how to tell a coworker to stop touching you

A reader writes:

There’s a guy on our small work team that’s mostly made up of women, let’s call him Chumley. Whenever we go to a team lunch or outing, he puts his arm around or puts his hand on the lower back of a coworker. She’s horrified when it happens, and the other female coworkers comment on it, but nothing is ever said or done beyond that (and he doesn’t seem to get the hint).

Chumley is a temporary worker, but the manager wants him around for his skills. Should I say something to our manager or report it to HR?

Why not say something to him directly first, which is the most direct and efficient way of solving the problem?

When something bothers you — and especially when it’s at the point that people are talking about it — the first move should be to talk to the person directly. There are times when you might not feel comfortable doing that, of course, particularly when someone has more power in the situation than you do. But this is a temp and he sounds like a peer. Talk to him. (Besides, your manager’s or HR’s first question is likely to be, “Have you asked him to stop?”)

The next time it happens, your coworker should say something like this:

“Hey, hands-off, please.”

“Chumley, please don’t do that.”

“Personal space!”

(There’s also a school of advice that says you should be much more stern and formal about this — along the lines of “don’t touch me without my permission again” — but I see no reason to go straight to that kind of wording when more less harsh versions haven’t been tried yet. If Chumley means well and is just clueless, informal language will solve the problem with less awkwardness.)

Or, your coworker could even go and talk to him right now rather than waiting for it to happen again: “Hey, Chumley, I realize I should have said something about this to you earlier, but you tend to put your arm around me or your hand on my back when we’re walking together, and I’d rather you didn’t. I like my personal space. Thank you.”

After that, if it continues, then sure, report it. But the first step is to tell him directly to stop.

{ 225 comments… read them below }

  1. Clever Name*

    “Don’t touch me, Bro!”

    “Whoah! Personal space, man!”

    Seriously, I really think just saying something along the lines of, “Hey, please don’t touch me.” will work. It’s unfortunate that it’s gone on for so long with no one saying anything.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      I usually just say “Well, you’ve touched me; now you must die!” in a joking manner. People laugh and they don’t do it again. If they do, then it’s time to say, “Hey, bro, I do not like it when people touch me like that. Please stop it.”

  2. TK*

    I commented about this on something here the other day when someone brought up shoulder rubs… uninvited physical contact from coworkers = never appropriate. This just seems so weird and creepy to me.

    1. Angora998*

      I have a male co-worker that wants hugs … I tell him I do not like being touched and he drops it. He will reach out to touch me and when I see it coming I step back. He’s gotten the hint.

      The individual he’s touching needs to say something to him. You can also do the “glare” at the arm, hand that is on you. Glare at it like you would a child that is misbehaving.

      Tell him, if he doesn’t get the hint; tell HR. You would think in this day and age that men would be terrified of sexual harrassment charges and just keep their mitts to their selves.

      1. QualityControlFreak*

        Yeah, just don’t do what I did. Coworker actually asked snidely if I was going to turn him in for sexual harassment (it was a huge thing in that workplace). I said no, if he did it again I was gonna knock him on his ass.

        Had that happened, we’d both have been walked out of there by security. Fortunately for me, he didn’t choose assured mutual destruction.

    2. PEBCAK*

      Yup. I don’t know why we continue to indulge this idea that “he just doesn’t know better” or “some women wouldn’t mind; how can he tell the difference?” People like this PREY on the fact that the touchee will be afraid to say something to him and that we’ve all been socialized to get along and not make a fuss.

      1. Windchime*

        Yep. I’m not so sure that Chumley is just being an innocent guy here. In my experience, guys who do this kind of thing are testing boundaries or are well aware of what they are doing.

        Exception: Sometimes people from different cultures have different levels of what kind of touching is OK. In those cases, a polite request for it to stop has always worked for those people who are doing it innocently. (Funny story: I used to have a male coworker who was Turkish. One time, a bunch of use were crowded into his cubicle and he was showing us something. I leaning right over his shoulder (he was seated) and I said, “I’m sorry, I know I’m in your personal space.” He shrugged and said, “Eh, I’m Mediterranean.” So apparently there is a bit less of a concept of “personal space” for his culture.)

        1. Jen RO*

          I am a non touchy-feely person from a culture that is more touchy-feely than I am really comfortable with. I just came back from a trip to Finland and it was great – no one expected me to kiss and hug them when we met!

          Also, as an extra cultural tidbit, not all cultures who do the kiss-and-hug thing do it that same way around! One of the first times I visited my (Romanian) friend who lives in Austria, she made a point of telling me that they kiss the other way around (left-right), and if I did it “my” way (right-left) we might end up locking lips inadvertently. Before that, I had no idea I even *had* a direction for kissing people!

        2. Observer*

          It doesn’t really make a difference in this case. Whether the guy is being a creep or just socially clueless, the appropriate next step is to SAY SOMETHING. Non-adversarial, but clear. I mean CLEAR clear, not “hint hint” or anything subject to interpretation. Repeat ONCE, if necessary. If it continues, then you know he’s being a creep, and HR is the next step. If it stops after the first warning, it’s clueless. If the second, it could be either. But, in any case, the issue here is to stop the behavior.

  3. anon*

    “I’m not the touchy-feely type.” I mean I would have said something the first time this happened! Letting it go on makes it worse. I don’t think your co-worker should wait. I would say something privately now instead of calling him out on it in front of others. (Gotta love Chumley!!)

      1. The Real Ash*

        Without getting into a huge spiel about it… The common refrain is that women in American society are socialized to be overly nice, even if they feel uncomfortable or have a negative reaction to the situation at hand. Women who stand up for themselves “can’t take a joke” or are a “Feminazi” or a “bitch” because they’re being assertive and that is Not Feminine or acceptable for women to do. It is also Not Nice to call out someone when they’re making you uncomfortable or being rude in some fashion, for whatever reason.

        Many men get away with unacceptable behavior because their female targets are uncomfortable standing up for themselves because they don’t want to seem rude or mean.

        1. Andrea*

          Yeah, I get that. I’m also a woman. I don’t care if someone thinks I’m rude for telling someone to stop touching my body, I do it and have done it before. The rude one is the person who touched me. But then, I guess maybe I’ve managed to overcome my socialization. Maybe all those years of cotillion lessons were just a waste of time and my parents’ money. Hmm.

        2. Cari*

          This is pretty much it over here in the UK too. Others not speaking up (particularly men in the group) when it happens and it’s clear the person being touched doesn’t want to be, or has repeatedly used soft no’s only reinforces the idea that the person being touched will be considered a bad sport, no fun, rude, a bitch etc. for telling inappropriate-toucher to stop.
          Been in such a situation myself, where a (drunk, gatecrashing) guy was demanding hugs off all the young women in the group, and they all went along with it despite obviously not wanting to, the guys in the group said absolutely nothing, and I was the only one who initially resisted. I relented when it became obvious the guy wasn’t going to give up and no one was going to back me up. He took the opportunity to grab my ass at that point and I almost punched him (never happened to me before, was already stressed out about the situation, for those who feel that would be an overreaction), after which he got nasty.
          From what I’ve seen of many other women’s reports of unwanted touching situations, interactions with creepers, street harassment etc. the toucher/creeper/harasser getting nasty when they don’t get the desired response is something that happens often, so fear of getting a bad reaction from someone doing the bad thing when you tell them to stop also plays a part in why people (particularly women) don’t say anything to them.
          Uh, sorry for the tl;dr there…

          1. V.V.*

            I am so sorry you did not have back up.

            My SIL has broken bones over things like this. Say what you may about over reaction, but nobody ever laid a hand on her again.

            So if anything it was an underreaction, but frankly you shouldn’t have had to react at all because it never should have happened to you. I feel bad that you felt the need for an explanation over for defending your person.

          2. Elizabeth West*

            Grr, that makes me mad when no one backs up someone who is being touched in an unwanted manner. We all should make a point to intervene when we see someone that is happening to.

            I am NOT shy about that. If someone gropes me on a bus, EVERYONE is going to know what the hell they just did! “Keep your hands to yourself!”

      2. tt*

        I think sometimes people are so startled, they don’t think of it in the moment. Or they think maybe it’s just a one-time thing so they won’t say anything, until then it becomes a pattern.

        1. Anon*

          This. A guy at work used to poke me in the ribs and waist from behind when he walked past my chair. I was always taken by surprise and it was a fly-by poking. Even so, I couldn’t bring myself to have a word with him afterwards, which is strange because if he’d done it to a co-worker and they’d told me about it, I’d have had no trouble having a word! In the end, I practiced and practiced what I would say in the moment but luckily for me he did it in front of his manager who said immediately “You can’t touch coworkers.” The guy tried to laugh it off but his manager and I didn’t laugh. He’s never done it since.

      3. Cruciatus*

        It’s possible the first time it happens to you you don’t realize it’s going to be an ongoing thing. Next thing you know it’s been months and everyone is still complaining about it. I can see how it happened. I’m pretty non-confrontational and would probably let it slide until I realized it wouldn’t stop unless I said something–which is probably what happened with the OP who decided they’d had enough.

      4. New to blog*

        Surprise, shock, scared to say anything. I’ve dealt with unwanted touching to outright sexual harassment in a professional environment and the first time dealing with unwanted touching (in this case it was an arm around me) and I didn’t know what to say. I ducked out from under his arm and didn’t say anything. Thankfully, he took the hint about touching but continued to try to convince me to go out with him. This situation was temp for both of us, we were both assigned to different departments and I never saw him again.

      5. Vicki*

        The first time: you’re surprised and you’re sure it was a one-time thing.
        The second time: you’re shocked and somewhat embarrassed because it wasn’t a one time thing.
        The third time: You’re more embarrassed because surely this isn’t going to happen again and now you haven’t said anything and…

        1. Kelly L.*

          And then the fourth time, you say something, and the guy laughs in your face and tells you not to flatter yourself, he wasn’t flirting with you, ha ha!, thus trying to make you feel like you’re conceited and vain to even think he’d deign to harass you.

          (Disclaimer: The situation I’m venting about wasn’t work but social. But it was how it went down.)

          1. Observer*

            That’s classic.

            A good response, I think would be “Good! That’s should make it easier to keep your hands to yourself.”

        2. Former NYC Librarian*

          I have been in exactly this situation. To this day I regret not reacting strongly and firmly the first time.

      6. Jennifer*

        Sometimes guys ah….can have scary, unpleasant reactions to being told “no,” as well. It ups your worry/danger levels if Chumley can’t take no for an answer and you see him on a daily basis.

      7. MM*

        I have an ongoing problem with this and one IT guy I see only occasionally. I think he has a crush on me, but he’s not being aggressive or pervy in any way. It was both shocking and harmless. I couldn’t react fast enough; I was just so confused about why he was touching me.

    1. SA*

      The problem with that wording, to me, is that it implies that it WOULD be appropriate with a different coworker who was more touchy-feely, which is obviously not true – it doesn’t matter how touchy-feely the person in question is or or how small their personal bubble is, “put[ting] his arm around or put[ting] his hand on the lower back of a coworker” is wildly inappropriate.

      It’s honestly far enough outside the range of normal, accepted behavior that I think it warrants a serious conversation with him right now (using wording along the lines of what Alison suggested) but something like “don’t touch me, bro!” in the moment would probably work too.

    2. Stephanie*

      Back in high school, the governor visited to talk about a new education plan. Some of us got to meet him afterwards and he wanted a photo op. I was next to the governor in the picture and he placed his hand right beneath my shoulder blades (admittedly, he was also a good 8-9″ taller than me) and was giving me a back rub the entire time during the photo op. It was so weird (I’m not a touchy-feely person). And really uncomfortable (er, also physically). I think I was just so startled that I didn’t say anything (and figured it’d be over in like a few minutes anyway).

      1. Al Lo*

        I bought a Doctor Who photo op with some friends at a con this year, and 5 of us (2 friends, Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, and me) stood in a line with all our arms behind each other/around waists/etc (we weren’t nearly creative enough to come up with a better pose). Not really hugging; just trying to fit into the photo. We were toward the end of the photo op line, so they were really rushing people through at that point, so it was — come in, shake hands, stand for a photo, say thanks, and out we went. Suuuuuper fast, and not really enough time to think about it.

        Well. Karen Gillan is a good 7 inches taller than I am, and when we got the picture back, we realized that I totally hand my hand on her butt. Lower hip, encroaching on butt.

        It was completely inadvertent — it’s just where my arm landed — and I’m sure she’s faced worse, but there it was. A little embarrassing, a lot funny, and since I’m sure I’ll never actually meet her for real, it’s just a good story…

        1. kd*

          You have a photo with Matt Smith and Karen Gillian! First reaction.

          Sorry you touched her butt. Second reaction. =)

  4. Koko*

    I used to get nervous about offending someone who “meant well,” and worried I’d look like a high-maintenance bitch if I said something like, “Please don’t touch me,” and had a really hard time with enforcing my personal space boundaries for much of my young adult life. I didn’t want to be Koko “Don’t-Touch-Me” Lemon.

    One of the advantages of getting older has been caring less about being likeable. I will totally be Koko “Don’t-Touch-Me” Lemon if that’s the alternative to the inevitably increasingly boundary-violating and uncomfortable physical contact.

    1. cuppa*

      Me too. Also, I realized that it is silly for me to feel uncomfortable or upset repeatedly because I’m too afraid to make someone else uncomfortable or upset.

  5. blu*

    I feel like this didn’t really answer the question, which is what can the person who isn’t being touched do or say in this situation. It sounds like person being touched doesn’t feel comfortable speaking up and they have tried the route of other’s commenting to Chumley on the behavior. I think at this point it is appropriate to bring in the manager. It doesn’t have to be a huge thing, but I do think it would be helpful for the manager to pull Chumley aside and have a word.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      But that’s using a sledgehammer when you don’t need one. If I’m the manager in that situation, I’m going to wonder why the person didn’t just say something directly when it happened (and depending on the circumstances, I might ask her to just do that herself), and it’s going to make things more awkward than they need to be. Unless there’s some reason why she’s not comfortable saying something to this guy specifically (as opposed to just not comfortable being assertive in general), she really needs to just say something to him.

      1. blu*

        Right, I get that the person being touched should say something, but if she won’t, then what should the OP (who is not being touched) do? It sounds like she has already said something to Chumley and Chumley isn’t getting it.

        1. blu*

          To add, if you still feel she should say something I get that. But I don’t think you actually to the OP what to say. Your responses read to me like what the person who is being touched should say.

          1. Chrissi*

            I would say that’s because it’s the person who is being touched that has the responsibility here, either of saying something, indirectly avoid him, or go to the boss. If the coworker wants to be helpful, they can help the person who is being touched figure out how to say what needs to be said in a way that is in her comfort level, and let her know that they will back her up (probably also explaining that the only way this is truly going to stop, rather than just stopping when certain people are around, is if she says something herself). They also could also explore other strategies if the social costs for being direct are too high (which it doesn’t sound like they would be in this office since all the other women have made comments), such as make sure that every time they leave for the team things they (coworker and touchee) stay together with no room for Chumley nearby, a sharp elbow to the ribs “accidentally” every time he does it, telling him that she has a contagious disease and he shouldn’t get too close, etc. But at some point, the OP has to admit that they don’t have a horse in this race, and the coworker is an adult that has the capacity to learn to ask directly for what she does or doesn’t want.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Exactly — the coworker being touched in an unwelcome way is a competent adult who is capable of saying “knock it off” but who hasn’t yet.

              If there were a different context where the person needed allies in getting someone to quit objectionable behavior, it would be different. I’m not advocating staying silent when someone is being assaulted or something. But in this particular context, with a peer just not understanding boundaries, there’s really nothing for the OP to do other than to help advise the coworker on what language she could use.

              1. blu*

                How is this different from a a coworker having an inappropriate picture on their desk? In the past, you have said (and I believe the law says) that even though it’s not being done to you, it can still fall afoul of harassment law. In that case it would be expected (and legally required) that the it’s brought to management’s attention.

                1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  Pornographic material falls under severe/pervasive, according to multiple court rulings. I can’t imagine any circumstance where a coworker with his arm around another coworker would. They’re vastly different things.

                2. blu*

                  I specifically didn’t say porn, I’m saying inappropriate, like maybe Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendar. It’s clearly not porn, but it’s also not appropriate. I would think it would be within reason to say something even if it’s not on your desk.

            2. KJB72*

              The person being touched has the responsibility to tell the person to keep their hands to themselves??? ARE YOU CRAZY? How about you should never have to say anything to a person in the workplace for TOUCHING you because IT SHOULDN’T BE HAPPENING IN THE FIRST PLACE! If you are that much of a freak that you need to paw at your co workers then you need serious help. Kindergartners know enough to keep their hands to themselves, so what is so hard about it in the work place? Shame on any company for not addressing this issue PLAINLY and CLEARLY in orientation before new employees are even sent to their work areas.

        2. fposte*

          I’m not seeing anything that says she’s said something, though. It says other people have commented, and that what Chumley hasn’t gotten is a “hint.” Usually that’s an indication that there’s been no direct request made to stop.

          If a direct request has been made and he hasn’t stopped, then that does become something that could be taken to a manager.

      2. Anonsie*

        I wonder if the other people have commented thing means that other women in the group have indeed told him to stop doing it, and he’s been brushing it off like they’re just kidding around or stops then but does it again the next time– which is why the LW is asking if they should escalate.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          It could be, but if the person he’s touching hasn’t told him to stop, some people in his shoes would assume that it’s not unwelcome and the others are just teasing him.

    2. Jillociraptor*

      I’d advise the OP to ask what the coworker would appreciate. It might help her to know that her coworkers have promised to back her up if she does say something, for example. I can imagine that, even though the coworkers all discuss this outside of the fact, she might be worried that in the moment, someone might not have her back (“It’s not a big deal, right Jane?” “I wouldn’t care if someone did that to me.”). It’s a common worry for women when their personal space is invaded.

      While I understand and empathize with the nervousness of the coworker, I agree that it’s going to be most effective and least awkward for her to call out the behavior when it happens. Still, to be able to do that she may need some support, which is I think where the OP can come in.

    3. dawbs*

      I dunno, I supervise some employees in an environment where patrons often get ‘to friendly’ and it’s something I have to deal with often (It’s just one of those things and this happens to be a job where we have a lot of clueless people interactions for a whole lot of reasons)

      I deal with it–and I deal with it firmly but I really *really* try to make sure the employee says something first.

      Because if I go up to Creepy McHanderson and say “hey–don’t touch Jane or the other employees that work here–this is a professional environment, it’s not OK”, and Jane has never told this guy the same thing, the Creepy-logic is “oh, the mean BOSS lady won’t let the peon employees flirt with me like they want to”–so the next time I’m not in line of sight that Creepy is next to Jane, he touches her again and acts “I know your boss is a jerk, but you don’t mind because you’re cool, right?” –which is actually often much MUCH harder for Jane to deal with than if she had said “professional space bubble” and taken a step back before I stepped in.

      (my employees have firm instructions to tell me ASAP; I will make sure I am there and present as they tell the person to stop [usually I have helped them with a variety of possible script ideas]. Once they have told the person once, I will come down on them like a ton of bricks…but if the first response the hands-on guy hears is from me, then it’s always assumed that ‘she’s OK with it, just the boss isn’t’–and it goes over much more poorly and escalates much worse, IME)

      1. blu*

        Right, but I think that’s exactly why in this case it needs to be the manager and not the OP. In your example, what would happen is Jane is being touched and Suzi (the OP) says to Chumley “Stop touching Jane that’s inappropriate.” It’s now much easier for Chumley to blow it off because he is thinking “Man Suzi is so …. uptight, overbearing, pick your adjective”.

        The ideal solution is for Jane to speak up, but if she won’t, I don’t know that a peer is going to be able to change the behavior of another peer who has already demonstrated he doesn’t understand appropriate work boundaries and seems unable to read the signs that he is making others uncomfortable.

        1. dawbs*

          Yup, person being touched speaks up first. But I don’t think Suzi (OP) can accomplish anything
          After Jane, I’d say the manager has to be the one to do it

          And even if the person being touched has a hard time being assertive [we all have our hangups], often, once you’ve broken the door down and *started* being assertive, it’s a lot easier to continue.

          I mean, if Jane says “I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but you tend to touch me when we’re at work. I’m really not comfortable with that in a professional environment. Thanks for understanding” it’s awkward…but if she does that and the next day, Chumley does it again, Jane AND Suzi (and everyone else in the loop) are going to (rightly) feel that it’s no longer social clueless-ness so much as it is jerkyness.

          There’s also the basic refutation about “I don’t want to make things awkward!” that I want to soapbox on for a minute–Jane won’t be making things awkward. It’s already awkward. By speaking up, Jane is going from Chumley being comfortable and blissfully unaware that Jane feels awkwardness (also experienced by Jane and her coworkers) to Jane feeling comfortable and Chumley feeling awkward.
          And that’s ok. There’s awkwardness already–assertiveness is a kick-ass way of moving the awkwardness from the ‘victim’ (<that is to strong of a word here; I'm just failing at synonyms today) back onto to the person who is violating the social norms (which, is where it kinda belongs)

          1. blu*

            I agree Jane needs to speak up. But the OP can’t make her do that so I think the question here is still: What can the OP do?. That’s what my point was about the answer. This answer focuses on what Jane can do, but Jane isn’t who is writing in. Suzi is writing in asking what she can do.

            1. Chrissi*

              See my response above (meant to post it here). The OP can learn to live with the fact that Jane won’t speak up and address the problem and Chumley won’t stop what he’s doing. Jane is a freaking adult and the OP is not her mother.

              Sorry that’s so harsh, but I find the excuse that people give of “I just can’t” to really mean “I refuse to get over my learned helplessness because I don’t want to feel uncomfortable, so I’m going to let other people deal with it so I don’t have to”. If the effect of Chumley’s behavior is more uncomfortable than what she envisions talking to him about it will be, she will eventually speak up.

              To clarify, Chumley’s an ass and this shouldn’t be happening, but we don’t get to live in a world where everything is as it should be, only what it is.

              1. blu*

                I tend to agree as something like this would be weird, but would not bother me. I think Jane needs to speak up. That being said, I think if it makes the OP genuinely uncomfortable, I think the manager is the best bet. I only say this in this case because what he is doing it on the line of sexual harassment so ignoring it doesn’t feel like the right answer. I also don’t think OP saying something is going to get a result from Chumley other than disdain.

                1. Chrissi*

                  I would agree that the OP saying something is not going to result in anything happening. But I would be worried that the if the OP goes to the manager without Jane trying to address it first in some way, it’s going to reflect badly on the OP (if the manager thinks she’s being intrusive or possibly naïve since no one has directly addressed it w/ Chumley). At that point, the OP needs to decide if the possible cost to her is worth it, and proceed accordingly.

                  On the other hand, if it’s driving the OP nuts, and she does want to say something, I’d do something in the same “spirit” that he is – so, depending on their relationship, putting her hand on the small of his back when he does it to Jane then acting surprised when he reacts. I probably couldn’t pull that off, but she could also just point out his behavior loudly in front of the group – not hints, but “Chumley why are you so handsy with Jane all the time? Didn’t your mother teach you better”, “Chumley she doesn’t need you to push her into the next room”, “Chumley, the hell?”, or something hopefully more clever. And not too light of a tone either. Rinse and repeat to the point that him doing it isn’t worth the grief he gets. Something that takes Jane’s discomfort and pushes it back on him. The only reason I think that stands a small chance of working is because of her description that the other women on the team obviously dislike his behavior too and would back her up. I don’t think I’d do that otherwise and not if she didn’t think she could pull it off. (And not without making SURE that Jane is OK w/ it first).

                2. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  It’s not sexual harassment, not in the legal sense — especially when the object hasn’t even told him it’s unwelcome (but probably not even then; sexual harassment needs to be severe/pervasive). It’s still BS behavior that he should stop, but the coworker he’s doing it to needs to tell him to stop.

                  We are grown adults. This is a conversation we all need to be capable of having.

                3. blu*

                  The EEOC specifically says that “the victim does not have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct” and “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”

                  I’m not saying that we are at that point or even going to get to that point, but I don’t think its accurate or consistent with your other advice to say that if the person being touched doesn’t speak up then oh well neither can anyone else. I feel like title on this post doesn’t really reflect what the OP is asking which is “What can I do if I see someone else being made uncomfortable and possible harassed.”

                4. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  Like I wrote above, a coworker with his arm around another coworker isn’t going to meet the definition for a hostile workplace or harassment. For the same reason that a coworker winking at another coworker or mildly flirtatious wouldn’t meet the definition.

              2. krisl*

                “Jane won’t speak up and address the problem and Chumley won’t stop what he’s doing. Jane is a freaking adult and the OP is not her mother.”

                Well said.

              3. Jessa*

                How do you know it’s learnt helplessness and not “I told Phil to stop touching me in my last job and he made my life miserable and it got worse, and I’m not doing this again because telling them to stop means it will escallate.” Or any other version of past experience says confronting this horror in any way will make my life a disaster because: abusive person in past, management in past going “why won’t you leave Phil alone, he’s a nice guy,” whatever.

                1. Toothless*

                  That’s exactly what learned helplessness is: when experience has taught someone that trying to fix a problem has worse consequences than just letting it happen.

          2. Cari*

            If/when Jane speaks up next time Chumley touches her, OP can help a lot by backing her up – especially if Chumley starts down the “aw, don’t be a bad sport”/”I’m just being friendly” route, or even gets nasty. Really, silence from your peers in these situations tately if ever gets taken as support for the touchee, just as tacit approval of the thoucher’s behaviour.
            Also, if they all say something to Chumley and he persists, wouldn’t that indicate a bigger problem when it gets escalated to manager/HR?

            1. Not So NewReader*

              OP can help her coworker plan for that type of response.

              “Aw, don’t be a bad sport.”
              “I am asking you to stop. Can you do that?”

              “I’m just being friendly.”
              “My friends don’t touch me. I am asking you to stop. Can you do that?”

              Encourage her to stay on track. Don’t allow herself to be derailed by side points. And everything is a side point.

        2. Observer*

          I think that pretty much anything the OP does, other than making sure that the “touchee” knows they will have her back, could make things worse. Because the Manager is likely to also dismiss things with “well, if Sue is really bothered by this, she could tell him to stop. And if she’s afraid to, she could come to me herself.” And, now the manager has tuned out the problem AND may very well see “Sue” as a bit of a problem herself.

      2. LQ*

        This is an incredibly good point. For people who genuinely don’t get it, it works fine, but for people with an intent to be smarmy it is basically an open door to jerkitude. Same thing as a “I can’t go out with you I’m with someone.” Vs a “Not interested.” One says, here’s a door you can smarm your way through. (But then the smarmy people are the ones most likely to call you a B or any number of other things or smear you other ways when you turn them down.)

        Jerks are jerky :(

        1. cuppa*

          Yes. I actually learned this in training once. I was definitely that person that said “Sorry, I’m with someone” and never thought anything of it. There are people that will ask you if you are with someone, let it go, and move on. And there are others that will take that as an opportunity to win you over. Enforcing boundaries appropriately is important.

          1. Rachel*

            otoh there are plenty of guys who don’t take “no” seriously, but will respect another guy’s “property.” you can’t win with jerks. :(

    4. Colette*

      The person who isn’t being touched can call it out, too. “Why are you touching her? Is this something we do now?”

      I’d want to make sure that the person being touched wasn’t OK with the touching, though.

      1. ThursdaysGeek*

        Yes and no. It it’s making the OP uncomfortable, it almost doesn’t matter if Jane is ok with the touching. If Suzi (OP) speaks up, then don’t Chumley and Jane have the obligation to cut out the PDA that is bothering Suzi?

        That was my understanding of harassment: it doesn’t have to happen to you, it just has to be something that you experience or witness and which makes you uncomfortable.

  6. Kirsten*

    For the record, that probably wouldn’t go over well in the ballroom either. :) (Lower back is NOT approved ballroom hold, and dancers can tell when a guy is there just to get his hands on women!)

    It sounds like if this person said something directly to the guy in the presence of her coworkers, they would be able willing to back her up if he protested. Strength in numbers? It wouldn’t need to be confrontational, just direct, and then he would know that others would be watching out for him to do it in the future too.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Ha, I just edited out that ballroom reference a minute ago, deciding it was lame. (For people who didn’t see it, one of my original suggestions was “it’s an office, not a ballroom.”)

      1. Kirsten*

        Ha, funny. Incidentally, ballroom is why I can relate to the coworker in question. In my early days of ballroom dancing I had a guy who was a little too touchy-feely (think hand on lower back instead of right below shoulder blades, and trying to pull me way too close) and I was too shy and embarrassed to say anything. An older lady saved me by coming and physically moving his hand to the correct spot, but now I’d be completely comfortable just saying “dude, your hand is way too low.”

        1. Allison*

          Lindy hopper here! Little different than ballroom, but I’ve had the same issues on the dance floor. And I tried moving a guy’s hand once, and his passive aggressive reaction (“oh, looks like you’re an expert, would you like to lead instead?”) made me afraid to ever do it again! I’m still too chicken to speak up when dudes get too touchy-feely on the dance floor, mainly because of my lack of experience.

          1. Anonsie*

            Yeah, this was me once. I remember being really afraid to say “stop it” more than once when someone was being too grabby, and god forbid I ever try to intervene when it was happening to someone else and be judged for it.

            Now? Could not possibly care less. I am That Chick when I go out with my friends– if someone is getting inappropriate with someone in my group, I will physically remove them like Kirsten’s ballroom lady above. And oh do they ever huff and puff and try again and insult me to their friends, and you know what? Good. I have not one single solitary reason why I would want some jerk like that to be impressed by me, so they can just hate away.

          2. Heatherbrarian*

            I contra dance, and when a guy’s hand goes too low while swinging it is physically uncomfortable because my back isn’t supported properly. I sometimes have to say, “Could you move your hand a little higher? Where it is, my back doesn’t feel good while we swing.” I’ve been lucky in that so far I’ve only had to say that to guys who just don’t know how to hold me properly, not anyone trying to cop a feel, but I think it’s a good “excuse” if you want a softer way to ask someone to move his hand to a more appropriate area of your back.

  7. Stephanie*

    I had a Chinese coworker who asked if she could touch my hair (I’m black and have a small afro). She had come to the US for graduate school (in New Hampshire), so I realized there was a fair chance I was the first black person she was friendly with. I didn’t want to launch into a whole speech about exoticism or the tinged history behind that request…so I just left it at “Um, no thanks. I’m not comfortable with that.”

    1. Koko*

      There was a great article I saw recently about being polite in an unassuming way–you know, the original intent of etiquette, which was to make social situations flow smoothly, not to stand on ceremony. (It seems to currently be the top Google hit when I search “How to Be Polite” so it must be getting around.)

      Partial excerpt which I loved: “I’ve read many narratives about white people just touching black hair and I read them with my mouth open. Not because of the racism, even. Just because as a polite person the idea of just reaching out and touching anyone’s hair makes my eye twitch. When would it be appropriate? If there was a very large poisonous spider in their hair. If I was doing a magic trick. Or after six or more years of marriage.”

      1. Diet Coke Addict*

        If there was a very large poisonous spider in someone’s hair, I don’t think I’d be reaching for it! Screaming and batting at their hair with a magazine, maybe.

      2. Clever Name*

        Ha! I recently read this too, and lol’ed at the “or after six or more years of marriage” bit.

      3. Angela*

        I’m white and I’ve had people reach out and touch my hair more times than I care to count. It’s super thick, long, and naturally wavy (full-on curly if short, too heavy to curl at this length). I find my hair to be a pain, but apparently something about it is fascinating. Usually it’s women who have very straight, thin hair that can’t seem to keep their hands off of it.

        1. manybellsdown*

          Yeah some guy tweaked my curls in line at the post office just a few weeks ago. I’m in my 40’s, he was my father’s age. It’s not as bad as the “touching a black woman’s hair” thing for a multitude of reasons, but still, yuck.

          1. The Real Ash*

            An ex-semi-friend yanked on my pigtails repeatedly (while making motorcycling noises, classy) a few years ago and after I yelled at him about it, he brushed me off saying that I was “ponytail shy”. Yes, me not wanting someone I don’t really like touching me without my permission is me being shy. Before he left, I reamed him out in front of everyone and explained why what he did was wrong and that he should never touch anyone like that again without their permission. I’m sure it didn’t get through to him and he chalked up the situation to me being a bitch or something like that, but I’m glad I stood up for myself. No one else at the gathering had my back though, so I dropped all of those friends over the next few weeks. Good riddance to shitty friends.

        2. Poohbear McGriddles*

          I’m white, male, and almost 40. If anybody wants to touch my hair they better hurry the heck up cuz the clock is ticking!

        3. nep*

          Uh — out of the blue, strangers have reached out and touched your hair? Wow. What is with people?

        4. TotesMaGoats*

          I’ve had the same thing happen to me since I was a teenager. Strangers will touch my hair. Friends don’t bother me or coworkers. Just yesterday I was asked if it was my real hair or if I wear a wig. Not even kidding. But it’s been happening so long that it doesn’t even faze me anymore. Go ahead and touch my hair complete stranger, that’s not weird at all.

      4. cuppa*

        Oops. My husband and I are on five years this year and I was touching his hair the other night. ;)

      5. EngineerGirl*

        I think you’re taking it too personally. I have very straight Scottish hair (blonde-red). When I go into Africa all the little kids want to touch it. They are surprised that it is soft and sometimes stroke my head like a dog. They’re just being naturally curious. When I allow them to touch me it breaks down barriers. They see my white skin is the same as theirs, and my hair (though different) is similar to theirs. It is a bridging moment because they can see that “the other” is not the other.

        1. Jessa*

          I’m going to say this, A: it’s fine if you don’t mind people doing this, but others do, and B: it’s KIDS, which is an entirely different demographic of “learnt social behaviours,” IE kids don’t always know better. And it’d probably be nice if the adult in question said “I don’t mind at all if you touch my hair, but others might, so you should ask first, okay?”

          Because kids should be taught manners.

          But it seriously does not have the overtones of adults touching other adults which is usually a function of privilege, when one person is totally conditioned to believe they can touch another just because they want to.

        2. Student*

          There is a world of difference between “curious kid touching my hair” and “pervy guy grabbing my hair”. I’ve been through both. They’re as different as having a dog lick your hand vs. bite your hand.

    2. Chayele*

      I have red hair and people from places where that doesn’t really exist often want to touch my hair. I used to work in Africa and people were very interested in my hair. I know that there’s a layer of assumed racism and “othering” regarding black women’s hair in the U.S., but I also think humans are just naturally curious about new people and things.

      1. Jen RO*

        I agree about human curiosity. I would never touch someone’s hair without permission, but I have no idea what black or Asian or even typical Scandinavian hair feels like, and I *am* curious.

        1. Stephanie*

          I can understand that. I think a better way to learn is to ask questions (after you’re comfortable with the person) than to just reach out and touch. As Chayele mentioned, there is a whole troubled history in the US with “othering” black women. Plus, often times I’ve heard people say slightly condescending things afterwards like “Oh, it’s actually soft!”

          1. Jen RO*

            Yes, there is a history, but your Chinese coworker did not know it. I absolutely agree that people should not touch other people’s hair without permission (I won’t even let my boyfriend touch it, it’s like I can feel the grease on his hands, ew – yes, I have issues), but if we are talking about people from a different country/culture you can’t apply American standards to their behavior.

            1. Jen RO*

              To clarify: she should have known that it’s odd to touch people’s hair, but she should not have known that it’s “wrong-er” to touch black women’s hair because of black women’s history in the US.

              It might be a no-brainer for people who actually live in a diverse country, but there are months when I don’t even *see* a black person, so I am sure I *would* be oddly fascinated by an afro, even knowing that it’s wrong.

              1. Stephanie*

                Yeah, I agree. I definitely wouldn’t know the history of an analogous situation if the situation were reversed (i.e., if I was an expat working in China).

        2. Koko*

          Yes! And I think especially in cross-cultural encounters the rules of etiquette are more ambiguous as to what is proper and what is not. But I’m also fairly sure that every culture I’m aware of regards it as rude to touch someone without their permission. It’s fine to be curious and ask, but not to extend that curiosity into violating someone’s personal space.

      2. Felicia*

        I totally understand about the curiosity, but the people who reach out and touch peoples’ hair (I have encountered such people) are just rude.

        1. Felicia*

          Also people who randomly touch pregnant womens’ stomachs without asking, even when they’ve never met the person (or even if they have met them), that’s just rude.

            1. Koko*

              RIGHT?! I just can’t even wrap my mind around how suddenly it becomes OK to touch a woman’s stomach now that there’s a baby inside! How does that make any sense??

              1. Observer*

                It doesn’t. Not in any culture I know of. The fact that it’s so common is because rudeness in general seems to be way too acceptable, and then there are the socialization issues that we’ve been discussing.

          1. Chrissi*

            If that ever happens to me when/if I’m pregnant, I want to immediately reach out and touch their stomach in return. Then when they look at me in shock, I’ll look up innocently and say “What? Is this not what we were doing? Was that wrong?”

            1. dawbs*

              I have done that with hair–petted theirs back.
              It was AWESOME.

              (I was young and less assertive when it happened but I’ve always been proud of it. I still have long hair but apparently I look meaner now so no one touches it. I’ve had people reach toward it but managed to give them the ‘teacher look’ over my glasses and they’ve jerked back and slunk away)

            2. Liane*

              I like that! Years ago, Miss Manners suggested “doubling over” as if the touch had caused early labor. But yours is even better!

            3. Anon*

              Hehehe! This is how my mum deals with unwanted touching – we’re both really petite and our waists appear to be frequently targeted for unwanted grabbing. My mum had a coworker who put his hands on her waist from behind when he said good morning so she turned around and poked him hard in his belly and said “HELLOOOO!!” Loudly. Her justification was that he touched her in a way she didn’t like so she was doing the same to him. I’ve not yet hot the guts to do this! I’d love to though…

          2. Newsie*

            Yessssss I’ve never even been pregnant and I want to deck people when they do that to pregnant women.

      3. BadPlanning*

        Yeah, I have blond hair which gets touched as well. Not so much now that I’m older. I think the weirdest one was when I had my hair in a braid (when it was quite long) and while shopping in a store, a fellow shopper (female) picked up my braid, petted it and proclaimed how lovely it was to myself and the other shoppers around us. I was so surprised that I just stood there. Compliments, fine. Hair petting, not so good.

        1. fposte*

          There’s something disembodied about braids that seems to invite that–I encountered it a few times too, and not necessarily creepily (one was a sweet old lady who just “loved that little tail”!).

        2. Diet Coke Addict*

          My mom has gorgeously thick, longer, well-kept hair for an older woman, and once at the grocery store a woman came up behind her and grabbed a big thick handful of it. My startled mom asked “Excuse me?!?!” and the woman said “Oh, I just wanted to know if that was your real hair, or a weave, or a wig. Is it?”

          1. Jenna*

            And if it had been a wig, and come off in that woman’s hand….? What on EARTH are people thinking when they do that? Just. Wow.
            Bodily autonomy and personal space are precious things.

      4. hildi*

        When I was deployed I went to get my hair cut at a beauty shop on base and the employees were Asian – I think maybe Filipino. When I sat down I just remember the lady exclaiming over my very fine, blonde hair. She was touching it and touching and called over the other workers to come over and feel it. I was fascinated by their fascination so I asked if their hair is really that different and could I touch theirs? I had no idea it was as coarse and thick as it was. I would have assumed it was as fine as mine. Anyway, that is kind of a fun memory for me in an otherwise not-fun place. If I was quick to be offended I’m sure that whole interaction would have gone differently.

      5. Stephanie*

        Yeah, I had a blonde friend who went to China and had people wanting to take pictures with her and her (also blonde) sisters.

        I think where the blonde/red hair comparison breaks down for me is that those features are often admired (I do know there is the dumb blonde stereotype and redheads (especially male ones) have been ostracized) while natural black hair isn’t always admired. I mean, someone even started a Change dot org petition to tell Beyonce and Jay-Z to comb their toddler daughter’s hair because people thought it looked unkempt how it naturally grew out her head.

        So, for me, I wouldn’t say I dislike that request because I’m looking to be offended or don’t understand people are naturally curious, it’s just from a (long) personal history of unsolicited touching followed by kind of condescending comments like “Oh, huh. It’s a bit oily” or “Oh, it’s actually soft.” Plus, just from a practical standpoint, my hair sometimes retains shape based on styling, so people patting my head on one side can result in a lopsided afro.

        But back to my original comment–my coworker and I were there to write Teapot Widget Reports, so it was just easier to say “Thanks for the compliment, but I’d rather you not touch my hair” than to give a condensed history of US racial relations and “othering.”

        1. Mints*

          Yeah, in most cases people feel weird about groping strangers, so I think it’s useful to look at why certain people get felt up by strangers more often. Because certain groups historically have less control over their own bodies (women, black people, and other POC).

          When I had really long hair (waist/hip) length, I was petted by strangers, especially when it was in a braid, and I usually just pulled my hair back and stepped away. Sometimes I stepped really far back to like a maybr rude distance because I didn’t want to be within arms’ reach, and that approach is like the least confrontational approach, I think

        2. AcademicAnon*

          That just sick that someone started a petition about that for a child. After reading what it takes for people to straighten naturally curly hair and that even people expected children to have it do, I am glad natural hairstyles are making a comeback. (not trying to insult anyone, if I said something stupid)

    3. anon*

      Umm, there is that famous oval office photo of Obama bending over and letting a little boy touch his hair …

      1. Jillociraptor*

        A little boy who is black and wanted to see “if the President’s hair feels like mine.” Very different issue.

    4. Mallory Janis Ian*

      When I was in first grade, the teacher used to have us play the “quiet game” while she worked at her desk. The kid who was “it” picked the quietest classmate by walking quietly over and giving them a brief pat on the head. I took advantage of being “it” to get a really good feel of my classmate’s afro. I didn’t just pat him on the head and move on; I really got my hand in there and scrunched his hair a good three or four times. He was not amused. In my defense, I was in first grade and didn’t know any better, and his scowl was lesson enough for me not to touch anyone without permission again (I mean, outside the occasional scuffle with siblings or cousins . . . ).

    5. Ann O'Nemity*

      If I let my hair air-dry, it will form ringlets. One of the reasons I stopped wearing my hair like this is because so many people liked to tug on the curls. Family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, complete strangers – you name it. It astounds me how many people assume it’s okay. Not even the RBF scares them off. Maybe there’s a natural impulse? I can’t hold a baby or toddler without them trying to grab at the curls – it’s like they’re mesmerized. Sigh. Now I just blow dry and straighten most days.

      1. The Real Ash*

        yanked on my pigtails repeatedly (while making motorcycling noises, classy) a few years ago and after I yelled at him about it, he brushed me off saying that I was “ponytail shy”. Yes, me not wanting someone I don’t really like touching me without my permission is me being shy. Before he left, I reamed him out in front of everyone and explained why what he did was wrong and that he should never touch anyone like that again without their permission. I’m sure it didn’t get through to him and he chalked up the situation to me being a bitch or something like that, but I’m glad I stood up for myself. No one else at the gathering had my back though, so I dropped all of those friends over the next few weeks. Good riddance to shitty friends. As a fellow curly-haired lady, I support your right to not have your curls messed with.

        1. The Real Ash*

          …Whoa, the copy and paste on this fucked up and pasted some of my other comment. Let me try this again…

          Screw. That. You should be able to wear your hair any way that you want to, and if someone tries to touch you, just be painfully rude and awkward at them until they stop, like yelling “Stranger danger!” or “I need an adult!”. Or like someone else suggested, pet/pull their hair back so they can see how shitty their behavior is.

      2. Judy*

        Well, to be honest, pretty much anyone without a buzz cut can’t hold a baby (over 5 or 6 months old) or toddler without them trying to grab their hair. Or glasses. Or earrings. Or nose.

        1. Laura*

          Or – for some lucky gents – beard. My husband’s is long enough to sink fists into and wiry – curly isn’t the right word, because it’s not a rounded shape the hairs take. Kinky? That sounds wrong.

          Anyway, both our kids discovered early the delight of grabbing fistfuls of the beard and simply *hanging on*. (Or worse, but more rarely, pulling. Ow.)

    6. Muriel Heslop*

      I have long, thick, wavy red hair and I’ve had a number of people throughout my lifetime ask to touch it or touch it unasked. When teaching in a school where the vast majority of my students had olive skin, black hair, and dark eyes, they were fascinating with my hair and coloring. I finally had a day where I offered everyone who wanted to could touch my hair (I wore a ponytail for this purpose.) It gave everyone a chance to experience how it felt. That is normal, childlike curiosity. Just like one of my pregnant students let everyone in fifth period feel the baby kick.

      If a colleague touched my hair or the small of my back, they would get the stink eye first, followed by a “please don’t touch me. I am not comfortable with that.”

    7. ThursdaysGeek*

      I have very long brown hair, often worn in braids, and little kids (and occasionally teens) at church sometimes like to touch it. They don’t usually ask first. But even when the kid is 3 and has a short cut that looks soft and fuzzy, I’ll always ask first if I can touch their hair. Little kids usually get about as much personal space respect as pregnant ladies.

    8. Anonsie*

      Strange timing: I read this thread not five minutes ago, and then read this article where it comes up on NPR’s Monkey See pop culture blog: Lifetime Promises To Bring Out The ‘Strong Black Woman’ In White Women (

      “(By the way, just when you think the show can’t get more awkward, the second episode brings a moment in which Emily explains that she met her [black] husband when she reached out and, fascinated, touched his hair. Do we need to talk about how one does not do that? One does not do that. This goes unmentioned.)”

      I would really really really like to know how they went from that to being married. What did he say? I feel like I need to see that stupid episode just to find that story, because it’s perplexing.

  8. Chayele*

    Many of my winter sweaters and coats have some textural element such as furry trim, and people LOVE to pet me. Yes, pet me. Like a kitty. It’s the worst. I just say, “I’m gonna need you to stop touching me now.”

  9. Eliza Jane*

    I feel for the coworker, because I have been there. There’s this sense that by saying something, you’re making a scene or confronting him or being uptight, and there’s fear that other people are going to see you as ruining the fun.

    I confess, I just sucked it up and felt creeped out and tense and miserable, because I could never find a way to say anything without feeling incredibly embarrassed. It’s a part of my cultural programming that’s really hard to overrule.

    I like the ballroom suggestion or “Personal space!” exactly because they’re not so formal, so I don’t feel like I am declaiming, “I lodge formal protest with the delegation of You’re Being Creepy under the Feminist Proclamation of 2014,” just a joking “Hey, whoa, dude, no one needs to be that close to my armpits in the office,” which you can follow up later with a “I was actually serious about that personal space thing,” which maintains a light feel while making a serious point.

  10. Mark*

    This isn’t related to the article but I have to say that auto-playing video ads are incredibly annoying. I love this site and you certainly deserve to get paid for what you do but those ads are really the worst.

    1. Simonthegrey*

      I use Adblock and Ghostery at work to cut down on all ad traffic online. It might be worth it to consider, and turn off sometimes when surfing to give a little ad-love.

    2. The Real Ash*

      You may want to check out if there’s something up with your computer, because I don’t get any of those kinds of ads, even when I access this site using different browsers / computers / OSs.

      1. Sharon*

        It’s not his computer, it’s the ad servers. I have adblock on my computers but not my ipad, so when I read some of my favorite blog sites on my ipad I get those horrible ads. Even worse than auto-playing videos are the ones that swap you out to the App store with a particular game highlighted so you can conveniently click “buy me”. Hijacking people’s computers is so extremely not cool.

        Heh, just had a funny thought…. wonder when one of those will redirect me to the App store to buy a copy of Adblock! LOL!

    3. Diana*


      If it helps I’m using Firefox when it happens. Today was the first day I had the volume on so I’m not sure if it started when AAM changed to Inc or just recently.

    4. Ask a Manager* Post author

      That should not be happening! There are video ads, but they’re not supposed to be auto-play (you’re supposed to have to click play). If it happens again to anyone, would you send me a screenshot of the ad? That’ll help my ad network track it down and fix it.

  11. M. in Austin!*

    It really seems like people need to learn to communicate. Speak up! Talk to each other! It can solve so many problems :)

    To the OP, I really think the person he’s touching needs to tell him to stop. I don’t think this is something others need to step in to intervene… at least not yet.

    1. John*

      Yup. It’s an element of professionalism that you try to deal with these things yourself. Sure, these situations can be uncomfortable sometimes. Part of being an adult…

  12. BadPlanning*

    Any “Emperor’s New Groove” fans out there? Yell “No touchy” and wave your arms about.

    1. The Real Ash*

      Or the common “I need an adult!” joke from Family Guy.

      (it can be funny once in a great while…)

    2. Emily, admin extraordinaire*

      I can just imagine one of the co-workers saying “Aww, you threw off my groove!”

  13. Who are you?*

    I have a huge personal space issue and have had to address it several times over my work history. I can handle most people with “I really don’t like being touched so hands off please!” (said with a smile) and that works. What is harder to work with are close-talkers. They invade your space without touching. Backing up generally doesn’t work, they only step forward! Right now I work with a close-talker and as long as I’m sitting at my desk we have no issue. I put a piece of tape on the floor and asked everyone to stand on the other side of it. It’s when I’m away from my desk that we have issues.
    (BTW, one of my co-workers started calling me Les Nessman [from WKRP in Cincinnati] because of the tape on the ground thing. I watched old videos online. HA! I’m not forcing people to knock on pretend doors, but yeah…I think he’s got a point. LOL!)

    1. Student*

      When people do that to me, I’ll flail my arms about and tell them to back up, back off, or stop crowding.

  14. Sadsack*

    I wonder how oblivious this guy really is if it is just the one coworker that he touches. I think if he were just clueless, he’d be doing it to all of the coworkers. Because it is one individual in particular he targets, it makes me think there is something else going on.

    1. blu*

      I would hazard a guess that he feels (wrongly) like he isn’t doing anything wrong because the person he is touching hasn’t said anything. I think that is what makes this situation challenging for the OP. Even though it’s making everyone uncomfortable, it’s tough finding the right approach/wording to get someone to stop doing something to a third party.

      1. Sadsack*

        Yes, but why isn’t he touching everyone on the team that way, instead of just the one woman? That’s what is strange about it to me.

        1. Sadsack*

          Let me add, he isn’t just patting a coworker’s arm or shoulder when he talks to her, he is putting his arm around her and putting his hand at the small of her back, which is an extremely intimate gesture, in my opinion. How does a person not realize he is doing that to only one other person at work?

        2. Student*

          Usually, guys who are malicious about this kind of thing will try to target the weakest person they can find, who is least likely to stand up to them. They’ll often become serial inappropriate-touchers, and move on to a new target if the original target finally tells him off. Guys who are more socially inept, or from different cultures with more touching-tolerance, are more likely to be parallel inappropriate-touchers and do it to everyone, or everyone in a demographic.

    2. Another English Major*

      Agreed. Not saying he has mal intent, but it is weird. I would think a touchy feely person would be that way with everybody.


        Chumley does not possess the most refined social skills. The other gaffes are annoying, but the workplace inappropriate touching is disturbing and out of line. Recently at an outing, he walked by this person, touching her lower back for a few seconds, then walked off. He did it so that the other co-workers (all female) saw it. It’s almost like some weird OCD thing. I just don’t know. I can’t figure out why he’d do it, or why he seems compelled to to do it. He even put his arm around the co-worker during a lunch and the boss must have seen it.

        To get a sense of his lack of boundaries…
        I used to sit near him and he seems to have no sense of my personal space (and was also likely jockeying for position to boot). He’d ask me about phone conversations, look at my screen, slowly working his way into my cube to stare intently at what I was doing, and I got tired of telling him to back off in so many words–all of the time. I finally moved to a different floor so I can have some peace. He’d ask what I was working on, so he could present his ad hoc status report to our client manager. (My manager told me.) He’ll argue in meetings, when, esp. as a temp, he has no place to. However, no one wants to confront him directly, so this behavior continues in one form or another. Even when I moved, everyone knew why, but him…so he didn’t get hurt feelings. The person who is getting all touched up doesn’t want anything to be said. I tried going to the Chumley’s client manager (through a contact I have) figuring they want him to be successful, since they have a vested interest in him, but the keibash was put on that idea. Although, if he touched me, I’d tell him stop it…no problem there. Yuk.


          But, yeah, next time it happens, I don’t see why I can’t make some snark comment to him. I’ve certainly done it before.

          I don’t know why the person who is the touchee doesn’t say something, since she not at all in a vulnerable position.

          1. Windchime*

            Maybe she likes him and doesn’t mind the touching. Just a thought. Has she actually said that she doesn’t like it? If she doesn’t like it but she won’t tell him to stop, then it seems like it will continue to happen. I like the phrase “Learned Helplessness” that someone else used; that seems like what it is. It seems really silly that all this desk-moving and tippy-toeing is being done. It’s not a surprise that this guy is clueless in his behavior; it doesn’t sound like anyone has actually said, “Hey, stop that.”

            One of the things I like about being a middle-aged women is that I have the confidence to say, “Hey, what’s with the touching? Please stop.” It doesn’t have to be a Big Deal.

          2. fposte*

            If you’re going to say something, say something direct, not some snarky deflection. “Bob, has Jane said she’s okay with how you’re touching her? Because that’s unprofessional and out of line if she hasn’t said it’s okay.”

            I think Jane really should open her own mouth here and that your saying something might have complications for her, but snarky is basically jokey and deflectable. If you are going to say something, make it something worth saying.

          3. Cassie*

            I agree that the coworker being touched should speak up… but as someone who isn’t all that comfortable speaking up, I’d certainly appreciate it if someone else said something. For some reason, I find it easier to speak up sometimes when I’m a spectator/bystander than if I was the person being affected. Maybe it’s because as a spectator, you can see the whole scene in front of you. Whereas if you’re one of the players in the scene, you only have your perspective and you might question yourself like “maybe it’s just me, maybe I’m reading this situation wrong”.

            If it’s making the other employees feel uncomfortable (wasn’t clear if it was – just that other people commented), I think it would be appropriate to bring up to Chumley.

            1. Raptor*

              But, she is telling him no… with body language. This is what mystifies me. If someone tenses up or moves away, that’s a clear ‘no’. It’s not a ‘try again later’ or a ‘yes’. No can be communicated in lots of different ways, but our society demands it be verbal and this only helps out the predators.

              I don’t buy the whole story of ‘some people are just like that’. You can’t have it both ways where body language says ‘no’, but you don’t understand that one. And then when body language says ‘yes’, you do understand that one. Either he understands body language or he doesn’t. He doesn’t get to claim that her body language was saying ‘yes’ and then also claim he can’t tell when body language is saying ‘no’.

              And studies have come out on this sort of stuff. People understand ‘no’ and ‘yes’ in body language… even socially inept people… And the ones who are constantly breaking the boundaries, know what they are doing. They aren’t socially inept. They believe they are entitled to touch other people.

              This is real simple: If in doubt about wither or not a person is okay with something, then you don’t do it. And you do not get to drag out the line ‘but what if he’s socially inept?’ every time someone gets a little too touchy feely.

              So what if they are socially inept? It’s unacceptable and they shouldn’t be excused from acting like that. No means no, even if it’s not verbal.

              And yes… I think the woman being touched will need backup. People like him find the weakest target and then work to isolate them from any help and support. This is what they want. A society that says ‘if no one says no, then it’s okay’, where silence equals acceptance.

              Now, how to go about in the work situation? I admit is a harder question to tackle because it’s not like at a social gathering where you are under no obligations to play fair. For me, I think I’d offer her the advice Allison gave. Then, would ask ‘What can I do to help? or ‘How would you like to handle this?’ and ‘If you need someone to stand beside you, I’ll be there.’ If he really is working to isolate her, then you come around and give her support, that removes much of his power over her.

              1. Laura*

                So much THIS.

                OP, you said above that Jane doesn’t want anything said. Did you get the sense that she doesn’t want anything said because it doesn’t bother her, or because she doesn’t want to be a bother (and/or suffer repurcussions for speaking up)? If you’re not sure, please ask directly which it is. If it’s the latter, just keep telling her that he is clearly in the wrong, you’re on her side, you’ve got her back, you’ll do what you can to help her, etc. Speaking from experience, having this kind of support — even if it takes awhile to take advantage of it — makes a HUGE difference in finally finding your voice. It is *hard* to speak up about this, especially if you’ve learned from past experience that it will go badly for you. Knowing there is support in your corner really is tremendous.

                I think it also would probably help ease her mind to brief the manager beforehand, to make sure she has support there as well. Not asking management to step in, just “I’m having this issue with Chumley where he keeps touching me and I’d like to ask him to stop, but I’m concerned that he might react badly. I wanted to let you know this is happening before I speak to him just so you’re aware of the situation.”

        2. Willow Sunstar*

          Is it possible that he is on the autism spectrum? People on the spectrum often have trouble dealing with others, and may not necessarily recognize when behavior is inappropriate. Autism spectrum types can be very intelligent and function in a workplace. It all depends on the person.

          I have a coworker myself who I am starting to wonder if he has Aspergers or something. He is brand new to the company. He asks all kinds of questions, and many of them are of a social nature. Now it wouldn’t be so bad if he only asked me questions about what he was doing, but some of his questions are random and so out of the blue, I have to wonder about him. For example, one day last week he asked me if I thought Dr. Pepper tasted “nasty.” I told him that I was in the middle of something and didn’t have time to chat with him.

          Then on Friday last week, he asked me in the company’s IM, “What if that sales manager was your boss? Would you quit? That’s a good question.” I replied to him that I was busy and left it at that.

          I have no idea who he was talking about, since neither of us had discussed a sales manager that day. But asking me if I would quit my job that he knows is a promotion which I just got, and I have been with the company for 7 years? That is a serious *head desk* sort of question. He knows I’m 39 and not a teenager. Why would you treat someone who is 15 years older than you, that you know to be older than you, like a teenager? Just because he is 25 does not mean I will act like I am 25 also.

          I have tried ignoring him, putting on big huge gaming headphones while I listen to music, repeatedly telling him I am busy, asking him directly to not socialize with me when I am working, etc. Nothing seems to work. He will come up behind me and tap me on the shoulder when I am concentrating on something and scare me half to death. I glared at him when he did it, but he seems to be completely clueless. So yeah, next time he taps me on the shoulder, I will tell him to please never do that to me again.

          Short of being completely and totally mean to him, though, I don’t know how to get the random questions to stop. I can’t just block him because 1. he’s from Jamaica, 2. he sits right next to me and will go physically walk around my desk and tap me on the shoulder, and 3. we’re supposed to get along because we are coworkers on the same team.

          I have sent him the social media policy. I have asked him not to IM me with social things when I am busy. I have told him that he needs to focus on his job.

          Now, I am not his boss. I’m just a co-worker who happens to be above him in job title, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot at my company when we’re just support staff. It’s not like I am a senior support person or something. I did tell the person who was training him in about all his IMs because one day he did not get anything done, and she copied both our director, him, and me in her e-mail to the director. The next step would be to rat him out to the boss, but I would rather not do that if I don’t have to.


            This is a crusty, old post, but thanks for all of the responses.

            A friend suggested that he may be, and it makes sense. Or, he’s a serious control freak who likes to push boundaries to gain control (and this wouldn’t surprise me either). He does have enough social skills to suck up when he needs to, although he’s not endearing himself to people on the team including the manager, who I have a good relationship with.

            I was told early on that he’s overbearing, but no one seems to want to confront him on this too much. (They don’t want him to leave his contract early because it took so long to find two temps–me and him–with the skill sets they need.)


              And…yes, I think that FTE staff should say something. Maybe something has been said about other issues…I’m not sure. I’m the only one who will openly stand my ground with him, but then I feel like I can just get caught up in a stupid p!ssing match.

  15. reader*

    In graduate school I was at a local bar where there were 3 accountants who were there for a seminar. One stood behind me and would tickle me. The first 2 times I told him not to do that. The third time I jammed my elbow into his stomach. He got the point and his friends were in hysterics.

    1. This is me*

      You were tickled by a coworker?! WTF. Major kudos for introducing your elbow to his stomach.

    2. ella*

      Anthony Bourdain has a story in one of his books about being a new chef on the job and one of the older chef’s hazing rituals was to grab Bourdain’s ass. Forcefully. And repeatedly, throughout the whole shift. Eventually Bourdain stabbed him in the hand with a double-pronged fork without pausing in his work. Worked like a charm.

      I’m not advocating that as a strategy, necessarily, but there seems to be a certain kind of brutal efficiency in professional kitchens when it comes both to crossing and enforcing boundaries.

  16. AnonyMOOSE*

    Why is “please don’t touch me” not an option? If you don’t like something, say something.

      1. Windchime*

        Which makes me think that she doesn’t object to it. The only people who I let touch me are people who have been invited into my personal space — friends of many years and some family members. If anyone else was all touchy after being told explicitly not to do so, then there would be a serious confrontation.

      2. AnonyMOOSE*

        I get that the OP isn’t being touched. My question was why isn’t the person being touched not objecting and just simply saying, “Please don’t touch me.” I have been in a similar situation, and although it was uncomfortable to call this person out publicly, saying, “Please don’t touch me,” right when it happened, stopped the offending behavior.

  17. HM in Atlanta*

    I had a touching experience earlier this year, where the more I clearly and directly told the man to stop touching me, the more he did. I had to escalate it to the top level of the company before it stopped. The entire time I was talking to the “top”, I was afraid that my career with this employer would be cut short because I wasn’t friendly or couldn’t taking kidding around. I was afraid I might find myself fired for the next several months (everybody loves this guy). I was jumpy about any unplanned meetings that happened (is this the one where they tell me that I’m not a fit for the company anymore). The best part is that once the guy found out I complained, he called me every 10 minutes for 6 hours, and came by my desk several times leaving notes (and once on my car). No one saw this as a problem, “he’s just trying to apologize for you taking him the wrong way.”


      Unfortunately, some people do not get the support they should…where the recipient of this garbage is downplayed.

    2. Kiwi*

      Exactly. This is probably precisely why the OP’s colleague has not spoken up about creepy but friendly fella. I’d wager he’s well liked by all the other fellas. A great bloke. What a guy. She knows that complaining/saying no makes her the messenger and that she’ll probably be the one who gets shot.

      I think that the comments about how the victim must speak up first are misguided. Competent adult or not, the silence around her each time he does this must cause her to question whether anyone will back her in this. Even if you don’t want to say something to Chumley, you can always mention to the victim that you’ve noticed what’s going on and will be willing to back her/witness her story if she ever wants to speak up to Chumley and/or to management.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        This. And compounding the problem management does not seem to care what this guy does. It gets harder to speak up when a person sees that management isn’t stepping up to the plate.

    3. Fact & Fiction*

      Ugh, I’m sorry you had to go through that. Companies like that are just ASKING to have a lawsuit filed against them for retaliation in the event they DO fire the complaining employee; or heck, a sexual harassment lawsuit in the first place. I’m not saying you should or would do that — just that allowing behavior like that (I mean, seriously, calling you every 10 minutes for 6 hours? Like that wouldn’t show up on the phone records!) without reprimanding the harasser is just ridiculous! The fact you had to worry about reprisals is just infuriating. :(

  18. Pucks Muse*

    We had an issue like this when I was interning. We were a group of college kids working for a big scary company in the big city and the internship coordinator encouraged us to spend time together as a support system. One guy in the group, Gary, was a Nice Guy (TM) whose refrain was “I just don’t understand why no one will DAAAAAAAATE MEEEEEEEE. I’m a Nice Guy!” When we spent time together as a group, Gary would put his arm around one of the girls in the group and act as if he and his “pick of the evening” were a couple. I don’t know if he did this because he just wanted to look like he had a girlfriend to other people or because he thought that if he pretended hard enough, it would be true.

    We were all very upfront with Gary about his unwanted touching. And every time, he went into full Nice Guy meltdown about how he would never violate someone’s personal space! He was a nice guy! We just misunderstood! But we didn’t want to leave any doubt as to whether his touching was welcome. And yes, when we reported Gary to the internship coordinator for upping his inappropriate “forced coupledom” at the office, the first thing the coordinator asked was, “Have you asked him, specifically, to stop touching you?”

    It stinks, but you have to take the first step yourself and be direct about it.

  19. OP*

    “We are grown adults. This is a conversation we all need to be capable of having.” (Alison)

    THIS. Why do so many of us (women) forget this in situations like this? I’m 50+ and sometimes have to remind myself that I’m a grown-up – deal with it.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Just because we are adults does not mean we automatically know what to say when we encounter these situations.
      It takes planning. Line up a couple of options of what to say.
      In the process of planning what to say, stay focused on the goal. What is it you want the person to do/stop doing/whatever?

      When I first started working I was a sitting duck for whatever wisecrack came along.
      Then I started doing autopsies by going one situation at a time and developing a plan of what to say. Yeah, this got kind of tiring, but I worked into it. I got use to thinking this way and it got easier. I tried to put the wisecrack/gesture/etc in a peaceful place. Just knock it down to something benign and leave it there. This is not always the best course for all situations. But it helped me to feel like I was not adding to the BS without feeling like I was putting up with it.
      There is nothing to be ashamed of in not knowing what to say. Not many people do know. The kicker is to decide to learn how to handle it.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I agree it often takes planning, even for adults. But I’m not okay with the coworker just feeling like she can’t bring herself to say something and leaving it there, if the only reason is that she’s uncomfortable being assertive. That’s a basic life skill that grown-ups need to have. It can be hard, yes, but she needs to teach herself to do it or at least be striving toward that; she shouldn’t rest on “it’s uncomfortable so I’m not doing it.”

    2. Anon*

      I think what you said upthread is the reason why (at least it is for me) – we don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings and/or cause a scene. Maybe we should practice what we would say should this occur so we are more comfortable and prepared to deal with it in the moment.

    3. Laura*

      I can only speak for myself, but for me it’s not because I forget but because I remember: I remember all the times I *did* speak up and say something and all of a sudden I was the one who was being a bitch (or, even better, a slut, by some logic I never could figure out), and everyone — even my “friends” — took the guy’s side and told me I was overreacting, that he was so sweet, that he was just trying to be friendly, etc. etc. ad nauseum. Eventually — especially in a work environment — it becomes clear that the much easier thing to do is to just keep your mouth shut and hope it doesn’t get too bad.

  20. The Maple Teacup*

    I work in the disability support sector where clients don’t always follow proper boundaries. When someone touches me (client or co-worker) I usually respond with…
    1) *noticeable flinch* “Aahh!”
    2) “Whoa, please don’t do that. I startle easily.”
    3) “No”
    4) “Chumley, it is inappropriate to touch people without asking. It makes them feel uncomfortable.”
    5) “Boundaries Chumley, boundaries”
    6) “The personal space bubble has been violated!”
    7) “Cut that out.”
    8) *gets up and sits in another chair*

    It depends on the situation which strategy is used. Average Joe/Jane Citizen should be socially aware enough to listen to a prompt.

  21. Just me*

    I’m having a sort of similar issue. I’m on a work trip with a coworker that everyone loves because he’s the nicest guy. But this entire trip he’s been asking me to go to church with him every few days. The first time I figured just saying I didn’t want to go would be enough, and he wouldn’t ask again. Fast forward a few weeks and he’s asked me six times, including ten minute conversations and “pleading with tears” in his eyes. I never wanted to make the situation awkward, since we spend all day together, and didn’t want to upset him, and then the trip was almost over…

    If it happens again, though, I have resolved to ask him to please respect my decision of no and stop asking. Perhaps I’m a tad conflict averse.

  22. Lamb*

    A phrase that might help throw the awkward back where it belongs is “my body”, as in “Please stop touching my body”. I haven’t used it, but my toddler came home from daycare using it, and let me tell you, you feel like such a sleeze when someone says that to you (even if they are complaining about you wiping food off their face). If the dude does not have malicious intent, maybe feeling a little bad will bring the point home to STOP DOING THAT, and if he is malicious, you’ve been clear about boundaries and that you’re not going to let his behavior go uncommented. Plus, if he’s committed to the nice guy/just being friendly ruse he can’t keep doing it and claiming he’s being nice.

  23. Jill*

    OP, I’ve found a good trick for, really, any situation where someone is crossing a boundary:
    Put your eyebrows in an angry V, stick your head forward toward offender and in a pointed tone ask, “What are you doing?” (your tone should say “what the HELL are you doing”, in other words).

    Then, with eyebrows still in that stern V, just wait for the answer. Someone who knows exactly what they’re doing will quickly move away in shame/guilt/whatever, in which case you’ve made it clear that you’re no chump. The genuinely clueless will look confused at which point you can reiterate “don’t touch me” “don’t look over my shoulder” “I don’t like when people xyz” or whatever clue they need. Good luck!

    And I’m sorry but men know that the lower back is an intimate area…this guy knows exactly what he’s doing to these women.

  24. Wren*

    My boss unthinkingly put his hand on my shoulder one time when I was showing him something on my screen. I shrugged his hand off. I was trying to be subtle, but it turns out it’s not a terribly subtle move. It was fine, though; we have a good rapport and he was not insulted, but apologized profusely.

  25. Boss guy*

    As a male and have been the boss many times . I’ll say I’m a alpha male not a macho jerk . Mr touchy is inappropriate and creepy . I have dealt with the type , bluntly said he gets the talk once and not some soft bs . Blunt direct get real he is testing limits mine are low

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