate the violence. Is that “cultural assumption of helplessness”?

        Regardless, whether you’re a guy or not, physical violence should not be occurring in the workplace.

        And for those of us (and there are many, including me) who have been the victims of violence — “non-serious violence” is not something we’re looking for in the workplace.

        1. Tinker*

          I kind of struggle to find a good label for it — but yes, that’s one of the classic elements in the body of knowledge I have in mind.

          The issue is, from what I’ve seen, it is virtually certain that a woman has been told that (and a great many other things) at one point or another whether she has sought it out or not, whereas if a man has been told that it seems to be to a lesser degree and in a different context.

          Say, for instance, a man might go to a self-defense class and be taught that if he gets mugged in the parking lot at night he should give up his wallet — a woman might on the other hand have it volunteered to her without asking that she should not be in the parking lot at night at all.

          That’s not to say that men are necessarily taught that violence is desirable, by any means, or that it should be happening in the workplace. Nor does it say that anyone on hearing those lessons have taken them wholly as gospel. But it does seem that men are more often taught that violence is manageable, that as a result men seem more often to think that, and that when such men converse with women who have learned differently confusion and surprise often results.

        2. Tinker*

          Also, just to clarify: I’m not sure, but I kind of get the impression you think I’m a dude…? I’m not.

          Well, I’m genderqueer, but as far as most of the factors involved in this issue go, particularly the social perceptions, I’m female — so as far as what women are told to do to avoid rape, seminar lectures and pamphlets and chain letters, points addressing me in co-ed self-defense classes, informal commentary from random people, and such like, I’ve been and still am the target of all those things even though I don’t generally seek out female-specific advice.

      2. Jamie*

        One thing that I think causes some subtle misunderstandings between men and women sometimes is that the cultural environment for many women doesn’t have a place for non-serious violence.

        I think this is a brilliant observation. I’ve never thought of it in that way before, but what you are saying about social conditioning rings so true to me.

        Many of us were taught that any time a man in violent with us is a BFD – no exceptions. From the the sandbox where boys were taught you don’t hit girls no matter what (well, taught not to hit anyone but especially girls was emphasized) to adulthood where we’re taught that it’s never okay for a man to put his hands on us in anger – ever. We shouldn’t take advantage of this or count on it, but the message was loud and clear no matter what a man hitting a woman trumps everything.

        And I don’t disagree with any of that. I do think more emphasis should be made on not hitting anyone and it’s not fair to come at them ever because they can’t hit back – but I don’t disagree that this should be an absolute line in the sand.

        And I do think that with the added emphasis we get throughout our lives to be ever vigilant against assault has made us wary. Also not a bad thing, imo.

        And I don’t remember the name of the study, but I read once that a if you take a man and woman of equal height, weight, and approximate age a man will be able to hit 7x harder with his fist than a woman due to the superior upper body strength and we will have more power in our legs…but unless we’re on the ground it doesn’t help us much. Obviously they weren’t taking into account women with superior training or men who are just recovering from the flu – but your average pairing.

        And the greater the size discrepancy the greater their advantage.

        Assuming no weapons – I am no match in a physical altercation against the average man and I know this. That doesn’t mean by default I’m afraid of men, I’m not. It’s my experience that most men are in control of themselves and of no danger to me – without evidence to the contrary I assume they have no intention of harming anyone.

        But exhibiting loss of control, even verbally, moves them quickly out of that column and flips the toggle to dangerous, hence my fear response.

        And it’s safe to say a not insignificant number of women have had life experiences which have taught them how very vulnerable we are when someone is raging and out of control. I don’t want to diminish the term trigger as applied to PSTD by using it, but I don’t know a better word. A previous experience with violence can install a trigger that launches at the first whiff of unconstrained anger.

        I know many, many women who have been hit or beaten by a man – far fewer who have been assaulted by other women.

        This is not to say women are the gentler sex and men are brutes. I love men. I have kind and decent husband, sons, and brother and I know some women who won’t be canonized any time soon. But because of the physical power differential, all our conditioning, and how many of us have been on the losing side of male anger it’s understandable that our default isn’t to give the yelling, slammy guy the benefit of the doubt.

        1. Joey*

          C’mon now Jaime. Are you saying anytime anyone bigger than you yells and loses it verbally its appropriate to fear for your safety. I’ve seen a all kinds of people lose it verbally(some much bigger than me) and I never fathomed it would result in fisticuffs, even when their words got personal. Only when there were other indicators like getting in someone’s face, fists clenched, etc

          1. Jamie*

            I’m saying it doesn’t matter if it’s appropriate or not that’s my initial reaction before my brain kicks in to evaluate.

            Yes – losing it verbally will cause me to physically flinch and recoil and I will position myself so there is something between me and the yelling guy. I’m not choosing to do that, it’s an automatic response. It’s also not dramatic. I’m not clutching my pearls or diving under a desk – unless you were looking directly at me and for it you wouldn’t notice.

            And then quickly my limbic system hands control back to my prefrontal cortex and I assess the situation properly.

            I’m not saying every time a man yells he’s going to be violent – I’m saying I’m incapable of being in the presence of an angry man losing control verbally without having a physiological fear response.

            I will flinch and move behind something if my husband yells out the backdoor to tell the dog to stop digging up the grass. He’s never hit me or the dog. It’s not a matter of even thinking consciously if it will result in fisticuffs…it’s an automatic response.

          2. Boo*

            Not to put words in Jamie’s mouth, but I don’t think it’s a case of whether or not it’s “appropriate” to fear for your safety, it’s just a primal reaction. If someone bigger and stonger than me loses control of their emotions, yes I will be afraid.

            1. Jamie*

              That’s exactly it – it’s primal. It’s pulling your hand back from a hot stove, it’s sneezing when you inhale dust, it’s putting your hands out to brace yourself when you start to fall.

              It’s not appropriate or inappropriate. It just is.

          3. Colette*

            Of course it’s appropriate – why would you feel safe around someone who is bigger/stronger than you who is demonstrating at that second that they’re not capable of controlling themselves?

            1. Not So NewReader*

              Additionally, yelling is an early indicator of a loss of control. How far out of control the yelling goes is based on the individual.

              Conversely, we could compare a woman’s scream. I am willing to bet that a lot of men jump when they hear a woman scream. It’s a knee-jerk reaction- “What is that scream for? What is happening? Do I need to do something here?”
              Oh. Coworker won a million dollars on a scratch off ticket.

          4. Tinker*

            Actually, this strikes me as a great example of what I was just talking about. Here, it looks like the model you use to evaluate what is going on around you is just a little different from the one that Jamie seems to use — not enough that either of you would necessarily be aware of it if you weren’t discussing it explicitly, but enough so that your reaction is “C’mon now” and hers is not that.

            It’s like colorblindness. Or so I hear. A person might go around for years wearing their favorite gray shirt and then find out that to everyone else it’s green or whatever — not big enough a difference to comment on, but enough of one to be material.

            1. Linguist curmudgeon*

              Thread necromancy, but thank you Tinker for (a) the point about “non-serious” violence as something that’s not really socialized to women, and (b) the metaphor here of color-blindness in regards to getting or not getting it. It’s not usually malice that makes people (here, men) clueless – just ignorance. Which can be remedied!

          5. Mouse*

            Joey, are you able to easily empathize with people? Do you relate well to people, even those with different perspectives than you?

            Just curious. And I don’t mean to attack you or anything. But I get the impression you might struggle to understand perspectives outside your own personal experience.

          6. anonymous*

            As someone who dealt with multiple men for whom yelling could and often did escalate to violence or the threat of violence growing up, yes absolutely.

            When someone physically bigger and stronger than you actively demonstrates that they are unable to control themselves the natural reaction is fear. in my experience, yelling is often the precursor to more extreme behavior.

            At the very least, it demonstrates that that person is unable to control themselves and is willing to ignore the social and professional consequences of screaming at someone. That’s someone I’d be very wary of.

        2. Jen in RO*

          I had no idea that the difference in strength is so big. I wouold have expected a man to be maybe 2x stronger, but not 7x! I will now stop feeling guilty when my boyfriend carries the heavy shopping bags :)

          1. Jamie*

            I wish I could remember where I read that – I’d love to be able to revisit the study.

            But yeah, at home I haven’t lifted a big bag of dog food, heavy groceries, or a shovelful of snow in decades and I don’t feel guilty even a little bit.

            At work I do my own lifting whenever possible…but don’t tell the men in my family. shhhhh. :)

      3. Jen in RO*

        This is very interesting, thanks for posting. I’ve never felt seriously threatened by anyone*, so your explanation was very helpful.

        *Except once, sort of, and I was afraid of rape then, not of getting beat up. I guess I’m just naive and imagine that all men abide by ‘you never hit a girl’…

  39. Lily in NYC*

    There is absolutely no way this was not meant to be derogatory! Please do not insult our intelligence. I am disgusted with you because the same thing happened to me years ago – I was so proud of myself because I had just gotten a promotion (at a young age) that I worked very hard for. I was feeling so great about life when I overheard the Top Boss’ assistant gossiping that I would never have gotten promoted if I weren’t attractive and young with big boobs (she didn’t realize I was also in the bathroom). I walked out and you should have seen her – we had always been very friendly and a look of guilt and horror crossed over her face. I did nothing, but the VP she was talking to actually told her boss and she was put on probation for gossiping.

    I was never friendly with that admin again – I know she felt really guilty because you should have seen the party she put together for my farewell a few years later. This was a long time ago and it still stings. So OP, you owe your coworker a sincere apology and you need to get your sexist head out of your butt and do some deep soul-searching about your lack of understanding on why what you said was so uncalled for.

    1. some1*

      I’m so sorry that happened to you. It’s so crappy that even women attribute our accomplishments to our looks, which is why so many females are sounding off on how gross the LW’s remark was.

      I hope she learned her lesson not only about gossiping but judging people on appearance.

      1. Lily in NYC*

        Aw, thanks some1. That place was a hotbed of grossness – a weird coworker that liked me (married of course) left me a sex toy as a wrapped gift on my desk once. Another boss there told me I could attend a White House party as his guest if I wore a low-cut gown. But still, it was really the best job I’ve had to this day – the good outweighed the bad by a mile.

        1. Joey*

          A hotbed of grossness is the best place you’ve ever worked?! I’m feeling kinda sorry for you. I wouldn’t think that’s possible

          1. Lily in NYC*

            You don’t need to feel sorry for me – I am able to take care of myself and most of the grossness was just dirty jokes and misguided flirting by socially awkward men. There were a few incidents that crossed a line, but I am more than capable of handling these situations on my own. I had fantastic bosses, worked with smart, funny people (mostly!), loved the work, and got to attend White House functions, political conventions, meet famous people, travel to beautiful places, etc. I never reported the three guys that used to borderline harrass me, but if I had, I know my company would have handled it properly. I would go back there in a heartbeat if it weren’t a dying industry (print media). Now I work with people who I think might all be robot consultants because they are so linear and humorless.

            1. Anonymous*

              Men who are socially awkward don’t get a pass (nor do women, I’m certainly one), one of the things that comes with lots of social awkwardness is you learn the rules of social interactions and if you aren’t sure you stick to the conservative side of things.

              Don’t give jerks a pass by saying they are socially awkward, plenty of socially awkward people aren’t jerks.

      1. Lily in NYC*

        I didn’t say one word even though I was very tempted (I am mouthy). I knew that would make her feel worse than if I had confronted her. I ignored her for three years until I left! I was civil but never spoke to her about anything non-work related again. I did thank her on my last day for the nice party she put together for me. She was a huge gossip of the worst type – most of what she said was complete fiction.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          So overall she did not mend her ways. That is tough to watch.
          Once something is said, it is said. The only hope is that such remarks do not get said again. When a person fails to change their ways that is the pits.

    2. Ruffingit*

      I am curious as to what that assistant said to you about her comments. I hope there was a huge, heartfelt apology forthcoming. I am sorry you experienced this, it stinks, especially from another woman. It’s hard enough to be a woman in the workplace sometimes, but for another woman to cut you down like that really stinks.

      1. Lily in NYC*

        Hi Ruffingit – she never apologized. I know she felt bad about it but I think she was too chicken to talk to me. She was much older than me (in her 70s) and very bitter because she couldn’t afford to retire and her husband left her for a younger woman. I felt bad for her and decided that she was such a nasty gossip because it made her feel better about her crappy life. I saw a show called Mike & Molly recently and she is just like the Mike character’s mother, looks and all (in case you’ve seen it).

    1. Positivity Boy*

      Yeah, that rubbed me the wrong way, too. Something weirdly clinical/dehumanizing about that choice of words.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        A good test is to see what it would sound like if you replaced it with the male equivalent. “A man employee” isn’t a construction you’d typically hear.

    2. Apostrophina*

      The “woman employee” construct actually made me wonder if the OP had read the thread (and slightly misinterpreted some things?) about the word “female” a few days ago. I’m not sure how far in advance AAM questions are received, though.

    3. cataloger*

      Some dictionaries say it can be an adjective, as in “a woman plumber”.

      LCSH (Library of Congress Subject Headings) has lots of terms like this: women zoologists, women wrestlers, women white collar workers. They always sound weird to me.

      1. Positivity Boy*

        I think it’s weird because usually when a gender is added to a profession, it calls attention to the gender stereotype associated with that profession. To use a reversed example, it’s like how people tend to specify “I had a male nurse” or “I hired a male nanny” whereas if the employee in question were female, they would usually just say “I had a nurse” or “I hired a nanny” because those jobs stereotypically done by women.

        1. Linguist curmudgeon*

          In linguistics, this concept is called “markedness.” The classic lecture joke is “What do you call a black pilot?” “A pilot, you racist.”

          The thing we take the time to explicitly describe is the thing that is *marked* as abnormal, outside, Other, etc. This is part of why so many cisgender people freak out about being labeled cisgender.

      2. Del*

        Like Alison says above, if you wouldn’t put “man” in there for the opposite gender, why would “woman” be appropriate? Even for traditionally feminine occupations, it’s awkward. “A man nurse”?

    4. Another Jamie*

      When I read that, I thought the OP was trying to avoid sounding dehumanizing by using the term “female” since that was recently discussed in a previous post.

      (Even though “female employee” isn’t the usage people took issue with.)

  40. Not So NewReader*

    OP, I do give you credit for asking AAM what went wrong here.

    Going forward, speak in a manner that you would use in talking to the whole-wide-world.
    I used to have convos repeated by various people. I had to be careful of every word I said- a small phrase taken out of context could mean something else entirely. It was a good experience for me, because I learned that conversation is no different than email. Conversations get repeated all the time. Going forward expect your conversations to be repeated.

    The other thing I see here is that your boss came to you and told you. Yes, you got a write up. She could have just fired you. The write up means she feels you will work it through and fix it. If she felt the situation was not fixable, you’d be gone.

    There are many unspoken work place rules. One of the rules is to never, ever make a comment regarding someone’s physical appearance. It does not matter if they are young/old/male/female/etc.
    Do not even make a vague reference as to how someone looks, even in passing.
    It’s considered over the line. And in some cases the remark could be covered by a law somewhere.

  41. Jerry Vandesic*

    Seems like everyone is assuming the OP was a guy. Nothing in the posting specifies the gender of the poster.

        1. CorporateAnarchist*

          Yes, and she frankly should not have done even that because it bares little importance and it also goes against the very guidelines of her website, which is to protect the anonymity of those who write in letters. Very hypocritical, no matter how much you disagree with the question being asked and who’s asking it.

          But that’s Allison for you.

  42. John*

    I wasn’t even sure how to react this the first time I read it. I simply could not believe that someone actually thought it would be permissible to speak that way to a coworker (regardless of employee ranking) under any circumstances and feel that being written up by management was unfair. Derogatory comments like this DO NOT belong in the workplace (anywhere for that matter). Whether it was unintentional or not makes ZERO DIFFERENCE. All employees have the right to be treated in a fair and equitable manner in their place of employment, regardless of whatever the circumstances may be…

    1. Joey*

      Whether its intentional or not makes no difference? I beg to differ. Owning a mistake goes much farther than trying to rationalize it.

      1. Yup*

        Intent isn’t relevant when assessing whether or not bad behavior occurred; intent is relevant when figuring out how to correct the bad behavior.

        If I hit you with my car, it doesn’t matter too much whether it was an accident or on purpose — you’ve still been hit by a car! My intent is only relevant to whether I’m getting booked for negligence or assault, and whether you forever after think of me as “that lousy driver” or “that homicidal psycho.”

  43. A Bug!*

    On a re-read I get the impression that you haven’t actually apologized for your words yet, OP. The way you phrase it makes it seem like you’re saying you would have apologized if not for the write-up. You fail to comprehend your own blameworthiness and you fail to comprehend the nature of an apology.

    A genuine apology is not given on conditions. An apology is given independent of any other consequences you may suffer as a result of your actions or words, because the apology is your personal acknowledgment of the fact that you have wronged another person and that you are sorry for having done it. More importantly, a genuine apology is followed by a sincere effort to do better in the future.

    “Sue, I’m sorry for insulting you. My frustration was no excuse for the things I said to you. What I said was hurtful, unprofessional, uncalled-for, and untrue. You deserve respect, and I was disrespectful. I know I can’t take back my words, but I am sorry for having said them. I know that lashing out is not an appropriate response to frustration, so I am looking into healthy coping techniques. I hope over time I can earn back your respect.”

    Do you notice what’s not present in this apology? Equivocations. No “I’m sorry you were offended,” no “I meant it as a joke,” no “but you should have told me you were offended before going to HR”, and no “but in my defense, you made me really frustrated.”

    Perhaps most importantly, no request for forgiveness. If she wants to forgive you, you won’t have to ask for it. Asking for forgiveness places her in an awkward position where she feels obligated to forgive you in order to be polite.

    1. some1*


      I also read the letter like he’s trying to figure out how to approach his boss to get him or her to agree to let him apologize to the coworker and then drop the write-up.

      This is one of my biggest pet peeves (moreso in social situations): when you have wronged someone, you don’t get to decide what happens in order for the situation to be made right.

    2. Anonymous*

      I have to admit that if someone who had insulted me and clearly did not respect me gave me such an apology, I would think they were putting on a show of contrition for the audience if not mocking me outright. This may be another one of those cultural and generational differences, but I would say keep it short, keep it honest, and most important, live up to it thereafter.

  44. Poohbear McGriddles*

    Since the OP is not the woman’s boss, his comment implies that her appearance might matter to someone higher up when it comes to hiring and firing. If he was her boss and implied that he was treating her nicer because she was attractive, that would certainly provide fodder for a sexual harassment claim.
    The manager did the right thing by writing up the OP, because now there is official documentation that they do not condone the OP’s comment. Considering the woman’s supposed poor work, it’s not unlikely that she will eventually be shown the door. However, should she think about the OP’s comments and think she might have a sex discrimination claim, the manager will be able to produce the writeup to refute that.

    1. Tinker*

      That’s a really good point — now that you bring that up, I can easily imagine the horror that a manager of someone who’s potentially in the category of “poor performer” might have in their soul on hearing that it has been implied to them that being pretty is relevant to their employment.

  45. Interviewer*

    OP – this is a learning experience for you. Your entire question was about your co-worker’s reaction and your manager’s reaction – but you need to realize the problem is your own actions.

    Accept the writeup professionally, apologize profusely and sincerely – and work on your attitude. These insightful comments above point out exactly what’s wrong with your “one-time” remark.

  46. Jeff A.*

    Initial disclaimer: I am not defending the OP’s comment or reaction to his reprimand in any way.

    I think it’s worth noting a few things though:

    (1) There are MANY industries in which these types of comments that we all consider inappropriate are in fact considered Not a Big Deal by many entry level employees and their supervisors. (e.g., Food Service / Hospitality, Entertainment/Hollywood, Professional Sports, some Healthcare roles). Additionally, as some of our International commentators have pointed out, there are many ways in which these remarks are tolerated or ignored in other cultures.

    (2) There are SO MANY career changers and employees who work for multiple employers over the course of their career that many of us are bound to work in an otherwise professional setting where this kind of inappropriate and casual conversation is commonplace. I for one have worked in three different industries (hospitality, healthcare, higher education), and in each of the companies I worked, there were conversations where this level of inappropriateness is tolerated without a second thought _if no one complained about it._

    One of the challenges companies face is having to re-train or counsel employees on what constitutes appropriate workplace conversation and behavior. Kudos to the manager for addressing this promptly, but how many other workers may have overheard this seemingly loud “blowing off steam” exchange and didn’t speak up or defend the OP’s target? And if the OP still doesn’t understand why his remarks were inappropriate, can we consider the manager who reprimanded him successful?

    1. Sarahnova*

      Actually, commenters from other cultures specifically HAVEN’T said these types of remarks are ignored or OK. They’ve said they’d be expected to handle these clearly inappropriate remarks without involving management.

  47. Laura*

    Also, LW, why do you assume *she* made it formal? She may not have!

    If she’s relatively inexperienced or relatively shy, but thought she ought to address it with you, she may have still gone to her manager and asked, “Hey, I had a really uncomfortable exchange with LW, and I was wondering if you could give me some advice on how I should best address it with him?”

    Her manager agrees and asks her to clarify the exchange – and recognizing the implications others have spelled out, says, “That’s completely inappropriate of LW, and it’s not something you should have to address, nor is it something I want you to try to address. I will see to getting this resolved from here.”

    1. Karyn*

      It’s also possible (not quite as likely, but possible) that if another employee overheard this exchange, as may have happened since OP was “blowing off steam,” THEY may have reported it. Again, unlikely, but I’ve seen it happen.

      1. Jamie*

        Good point. If I overheard this I’d have dealt with it myself, whether the employee said anything or not.

    2. A Bug!*

      A good point.

      The OP seems to think that because his coworker didn’t tell him that his angry, belittling tirade was upsetting her, he should be immune from any consequences.

      “I didn’t know it was upsetting her” is a flimsy excuse for behavior that would be upsetting to most people. It’s rather hypocritical now that I think of it, because the OP was subjecting his coworker to an emotional outburst yet seems to have expected a 100% cool, rational response in return.

  48. Jules*

    What you can do when an employee failed to meet a deadline.
    1. Write them up
    2. Give verbal warning
    3. Explain what happens when they don’t adhere to deadlines so they understand implication (it can be suprising how unaware some fresh graduates are when they first start out)
    4. Ask for explaination

    What you shouldn’t do.
    1. Yell
    2. Flip out
    3. Insult them
    4. Public dressing down
    5. Be disrespectful

    I don’t care which gender you speak to, you just insulted them. It would go just the same if you had said, “Well, good think you are white/thin/cute/some rich man’s kid/CEO’s kid.” Come the heck on, who taught you that it’s ok to make personal comments like that at work? This is work, you can make professional feedback but leave all the personal bs out of it. I don’t even care if you are male or female. Don’t make professional issue a personal one.

    If you can’t calmly talk to her, you should have walked away, cooled of and come back to it.

    1. Steve G*

      I think alot of the comments here are a little holier-than-thou so I want to play devil’s advocate. I am sure we’ve all thought this before. The issue I see here is saying to someone “thank God you’re pretty” doesn’t mean anything to that person, because they won’t get it, though it does make sense to say to yourself “well at least they are goodlooking” when you are trying to rationalize how a hot mess gets through life even though they screw things up.

      We as the readers don’t know what “missed a deadline” means. If it was a big infraction some sort of negative feedback to the person in question would have been warranted….maybe the OP was under alot of stress to complete this work and the other person messed things up by not pulling their weight and the OP was frustrated because he/she sees that other person coasting in other situations….and the OP felt it was time to say something…..

      1. Mouse*

        “I am sure we’ve all thought this before.”

        Nope, I have never thought that before. Never even occurred to me – and it has zero relevance to missing a deadline.

        1. Laura*

          I’ve never thought this before. I sincerely hope that your assertion that “we’ve all thought this before” isn’t close to true

          I’ve thought something along the lines of “how do they get away with missing so many deadlines?” about a coworker who missed many deadlines, but I’d never say that to anyone, and it didn’t occur to me to bring in the coworker’s looks.

          1. Omne*

            Well, I have to admit I’ve thought it after listening to some of the stupid things some celebrities have said, male and female.

            1. Linguist curmudgeon*

              For people whose job qualification is literally “look good,” it is perhaps less awful to think this. That’s kind of the exception that proves the rule, though.

      2. Zelos*

        If the OP was negatively affected by his coworker’s work, he can definitely say something…about her work. “I needed that report by yesterday, now Manager/the client/the analysts/Team Teapot QA are going to be mad. The coworker’s work output is not carte blanche to make remarks about her appearance, because not only is it rude, there’s an implication that she got this position because of her looks, which is incredibly insulting to her and to women in general.

        While we’re here playing devil’s advocate, I could say that she probably assumed she would be competent at the job since she took the position. Some times we don’t realize until after the fact that the fit isn’t right at all, or the level of expertise is way out of our purview, or or or…

        I mean, if you want to make judgements and assume the worst about “how does this hot mess of a person make it through life if she can’t even do X right?!” we can turn around and think about the OP “how can a sexist mess like the OP get through his life?!” And both is pretty unfair.

        OP might be legitimately frustrated. But keep it about her work. And frankly, if he still doesn’t get it after a talking-to from management (since that’s what it sounds like from the letter)…well, that’s a problem. A big one.

      3. MR*

        Anytime a situation like this comes along, the ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude consumes the comment section.

        It’s almost best to just avoid the comments when something like this appears on the page. ;)

        1. Steve G*

          MR, that’s more what I wanted to point out. The OP wrote in to address this because it’s a real not-easily-solve-able to him/her, and all so many people can write is “what a horrible and shocking thing to say I would never in my right mind every say anything like that,” which just shuts down the whole conversation, and also isn’t all that believable. I mean, I hear a heck of a lot worse comments all of the time, not all at work, but………..I also don’t think it’s believable that someone can never have come across a person in a privileged position they couldn’t handle and (at least in our minds) rolled their eyes and thought “they’d never get by if they weren’t ” + beautiful, or “grew up rich,” or “the son of xyz.” or whatever…..so let’s ease up on the OP!

          1. A Teacher*

            I and many others might think something like that, but, no I would never vocalize it. I teach high school kids and a comment like that would escalate the situation, be really cutting, and lose me the respect of a lot of students. So no, a lot of us wouldn’t think to say it out loud because we have tact or maybe have experienced this (“little girl” is what one co-worker called me) so we are cognizant of what we say.

            Now I tell my dogs that it’s good their cute all the time, but that’s a different story.

          2. Observer*

            The people who are saying it’s horrible are not saying that such people don’t exist – many of us have been victims of this kind of garbage, so we know QUITE well that they exist. They just know that they are not among those who would say this. And they think that the OPs reaction to being taken to task is a real problem.

      4. Jules*

        Yes, you are right, I do think that occasionally, someone is really stupid but I don’t tell them that because I am a professional. Or say, “I’m glad you were born to a rich family or you’d be SOL” but I don’t say it. I can even wish people would STFU at work but as a competent project manager, I manage the project, relationships and outcome. My attitude and how I act could impact my next projects/promotions.

        This is work, pull on your big kid pants and deal. The reason why there are a lot of disfunctional workplace is because people think it’s ok to take it out on others.

        Yes she effed up, yes she could have costed a lot of money, if that is the case, fire her/kick her off the team. Don’t make this personal.

      5. Observer*

        You know what? The problem could have been so egregious that it would warrant firing the woman who messed up, but it STILL would not warrant this kind of comment.

        Nor does it make a difference if this kind of thought is common or not (which is a questionable assertion, anyway)

        One of the key differences between an adult and a child is that the child says what’s on her mind, any which way without regard to appropriateness, and adults FILTER and CONTROL. They filter WHAT they say and control HOW they say it. The LW failed to do either – and then BLAMED HIS VICTIM for his failure to understand that this was an issue.

        That is the problem, not that he was made that she messed up, or even wonders how such an incompetent idiot makes it through life.

  49. Sandrine (France)*

    Just another two cents :

    Alison pointed out earlier, in a response, that apparently people like Jen RO, Neeta(RO) and me may have a different take on this because of cultural differences.

    I completely agree. Hence why from now on my screen name will involve my country of origin, even though Alison remembered (I probably bug her enough that I’m floating around her brain somewhere haha).

    But more seriously, at my company, the expectation would simply be: if you’re annoyed, speak up. Plain and simple. If you go to the manager everytime someone says something to you, you’ll be seen as the whining one. However, if you try yourself at least once and *then* go to the manager if it continues, then you’re good.

    1. Joey*

      For everything? For common stuff sure, but does that apply to everything? I mean if someone started uncontrollably going off on you it makes no sense to engage, no? I just can’t see what purpose it would serve to get into a shouting match.

      1. Jen in RO*

        Depending on the incident, I might go to a manager even on a first occurrence. Casual sexism is not the hill I want to die on (I even laugh at sexist jokes! *gasp*), but I hate yelling, so that might result in a trip to boss’s office. I’m fairly thick-skinned though, so I’m not the best example, and definitely not when compared to Americans. We would probably be equally horrified to end up working in each other’s jobs.

      2. Sandrine (France)*

        Well, that’s kinda the point. Of course there are exceptions to the “rule” and if someone goes off on me, I won’t engage directly, but I won’t make it a secret who I’m going to talk to, either.

        (It’s all open space and HR is directly on the floor above us, as well)

        I do not get in shouting matches anyway, mostly because I’m a crier, and it would make me look worse.

        Thankfully, I haven’t had to suffer from any of this at work yet, but I’m grooming myself to leave anyway, so soon enough it won’t matter for that company :) .

      1. Jen in RO*

        I think this is incredibly cool. This is the only popular blog I know of where the writer actually reads all the comments and participates – actually remembering details about dozens (if not hundreds) of commenters is amazing.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I should confess that I no longer read every comment — although I did up until about two months ago! I can no longer keep up — but I do still read most of them, and at least skim most of the rest. But yeah, I definitely remember details about commenters (and have mental pictures of all of you in my head).

          1. Jen in RO*

            This might mark me as a creepy stalker, but I like seeing the introduction posts on the LI group because they help me put faces to names.

          2. Not So NewReader*

            I was wondering how you were doing with the open forums. It takes me two days to read it all. And that includes skipping topics that I have no knowledge/interest in.

            You do remember individuals, I see that in your comments.
            Do you keep notes or do you just naturally remember with unusual clarity?

                1. Sandrine (France)*

                  And that’s why I love you all, even when we disagree on topics like this one! This comment section is awesome.

                  Mind you, this is probably the only place where I’m actually happy to find people who disagree with me, because I know we can discuss things politely!

  50. Except in California*

    It is worrisome that the OP chose to blow off steam by talking to the coworker. If that sort of thing pops out of your mouth when you are upset, then next time you need to take it outside, immediately. Blowing off steam in this way is not acceptable in most workplaces. I’ve seen employees walked out for it.

    That said, your reputation at this workplace might be damaged. I’d tread very carefully for another six months or so, then look for a new job. You’ll need those six months of good behavior to rebuild the good opinions of your references.

    1. Tinker*

      I comment to him about what a nice fur hat he would make. Saying that to my coworkers would not go over well, for many reasons.

      1. Jen in RO*

        I call my kitten a stupid rat. Stupid because, well, his brain *is* the size of a nut, and rat because he’s greyish brown and skinny.

    2. Anonsie*

      Sometimes when my partner says something really outlandish I’ll say “Oh no, no, no… But you’re really pretty.”

    3. Delurking*

      Yes! One of my cats has special needs caused by brain damage. Aside from his other issues, he’s spectacularly stupid. When he can’t figure out the litter box, I sigh and tell him, “You’re luck you’re so cute, because you sure as hell aren’t smart.”

      1. Cath@VWXYNot?*

        Aww, I love my special needs kitty (on my lap right now, purring her head off). One half of her face, including the eye, is smaller than the other; she often falls off the sofa; she gets startled by her own leg; she forgot how to lie down for a whole month (would try to go from standing to lying on her back without first sitting down then lying on her front); is in love with my husband’s right work boot. But she’s also the nicest cat I’ve ever met, even when she’s hugging my arm so tight that it took me three times as long as usual to type this comment.

  51. long time lurker!*

    It’s a good thing you don’t work for me, because I’d have fired you for that comment.

  52. VintageLydia USA*

    I dropped at least one so-called friend for repeatedly making sexist comments like this. I wouldn’t even hesitate talking to my manager if this came out of the mouth of a coworker even just once, especially in the context being described in the letter (“blowing off steam” AT the woman, noting this is one of many things he said. Most people call this berating which isn’t OK even for a manager to do to an employee unless the circumstances are extraordinary, let alone a colleague, even if they are technically more senior on the org chart.)

    1. Ruffingit*

      I honestly can’t think of any circumstances where berating would be OK, not even extraordinary circumstances, otherwise I agree with your posting. Once is enough for a comment like this to be reported. My concern is the OP doesn’t seem to get that concept – doesn’t matter that he said this just once. That was enough. Also, why on earth would this be the thing that came to mind to say? Maybe I’m digging too deep, but if I were the OP, I’d question whether I have some sexist biases that need to be examined.

  53. Ruffingit*

    There is so much wrapped up here that the OP just doesn’t seem to understand. It’s so incredibly insulting to insinuate (or actually, in this case, outright state) that the woman in question can make mistakes at work and not have a problem because she’s pretty. Wow. I just don’t even know what to say, glad Alison did because this is really egregious. The OP seems to see it as a one-off not a big deal kind of thing, but it is regardless of it being a one-time thing. You just don’t do this.

    1. Jen in RO*

      I read it as offensive in a completely different way – I thought it meant that the coworker is lucky that, even though she sucks at her job, at least she will be successful in her personal life due to her looks (wealthy husband, etc).

      1. Jamie*

        That’s how I read it, too. Not that being pretty gets work advantages, I doubt the OP put that much thought into it. I just took it as a way of saying since you aren’t smart it’s lucky you’re pretty. You have something going for you…but it’s not competence. That kind of thing.

        1. Ruffingit*

          I didn’t think of that way of reading it, but I can see that too now that you’ve pointed it out. Either way, it’s just an ugly comment (pardon the pun).

    2. Not So NewReader*

      If OP came on here to say he now understands then the reaction on this forum would totally change. I have seen this happen so many times, so I think it would happen here.
      Four hundred plus comments can be intimidating but not all comments relate to OPs setting directly. The question did spark good discussion on tangent points.

      Sometimes, it seems like when the OP does not write in and talk with us on the forum that raises the sense of outrage. We have no way of knowing what the OP is thinking/doing.

      Dare I say? But we all have reasons why we do not say something in the moment the situation happens. OP, you are quiet here on this forum just as the woman in your post was quiet with you. Am not saying this to be mean, but to point out that sometimes we encounter something that we have NO clue what to say. It happens to all of us from time to time.
      If you are feeling overwhelmed here please consider that she probably felt overwhelmed, too, for different reasons.

  54. JCC*

    So, what if the OP’s opinion on their office’s politics is correct — that attractive people are more likely to be protected from the consequences of their mistakes than unattractive people? If complaining about it “to blow off steam” is inappropriate, is there any other solution besides quitting?

    1. Observer*

      I don’t understand the question. Firstly, he was not complaining in any constructive sense, he was berating a person in his office. Secondly, since when are “complaining”, “blowing off steam’ IN THE OFFICE and quitting the only options.

    2. Ruffingit*

      Observer is absolutely right so I won’t cover that ground again, but to answer the question about solutions for workplaces that are blatantly sexist or hostile, quitting is often the only option. Most people are not in a position to change those types of workplaces unless they own some or all of the company. I see no other option because the kind of change necessary in those workplaces usually doesn’t happen unless lawsuits of massive proportions rain down upon them. That sucks, but it is what it is.

    1. AF*

      Yes, I was also wondering when they both we’re going to pop up and comment about their grand epiphanies that they were wrong and give us an update. Guess not…

  55. Banana*

    My mouth was literally agape after reading this. Congrats, OP, you win the internet today in the category of blatant, ugly sexism.

  56. HR “Gumption”*

    As both an Operations and HR Manager I’ve addressed these types of comments. First time incident is likely a (documented) verbal warning.

    An important note LW should see, and I’ve pointed out to those I’ve addressed- The warning isn’t to drive you out, it’s to provide the opportunity for improvement and greater success.

    1. Dan*


      I’m super late to the party, and I only read about 30% of the comments, but I think most of the commentors were too busy piling on to realize that the LW probably just needed a reminder that he/she was in the wrong and not a formal reprimand. I’ve had this happen, not due to sexism thankfully, but it still cost me a promotion. The punishment did not fit the crime :-(

  57. Delurking*

    The only time it’s appropriate to say, “You’re lucky you’re pretty” or “It’s a good thing you’re cute” is to your pet, like when they make a mess and you’re trying to laugh off your frustration while you reach for the carpet cleaner. It’s so condescending and dehumanizing. I can’t think of an okay time to ever say that to a human being.

  58. ella*

    Alison, out of curiousity–I know you send a short note to letter writers to give them a heads up that their letter will be published. Do you give people warning when you foresee a huge pile of criticism about to drop on someone’s head? (Not that this letter writer doesn’t deserve it, but I am so glad that my letter didn’t get 500 comments, period, much less 500 comments of criticism.)

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I have on occasion, although don’t do it as regularly as I probably should. I should actually have a separate form letter for that to make it easy, actually.

  59. amapola*

    Something I don’t think I’ve seen said yet: LW, by making this comment, you’ve reinforced for this woman the idea that her looks are what shape how other people perceive her, for better or for worse.

    I once worked with an attractive woman who interpreted everyone’s behavior toward her – both positive and negative treatment – as being a product of her appearance. Without going into detail, I think it hampered her ability to have meaningful professional relationships because she often misjudged people’s intent.

    An offhand remark like this can be internalized by someone and become a lens through which they view the world, so tread carefully.

    1. Zillah*

      Agreed. My boyfriend was really unsettled early on in our relationship by how much I attributed his attraction to me to my looks. Eventually he kind of snapped and asked me if I really thought he was that shallow.

  60. Morgan Kelley*

    First time de-lurking, simply to say, I can’t even believe this guy thought this was even in the GALAXY of okay.

  61. mel*

    Oh wow, there is no way that could be spun as a compliment. That’s just plain sexism in the workplace, and the fact that the letter writer doesn’t immediately recognize it as sexism is very worrying. That’s not an appropriate thing to say anywhere, workplace or not.

    My supervisor has said that to me in front of coworkers before. It is a uniquely hurtful way to tell someone you think they’re stupid. It’s particularly creepy because they don’t say what the consequence would be if a person happened to be ugly. Would you have drowned her at birth or something? Run her over with a car? This needs clarification!

  62. Marquis*

    Alison, is there any way to highlight or indicate in the comments that an OP has responded? It would be nice, instead of having to wonder or search to see if they’re involved in a discussion.

  63. Anonymousss*

    I wish Alison would have just called the OP’s comment for what it was—sexist. By using the word “creepy” in place of “sexist,” she’s inserting a word that has unfortunately, in the past 15 years or so, taken on a borderline sexist connotation itself.

      1. Andrea*

        I LOVE the Bad Advice Blog! This was hilarious.

        And I’m sure that really is pretty much what the OP wanted from AAM. Maybe with better language.

        Broads! hahahaha

  64. Blurgle*

    Not only is that sexist *and* creepy (and no, “creepy” is never a sexist comment; in this case it’s an accurate one), it also carries the implication that management is so incompetent that they hire female employees based on their looks rather than their perceived ability to contribute to the company’s success. I would have fired him on the spot.

    1. Anonymousss*

      I disagree with your assessment of the word “creepy” as never being a sexist comment. It is DEFINITELY sexist. It’s become a gendered word that is thrown around very casually, primarily in scenarios that are not creepy at all. It’s a word that has lost its meaning and is instead used now to describe any male without A+ social skills. Whereas the word “awkward” is frequently used to describe both women and men who don’t possess the aforementioned A+ social skills, “creepy” is almost always directed toward men only for the same intended meaning.

      1. RP*

        It is not sexist for a woman to tell a man that he is making her uncomfortable. What’s sexist is the idea that women should tolerate it when people repeatedly violate their boundaries. It’s also sexist to tell women that they don’t get to set their own boundaries, which is what you’re doing when you say “scenarios that are not creepy at all”.

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