how should I have handled an older married colleague’s interest in me?

A reader writes:

I am a woman in my mid-20s. I started at a company a few months ago and took a very junior position. I had recently moved to the area and did not have much of a support group. A mid-40s married male colleague in a leadership role was very kind to me, and I felt he really facilitated my integration into the company (e.g. trying to include me in the lunch conversation, and saying generally complimentary things about me).

Soon we were talking frequently in the mornings before work at the company gym, and also during his breaks. We had many shared interests and a similar background. At times, I felt like the attention was a lot, but he was very well-respected and liked at work so I thought he was just being very friendly.

I enjoyed talking to him, but due to our difference in positions he had to initiate most of our conversations. I couldn’t distract my senior colleagues from their work, but he’d come by my desk a few times a day and chat with me for five minutes. He told me that he was unhappy with his job and hinted that he was unhappy in his marriage. Since I was new to the area, I was very lonely and talking to him was the highlight of my day.

One day after work, he told me that he wanted to take me to a place, and without giving me any details or letting any of our coworkers know, he asked me to get into my car and follow him in his car. We drove to a park, and he told me that we were talking too much at work, and people would suspect that we were having an affair. And he said that if I wanted to talk to him, we could arrange to meet in a park. He said we might lose our jobs.

He then went away on a business trip/ vacation and while he was gone, he started texting me. At first, it was innocent enough and regarded work stuff, but then he asked me for a selfie. Thinking it was a bad joke, I sent him a picture of a cat. But he continued to pressure me to send him a photo, and when I stopped responding, he said something to the effect of, “I see that you’re busy and I’ll stop bothering you now.”

After that, working in the same office with him was very uncomfortable. He started asking me a lot of personal questions about dating and relationships, and I stopped going to the gym. He has since moved onto another company, but he made me feel extremely uncomfortable and vulnerable. Was I overreacting? What should I have done? Since he was so well-liked, I felt like any tension between us would have reflected badly on me.

I have asked a male colleague about this, and he said that while it was weird, he found nothing inappropriate about it. But my female friends find this off putting and one said I had an emotional affair.

I know it’s done and over, but for a while I was terrified that I would get fired or feel pressured to leave, if his wife found the texts. I was worried that whenever we talking, people would think we were having an affair, but at the same time, I couldn’t stop interacting with him because it’s a small company and we all work closely together.

An emotional affair is basically an affair without the physical component and would imply that you had feelings for this guy. It doesn’t sound to me like you did. Rather, it sounds like this dude was being incredibly inappropriate and skeevy toward you. (Which makes me think your friends are being weird in labeling this an emotional affair rather than something more one-sided.)

It’s not that an older married man can never have a friendship with a younger woman, but genuine friendship doesn’t come with attempts at secret assignations in the park and intrusive questions, and it doesn’t leave one of the parties feeling “extremely uncomfortable and vulnerable.”

This dude was at a minimum attempting to carry on a secret flirtation with you, and he was almost certainly interested in more. His conduct with you was pretty much a walking red flag:

  • Telling you that he was unhappy in his marriage: red flag
  • Asking you to send him a photo: red flag (Do your platonic friends nag you for selfies? Do your coworkers? That’s pretty much the province of people with non-platonic interest.)
  • Telling you that your relationship needed to be on the down-low: huge red flag
  • Saying you could lose your jobs: red flag (For what? Office friendships don’t generally jeopardize people’s jobs; he had something else in mind.)

And the biggest red flags of all: making you feel that any tension would be seen as your fault rather than his (which is a really convenient side effect when someone with more power hits on someone with less power), and making you feel trapped in a situation that you weren’t comfortable with.

So I’m pretty comfortable concluding that he was a skeevy dude taking advantage of a professional power dynamic that — intentionally or not — made it easier for him to get away with making you uncomfortable because you were hesitant to call him out.

I wouldn’t call that an emotional affair. I’d call it unwelcome and inappropriate conduct and possibly harassment.

You asked what you should have done. First, let me say that no one tells you how to handle this stuff, so you shouldn’t beat yourself up for anything you did or didn’t do. You tried to be friendly to someone who you thought was being genuinely friendly to you. You’re not responsible for him crossing lines with you or for not perfectly shutting it down when he did.

But in the future if someone’s behavior starts making you uncomfortable (which in this case sounds like it might have been the day of the trip to the park), ideally you’d be clear that you need the person to back off. How you do that is up to you and depends on what you’re comfortable with. Some people are most comfortable doing that by pulling way back on the social relationship and keeping the interactions strictly professional in order to give the other person a cue in a way that lets the other person save some face. (However, some people will respect that cue and some won’t.) Other people prefer to directly tell the person that they’re not interested and the behavior is unwelcome (which can range from “I’m really not interested in meeting you outside of work” to “I’m not comfortable with this conversation” to “please leave me alone”).

If the person doesn’t back off after you’ve directly told them that their behavior is unwelcome, at that point you have a potential harassment situation and you should talk to your manager or HR or someone in a position of authority in your company who you feel comfortable approaching. No healthy company would blame you for the situation if they heard about the fact that you’d asked him to stop and he hadn’t. That’s pretty much textbook harassment and most companies take it seriously.

I’d say that the best thing you can do here is to see this situation for what it was: not an emotional affair, not you being responsible for any potential tension, but an older married colleague getting you comfortable with him and then coming on to you in a way you found unwelcome. That reflects on him, not on you.

{ 441 comments… read them below }

  1. NickelandDime*

    I’m sorry this happened to you OP. But believe me, this will come up again in your career. You will learn to be more assertive and shut this crap down sooner. But most people you will encounter will be nice, friendly and very respectful and professional.

    Also, find more supportive friends. Emotional affair? Huh?

    Allison, I loved this answer. For all the people that have encountered this, male and female, thank you.

    1. some1*

      “Also, find more supportive friends. Emotional affair? Huh?”

      Seriously. If my experience tells me anything, these will be the “friends” who will turn on the LW on a dime when they get in a serious relationship/married because they see every single woman as threat.

      1. AllisonAllisonAllisonetc*

        I’m also giving some major side eye to the male colleague who didn’t see anything inappropriate in this. Really?

        1. Spring Sunshine*

          The male perspective is interesting here. Now, I know plenty of men will get how the OP felt and will agree with Alison’s answer. But maybe the male colleague here was judging by his own behaviour or standards so could not see anything wrong.

          The OP is well clear now that the other guy has left the company.

          1. Zillah*

            This. Or, since the skeevy coworker was well liked, I guess it’s possible that he was seeing this through rose colored lenses? Like, “But Bob’s a standup guy! He’d never do anything like that! OP must have misunderstood!”

            Which is really insidious in its own way, mind you, so I’m not convinced that that would be any better.

            1. Van Wilder*

              Yeah this would be my guess but so not helpful. OP, take Alison’s advice and don’t blame yourself. He totally conditioned you and you did nothing wrong. In fact, you shut it down when he asked for a selfie, which probably stopped it from getting a lot worse. Well done.

          2. nofelix*

            The letter seems to indicate that the male friend is either being unhelpful or an apologetic: “he said that while it was weird, he found nothing inappropriate about it”. He can see the weirdness, yet doesn’t condemn it.

      2. KT*

        +1000. You need better friends who can call a spade a spade (i.e. “this guy is a creep”). and better coworkers who can acknowledge inappropriate behavior.

      3. annonymouse*

        No, I can see how’d they say this based on something OP said
        “Talking to him was the highlight of my day”
        Probably was also talking about him to her friends a lot.

        I’m not blaming the OP (because that dude was WAY out of line and she thought initially he was just being a friendly manager – then it turned)

        I’m just saying I could see how they’d get that impression (particularly if she downplayed or didn’t discuss the more negative events)

    2. Anonymous123*

      “Also, find more supportive friends. Emotional affair? Huh?”
      Without more information, I’m willing to give the friends the benefit of the doubt. OP herself didn’t know what to make of the situation. If her friends are her age/experience, they may not have known either.

      1. KC*

        I don’t think the “emotional affair” friend is victim-blaming or being malicious.
        OP said she was scared of the wife finding the texts and this creating trouble. It doesn’t seem like she’d be afraid of that if she had completely rejected all advances. She probably thought he was being friendly at first, but really she must have known that the relationship wasn’t appropriate. Someone asks you to meet them secretly in a park and not tell anyone because signs point to affair, and a short time later you continue texting the person as you had been before?

      2. Squirrel!*

        No way. If a friend comes to you and explains this kind of situation, how they felt uncomfortable, how there was this power imbalance, how the guy pushed the potential blame onto her, and you come back with them being at fault for an emotional affair, I would say that you are a bad friend.

        1. KC*

          Nowhere did the OP say her friends blamed her for what happened.
          Doubt any friend would throw “emotional affair” out there unless
          1. They had spoken before about this person and OP mentioned feelings,
          or 2. They’re a terrible friend and will turn on you at any moment

          1. kt (lowercase)*

            Right, she didn’t, but that doesn’t mean “emotional affair” isn’t victim-blaming here. It is. Even if she had feelings of some sort (which the OP never even hints at, making 1 seem pretty unlikely), the power imbalance here and the amount of discomfort she clearly felt makes this a shitty thing for a friend to say.

            I’ve also got a problem with the fact that this is framed as the OP having an affair. If there were an affair that was in any way two-sided (which I see no evidence of here), it would still be him having the affair. He’s responsible for his marriage, not her. I’m not interested in debating whether it’s ethical to be someone’s affair partner (especially since there’s no evidence anything like this was happening in this situation) — I just want to call this out as yet another way that in situations like this, it’s always the woman’s fault. It makes me tired and sad.

            FWIW, I agree with you that her friend isn’t necessarily acting maliciously, or intending to blame the victim (although I believe that is what she’s doing in reality). I think it’s more likely she is just young and inexperienced, like the OP is, and she’s internalized all of these messages from a misogynistic culture that puts a disproportionate burden on women to control situations like this, even when they are not in any position to do so (and after they’ve been socialized from birth to be nice nice nice and always put others’ feelings first).


          2. Elsajeni*

            Right, but that’s what folks are saying — that, unless the OP told her friends a significantly different story than she told here, the friend who threw “emotional affair” out as an answer sounds like a bad friend.

            1. Hotstreak*

              She was being a friend, but her former coworker was having an emotional affair. Whether she was conscious of it or not, whether she intended to or not, this makes her involved in the emotional affair. Personally I do not think any blame is on her, but lots of people would see that as her problem as well as his (like, for example, a man sleeping with a married woman may be looked at poorly even though she is the one cheating, not him). It doesn’t necessarily mean the guy’s a bad friend – do folks really think their friends need to have clear perspective on 100% of issues you discuss with them? Seems unreasonable.

              1. Observer*

                This goes far further than not having a “clear perspective” on a minor issue. To say she had an affair is to say that she was an active participant in the matter. She wasn’t. Framing it that way is unfair and inaccurate.

                Maybe the friend is just immature and foolish, but it’s the kind of immaturity that legitimately ends friendships.

              2. Jax*

                OP’s coworker was trying to have an emotional affair with her. OP didn’t do anything wrong–she mentioned that she looked forward to his visits and liked having him as an office friend, which is NOT the behavior of an affair. Not at all.

                If the OP were looking at him as a potential partner, encouraging the texting and escalating the conversations to personal, relationship levels than yeah–that’s the behavior of an affair partner. What she described here isn’t the same, and saying that she *technically / unwittingly* was an affair partner isn’t true. He was fishing and when she realized it, she shut it down.

          3. Zillah*

            No idea how you’re jumping to #1 – the OP said absolutely nothing in the letter about having feelings for this guy at any point, so unless we’re accusing the OP of being a liar – which we generally don’t do here – that scenario doesn’t belong in this conversation at all.

            I don’t think that the friend was necessarily being actively malicious, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t victim-blaming.

            The jump to “OP probably did something here to encourage this guy and make her friend think that it was an emotional affair, because middle aged men never hit on young women who are vulnerable because they can and women don’t internalize misogyny and rape culture in ways that affect their perception of things” is really troubling to me.

            Calling harassment an emotional affair is like saying your friend who got punched in the face got into a fight. Attributing aggression/participation to the victim shifts part of the blame onto them – how can it not?

            1. OP*

              I think what my friend meant, or what I took my friend to mean is that skeevy guy and my work-relationship had moved into territory that would make his wife uncomfortable. At least, that’s what I think an emotional affair is. I wasn’t totally clear about the timeline of when my friend said it was an emotional affair; it was after the park but before the selfie asking.

              Also, to clarify, I didn’t have romantic feelings for the guy, but in the beginning, I really was grateful for his company.

              1. Zillah*

                Okay, I can sort of see what your friend meant, though I still think it’s misguided. I think the reason I and others are reacting so strongly to the term “emotional affair” is that for something to be an affair, there has to be intention on both sides, and there wasn’t any intention from you at all.

            2. KC*

              Well, I suggested the possibility of #1 because it seemed strange that a close friend would use such wording to make this seem a mutual “affair” of the blue. However, after reading OP’s follow up below where she clarified that she had no romantic feelings for the man, I conclude that the friend must have just been confused on her “affair” wording or has the situation wrong.

              @Zillah I hope you aren’t saying *I* made “the jump” to thinking the OP obviously is in the wrong here, because I don’t feel that and didn’t write anything to suggest that I did.

              From the original posting, the situation, to me, did not seem to fall under the “harassment” category until the park incident (and what happened after that). Do you disagree?

              There’s a fact that both sides cultivated a friendship in the beginning. OP made a friend, realized friend was actually an absolute skeevy creep, and terminated the friendship (and I commend you for your bravery on that, OP). The man was wrong, we can all agree. No need to be “troubled” by my comment, if that’s indeed what you were referring to.

              1. Zillah*

                You posited the theory that the OP had mentioned feelings for this person to the friend, despite there being no evidence at all for that (and, in fact, it seemed pretty clear from the letter that the OP didn’t feel that way). I find that troubling.

                I’m not sure why we’re quibbling about when it became harassment – I’d tend to agree with you, because that’s when the OP became uncomfortable, but why is that timeline relevant?

      3. Stranger than fiction*

        I think the term was used loosely here. She wasn’t in love with the guy or anything like that but does realize she was feeling lonely and vulnerable and didn’t see his true intentions.

        I fell for this once well into my thirties. I now call this the Long Con – this guy had me believing he was just a friend (and I have several really good male friends that’ve never crossed the line so it wasn’t unusual) for an entire year! And then it came out that he had feelings for me he wanted to leave his wife bla bla and made a pass at me after happy hour one day…yuck yuck and yuck. Shortly after that we both got laid off and shortly after that I started hearing from people still working there that everyone thought we were having an affair and I’ve always wondered if that had anything to do with my being laid off

  2. Adam*

    Yes. OP can feel as uncomfortable about this as she wants, because this guy is a tool. She was being a genuine friendly co-worker and probably felt backed into a corner because this guy was a boss of some sort. Maybe not her boss, but if you’re fairly new to a company or not high on the company ladder pretty much EVERY boss feels like your boss to a certain extant.

    Nothing OP did invited or encouraged this behavior. This was all on Joe Blow overstepping his bounds by trying to jump on a sidewalk but ended up landing on the moon.

    1. NickelandDime*

      I wonder if he was one of those tools that when the “hot new chick” comes into the building, he’s the first one at her desk, cubicle or office to say “hi” and offer to show her the “ropes.”

      Ropes indeed.

  3. Apollo Warbucks*

    “he was a skeevy dude taking advantage of a professional power dynamic”

    I’ve nothing more to add.

  4. Folklorist*

    Ugh, when you talked about his asking you to follow him to the park, I got chills–I really thought that was going to end way worse for you. Non-skeevy people don’t ask you to do that!!! They don’t take you to a surprise location where you can’t tell other people where you are or where you’re going in the dark. Nope, nope, nope!

    I’m really glad that this mostly turned out well for you, and you did nothing wrong, but you definitely need to listed to those mental warning that are saying “this isn’t right!”.

      1. Zillah*

        I was totally thinking that, too.

        (With the caveat about the domestic violence chapter not being very good, of course.)

  5. Kelly L.*

    Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew.

    It takes two to have an emotional affair. You weren’t having one. He was having one in his head, and behaving inappropriately.

  6. SJP*

    Probably will be an unpopular opinion but the OP states that she was lonely and taking to him was the highlight of her day..It may be that OP could have handled this differently. By not responding to things like replying to his texts (!) and encouraging the chatting at your desk. It adds fuel to this fire that he was interested in more and makes it seem (and unfortunately some people (note I say people as both men and women do this) are not the best at getting social cues that a man/women is just being friendly, when the guy/girl is emotionally unhappy in their marriage, on top of being unhappy in his job) that you were too…
    With work colleagues and being friends you do have to have clear boundaries. I am good friends with my work colleagues but there are just some things I wouldn’t talk to them about what I would with my other friends as to keep from blurring that work/outside of work line..

    1. JB (not in Houston)*

      It is not on OP to control this man’s behavior. Talking to my friends is the highlight of my day, but that doesn’t mean it’s on me to prevent a male friend from acting skeevy. Sure, there are things I can do to try and shut it down *once I realize it’s happening,* but it’s not on me to make sure skeevy guy doesn’t act skeevy.

      1. SJP*

        It’s her responsibility to ask him to stop or when he starts texting her, coming over a lot, talks to her everyday at the gym and making her feel uncomfortable to tell him to stop. I understand he’s in a higher position but she should have asked him to back off and tell him she is just being friendly, and if he didn’t stop then that is what line managers and HR are there for.
        We as women have to stand up for ourselves and be assertive.. I can’t believe she followed him to a park! Even if he made it seem like she would lose her job, no job is worth it to putting up with feeling vulnerable and uncomfortable

        1. fposte*

          I think you’re being too hard. This is her first time at the rodeo, and this is a guy who’s likely done this more than once. When you’re in the situation, it can be hard to see the incremental move from nice guy who pays the newbie some enjoyable and friendly attention to creepy guy who wants more than is appropriate.

          And I like the cat picture move.

          1. Kelly L.*

            Oh, and given the fact that she replied with a cat picture specifically, I kind of wonder if his request wasn’t…worse…than just “a selfie.” Ewww. :/

            1. Emmy Rae*

              Yeah, I was assuming that “selfie” means naked pic of some sort, and she understood that and headed him off with the cat pic.

          2. Nina*

            Bingo. Creepy/predatory types know how to get your guard down. OP probably opened up to him about being lonely in a new city, and he took advantage of that. And when he realized the OP was uncomfortable, he turned it back on her like she was a willing participant in his game. Disgusting.

          3. waffles*

            I agree. I had something similar happen when I was in my early 20s, and believe it or not, I just wasn’t even aware that this guy was really interested in me! He was maybe mid-40s with kids almost my age. He paid me a lot of attention, and left a teddy bear and poetry book on my desk, and put a bookmark in the book that said something about “new beginnings” (gag).

            Sometimes when you’re very young, and you don’t have experience or interest in dating much older people, it just seems unfathomable that someone much older would be interested. When it does happen and it’s a work thing, it’s very confusing on many levels.

            Now, yes, I totally shut this crap down asap! I can see it coming a mile away, but it did take time to learn.

            1. fposte*

              Yeah, I had a guy like this in my apartment building and it took me a while. I think one factor can be that when you’re young you often desexualize older people, so it doesn’t occur to you that that’s a motive in why the nice older man is being nice.

              1. JB (not in Houston)*

                In my case, it was that it never occurred to me that someone that much older would be interested in me (so naive, I know). I just didn’t think I was mature enough to be of interest to a much older man, and I wasn’t this supermodel bombshell, either, so I was totally surprised the first time it happened. Random older man in a bar or other public place, sure. But a man I worked with who knew me and knew what I was like and how much growing up I still had to do? I really didn’t think any older man would be interested in me that way.

              2. Nancy Drew*

                I never realized that about the desexualization, but yes, that’s absolutely true. I’ve walked blindly into a lot of uncomfortable situations with older men that I never would have gotten into with someone near my own age.

                1. Zillah*

                  And creeps absolutely are aware of that and take advantage of it. In uncomfortable situations, many many people freeze because they’re just so shocked they don’t know how to react. Creeps don’t end up in situations like that by accident – they create them intentionally, often with people they’ve scoped out and identified as (or manipulated into) being particularly vulnerable and therefore more likely to have that reaction.

                  Young women are very susceptible to ending up in this situation, because they’re more likely to lack the confidence and life experience to identify these things and shut them down. I was harassed the most when I was 15-18, after which it steadily decreased, with a huge dip around when I turned 24ish. That was not a coincidence.

              3. A Bug*

                Honestly, this is the case for me regardless of age or even my own attraction. I’m bad with indirect and non-verbal communication in the first place, and in the second place I’m just not looking for signs of attraction. It’s a problem for me as I can’t recognize the difference between a person being friendly for the sake of being friendly and a person being friendly for ulterior motives. When the “oh crap, is that what you’re after” moment comes, it tends to go poorly because the person felt like I led them on.

                1. Stranger than fiction*

                  Yep me too, I’m sooo bad with subtle you have to be pretty direct for me to get it

                2. Jenna*

                  Someone saying “but, you led me on” can be a manipulation tactic, though. Sometimes they may feel that way, but, usually actually saying so is plan B to get you to feel sorry for them or feel obligated to not pull away.
                  Kind, considerate people do not say this. What kind considerate people say is closer to, “oops, I am sorry that I misunderstood.” Then they back off without making a big deal about it.

              4. Jake*

                I think when you’re young you desexualize more than old people.

                When I was 20 I had been dating my girlfriend for 6 years. I was in the army reserve officer training corps, and as a sophomore, I headed up a lot of extra training for the freshmen. This required me to be reasonably friendly. Well, it took 3 months for me to realize one of the female cadets was sexually interested in me,and even then I only realized when she groped me in a drunken stupor. Looking back, she was very attractive (like at least 4 points out of my league), but at the time she was just cadet S,and I would’ve never even imagined our friendly chats were anything more than friendly chats.

              5. anon for this*

                Definitely this. I was a young female at an engineering conference hanging with a female coworker having some drinks after hours and a couple guys she knew from another company came over to chat with us. I was recently divorced at the time and was spilling my life story to this guy old enough to be my dad because that’s what I do while drinking. I just thought he was a nice guy and maybe found me interesting or something, but about the time I got black-out drunk, he tried to take me back to his hotel and I apparently followed him. The next thing I remember was puking my guts out in his bathroom. I left after that, but I was super sketched out when I remembered what happened the next morning.

                Had he been anywhere near my age, my guard would have been up and I would have known what his interest in me meant. But someone twice my age? Wasn’t even on my radar. I know better now, but the idea still creeps me out.

          4. GOG11*

            While in college, I took a course that involved power dynamics and abuse. A predator will “groom” his or her intended victim in order to assess their (for lack of a better term) viability as a candidate for the predator’s behavior. They work incrementally, starting out with innocuous behaviors and slowly working up to inappropriate behaviors, all the while gauging the individual’s reactions.

            For someone operating on the notion that people are generally good, they generally behave professionally, etc., it can be really difficult to notice the small shifts in the moment. Many people don’t walk around with the assumption that a colleague being nice to you will devolve into unwanted advances.

            This is somewhat of a moot point, though, as no one can reasonably be expected to be in charge of someone else’s actions.

            1. BadPlanning*

              I was also thinking of the complication of “little steps” — when you read this story all at once, the Red Flags are waving. If the middle of the story happened first (asking for a selfie), it would be a Red Flag. But by increments, the next thing doesn’t seem so crazy.

                1. Zillah*

                  Yeah, it actually helped me a lot – though the domestic violence chapter isn’t great and should honestly probably be skipped.

            2. Not So NewReader*

              The story felt like “grooming” to me because of the incremental steps.

        2. Kelly L.*

          The trouble is, when a person is skeevy, they’re usually an expert at dancing around the line between appropriate and in-, and if they’re called on it, they hide behind plausible deniability. “Oh, I was just being friiiiiieeeeeendly!” “You must think really highly of yourself!”

          1. Koko*

            Exactly. He never asked her out, so he never gave her a clear opportunity to say, “Not interested, thanks.” It’s the slow-boil approach. If we’re sitting 14″ apart and that’s fine, why is it suddenly wrong for us to be 13″ apart? Then 12″. Then 11″. Before you know it, you’re sitting with your body pressed right against mine and at some point along the way I realized you were too close but now I feel like it’s my fault because I didn’t tell you at 8″ or 7″ that you were getting too close. But each move closer was such a tiny move that I was worried I’d look like I was overreacting and making a big deal out of one tiny inch if I said anything.

            Creepy people are MASTERS of this technique.

            1. SJP*

              When you put it that way I do see where you’re coming from. It’s just that I had a creepy older guy be like this when I was younger and I shut it down faster than a flash and told my boss about it so I guess im just seeing it how I did it, not how others do..

              1. Holly Olly Oxen Free*

                Then there was something about your past experiences that gave you enough knowledge to know something wasn’t right. OP may not have had that same knowledge base.

              2. Clever Name*

                Yeah, I had a boss (!) who shortly after I started “accidentally” let his hand touch mine when we both were looking at something on my computer screen and he was moving the mouse. I moved my hand off the desk and schooched my chair back a few inches. He never tried anything like that again, fortunately. But, I can see how someone else might react differently.

                1. Zillah*

                  Yep. And it’s entirely possible (probable, even) that someone who didn’t have your reaction would be been ended up being subjected to escalating inappropriate and uncomfortable behaviors.

              3. Alex*

                Power dynamics are also huge. I had this happen with a client- much older guy, frankly gross, who made a couple of creepy comments that I brushed off. Then one night he trapped me in a corner and forcibly tried to kiss me…

                I wish of course I had slapped him- which is what I would have done to any random creeper. But a client? Or if it’s a boss? At the time we were in the midst of closing a deal so I tried to turn him down politely.

                Still a few months later and guess who has mysteriously stopped being contacted by that client?

                So you can’t underestimate power dynamics. I’ve been in a couple situations like this and frankly no matter what you do it is going to cause a major head ache for you.

            2. Kelly L.*

              Yup. There was one I knew in college, and for various reasons had to see often. If you stopped him at 14 inches apart, you were full of yourself, why on earth would you think he was flirting, you’re not even pretty anyway. 12 inches, same thing. 2 inches, same thing. Giving you a backrub, same thing. But if you waited until an actual, unambiguous grope, it was “you let me do it, you liked it, I know you did.” Geeeuuuuuurrrrgh. I need a shower just remembering this.

              1. BRR*

                I saw this so many times and it’s disgusting. Rethink your plan when you’re trying to trick someone into having sex with you.

          2. BRR*

            This happens to my friend all of the time. She’s very attractive and guys will be like hey let’s be friends and then toe the line where if she made a move they would take off their clothes so fast you would hear a sonic boom but if she said I’m not interested in you that way their actions could be interpreted as, “Woah who wanted that. Definitely not me.”

            Although I think the guy in this post doesn’t fall into this category.

            1. hildi*

              “if she made a move they would take off their clothes so fast you would hear a sonic boom ”

              that is a hilarious description!!!

              1. BRR*

                Thanks :)

                Seriously though the guys were already ready and my friend was put in this position of NEVER indicating she wanted anything other than friendship.

                1. jamlady*

                  I know people like to complain about the gorgeous girls getting all the attention, but it’s always the WORST kind of attention they don’t even want. I’m so happy I’m average haha

        3. AW*

          You shouldn’t have to ask someone to stop slapping you in the face. If someone slaps you and then does it again while you’re still reeling, they don’t get to tell you the second one is your fault because you didn’t tell them to stop fast enough.

          It’s his responsibility to not do any of that in the first place. He shouldn’t need anyone, particularly someone he has power over, to teach him how to be appropriate in the work place.

          1. Joey*

            However immoral we may find it how is coming onto her equivalent to an arrestable violent offense?

            1. Anon7*

              Coming onto her repeatedly, in a way that made her feel uncomfortable and vulnerable, is called harassment. And it is an arrestable offense.

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                Sexual harassment in the typical workplace sense (and in the OP’s letter) is actually a civil offense, not criminal, and one for which her company would be liable if they didn’t take action to handle it. It’s not one where the harasser in a scenario like this one would be subject to arrest or even prosecution; it’s the company that’s held liable.

        4. Colette*

          People text their friends, and talk to them at the gym. And there’s a cost to pushing back – in this case, the fact that he was someone she genuinely enjoyed talking to in a situation where she didn’t have many other people.

          It’s easy to see the point where things went off the rails in retrospect, but it’s much harder when you’re in the situation.

        5. Marcela*

          I’m trying to think that when you said “It’s her responsibility to ask him to stop or when he starts texting her, coming over a lot, talks to her everyday at the gym and making her feel uncomfortable to tell him to stop” you meant that when all those things started to make her feel uncomfortable she needed to tell him to stop. Otherwise, I don’t get it. I mean, why should I stop my coworker friend of texting me if he is not making me uncomfortable (yet)?

          On the same tune, as far as I understood the letter, the conversation in the park was the first red flag. LW didn’t have any reason when following him to the park to think something was wrong. I have followed friends to places where I didn’t know the destination.

          I do not think that’s your intention, honestly, but your comment makes me think about the couple of times when this same thing happened to me, and somehow it was my fault, just because I could not foresee or read minds. When facts were discussed or examined, I never did anything wrong. It wasn’t my fault the guy… was who he was (because I don’t think who I was mattered: I’m sure both of them did the same thing before and after). But it was my fault not being able to anticipate what they did. WTF?

          1. Koko*

            Exactly – she DID stop once she was uncomfortable. She stopped texting him after he asked for the photo, and shortly thereafter she stopped going to the gym to avoid him. It wasn’t on her to know that being friendly with a coworker would be taken as an invitation to get all creepy on her.

            It’s also a huge problem if young women in the workplace can’t build friendly relationships with senior staff, who are in many companies and fields mostly male. I’ve gotten so much out of joining my boss’s bosses for the occasional happy hour or sports-watching event than I ever did just sitting in work-related meetings with them. It reinforced our working relationship in a positive way, allowed us to do a lot of informal reflecting on how things were going, what has been challenging for me, insights I’m having, all of which helped me demonstrate my competence and potential above and beyond what part of my work is visible to them in the office. I have several layers of bosses above me who are in my corner, advocating for me, giving me opportunities to advance and develop, and I’m skeptical I would have these strong advocates in my corner if I didn’t engage in light socialization with them. Lucky for me, none of them are skeevy pervs and they know where the line is between friendly engagement with a junior female coworker and harassment.

            1. it happens*

              You are so right, Koko. I have also learned a lot about how my companies have worked by having more social interaction with the bosses – the occasional happy hour or break during the offsite meeting. Having a more personal relationship can really help in one’s career – not to exploit it, but understanding how the bosses tick and what they are interested in, and the same for them of you. But it’s people like this guy who make our elected reps in DC decide that male elected officials can’t have any interactions with female employees. Which means that the women can’t do their jobs as well or get promoted. Argh

            2. OriginalEmma*

              It’s also a huge problem if young women in the workplace can’t build friendly relationships with senior staff, who are in many companies and fields mostly male.

              I just skimmed an WaPo article about this very topic. Because of the potentiality or appearance (in American male legislator’s minds) of impropriety, they are not allowing their female staff to be alone with them. Including one-on-one professional chats, meetings, dinners out, etc. Shoot, not even allowing them to appear in too many photos at events with her boss because it’d look “inappropriate.” We know that this damages women’s potential in the work place because they are losing out on valuable supervision, mentorship, assignments and networks.

              1. Zillah*

                +70 billion.

                (Also, just going to point out that the heteronormativity implicit in and perpetuated through that entire dynamic is also pretty harmful to queer people.)

          2. AnonAnalyst*

            YES. Maybe I’m just sensitive to this because I had a similar experience when I was new to the workforce, but really? She thought she was being friendly, and this guy took it way too far.

            I can relate since I had something similar happen when I was in my first post-college job, and was shocked when the guy took things to a place that made me uncomfortable. I thought we were friends and until that point, everything that had happened seemed normal for a friendly relationship. I’ve since realized there were some red flags along the way and am quick to shut this kind of stuff down now, but back then I didn’t think anything was amiss.

        6. Green*

          But if the company doesn’t have dating policies, etc., while this dude’s behavior remains completely unprofessional, at a lot of places the standard is that it’s OK for someone to ask a colleague on a date ONCE (power imbalance usually not permitted, so dude is still creepy here), and it’s on the person being asked to politely decline.

          So LW was not in the wrong, but there are a lot of things she could have done differently that may have helped the situation abate (establishing clear boundaries).

          1. AllisonAllisonAllisonetc*

            The person who has never been in this situation before and was manipulated by an older more experienced creeper, with authority over her, needed to establish clear boundaries? She shouldn’t have been put in this situation in the first place. Yeah she probably will act much more swiftly if this happens again in the future, but she did NOTHING wrong in this situation, even with the benefit of hind sight.

            1. A Bug*

              It gives me a kind of heartache to see people advising that the OP be more suspicious of people in the future. The idea that a person being friendly is in itself a red flag that calls a person’s motives into question… I could cry.

          2. MsM*

            Yes, and all those will undoubtedly be helpful to her if there is a next time. Beating herself up over what she didn’t do isn’t productive. Personally, I think she should give herself a big pat on the back for the cat picture.

          3. fposte*

            She didn’t get asked on a date, she did establish boundaries, and the situation did abate. This isn’t a situation where there are best practices that people are required to abide by; it’s outcome based, and she got the right outcome. It’s not like she’d score extra points for cutting him off before the selfie request.

        7. Allison*

          In theory, I do think it would have been smart of her to tell him to stop. But you have to consider the power dynamic here: he’s older, more experience, and probably has a good bit of influence in the office. Her asking him to stop runs the risk of getting on his bad side, as well as ruining a friendship she valued, and she didn’t want to run that risk unless it was absolutely certain that it was necessary.

        8. OP*

          This is my post. To clarify, there is a clique of several colleagues (20s-30s) who go out drinking/socializing, and I had never been invited to join. He didn’t tell me where we were going, and at the time I was hoping that we were meeting up with them. I thought the secrecy was just so the other coworkers wouldn’t feel left out. It was after hours on a Friday. I didn’t really suspect anything was amiss until we got to the park and no one was there.

          But it’s really great to read these comments. I’ve been feeling horrible about the whole thing. It’s strange to feel that someone who was very beloved in the office — and I mean so many people admired him — was skeevy. He really wanted to hug me on his last day, and both him and the HR manager kept asking me, and I kept telling them I was uncomfortable with it. There’s some trauma in my past so I don’t like people touching me, and they were both telling me that I needed to get past it. I ended up having to leave the room.

          1. VintageLydia USA*

            You’re last paragraph… THE HR PERSON WANTED YOU TO HUG THE DUDE???

            WHAT THE HELL???

            1. AnonAnalyst*

              I know, that and the telling her to get past it(!) part. I’m almost more disturbed by this than by the guy’s behavior in the original letter.

              1. afiendishthingy*

                Yeah, ditto. I’m super disturbed by the HR manager trying to force her to hug someone!

            2. fposte*

              Oh, holy crap in a conflagration, no no no no no. I guess that helps explain why somebody who does this could be so well respected there.

            3. Connie-Lynne*

              Absolutely unacceptable.

              Even if the HR person didn’t know about his previous behavior, telling you you needed to get past whatever it was that made you not want to hug someone in the workplace? BAD HR.

          2. Emma*

            Wow. The HR manager was telling that you need to get past not wanting to hug your coworkers? That is all kinds of wrong.

          3. MsM*

            This explains a lot about why your male coworker didn’t think what was going on was weird. It also reflects really, really poorly on the company culture. I’d work some new job-related networking into your efforts to meet people, OP.

          4. GOG11*

            “…both him and the HR manager kept asking me…”

            …the f*#@…?

            OP, they were way out of bounds and you had every right to not be touched by him (and by anyone you don’t want touching you). I am flabbergasted that HR would think that’s in any way OK or appropriate.

          5. OP*

            Well, for the HR Manager, it was more like. I had trauma in my past too and I moved past it! And ergo, you really should hug “John.” And they were running through scenarios like, what if you hug John, instead of John hugging you. What if we do a sandwich hug?

              1. Jamie*

                I don’t even approve of feedback sandwiches – seriously the HR person is more alarming to me than the guy himself (skeevy jerk.)

            1. GOG11*

              Their behavior is so bizarre. They’re acting like hugging is a standard protocol or fix for problems in professional situations. Pressuring you to do something that is both against your wishes and which provides no benefit to the company whatsoever…seriously, WTF?

              1. AW*

                like hugging is a standard protocol

                It’s like they think they’re in an episode of Full House.

              2. bearing*

                10 to 1 the HR person is one of his previous creeping victims and struggles with self-blame. Ordering OP to hug the creeper is a way of asserting that his creeping was normal and therefore HR person will not feel like a duped victim.

                1. teclagwig*

                  +1000, thisanything so weird, but a prior victim who basically procured for the creeper to normalize her experience? Actually fits the scene described.

            2. Connie-Lynne*


              “I GOT OVER IT, YOU SHOULD, TOO?”

              This just makes it worse. Much, much worse. GROSS.

            3. LizNYC*

              I’m so sorry your HR manager is a complete twit.

              I’d like to think that I’d be quick enough to respond:
              “Well, I got over my trauma from the past.”
              “Good for you.” (arms crossed, stepping away)

            4. Creag an Tuire*


              This just went from “That guy was a jerk, it’s good that he’s gone” to “…have you started a job search yet?”

            5. Observer*

              I missed this before my comment on HR. This guy is a lawsuit waiting to happen.

              Guess what? You NEVER EVER have to justify not hugging someone in your office. You don’t have to have some trauma in your past, a neurological condition, or anything else. “I don’t want to” is a good and sufficient reason. And “no” is a complete sentence as well.

              For future reference, do yourself a favor and don’t get into explanations. If you can’t bring yourself to say “I don’t want to” soften is by saying “I’m not huggy.” If pressed “no, really, I don’t do hugs.” Keep repeating like a broken record.

              Oh, and start looking for a new job.

              1. Nerdling*

                Heck, you NEVER EVER have to justify not hugging someone. Period. Well, ok, you might want to tell your mom if you have a good relationship with her but you just have a cold and don’t want to spread that around. But otherwise, Observer is spot freaking on.

                OP, I really, really, REALLY hope you’re thinking about looking for a new job. This place is all sorts of unhealthy.

            6. Katie the Fed*

              You’re under no obligation to even explain why you don’t want to hug someone. This is horrible.

            7. MashaKasha*

              Oh god, I just saw this.

              WHY is this person an HR manager? My dog is better qualified for the position. He has far more empathy and social skills.

              Sorry… I have no words.

              1. MashaKasha*

                PS Second what everyone else said about looking for a new job. Your current place sounds toxic.

          6. Clever Name*

            My jaw is hanging open. You have to “get past” not wanting to hug colleagues. Just no.

          7. penelope pitstop*

            OP–so sorry you went through this. You dodged a bullet and conducted yourself well. Keep your head high–you did nothing wrong and have nothing to feel bad about.

            For what it’s worth and not to take anything away from you, but I’ve seen a similar movie before. Similar dynamics – very well-liked and regarded older guy with a pattern of similar behavior towards younger and more junior women over years. He was a very high performer, internal stakeholders AND clients loved him and quite frankly, HR didn’t want to deal with him or was pressured not to, so they would sort of steer him towards “friendly” situations that were less likely to result in complaint and look the other way.

            It was disgusting, but it happened and when that house of cards came crashing down, it was a very unhappy ending for everyone involved. Some deservedly, some not.

            Your “friend” and the HR guy are jerks and you dodged a bullet. One thing to consider is whether you have any heart for helping to bring newly-hired and young female employees into the herd sometime down the road. Not to say they aren’t adults capable of making their own decisions or that you’re obligated to do so, but unfortunately some organizations have a fraternal culture and that can be hard to navigate if you’re new, junior, young and don’t know how to say no without fearing loss of opportunity. It could possibly be a form of showing strength and therapeutic in a way that pays it forward for future yous, so to speak.

          8. A. D. Kay*

            Wha…?!?! The HR manager wanted you to HUG him? Ew, ew, ew, ew! That is so inappropriate and so bizarre. Good for you for leaving the room.

          9. Zillah*

            It’s strange to feel that someone who was very beloved in the office — and I mean so many people admired him — was skeevy.

            I know what you mean.

            When I was in high school, I knew someone who was in education – not a licensed teacher or at my school, but he did a lot of tutoring and work with “gifted” kids, mostly teenagers – who always kind of gave me the creeps. He was in his forties and talked a fair amount about how unhappy he was in his marriage and just… overshared, kind of?

            Everyone loved him, though, including the adults around us, so I mostly assumed my discomfort was due to my anxiety (though I did generally kept him at a distance). I know some girls even complained about him making them feel uncomfortable, but they just got written off by the other (female) adults who trusted (and still trust, as far as I know) him completely.

            I later found out that he had multiple relationships with teenage girls he met in the community – one was just barely an adult, one was about 16 when it started, and he tried to kiss one underage girl when he was supposed to be tutoring her brother in their house. And that’s just what I heard about.

            It felt so strange to me when I found all of that out, and I’ve since distanced myself from that community significantly, just keeping in touch with a few good friends.

            … that got off track. Point is, OP, this sucks and I’m sorry you went through it and I totally get how you feel. Jedi hugs if you want them – no touching required.

          10. HRIsNotTotallyFullOfTwitsISwear*

            I’m an HR manager and I’m going D:{ at this HR manager’s, ah, ill-advised suggestion.

              1. on the train*

                Please look for a new job! If you’ve been thinking “maybe this is just how things are in the working world…” it’s NOT. I’ve had some pretty bad jobs, but this story just leaves my jaw dropping.

          11. Not So NewReader*

            This story is getting worse as I keep reading down through.

            And this is how sex offenders keep re-offending and people turn a blind eye. It starts out “innocently” enough with Mr (or Ms) Great Guy (Gal), and builds from there.

            OP, as far as toxic work places go- this one takes the cake.
            I’d like to nominate this HR manager as worst manager of the year!

          12. JB (not in Houston)*

            Wait, you *kept* telling them? Even if were ok to ask for a hug (it wasn’t), to keep asking you after you said you were uncomfortable is so not ok. I cannot believe the HR manager was in on that, and it honestly makes me think that maybe you should look somewhere else for a job.

          13. Pineapple Incident*

            I’m so sorry you ever had to deal with this. Your company handled this very poorly, and you did the right thing by excusing yourself. As an aside, even in a regular situation people don’t usually hug coworkers goodbye. Why it would ever have been expected here is beyond me. Between Mr. Skeevypants former coworker who did this, the male coworker who didn’t see anything strange about it, and the HR rep who behaved like a d***head trying to get you to accept a hug from Mr. Skeevypants, I would say it’s probably time to look elsewhere unless you’re really set on staying here for some reason. These events are a statement about the company’s culture and their views on harassment, and it doesn’t sound as if they will back you up if this kind of thing happens again.

        9. Clever Name*

          Here’s the thing, when the OP lays it all out in one place, it’s pretty obvious what was going on, especially to those of us who are older and have perhaps experienced or seen something similar. Keep in mind that the OP was likely experiencing each incident separately. OP talks to coworker in company gym. Not that weird. OP talks to coworker at work daily. Not that weird (I have lots of coworkers I talk to daily- especially if I’m working closely on something with them) Yes, the “meet me at the park” thing was odd, but women really are socialized to go along to get along, and this person was her superior. Would you or I have reacted the same way, perhaps not.

          1. OriginalEmma*

            Exactly. We’re reading the story with the benefit of hindsight and seeing all the behaviors laid out in a neat narrative. That’s now how you experience these persistent, progressive forms of harassment. That’s not how you experience life! These events are piecemeal and insidious and typically require some sort of serious or seriously weird encounter (like the park) to make you stop and say “Wait a minute…”

            +1000 on female socialization. OP, like myself, may have been immediately torpedoing misgivings because we’re taught to go along to get along, to be friendly, not to hurt anyone’s feelings, taught not to think too highly of ourselves, to defer to authority figures, etc.

            1. BadPlanning*

              It’s so annoyingly ingrained. I have done things on auto-polite mode and I swear, in parallel, some other part of my brain is going, “What are we doing? Stop being “nice,” shut this down!”

              1. OriginalEmma*

                “auto polite.” I love the phrase.

                Yes, that little voice of reason is there – it just gets barrelled over by the auto-polite.

                1. fposte*

                  I just read a lively Australian article by a writer who’s finding that being old means the joy of shutting up the auto-polite. I’ll post the link separately.

    2. Stephanie*

      Hmm. I think it’s a live and learn thing, too. OP probably knows now, but work relationships are really tough to navigate, especially if this is her first job post-school or first job that isn’t like full of partying 23-year-olds.

      1. SJP*

        I agree, it is a live and learn thing but I definitely think there are think she could have done different to shut this behaviour down. Oh of gift of hindsight

        1. Judy*

          I’m pretty sure she did things to shut it down once she understood he was skeevy guy and not just friendly guy. You can’t live your life keeping everyone out just because they might be skeevy, because you can’t just figure out in advance who are the skeevy ones.

          We are back to “Schrodinger’s skeevy guy”. You don’t know until you know.

          1. Allison*

            Even if one wanted to play it safe and be cautious around people they don’t know, and shut down people at the first sign they may be skeevy, that is actually frowned upon by most people. Typically, you need real evidence that someone may be bad news in order to reject them or avoid them. There’s really no way to win in this scenario, either people will call you a paranoid man-hater if you say “no” too early, or a weak damsel/victim who can’t stand up for herself if you don’t put the brakes on quickly enough. Or they’ll just call you stupid.

            1. misspiggy*

              Quite. I have the fallback of being English when I need to keep my distance to avoid creepage. It seems from my limited time in the US that it’s considered much more impolite to shroud oneself in cool reserve if you’re American. Not interacting with people is considered a form of politeness in many parts of England; you do your thing, I’ll do mine and we won’t bother each other. It was bliss to come back to that after living somewhere an awful lot more interactive.

              1. on the train*

                Depends on what part of the US. People in the rest of the country accuse those of us here in the North East of being “unfriendly” just because we try to respect their personal space.

          2. Windchime*

            Yeah, I’m not agreeing with people who keep saying the OP should have shut this down. She *did* shut it down, as soon as she got the request for a selfie and sent him a picture of a cat instead. That was the beginning of her shutting it down hard.

            Good for you, OP. You might be a young person who is inexperienced in this stuff, but you absolutely shut it down.

        2. Observer*

          She did the things she felt were in her power. But, your reactions just shows that one of her concerns was totally valid. She was afraid that people would see any tension between then as HER fault. And guess what? She’s right. The male colleague sees nothing inappropriate in the guy’s behavior, at least one friend claims she was HAVING AN AFFAIR (emotional or not, makes no difference here) and YOU are telling her that HIS behavior was HER RESPONSIBILITY.

          This despite the fact that he CLEARLY knew that he was over the line. Secret meetings in the park? Really?!

          It’s not as if she did NOT make it clear that she was uncomfortable. She refused to send him a selfie, and then stopped responding, to start with. And he made it clear that he knew that she was uncomfortable. That didn’t stop him. Instead he started prying and pushing even more. Which lead to her quitting the gym. Which didn’t stop him.

          1. KC*

            I don’t think anyone is saying HIS behavior was HER RESPONSIBILITY. I think they are saying that her reactions to his behavior was were responsibility, which it certainly was.
            I definitely agree that she felt trapped because of the power dynamic and how respected he was at work.
            Unquestionably she did the right thing when she stopped responding and refused to take communication further. I think the only thing being debated here is whether she should have taken this step earlier. And that’s really hard to say, seeing as hindsight is, as we all know, 20/20.
            She said that she was worried that the correspondances would get her in trouble, so at one point or another (it’s hard to tell if this was after the park thing or before) she realized that they were both contributing to something a little more than co-worker friendly.

            1. Marcela*

              I don’t think anybody is saying his actions are her responsibility. But I’m reading some comments like she could have stop the behavior earlier, hence the full account of what happened _was_ her responsibility. I don’t agree with that. Not without the magic ball that is hindsight.

        3. BRR*

          When you spell it all out it’s pretty clear. When it’s gradual it’s much harder to notice.

        4. A Bug*

          Well, yeah, in hindsight there are things she could have done. But it seems unreasonable to suggest that the OP is obligated to assume improper motives of seemingly-friendly coworkers just because they’re male, or else she’s complicit in any harassment that follows.

          By keeping his intentions secret as long as possible, he gets to play the “I was just being friendly, you’re reading into things” card right up until the very moment where he can use “you were a willing participant, or else you would have said something sooner” instead.

          And that benefit of hindsight works against her because other people looking at the sequence of events recognize the red flags in the context of knowing what his intentions were all along, and then ask why she didn’t see them herself earlier. And he knows that, too, which is what makes it more difficult for her to actually go to anybody about it.

        5. Panda Bandit*

          Nope! She did a fantastic job. The person who did things wrong was the skeevy guy. It’s 100% his responsibility to not push this stuff on his co-workers.

    3. Holly Olly Oxen Free*

      some people are not the best at getting social cues that a man/women is just being friendly

      You could say that OP did not pick up on the social cues that her coworker was NOT just being friendly. It goes both ways. But if someone has inappropriate feelings towards another it’s on them to figure out how to behave appropriately regardless of those feelings. It’s not on the other person to stamp it down when they shouldn’t have been put in that position in the first place.

      1. AW*

        You could say that OP did not pick up on the social cues that her coworker was NOT just being friendly. It goes both ways.

        OMG, Thank You!

            1. Judy*

              You quoted the statement saying that OP should have picked up cues earlier and it goes both ways, rather than Holly’s final statement that it’s not OP’s place to have to stamp down something that shouldn’t be happening in the first place.

              1. Squirrel!*

                They are saying that if you’re going to say it was on the OP to pick up on the creeper’s cues, then it was also on the creeper to pick up on her cues. Don’t be rude and accuse people of something they didn’t do just because you don’t comprehend what that person wrote.

              2. AW*

                I quoted Holly’s statement that “You could say that OP did not pick up on the social cues…”.

                Neither of us were saying that she should have.

          1. Those are Writing Words!*

            Hope I’m not butting in, but I think Holly and AW are arguing on the side of OP here! Like, if SJP is saying that maybe the creepy colleague just “didn’t pick up on the cues that OP wasn’t interested” and therefore isn’t to blame, why don’t we also consider that OP herself didn’t pick up on the social cues that the colleague had inappropriate intentions, and therefore she isn’t to blame for not shutting him down right away?

            Which — I mean, I don’t buy that the creepy coworker “just didn’t pick up on cues” in the first place (and fwiw I don’t think Holly or AW do either) but I like the way Holly turned the tables with this argument. :)

            1. Judy*

              I see that Holly is as her statement progressed, but it seemed like AW was quoting something that wasn’t supporting the OP.

            2. Holly Olly Oxen Free*

              Yes, This is exactly what I was thinking. I don’t think AW needed to copy my whole thought in order to side with OP. I was clearly saying that the OP was not to blame with the first sentence alone. AW agreed.

          2. Observer*

            No, this was a defense of the victim. If we are going to use “didn’t get social cues” as a defense, why is that only valid for the creeper, and not for the person who didn’t realize that that’s what was going to happen?

          3. SJP*

            I’m not blaming the victim, I’m just saying there are definitely things she should have done different. Im sure this is aimed at me so…

            1. fposte*

              And I’ll reiterate that I think “should have done different” is an overly hard response. It’s Monday morning quarterbacking to somebody who got out of a bad situation pretty well given her experience.

              I’ll buy “could have done differently”–we all have those several times a day, after all. “Might have, if she had more experience?” Sure. But “should have”? No. It’s not her obligation to have dealt with this differently, and she handled it fine given her knowledge at the time; now she’s learning more to handle it even better in future.

              1. BRR*

                There are A LOT of things I should have done differently. A LOT. Shutting down coworkers/superiors who are friendly is not something to do differently as that will have professional ramifications. As you said, as she found out more she changed her actions.

              2. Allison*

                While LW was asking how she should have handled the incident, I think “should have” or “could have” responses are useless. She can’t go back in time, she can only go forward, so the best advice is how to handle these incidents going forward – what counts as a red flag, when it’s a good idea to shut down a situation, good ways to do it, how to handle pushback, etc.

                1. fposte*

                  I also tend to be a little protective of the OPs–that’s a big vulnerability, writing in to AAM, and I think conversations can sometimes go on as if they’re about somebody who doesn’t hear what we’re saying. I like to try to keep things to how I’d phrase things to a friend–or how I’d want a friend to phrase things to me.

              1. fposte*

                And this may sound weird, but I think this wasn’t a bad learning experience. The OP didn’t get hurt, she did back him off effectively, and it hasn’t damaged her at work. So she knows she can deal with this kind of crap if she has to, and now she’s got more tips from us for the future.

                1. VintageLydia USA*

                  Yeah as far as “skeevy older coworker” situations go, this is best case scenerio.

                2. Rana*

                  Agreed. Sad to say, I think the odds are decent that many young women are going to have a skeevy guy moment before they develop the necessary “radar” to identify these guys early on in their attempt, and for some people, the penalty for innocence is pretty damn steep.

                  OP, this sucked, and I’m really sorry it happened to you. I hope that it helps you develop your creep radar without making everyone seem like a potential creeper, because that sucks too.

    4. UKAnon*

      But see, this is where the problem arises. I can completely understand how the OP found herself in this situation; one side thinks they’re being friendly, the other side sees more to it, but the first side doesn’t realise this and so doesn’t realise to do anything to make clear the misunderstanding.

      Just replying to texts and having conversations doesn’t make the OP at fault. If she had the confidence, it would have perhaps been optimal to point out how inappropriate the park was, and maybe also a “I’m a bit uncomfortable with sending you a selfie” text, but that’s the only real stage at which OP had a definite indication, *on what she knew*, to act on. Given how hard it can be for young women to speak up in the workplace anyway, *and* that this was an older, senior colleague, *and* that the OP had nobody to ask advice from directly, *and* that it isn’t on her to stop this behaviour, it’s on him to behave, I don’t think the OP can be blamed for anything that happened.

      If you misunderstand the signals from somebody, be embarrassed, apologise and gracefully move on. Don’t try and read into anything that they ‘led you on’.

      1. Have courage and be kind - Austin, TX*

        Heh. To me, this is proof that even in hindsight it’s hard to take the right approach to solving this type of uncomfortable situation.

        “I’m a bit uncomfortable with sending you a selfie” – A BIT ?!? This could easily send a totally wrong message.

        The right answer (with 20/20, of course — not blaming OP at all, I think she did superbly under the circumstances) would be something more like “This is entirely inappropriate, please stop.”

    5. Isben Takes Tea*

      There’s also a huge power dynamic in this situation. You can talk about “colleagues” as if everyone is in a somewhat equal relationship, but it can be really hard to figure out boundaries when the whole situation is new, the power balance is really off, and you are genuinely friendly.

      Yes, we can pinpoint places where shutting down COULD have happened, but as AAM said, very rarely does anyone teach you how to handle this stuff before it happens.

    6. Apollo Warbucks*

      But in a situation like this I think the intent is everything.

      She wanted some friendship and companionship and was trying to make some connections in a new work place and town

      He wanted, well we all know what he wanted….

      He behaviour was out of line maybe the OP should have been a little more aware of what was happening but the manager dude shouldn’t have been thinking with his dick.

    7. Kelly L.*

      Also: Creepers aren’t “not the best at getting the social cues”–they understand them perfectly well and are ignoring them. This isn’t an awkward person, it’s a person who’s pushing boundaries on purpose.

    8. Shell*

      Oh please. He certainly understood enough social cues to know that his actions would be looked upon unfavourably by the rest of the workforce; otherwise, why bother with the secret meeting at the park?

      This guy perfectly understood the social boundaries that said he was a total creeper. He just didn’t care.

    9. Anonymous Educator*

      I’m going to disagree with you here. Granted, we have only the OP’s account of what happened, but based on what she’s written I didn’t see anything that encouraged his hugely inappropriate behavior. There is nothing wrong with chatting with co-workers or being friendly. She didn’t do anything that stepped over the line—he did… constantly.

      Now that she’s a bit wiser, she will just know to shut it down sooner (the minute he hints he’s unhappy in his marriage, which is none of her business, and he shouldn’t make it her business).

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Yeah, what’s that old cliche? “My wife doesn’t understand me.” It took me a bit of time to understand what that statement really means when I was younger.

        1. Beezus*

          Yeah, I learned that one the hard way the first time. I think a lot of women do. I think the fact that so many platonic girl-girl relationships bond over relationship issues makes young women more vulnerable to this one. It’s a huge NOPE for me with married men now.

          1. Zillah*

            I think the fact that so many platonic girl-girl relationships bond over relationship issues makes young women more vulnerable to this one.

            I never thought about it before, but this is such a good point.

          2. Windchime*

            Yep, I fell for this one, too. He was so misunderstood! She was such a bitch! Heck, they hadn’t even slept together for years!

            Lie, lie, lie. I’ll never fall for that again.

    10. BethRA*

      Thing is, though – he clearly knew he was crossing the line of what was appropriate (welcome or not) because he pressured her to keep quite about their contact, and came up with that uber-skeevy trip to the park, so I don’t see how this is a matter of him not getting social cues or receiving mixed signals.

  7. BTownGirl*

    Excellent advice! I made a lifelong friend at a former job – he’s a little younger than my parents and has been married the whole time I’ve known him and I was early 20’s and then-single when I joined the company – and, yeah, there was none of this skeeve going on. The sirens started blaring when the OP’s coworker said he was unhappy in his marriage. He put you in a really, really crappy position and I’d say just count your blessings that he left. Also, your friends are talking nonsense.

    1. NickelandDime*

      And skeevy people are so good at masking it all, and it starts out fine at first. When it goes left, you are made to feel confused and as if it were your fault. They are masters at that.

  8. Stephanie*

    OP, don’t beat yourself up! I’ve always worked in heavily male environments with a graying workforce. While this has never happened to me personally, I’ve seen it happen to other young female newbies where some lone, older creeper takes way too much of an interest in the new cute girl.

    My friend said at a former law firm of his, apparently it was a thing where the senior partners would overly fixate on the one cute girl associate in each new hire class to everyone else’s detriment (Cute Girl would get all the good cases, for example).

    Just shut it down and don’t feel like you’re hurting this creep’s feelings if you say something direct like “Wakeen, that’s not appropriate” or “No.”

    1. ArtsNerd*

      Not that I think you’re implying otherwise, but it’s worth stating explicitly that fixating on Cute Girl is to her detriment as well as others.

  9. Isben Takes Tea*

    “First, let me say that no one tells you how to handle this stuff, so you shouldn’t be beat yourself up for anything you did or didn’t do.”


    OP, you did nothing wrong. Other people’s Skeeve Radar may be more finely tuned/reactive, but that’s only because of different life experiences. I’m sorry you had to go through it!

  10. AW*

    This reminded me very strongly of a Captain Awkward letter (I think it was this one: ) especially this part:

    hinted that he was unhappy in his marriage

    Allison is completely right that this is a red flag. It is a huge, huge red flag. He was setting you up to be the Cool Chick who would never, ever tell him to wash the dishes and alleviate him of all the sadfeels from his sadmarriage. (3 guesses how)

    Because this is the sort of thing that may end up needing to go to HR, I recommend putting stuff in writing. At minimum, write down what happened, when, and that you told them to back off. Ideally, you can also tell him to back off in writing.

    “Hey, [Co-worker]. I wanted to follow up on the conversation we had earlier. I know it was a little awkward but I really needed to make it clear that I’m not comfortable with [uncomfortable stuff]. Thank you for respecting my need to keep things professional. Now about [work stuff]…”

    With that, not only do you have written proof that you politely told him to stop, but it also documents that this conversation happened in person as well.

    1. YourOwnPersonalCheeses*

      +1. I came here to recommend this exact Captain Awkward post! LW, it has some great advice on how to deal with these kinds of situations.

        1. YourOwnPersonalCheeses*

          I’m a little late seeing this, but thanks! Have I come across a fellow DM fan? (or maybe Babybel? ;D )

    2. Helka*

      Yeah, anytime you get the “unhappy marriage” line, I consider it a warning to be very much on your guard — I’ve gotten it from two different coworkers, one of whom got laid off before anything had the chance to escalate beyond mildly odd and red-flaggy behavior, and the other who went on to hit on me very blatantly several times.

      Mind, that doesn’t mean the unhappy marriage is necessarily a fiction — Coworker #2 from the above paragraph really did have a pretty awful marriage, and her husband left her a few months after that conversation.

      1. Zillah*

        Right – I’d even go so far as to say that the unhappy marriage usually isn’t fiction, but while it’s perfectly normal and reasonable to confide in friends about relationship issues, someone who does it very early on in a friendship is really oversharing, which tends to either mean that they’re in a very bad place or are gauging your reaction for very messed up reasons.

  11. The IT Manager*

    I am socially awkward and obtuse. I have had this happen to me with guys who are friendly. I don’t have enough friends that I can blow off nice people making an effort to be my friend. One dude shocked the hell out of me. I was young. He spoke of his wife (not unhappily) so I assumed that since he was telling me about his wife and not lying that he was single he was not romantically interested in me. (Basically he thought I was the kind of person to knowingly have affairs with married men.) Nope, he was interested in cheating on his wife with me. Although to be fair to that cheater, once I told him it wasn’t happening he didn’t pressure me and make me feel nervous.

    These things happened. You learned a lesson. You did not act on the earliest warning signs. That’s what you can do differently. Keep things on the professional level even with work friends. Once he starts talking about his unhappy marriage, you are well into intimate topics. Work friends and discussions with friends at work should not get that personal or intimate. In the future shut that sort of talk down and don’t engage further.

    And don’t meet privately in secret; that’s just plain dangerous. I am glad you are safe and your career was not impacted.

  12. Midnight Oil*

    Some people are most comfortable doing that by pulling way back on the social relationship and keeping the interactions strictly professional in order to give the other person a cue in a way that lets the other person save some face. (However, some people will respect that cue and some won’t.)

    It sounds like the OP did that though. She stopped going to the gym, stopped texting him back, etc. It doesn’t really sound like the boss responded to this at all.

    It’s been my experience (3 times so far) that the guys pushing these boundaries at work typically don’t “take a hint” and in fact will use your indirect methods of addressing the situation (such as pulling back on social things) to guilt you into more interactions. My favorite line is “Your confusing me” as a response to you putting a firmer stop to things once the indirect method doesn’t work. They will then use their “confusion” over your “mixed signals” to continue to push your boundaries in the work place.

    I highly recommend being firm and polite, but direct the moment a work relationship crosses into a boundary you don’t like. “Devon. I’m sorry if led you to believe otherwise, but my interest in you is strictly professional. I’ve enjoyed being friendly with you, but I’m not interested in a romantic relationship and from now on we need to keep our conversations work-related.”

    And then follow through. If he get’s too comfortable/close again say something like “Devon. We’ve talked about this. I’m not interested in having a non-work relationship with you. Please stop” if he does it again. “Devon. I won’t have this conversation with you again. If this doesn’t stop immediately I will go to HR.” and then go HR if you have too. I’ve effectively shut down 2 unwanted flirters this way, without having to go all the way to HR.

    1. Isben Takes Tea*

      I really like the line “I’m not interested in a non-work-relationship with you” because usually I can recognize early red flags but I feel saying “I’m not interested in a romantic relationship” could be turned against me or used for further “boundary negotiation” (i.e. “Woah, who said anything about that,” “You’re misunderstanding me,” etc.).


      1. Midnight Oil*

        True, but I actually like to use that to flip back on the perp.

        “I’m not interested in a romantic relationship with you–”
        “Whoa, who said anything about that, I don’t appreciate you insinuating that I’m flirting with you!”
        “Good then we are both on the same page that our relationship will be strictly professional moving forward.”

        And then continue to follow 3 strike rule.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          “Whoa, who said anything about that, I don’t appreciate you insinuating that I’m flirting with you!”

          “Then speak in an unambiguous manner so that no comment holds a double meaning. Speak as clearly as you would if you were talking to the boss or the CEO.”

          There is a way of speaking such that words are not misconstrued. I had a male cohort that went out of his way to make sure that nothing he said could be interpreted in a negative way, he was especially careful to stay away from anything that could even misunderstood to be sexual in nature. One day a non-employee said something way over the line to him. Later, I said that if he felt he needed documentation I would write something up because his reaction was so totally PERFECT and he had a long history of being professional. He said something benign that threw the whole conversation down in a neutral place. It can be done.

          OP, nothing wrong with insisting the people speak in a clear manner.

          Them: “I didn’t mean anything by it. Can’t you take a joke?”
          You: “I love a good joke when I hear one. But I expect people to speak clearly. There is no need to use words/sentences with double meanings. It’s part of being professional.”

          Real relationships are balanced, OP. The very early warning sign was when he kept coming over to see you several times a day. I don’t see where you went over to talk to him that much. And this is a tricky one because it could be nothing or it could be something- so it is NO WAY your fault that you did not catch this. This one is totally on him. But usually in healthy relationships there is a back and a forth that is fairly even- just something to keep an eye on going forward. (But don’t worry over it.)

          Annnnd, it seems to me that truly nice guys don’t want to be intrusive. They think about that from the start. Just the way truly nice women don’t want to be intrusive.

          A while ago,I had one male cohort that clearly thought something of my work. He decided to include me in other things. Every. single. time there were other people present. He had pulled together other men and women and we all worked on a project together. “Oh, and hey folks, this is NSNR, she is really great with x, y and z. So I have invited her to join us.” This is what a class act looks like. I never have a second of doubt.

    2. Demanding Excellence*

      I came here to say the same thing – “I’m sorry if led you to believe otherwise, but my interest in you is strictly professional. I’ve enjoyed being friendly with you, but I’m not interested in a romantic relationship and from now on we need to keep our conversations work-related.”

      There are a lot of people in this world that you just have be blunt/brutally honest with, because they. just. don’t. get. hints. (My grandma is like this.)

      Sorry this happened to you, OP. It sounds like you’ve learned a hard but valuable lesson.

      1. Tinker*

        Heh. What’s particularly fun is the folks who a) will not get a hint, therefore if one wants to (for instance) turn them down or get them to stop doing a thing, no amount of indirect-no will do it b) get upset when they are told bluntly, in a way that casts the direct speaker as the disrupter of social harmony and therefore the offender, and furthermore trot out the old “I wasn’t doing that and anyway I had good reason”.

        Sigh. Where by “fun” I mean “why the heck do I put up with this?”

        1. fposte*

          I think that’s just the Skeeze Trap, though. They’re not going to pay attention to a rejection unless you force them, and then they’re going to blame you for forcing them. The end goal is to make sure that it’s never, ever them in the wrong.

          1. Rana*

            Yep. It’s not failure to comprehend what their target is saying (verbally or non-verbally). It’s understanding full well the “no” and pretending incomprehension/outrage in order to undermine and gaslight their target. Genuinely clueless people (in my experience) will be horrified and embarrassed if it gets to the blunt stage, because they didn’t, in fact, intend anything.

      2. Connie-Lynne*

        I like your phrasing, except for the beginning apology.

        There’s really no such thing as “leading someone on” unintentionally, and there’s no need to apologize for being a friendly person.

    3. Lady Bug*

      That’s much nicer than me, I would be much more along the lines of “You aren’t ever going to f*ck me, so f*ck off instead.” Then get fired.

  13. it happens*

    So sorry, OP. Nope, you didn’t do anything wrong. And, yes, it will probably happen again at some point, if not to you than to someone who works with you and you can give her the same advice.
    I still don’t know how to deal with the man I worked for 20 years ago who told me, 10 years after we stopped working together that he had told his wife he was leaving her for me. Um, we have lunch twice a year, where the hell is this coming from? I saw him from a distance a month ago and didn’t know what to do when he called out to me. Never accepted his LinkedIn connection. It’s just weird and uncomfortable. Seriously hoping that our paths don’t cross again. I guess I could just pretend it never happened, but it did.

    1. Revanche*

      He told you this after you stopped working together regularly? 10 years after? What on earth did he hope to accomplish with that? That’s both creepy for you and sad for the wife. :/

      FWIW, the last time I saw a Creeper from my past, I completely ignored him. It’s his fault things were awkward so it can stay awkward for him.

    2. Demanding Excellence*

      On the flip side, a good friend of mine was in the opposite of your situation – long story short, she was “in love” with a man she worked with. The man was happily married. She didn’t talk to the man outside work, have lunch with him alone, etc. When she left her job, she contacted him and told him that she was in love with him and wanted to get together. Not surprisingly, he told her he was happily married and ceased to communicate with her at all. Not to defend her, but she was going through some very emotionally-challenging times in her life (i.e. painful divorce, a parent’s death, financial woes, etc.), so I believe she really built this “relationship” up in her head as some sort of escape from reality. Later on she realized how terribly she acted and sent a note of apology to the man – he never responded.

      Sadly, I’ve been in this situation many times, with male co-workers and guys I’ve dated in the past that just won’t go away. Don’t feel bad about not accepting their LinkedIn requests/replying to their messages. Don’t feel bad about blocking their numbers from your cell phone. Don’t feel bad about outright avoiding them if you see them in public. I can’t tell you how many times my “red flag detector” has went off about certain guys and I just ignored it – and believe me, nothing good came out of ignoring it.

      What I’ve learned is that you have to find a way to deal with it, because chances are – it WILL happen again. One thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of women have a hard time “being mean” to those they aren’t romantically interested in. Personally, I don’t think it’s “being mean” to politely let someone know you’re not interested in them romantically, and to repeat as necessary, but there’s a lot of women who view this as being rude/cruel.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Exactly. It’s not rude/cruel; it’s actually doing them a favor, because then they know where they stand. They don’t have to wonder and they can direct their efforts to someone who is actually interested in them.

        This, of course, assumes that the person you’re enlightening would not freak out or get nasty. I had to turn down a guy who worked in a place where I worked (we both were employed by different companies) and his immediate response was to insult me. He did it in front of a whole bunch of people, too, which only made him look worse!

        1. YourOwnPersonalCheeses*

          Well, that’s immediate confirmation that you made the right choice. People show you who they really are when things don’t go their way.

  14. tomatonomicon*

    Ugh, OP, I’m so sorry. This was not your fault, and you most certainly did not do anything wrong. You definitely did NOT have an emotional affair. Even then, when it comes down to it, he’s the one who took vows, and he was the one trying to hook you in to helping him break them.

    The only thing I would add is that cat picture you sent…was not the cat picture he had in mind, if you know what I mean. What a creeper.

    1. fposte*

      I don’t know if she meant it that way or if he even asked that way, but I loved the subtextual take on the whole thing, intentional or not.

  15. Allison*

    It wasn’t an emotional affair if it was one-sided. If you had returned his interest, if you flirted with him and sent him selfies and agreed to hang out one-on-one outside of work, that might’ve been an emotional affair. But he was definitely pushing boundaries, both your boundaries and the boundaries of his marriage, and you did the right thing by putting some distance between yourself and this man.

    It sucks how so many men interpret a friendship with a woman as an opportunity for more. “She’s nice to me, she might want be open to other stuff!” Especially the ones who keep things super vague at first, so if you do realize their intentions and say you’re not interested they can say “hey hey hey, I wasn’t hitting on you, I just wanted to be friends! Jeez!”

    1. Rana*

      It wasn’t an emotional affair if it was one-sided.

      Exactly. It’s like claiming that a rape victim “committed adultery” if their rapist was married. (Apologies for using a somewhat hyperbolic example – I wish I could find a less-charged example that conveyed the same meaning.)

  16. Jennifer*

    I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that young women need to proceed with extreme caution when older men are hanging around being “friendly.” Most of them–not all, but most– end up pulling something like this in my experience. I keep my distance and try my best not to “lead anybody on”–but it’s incredibly easy for a guy like this to “be led on” because he assumes that if you talk to him at all, you want to nail him. You’ve been given the “red flag” list now–so if some guy starts going on about his wife, you’ll know to stop talking to him in a “friendly” way.

    1. Revanche*

      For the most part, I agree with you. I have had one friendship with a much older man evolve into a mentorship with mutual respect but otherwise, many of the men I’ve encountered professionally were unable to just be normal and uncreepy.

    2. Midnight Oil*

      Wait. I talk about my spouse frequently at work (all good things). It’s NOT a sign that I’m interested in banging co-workers. Sometimes it comes up naturally in a conversation.

      1. fposte*

        Yeah, we hear a fair bit about spouses and families here. I think the red flag is if somebody’s running their spouse down to you. (Which I think is different than the “I can’t believe my husband forgot to get milk” kind of specific reaction.)

        1. JB (not in Houston)*

          Yes, I agree. I have a male coworker friend who will talk to me about fights he’s had with his wife, but it’s because he is hoping I will tell him he’s right (I rarely do). He never runs down his wife, who he’s crazy about, but they have petty arguments like many couples do, and he sometimes vents about those. It’s a very different situation than the kind of thing OP was talking about.

      2. the_scientist*

        It’s all about the context though. “My wife and I went to the farmer’s market on the weekend”; “my wife and I have season’s tickets to Local Sports Extravaganza, we love Home Team” = fine, not creepy. “My wife and I are really having problems and I’m not attracted to her anymore” or “my wife and I are having issues in the bedroom” or taking extreme interest in younger female colleague’s dating life or relationship= weird and creepy, and totally setting the stage for boundary crossing.

        I’m with Jennifer on this one; unfortunately I go into interactions with older male colleagues with caution and skepticism. I’m incredibly lucky to have a couple of male mentors that I adore, but I have had this happen to me more than once, and it’s happened to almost all of my female friends (some of whom have quietly found other jobs because of it).

        1. De Minimis*

          On the other side, as a [somewhat] older male I tend to be cautious in my interactions with female colleagues in a similar fashion. I mainly just don’t want to inadvertently make anyone feel uncomfortable. I’m not so great on the picking up of social cues so I kind of try to err on the side of caution and just keep non-work related interactions brief at least for a while.

          I just see a lot of guys [some of them a LOT older] start hanging around anytime there is a new female employee and it’s really obvious what’s going on…even if it’s more or less innocent flirtation it’s still gross, especially when it’s people who have no work related reason to be in our department.

          1. the_scientist*

            See, and like someone mentioned above, this is so, so harmful- to everyone, not just young women, although they bear the brunt of the harm. Older men with good intentions miss out on opportunities to mentor because they don’t feel like they can develop a mentoring relationship with a younger female colleague because people will gossip or make assumptions or misconstrue things, or that the younger female colleague will inadvertently be made uncomfortable (although I’d argue that if you are actively working at not crossing boundaries, you probably are not going to cross boundaries).

            And the flipside is obviously that younger women are shut out of mentoring relationships in ways that have a very real, harmful and long-lasting impact on their careers. The creeps ruin it for everyone.

            My boyfriend has a gig where he’s in a leadership/mentorship role to young teens (think between 13 and 16) and he says that every year older he gets, the more he realizes how young and vulnerable and naive these kids are and how terribly easy it would be to groom and subsequently take advantage of one of them. The ubiquity of cell phones and social media makes it even more difficult because it gives people private one-on-one access to each other (be it kid accessing older person or older person accessing kid)- one time a *parent* was like “oh, let me give you (minor daughter’s) cell phone number so you can communicate with her directly” and boyfriend was like “NOPE”. Not, of course, because he was going to do anything gross or creepy, but because he wants to maintain that professional boundary. He also occasionally gets kids trying to add him on Facebook and always rejects it; again that boundary needs to remain firmly in place to protect himself and to protect the kids he mentors.

            1. Zillah*

              Yep. And unfortunately, kids that age tend to think they’re much wiser and more worldly than they are.

              My boyfriend is in his mid-twenties and teaches high school freshmen/sophomores, and he’s had incidents where a few of the girls in his classes have made him feel really uncomfortable – standing too close to him, asking a lot of questions about me, asking to touch his hair – and while he shuts them down by stepping back, telling them they’re in his personal bubble/being inappropriate and need to stop, etc, it’s really frightening to think of how easy it would be for a teacher who had bad intentions to take advantage of that.

              This is why it’s important to set clear boundaries. It’s not just about you – it’s about making it clear to parents and children what appropriate and professional boundaries look like, which can in turn help them to recognize it when someone is violating those boundaries with nefarious intentions.

              1. the_scientist*

                Seriously, that is such a tricky age. I remember being in that 15/16 year old range and my growing awareness of my own sexuality but also the way that the interactions between boys and girls and girls and grown men shifted. I hesitate to go down this route because it can veer quickly into “women are scheming harlots who use their feminine wiles to get their way” but I think teenage girls definitely do experiment with boundary pushing/flirtation with male role models in their lives. It’s a natural part of growing up and learning to navigate adult life. Responsible adults (like your boyfriend and mine) can draw firm boundaries (which helps the kids learn appropriate boundaries) and find a way to be a trusted role model/mentor figure who is nothing but professional and above-board, but it is so, so, so easy for skeevy dudes to take advantage of that maturity gap and general vulnerability.

                1. Zillah*

                  Absolutely – and, I mean, I think teenage boys do too! It just takes on a bit of a different form.

                  With girls, though, they’re exposed to so much inappropriate attention from older men (seriously, I was having men old enough to be my father and grandfather making sexual comments at me on the street when I was 15 – ew) that I think it’s become normalized to an unfortunate degree.

                  It really, really bothers me, because I remember being that age, and my friends and I were absolutely vulnerable and men absolutely did take advantage of it. I mentioned this above, but a good friend of mine got involved with a man in his forties (who was in education! though not a licensed teacher) when she was 16, and I ended up in a relationship with a 24 year old when I was barely 17. They threw the “You’re so mature for your age” and “I’m going to treat you like an adult and not like a teenager” at us and we bought it hook, line, and sinker.

                  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more and more disgusted with them. When I was 24 (hell, when I was 20!) I could not imagine considering dating a 17 year old, no matter what situation they were in or how mature they were. It’s just wrong.

                2. the_scientist*

                  Oh no, I can’t nest anymore! But Zillah you are right- teenage boys do it too, but it’s a bit higher stakes with teenage girls. Puberty hit me hard and early- there was a period of time when I was essentially a child’s brain trapped in an adult’s body and let me tell you, that is a f*cking terrifying place to be. I’m pretty sure that I got cat-called for the first time when I was still too young to understand what cat-calling was.

                  Boyfriend and I are also mid-late twenties and we’ve talked about the trickiness of the teen years and how vulnerable the kids he works with are and he said that now, with the benefit of maturity and hindsight, he definitely remembers young guys in his situation (i.e. meant to be respected adult figures) stepping *really* close to and sometimes over that line of appropriateness. It’s a big organization and there’s always kind of that one dude who’s just a tiiiiiiiiny bit borderline creepy/maybe a little too friendly with the teenage girls, while still maintaining the sheen of plausible deniability. When boyfriend was a teenager himself, he says he more thought of those dudes as cool older guys, but now that he’s the guy in his mid-twenties, he realizes how seriously repulsive they actually were. Like, 16 is SO YOUNG. There is actually no acceptable explanation for hitting on a 16-year old when you are 26 years old-none, at all. And you’re totally right that a teenager is emotionally immature enough and significantly lacking in life experience enough to completely fall for the “you’re just so mature for your age” crap that these guys uniformly spew.

    3. Allison*

      Unfortunately, I feel the need to exercise caution around all dudes, my age and older. Honestly, guys must think I’m soooo naive when they ask if I wanna “get drinks sometime.” I’m sure there are a few dudes who genuinely just want to hang out with no expectations, but 9 times out of 10 there’s an agenda, and accepting the invite usually leads to an awkward situation, because while you’re not supposed to assume anything, you’re implying to the person inviting you that you may be interested in them.

    4. Connie-Lynne*

      It kind of makes me mad that the world is still in a place where the amount I get left alone to just do my job is very much guided by whether or not I’m doing a function where I can wear my wedding ring.

      “Yes, I just mentioned a husband, and no, I don’t wear a ring ’cause I don’t want my finger sheared off.”

    5. Not So NewReader*

      “I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that young women need to proceed with extreme caution when older men are hanging around being ‘friendly’.”

      I know so many people that have come to this conclusion. I’ve seen this myself. It’s sad. For all the progress our society has made we still have a long way to go.

  17. Erin*

    Speaking from experience, this needs to be nabbed in the butt early. It’s really easy for nice girls (women) to say, “Oh, he’s just trying to be friendly, no need to assume the worst,” etc., etc. Personally I firmly believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt.

    For me, I had a boss ask me out for a drink after work one day and I thought “I used to go to happy hours all the time at my last job, coworkers getting a drink is no big deal.” Sometimes that’s all it is. Sometimes it’s not.

    But you *know* when it doesn’t feel right, and if you don’t start adjusting your attitude and behavior towards the person right away you will not have a leg to stand on later if something goes wrong.

    1. Jerry Vandesic*

      You might want to swap out “nabbed in the butt” for “nipped in the bud” if you really want to avoid unwanted attention!

      1. Mephyle*

        The original expression is “nipped in the bud” (like nipping off a bud before it can open into a flower), so I submit that “nabbed in the butt” is a very good turn on this phrase.

        1. fposte*

          I like it when people say “nipped in the butt.” That’d definitely curtail a behavior.

    2. fposte*

      I think you’re right that if you know it doesn’t feel right, you should pull back. The problem is that sometimes it’s not right but it feels fine; that’s where experience can be helpful.

      1. Gerbilgirl*

        Social conditioning unfortunately often trumps gut feelings in these terrible situations, though. :(

    3. Jennifer*

      I used to think like that, but now I’ve come to the conclusion that most of the time I should NOT be giving the benefit of the doubt and should be assuming that a random dude “being friendly” is looking to get laid. Like maybe 80% of them are. I know a few trustworthy dudes, but overall I have fallen into too many pits of trouble by giving the benefit of the doubt and assuming they felt about me the way that I felt about them.

  18. J.B.*

    OP, I am so so sorry this happened.

    This is not your fault.

    This is NOT your fault.

    You will know differently next time. I would recommend pushing back on your friends who are saying it’s an emotional affair to let them know it was really not ok with you. They should not be implying it is your fault.

    I hope you find some social activities in your new city! It’s always great to have a release from work anyway. Groups of young people can be a great way to get out and do something (tied with church if you’re religious, or a community service organization, etc.)

    1. LizNYC* — groups in your local area who meet about shared interests.

      When I moved to a new area, finding friends was the toughest thing. I happened to meet a lot of them at work, but we really didn’t hang out until most of us had quit (we call it HellJob for a reason!). It also helped to be more outgoing than introverted me was used to — saying yes to BBQs and parties, meeting friends’ friends’ friends…

      1. Dasha*

        Yes, Meeup is wonderful! Sometimes you have to try a few groups to find the right one. OP- I hope you will check it out.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          Yes, it can take time, but don’t give up. New groups form all the time–that’s how I found my Doctor Who nerd peeps. And I was just in a hobby shop yesterday trying to find some window glazing stuff for my Titanic model and found out about an informal modeling group that happens every month. So you never know. :)

          1. OP*

            I have looked into Meetup. Nothing has really caught my eye, but will give it another look. :)

    2. Nashira*

      The game Ingress can also be a good way to meet folks. It’s a phone ARG focused around exploration, and many places have thriving local communities.

  19. esra*

    I have asked a male colleague about this, and he said that while it was weird, he found nothing inappropriate about it. But my female friends find this off putting and one said I had an emotional affair.

    These people kind of suck. Both the friend who said you had an emotional affair and the colleague.

    My filter is… not the best, and it’s certainly something I’ve worked on to become more professional. But in my first job I had a creeper much like the one the OP described, except when they started talking smack about their wife, filterless me blurted out: “Why would you talk like that about your life partner? Like, she’s the mother of your children and you’re talking crap about her at work. That sucks.”

    1. puddin*

      I think that is the best response anyone could possibly give in that situation. But I have a rather porous filter at times too. Maybe there was a more diplomatic way, but your message was very clear. And in this case, clarity trumps niceties in my book.

      1. Revanche*

        I have to agree – in that situation, going with your unfiltered gut isn’t the worst thing ever when it comes to creeper colleagues, I often think it’d be nice to turn the tables of discomfort on someone who is willing to sacrifice your comfort (and even safety or job security in some cases) for their own selfish aims.

    2. KT*

      I’ve done something similar. When a coworker kept bashing his wife to me, I said “You married her and had kids with her. You clearly thought the world of her, so don’t talk badly about her to others now” and he gaped like a fish.

      1. Demanding Excellence*

        I soooo wanted to say this to some of my former co-workers who would constantly bash their husbands. Every day, they had a new story about how inept they were, what dumb thing they said/did, etc. It took all of my strength (and manners) to say, “Hey, you married him. You must have known how terrible he was/is, so what does that make you?”

        1. Elizabeth West*

          Oh God, I HATE that with the white hot heat of a thousand suns. The people here don’t do that, but I had one job where my coworkers all bitched constantly about their husbands. Next time I hear that crap, I’m going to say, “Man, I would give anything to be married. You’re really lucky. I’d never talk about my husband like that. I imagine he’d be really hurt if he found out I did.” And then open my eyes really wide, and just stare at them until they slink off in shame.

        2. Cleopatra Jones*

          One day when my husband was at work, a co-worker was bitching about her husband (like running the guy down), he said to her, “What kind of marriage do you have & why are you trying to stay in it?’. That was absolutely priceless.
          Ha ha, I had to give him a virtual hi-five when he told me that.

        3. Jamie*

          My rule is I don’t say anything about my husband to other people that I wouldn’t say if he was standing there.

          Which means the hilarious stories of how he told one of the kids they were taking the garbage out wrong and got up to take over and “do it right” which resulted in a ripped bag and cat litter all over the deck are fair game because …or complaining because he doesn’t love the songs in the talking kitty series as much as I do (although he does love Sylvester, Gibson, and Shelby-girl) because my husband’s horrible taste in music isn’t a secret.

          But nothing deep or personal or real. But seriously, if you have a lousy day at work go to SteveCash83 channel on you tube > playlists > and check out the talking kitty series. You cannot NOT be happy when watching those videos. I have no affiliation except discovering these during one of the most stressful times of my life has made me inordinately happy and an instant life long fan.

    3. A Non*

      That’s been mentioned as a strategy on the Captain Awkward blog – if an older guy speaks badly of his wife, immediately sympathize with the wife! Creepers recoil like they’ve been maced, it’s amazing.

      We can talk about strategies for recognizing and handling workplace creeps all day, but in the end it really doesn’t matter what the target does – it’s not their behavior that is the problem. Whether you notice and shut down the early warning signs immediately or whether they creep up on you for a bit before the situation becomes clear, do what makes sense to you and what makes you feel safe in your situation.

      1. Jamie*

        I didn’t know this was a strategy – I always do this. unless what they are complaining about is heinous it’s never as bad as someone bashing their spouse to a relative stranger.

        Lack of loyalty is one of the most unattractive qualities there is.

    4. AW*

      I love your response to the guy ragging on his wife.

      And yes, a man saying this behavior is OK is ALSO a red flag. At a minimum, he’s not a safe person to talk to about this sort of thing. Do not expect him to have your back if another male co-worker starts giving you trouble; he’s already told you he’s going to take their side.

      Worse case scenario is he thinks this is OK because he’s done it before himself.

    5. Katie the Fed*

      I’ve also gone with “that sounds like something to talk to marriage counselor about, not a coworker.”

      1. Mephyle*

        Yes, I was just about to ask. So, what did he say next? And did it put an end to the comments?

        1. esra*

          The response was clearly unexpected. He was my direct manager, and I was the only non-manager level woman on the team (yay, web teams). He’d been through a few people in my position, several women. Talking to the other guys on the team at the time, the other women had just quietly taken it then left ASAP.

          Anyway, in this particular instance, he just muttered and turned to his desk. He tried a few more times:

          On my wardrobe
          “Are those your sexy, catwoman boots?”
          “No. These are my professional, I’m-at-work boots.”

          On hiring
          “He has all the qualifications, but I don’t want a fruit loop on the team.”
          “What are you talking about, what’s a fruit loop?”
          “You know, someone who /limp wrist motion”
          “So you’re discriminating because you think he’s gay.”

          On race
          “You know how they’re like.”
          “/slur for people from the Middle East”
          “No, I don’t know that. That’s racist and crappy. How do you think that is even kind of okay? Why would say that. To me. Or anyone.”

          After the “You’re a giant racist”one, he basically stopped talking to me except when he absolutely had to for work. It was my first job out of school, and I was really frustrated because I wanted to be cool and professional, but he would say these things and I would just shoot back at him without taking the time to tell him what he said was absolutely wrong anywhere, but especially in the workplace, in a more appropriate way.

          1. Mephyle*

            I think you were magnificent and appropriate. In these situations, ‘cool and professional’ isn’t something to aim for if it means dropping polite hints, being less than frank, and leaving leeway for the offender to think they can keep on making remarks of that nature.

  20. puddin*

    You were blood in the water for a shark. He smelled your sadness and used it to manipulate you. The Skeeve Shark is probably broken in some way; there are always broken people willing to make others tend to them. The way to avoid this is to be comfortable with ourselves, strong enough to set boundaries, and aware of how to best meet our needs and desires.

    As you learn from this, maybe one take away is to not be scared of being alone or even to be ‘ok’ with being lonely for a time – especially when its for a reason like new job, new place, etc. Prep yourself for the change and be ready to tackle it.

    I am so sorry that you had to deal with this, especially while your life was already in flux. Be proud that you stood up for yourself and stopped the contact. I agree with AAM and the other comments that you did NOT have an emotional affair. Dust yourself off, move forward, and avoid talking to those so called ‘friends’ at work for a while. Watch their interactions with one another to see who, if anyone, you can really trust as a workplace proximity associate.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      “Watch their interactions with one another to see who, if anyone, you can really trust as a workplace proximity associate.”

      This is a great advice. Treat everyone the same- meaning with respect and professionalism. Watch how they treat each other. Do this for a while. Do you see eye rolls around one certain person? Is there one person that everyone goes to for the tough questions? Watch them say good morning to each other- that in itself can be very interesting. And lastly, when you are in one-on-one conversations, watch how each person talks about other people. They are showing you how they will talk about you.

  21. some1*

    “■Saying you could lose your jobs: red flag (For what? Office friendships don’t generally jeopardize people’s jobs; he had something else in mind.)”

    Hell yes to this! I can almost guarantee the guy was hoping the LW would assume enough had happened to make them lose their jobs, so either she’d get with him in an “in for a penny, in for a pound” scenario or if she didn’t, he at least hoped she’d be too afraid to report him for fear of losing her job.

  22. LizNYC*

    Just because you looked forward to talking with him doesn’t equal having an emotional affair.

    He was taking advantage of the power dynamic, that you didn’t have any close friends in the area (so you were lonely, eager for contact with someone), and implying that this entire friendship was your fault if either of you suffered consequences (of any kind!) at work. He’s a slimey jerk. You have my permission to a) avoid him at the gym, b) tell him you’re too busy to talk, and c) feel like you never want to be 1-on-1 with him.

  23. KT*

    I’m really, really sorry this happened to you.

    As a young woman in a junior role, from out of town, well, you were an easy target. I want to repeat, YOU DID NOTHING WRONG, but this guy deliberately targeted you because you were vulnerable, alone, and without a strong support network. He hoped this would make you weak enough to pounce on.

    Without being condescending, I’m really proud of you for pushing him off and recognizing how creepy this was.

  24. voyager1*

    This to me this was sexual harrassment and typical of the type that doesn’t get reported. I can’t see this being an emotional affair, unless you have feelings for the guy, which I am guessing is no. This guy probably has done this before and has gotten away with it. I liked what one person said, he is a shark, and sadly he used his power and your lonely feelings to his advantage.

    1. Katie the Fed*

      It’s almost like sexual sub-harrassment that’s closer to the kind of grooming predators do. Slllight boundary pushing, and then a little more, and a little more, and there’s rarely anything specific you can say “whoa – that was out of line.”

  25. Meg*

    I’m sorry, but the first thing that comes to my mind is the Jack Donaghy quote from 30 Rock: “Never go with a hippy to a second location.” I’m not saying OP led this jerk on, but in hindsight I would not have gone with a coworker to a “secret location”. You either are comfortable enough with your professional relationship to travel in the same car, or you’re not, and if you’re not comfortable I wouldn’t have gone at all.

    1. kt (lowercase)*

      FWIW, they weren’t in the same car. And I’m sure that with the benefit of hindsight she wouldn’t have gone.

      1. fposte*

        Yeah, I was thinking that there are situations where I’d still do this–if I believed we were going to lunch, for instance.

    2. AnonAnalyst*

      I think this is helpful to keep in mind for the future, but I’m not going to criticize the OP for going. I am usually the person among my group of friends raising safety concerns about going other places with strangers, etc., and it’s usually the first thing that crosses my mind whenever I hear anyone else telling a story where this happens, but in my younger days I did this kind of stuff a couple of times without a second thought because the people I was going with seemed trustworthy. I’m lucky (and I fully recognize that fact) that nothing bad ever happened to me, but I can understand how, when you’re in the moment, those things don’t seem like an absolutely terrible idea.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        In my younger years, I got into cars with people I did not know that well a few times. The last time came the great awakening, where I said never again.

        Although OP did not get in the car with The Creep, I think OP had a good enough scare that she will have plan B each time from now on.

        Tying into other things I have said above- When Class Act invites me somewhere, I know where we are going, who will be there and what time we will be done. And I don’t have to ask, those details are just given to me. Nothing wrong with expecting to know these details, OP. And likewise, when you invite someone it becomes your turn to provide those details.

    3. Mephyle*

      And look at her fuller explanation above – at the time, she thought she was finally being invited to go out to drinks with the Friday drinks-after-work cool group, and the hush factor was because not everyone is invited – you have to be part of the inner circle. Until they got to the park, she had no idea that this was a special secret invitation just for her.

  26. Ann Furthermore*

    Oh, yuck, eeew, and gross! I’m very sorry this happened to you, OP. Like someone said upthread, when I read about this guy asking you to follow him to a park so you could be alone, I was very afraid that the story was going to take an absolutely dreadful turn. I’m so glad it didn’t.

    That being said, Alison is absolutely right that you shouldn’t beat yourself up for how you handled or did not handle this. The guy was totally in the wrong, and completely overstepped. And thankfully he has moved on to another company and now you can put this behind you.

    I just have one thing to add, which can be food for thought if this ever happens again. Is it possible that you picked up on the flirting and inappropriate behavior more than you thought you did? By that I mean, were there ever moments where you got a flirty or inappropriate vibe, but then dismissed it because you thought, “Oh, that can’t be what’s going on. I’m overreacting.” If so, don’t doubt yourself if it happens in the future, because your gut instinct is usually worth trusting.

    The reason I bring this up is that about 12 years ago, I became pretty close friends with a guy I worked with. There was definitely a flirty vibe between us, which I dismissed because I was sure that he wasn’t interested and thought I was reading too much into things. I left that company, but we kept in touch, and eventually got together and dated for about 6 months. It didn’t work out long-term between us, but it was a really great relationship that was exactly what I needed at the time, and in fact, he and I are still friends. Of course, it’s a completely different situation from yours, because it was mutual on both sides, and he never overstepped or made me feel uncomfortable, or behaved inappropriately. But I had initially just written off that little voice telling me that he was flirting with me, because of my own insecurities and other things. But it turned out that my instincts were right on.

    1. snarkalupagus*

      I just want to highlight what Ann is saying here–TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS.

      The first time you get a “henh?” feeling, listen to it. You are always in control of your own boundaries and you always have the right to enforce them–in any environment, professional or personal. Believe what your gut tells you; it’s rarely wrong. So the hell what if the Skeeve Shark pulls a “well, aren’t you full of yourself” move? They never operate in an environment where others don’t know what they’re up to. Use the great examples of ways to handle it that other commenters have given, *have faith in what your gut tells you,* and set the Skeeve Shark straight on where your lines are. You set them, you own them, and you can enforce them at any time, with anyone, when your Spidey-sense tingles the least little bit. Trust yourself.

  27. Katie the Fed*

    “First, let me say that no one tells you how to handle this stuff, so you shouldn’t beat yourself up for anything you did or didn’t do.”

    OP – been there, done that. I’m a friendly person – and I work in a very male-dominated culture where what you describe is sadly not uncommon. I found myself in a very similar situation in my 20s as well.

    FWIW, my policy is generally that I’m not friends with married men, unless I’m friends with both members of the couple. I can be friendLY with married men, but I keep things very professional and boundaries very clear so that there’s absolutely no room for misinterpretation. It’s just served me far better over the years.

    There are people who take advantage of friendly young women – they know we don’t generally aren’t used to being assertive and setting clear boundaries because it’s uncomfortable. They take advantage of that and push boundaries until you’re not sure what’s what anymore.

    Alison is spot on about the red flags. The second anyone I don’t know well starts complaining about a marriage, I’m done with the discussion and I change the topic quickly. Why? Because it ALWAYS starts with a “my wife doesn’t understand me…” Always. Sorry, dude. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. You want to talk about your marriage find a therapist.

    1. AFT*

      “FWIW, my policy is generally that I’m not friends with married men, unless I’m friends with both members of the couple. I can be friendLY with married men, but I keep things very professional and boundaries very clear so that there’s absolutely no room for misinterpretation. ”

      I’m with you here. I know that I’ve probably missed out on what could have been legit friendships in the past because of this personal policy, but I feel like I’ve dodged more bad situations than missed good ones. For me it also just comes down to a respect level – I myself am also married, and I just feel even raising the question of “what if” is disrespectful to any spouse involved. I truly believe friendships can be platonic, but perception is reality for people outside of the relationship, and it’s just not worth the trouble to me anymore. Besides, there are plenty of female-friendly-fish in the sea for me to be pals with.

  28. Emmy Rae*

    At first reading this I was just mad, but as I read down through the responses I am now really sad. Almost crying. Because of multiple experiences with significantly older men in the workforce who first befriended me, then began to add a tinge of inappropriate undertone, moving into outright inappropriate sexual “jokes” (one of these men later stalked me), I have changed my behavior significantly at work.

    When I work with older men, I do not laugh at their jokes. No matter how innocuous. I do not spend time alone with any older men, unless absolutely required by the job. If doing that I do not give any indication of any enjoyment of the situation. Men my own age (late 20s/30s) are usually okay in my experience, and I have an easier time shutting them down if they aren’t. I do not talk about their personal lives with older men, and when they tell me about how their wives are mean nags or whatever, I always, always defend the wife, to the point of rudeness, so that they do not see me as safe for that type of talk.

    I’m not saying anyone else should be taking these types of precautions – do what works for you – but that I’ve had the lines blurred on me so many times that I have basically shut down any possible “fun” function around older men and I am all business and absolutely no humor. I am a very funny person and love to joke around and laugh but I have had to put a stop to that altogether for significant parts of my workday, and I didn’t realize until now how extreme it is and how much I hate it. It’s because of creeps like this.

    1. Ann Furthermore*

      You’re right, that is sad, and I’m sorry that you’ve had to put up such stringent boundaries. I totally get why though, and in your position I’d do the exact same thing.

    2. Katie the Fed*

      It’s sad that this has to be true. I don’t understand the ego machinations that are required to convince yourself that someone 25 years your junior would prefer to run off with you to a hotel room than, like, date someone her own age.

      1. Emmy Rae*

        Thank you both. I know it’s over the top but I just can’t bear to let my guard down in the wrong circumstance. I still have nightmares about my stalker after more than 5 years.

        1. kt (lowercase)*

          You don’t need to be apologetic about that! You get to set the boundaries that make you feel safe. You also have a damn valid reason for feeling unsafe, not that that should even matter — you shouldn’t have to have a scary story to get to set boundaries. If you wouldn’t/couldn’t work professionally with older men, that’d be a different story, but you don’t owe anybody friendship, and certainly not at work.

      2. fposte*

        Because that 25-year-older you probably has more money and comfort and power than somebody 25 years your junior. I don’t think this is an unreasonable thought on its own–it’s not an unpopular romantic arrangement, after all, and an age difference doesn’t make it unacceptable to ask somebody out properly.

        The problem is that the OP wasn’t asked out, she was skeeved on, and the age difference is relevant in skeeving because it means that you’ve got a better shot at somebody who’s inexperienced with skeevery.

        1. fposte*

          Sorry, I forgot this was a subthread response to Emmy Rae. I still think it’s okay to politely ask somebody out, age difference or no, but I think it may sound like I was excusing what was done to you, Emmy Rae, and I very much do not.

          1. Dasha*

            Just my humble opinion, but it’s generally just a bad idea to ask someone out at work (even if they politely decline) and especially if there’s a large age difference. Outside of work, sure that’s more acceptable (hence that’s why there’s online dating), but at work it just makes things awkward and uncomfortable- especially due to office power dynamics.

            1. fposte*

              I think we’ll just disagree on this. I don’t feel passionately about it, but I think people spend most of their time at work, and it’s likely that that’s the place you’ll meet people you want to spend more time with. You do have to do it within the guidelines of etiquette and sense, but people do manage to do this.

            2. bridget*

              Probably not best practice, but it’s infinitely better than what happened to the OP (very incrementally shifting into inappropriate territory). It may be awkward, but a respectful asking-out gives the ask-ee a clear opportunity to say “no thank you,” and the ask-er a chance to handle that respectfully and never bring it up again.

        2. Katie the Fed*

          Dating is one thing. Not my thing – but I do see it enough around this city (a waitress once thought my dad was my date – ACKK). But assuming someone wants to enter an illicit affair with you – I just don’t see that being likely. But maybe I’m a little sheltered too.

        3. BRR*

          “The problem is that the OP wasn’t asked out, she was skeeved on, and the age difference is relevant in skeeving because it means that you’ve got a better shot at somebody who’s inexperienced with skeevery.”

          This is so spot on.

      3. James M.*

        I don’t understand the ego machinations …

        To put it simply, a lot of men believe* that all women want them above all other men. If you ever hear “but she was asking for it”, there’s a good chance the guy who said it holds this belief.

        *) Some psychologists assert that people build their mental constructs (rules by which they make sense of, and interact with, the world/people around them) upon a set of core beliefs which they treat as immutable facts. If you’ve ever been discussing a topic with someone and their strong objection turns them into a raving idiot, chances are you’ve disparaged one of those beliefs.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          And how many more generations will it be before we totally burn out this belief?

          The answer seems to be “blowin’ in the wind”.

    3. Demanding Excellence*

      I could have written this – thank you for putting it much more eloquently than I ever could.

      I’m very sorry you’ve had to experience this type of behavior. I’m very strict about workplace relationships (with both men and women) because of past experiences. A lot of times I don’t feel like I can really “be myself” at work because of what’s happened in the past. It’s a shame, and I know my co-workers aren’t getting the best possible version of me.

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        Omg you just reminded me that after my similar experience I posted up thread I went to next job with strict boundaries and after a few months our dept was having a lunch meeting and I made a joke and they were all like wow we thought you were so reserved and one of them even said I was standoffish! Sometimes you just can’t win

  29. Anon for this*

    OMG I swear these guys multiply by division or something. This is almost exactly what happened to me at my first US job, almost 20 years ago. I was new to the country and in my 20s, he was 40, we were both unhappy in our marriages, I thought I’d found a platonic friend, mentor and confidant. Did I mention he was my boss too? Except I was not as socially apt as OP and things got pretty far. Holding hands, going out after work and such. Then he started dating another one of his subordinates and we gradually drifted apart. I don’t talk to him, have him blocked on FB, and have zero tolerance for this kind of thing, now that I have finally learned to recognize it early on. These guys use all kinds of excuses to make what they’re doing look like a friendship. Like for example this one from OP’s letter:

    “he told me that we were talking too much at work, and people would suspect that we were having an affair. And he said that if I wanted to talk to him, we could arrange to meet in a park.” – yea this makes perfect logical sense. We cannot talk at work, because that would look inappropriate, so let’s go on dates in a park instead, because that’d be totally more appropriate than talking at work! See what he did here?? Makes me want to punch the sneaky bastard.

    Mine used to say that, since he was also an immigrant, he’d help me learn the American way of life. Did you know that Americans customarily hug and kiss each other on the lips when they meet, and if you don’t do that, then everyone will know you’re a foreigner? That’s what he told me once and I swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. How do they come up with this stuff??? smh

    OP, you did nothing wrong. You were an easy target because you were new, knew no one in town, and he was “well-liked by everyone”. So he figured, even if he’d get caught, his charm and his status in the office would help him get away with it.

    And it’s likely that, if the wife found the texts, she’d know you did nothing wrong. You were clearly pushing back when you sent him that picture of a cat. And she probably knows what a sleazebag her husband is anyway. My “special friend”‘s wife was almost on my side, because she knew I wouldn’t allow anything to happen.

    After my experience, I pretty much cut down on all work friendships altogether, and concentrated on my social life outside of work. I’m now known as this quiet coworker who doesn’t go out, doesn’t socialize, and goes home to her family, friends and hobbies at the end of the day. Works for me.

    1. Emmy Rae*

      I’m so sorry that happened to you. What an awful experience. It sounds like you’ve found a good balance now.

  30. Dasha*

    “You asked what you should have done. First, let me say that no one tells you how to handle this stuff, so you shouldn’t beat yourself up for anything you did or didn’t do. You tried to be friendly to someone who you thought was being genuinely friendly to you. You’re not responsible for him crossing lines with you or for not perfectly shutting it down when he did.”


    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m so glad Alison is giving advice over this. So many young women have no idea what to do because this sort of thing is never talked about.

  31. Allison*

    So people are telling LW she should have shut things down when he did X, Y, or Z, yet I can’t help but wonder what the responses would’ve been like if she *had* written in for advice after, say, the park incident. I’m sure there’d be plenty of supportive “this is inappropriate, tell him off!” comments, but there may be some skeptical comments warning her not to be too hasty. “Come on now, this was weird, but it may have been his way of establishing boundaries. You should be careful, but there’s no need to sever ties just yet.”

    There’s no good time to shut down a situation like this. When you try to do it early on, when things start to get a little weird and you have a bad feeling about someone, you run the risk of people telling you you’re jumping to conclusions, you’re making a terrible assumption about someone who’s probably harmless and maybe a little clueless, you’re a paranoid cazypants, you’re a misandrist who must think all men are creepy, if you act like that toward every man who acts like that you’ll be lonely forever. And besides, why not give him a chance, they say, plenty of happy couples have started that way.

    Maybe there’s a “sweet spot,” the apex of the stretch, where you can reject someone without anyone giving you flack for your timing, but I don’t think anyone’s found it yet.

    1. fposte*

      I would be stunned if there were anybody on AAM saying the park thing wasn’t a dealbreaker, but I agree with you that there’s no sweet spot.

      1. BRR*

        I agree that the park was a red flag but there were some things in a gray area. The predator will say things are skeezy but can be interpreted as ok. However, when you’re in the middle of this it clouds your judgement. Also when you’re lonely it throws perception off even further and perhaps in this case or cases like it was why she was targeted.

        It’s like you have to try and respond in a similar gray way of shutting it down but not being so direct about it.

        1. MashaKasha*

          Oh it absolutely does cloud your judgement, especially if the other person is somewhat of an authority figure and you’re not.

        2. Allison*

          Basically this. There have been times where I could tell a guy was into me and really wanted to preemptively tell him I don’t feel that way about him, before he gets his hopes (or worse, his expectations) up too high, or starts interpreting my actions as signs of interest. Unfortunately, I can’t do that unless he makes a move, so instead I have to decide if I want to keep hanging out, risking an awkward night somewhere down the road where he gets drunk and tries to kiss me (let’s be honest, y’all, that’s how it usually happens), or if I start avoiding him and start to starve what’s otherwise a nice friendship.

          1. Jennifer*

            I have learned to totally drop guys when it gets to that point. They’re getting their hopes up by you being around them at all, unfortunately, and the only way for them to get over it is for you to vamoose.

        3. Tinker*

          Yeah, plus which the entire nature of the “indirect no” is that it’s deniable — the purpose being so that both parties save face, but it works about as well if not better for the person to ignore the response itself, if they’re not willing to accept refusal.

    2. VintageLydia USA*

      Exactly this. In actuality, no individual thing he did is enough on its own to be considered inappropriate until the conversation at the park–and even then there is some wiggle room (after all, he’s well respected in that office and presumably has a good idea what the work culture is like there, so it’s possible that ANY type of friendship between superiors and subordinates would be at minimum frowned upon. That’s actually quite normal, though less likely if the subordinate isn’t in the direct chain of command as the superior.) He didn’t ask her out, she DID shut him down when he asked for her photo and eventually stopped texting him when he pressured her, she stopped going to the gym, she NEVER actually started conversations during the work day because that would’ve been seen inappropriate at her office and she probably didn’t have a “good enough” excuse to shut him down when he came up to her desk unless she was actively working on something.

      I see very little else she could’ve done that wouldn’t look like an overreaction to an outside observer.

      1. fposte*

        I think what can happen as you get older and more experienced is you’re less worried about people thinking you’re overreacting. Mileage can really help you let go of that feeling you need to be “nice.”

        1. Allison*

          I think the expectation to be “nice” lessens as you get older. We expect young people to be nice because we expect them to be respectful of their elders and do as they’re told with a nice, big smile. As you get older, you’re given a little more agency, you’re not “beneath” as many people.

        2. Rana*

          Yes. It sort of came on me gradually, but now that I’m in my forties, I realize that a lot of the time I just don’t have the time or energy to suffer fools and jerks. It’s easier to be blunt and not give a f*ck about what they think… which is something I think a lot of young women don’t have the luxury of having. Our society can be pretty vicious to young women who dare to be blunt and outspoken, and it’s hard to push back against that.

    3. MashaKasha*

      I’d say putting oneself in the wife’s shoes and assessing the situation from that POV would be a pretty good lithmus test. Would I be okay with my husband having platonic friendships at work? I would and have. Would I be okay with my husband meeting up with one of those platonic friends at a park, because he’s afraid that talking in the office would be misconstrued? OH HELL NO. etc etc.

      1. Allison*

        That’s definitely a good litmus test, I have a similar one if a guy who’s in a relationship starts blurring the lines a bit. If I wouldn’t be okay with my boyfriend doing it with other women, I’d shut it down unless I knew the guy’s girlfriend was cool with it. Even then, it would feel weird.

        Another litmus test is: if getting caught doing the thing with your SO would’ve gotten you in trouble with your parents when you were a teenager, it’s probably not considered “strictly platonic” at any age.

    4. Joey*

      Isn’t the sweetspot when your life is interrupted by the uncomfortableness. Obviously easier said than done, but when you dread interacting with someone it’s really time to make things as clear as possible.

      1. fposte*

        I think Allison is talking about a sweet spot that frees you from external judgment–a moment where the creeper has lost all plausible deniability and therefore you can shut him down without anybody saying “Aw, you’re so mean, he meant well,” but it’s early enough that nobody can say “Geez, you should have shut it down earlier.”

        And I don’t think there is one; judgers gonna judge.

        1. MashaKasha*

          No, there isn’t one. Only solution is to not give a rat’s ass about what people might say. And, like you said above, that comes with mileage.

  32. neverjaunty*

    I am sure that we’d have contrarians telling OP she was overreacting and/or that she should have shut it down earlier.

  33. OP*

    This is amazing! Thanks for all the great comments and advice. Hopefully, I won’t have to put it into practice, but I liked Midnight Oil’s line “Devon. We’ve talked about this. I’m not interested in having a non-work relationship with you.” So many of you guys told me to act on my instincts, and I definitely will in the future and be firm sooner rather than later.

    1. BRR*

      I’m so glad you got to see all of this! It’s often times so hard to know until it’s too late. Screw this guy. This post is going to help a lot of people.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Am smiling, you’re okay here, OP. You are doing very well.

      I have a story- I hope it makes you smile knowingly. My 70 widowed aunt joined a seniors group. It seemed to be going well. One day she told me a man in the group was making small talk with her. ENDLESS small talk. And he was very focused on her. (I can’t give specifics here, sorry.) I said, “Auntie, he was hitting on you!” Oh my, she laughed, I knew she would. She had no interest in dating and certainly no interest in this guy. She had been married for decades and totally lost touch with the singles scene. “Is THAT what that is??! Well, it’s OVER, right now!”


      My point is that it can happen at any stage in life and anywhere. Nothing wrong with talking these things through with people who respond in a respectful manner. All I can add here, if you ever wonder about something like this again, find people who will answer you with respect. In this case, the HR person and your one friend there were of NO help, matter of fact they were hurtful. They were verrry wrong in what they said. I think you have seen plenty of truly helpful thoughts here. These are the type of people to look for in real life, too.

  34. Nancy Drew*

    No OP, you didn’t do anything wrong. It’s hard to know what to do when things like this happen for the first time, but you did the right thing in shutting him down. Your friends should be congratulating you.

    One thing that I’ve found that works well with married guys like this is an invitation to church. Want to spend some time with me after work? How about a Wednesday church service or a Bible study? Problems with your wife? You should really talk to my pastor about it–he’s great! (If you don’t go to church, you can always suggest visiting a new church that you’ve heard about.)

    I don’t usually mix religion with work, but if someone is being pushy and I’m unsure of his intentions, I find that this is a good litmus test.

    1. VintageLydia USA*

      Doesn’t really work so well with those of us who aren’t at all religious, and especially not if the skeevey shark isn’t religious. I assume the intention is reminding them of the moral implications of their actions so they self-correct to be right with God or whatever. Or at least that you take your religious convictions seriously and they’d be wasting their time, though I’ve seen that sort of thing become a challenge to the creeper.

      1. Nancy Drew*

        “I assume the intention is reminding them of the moral implications of their actions so they self-correct to be right with God or whatever.”

        I’m glad you mentioned this, because I didn’t consider this assumption (although it is one most people would make). But no, I’ve found that if you bring up religion to some people, they’ll avoid you at all costs, no questions asked. There have been times in my life when I wanted such an outcome, and it worked beautifully.

        And yes, it lets them know that you take your religious convictions seriously, but also that you are not isolated, you are connected to a group of like-minded people who hold you accountable for your actions. (However, I will say that this does not work on religious creepers. Be sure you know who you’re dealing with first.)

    2. some1*

      Yeah, the Church suggestion is as inappropriate for work as anything the guy in the letter did.

      1. Nancy Drew*

        Some1, I think it depends on where you live and the workplace culture. I don’t think it’s appropriate to begin a conversation with an invitation to church, but if a person is interested in what I do after work and wants to be part of my after-work life, then IMO they opened that door.

    3. Allison*

      I’m gonna say no to that. In a sense, it sounds like a decent plan, kinda like using a cross to keep vampires away, you use something holy to deter people with bad intentions. But that only works when you assume that good people are Christians and bad people aren’t, when really there are plenty of Christians who would cheat on their spouses if the temptation came along, and there are plenty of non-Christians with a strong moral compass.

      1. Nancy Drew*

        My bad–I should’ve been more clear in my post. The invitation to church has less to do with the other person’s morals and more to do with the fact that some people will avoid you if you tell them that you attend a church, mosque, synagogue, etc.

        1. Allison*

          That does clear things up, but I don’t know if it’ll work. Again, people are well aware of the fact that not all religious people adhere to their morals all the time. In high school my boyfriend cheated on me wth a girl who was so religious she was training to become a nun. She even knew he and I were together, and I think in the back of her mind she knew it went against the morals she was trying to adhere to, but she ended up using her religion to justify what she was doing. Some combination of her thinking Jesus wanted her to be happy, Jesus favored her over me because she was religious and I wasn’t, and by going out with him she was saving his soul.

          We’re actually friends now, weirdly enough.

    4. Anon for this*

      I’m the woman from the post a bit above. I was very religious at the time when my “special friend”/boss befriended me 20 years ago. He knew it very well and it did not stop him. He actually met my priest once and the comment he made about the priest was “you can tell that this guy likes women”. Huh? takes one to know one?

      Not to mention, it’s a PA way to address things. If OP wants Bob to back off, there’s nothing wrong in saying “Back off, Bob”. There’s no earthly reason to replace it with “Hey Bob, have you met my pastor?”

      1. Nancy Drew*

        You’re right, there’s nothing wrong with being blunt. But not everyone can afford to be blunt. As many other people have pointed out here, it can backfire and the man (or woman) can turn around and say, “You’re just being overly-sensitive.” I myself took an unofficial grievance to my managers when a male co-worker started calling me, uninvited. I don’t even know how he got my phone number.

        Both of my managers’ responses? “He’s harmless. You must have done something to make him think that was okay.” And then later in the hall, “You haven’t told anyone about this, have you?”
        Now I could take this above their heads, and maybe win or maybe not. Either way, I might get my reputation trashed and have a hard time finding another job.

        Passive-aggression is often seen as being an ineffective reaction of a weak person. But I feel it can occasionally be a strategic response to a situation where one has very little power. At that time, my biggest needs were my immediate needs: 1) to have an income to feed my family until I could find another job with better managers (I was a single mom at the time ), and 2) for that creep to back off and leave me alone. I chose the passive-aggressive route, and after ten years have passed, I still feel I made the right choice.

        I can see how a church invitation would not have worked in your case. But I think being harassed is a terrible position to be in, and that the victim should do whatever he or she can to get out of the situation ASAP without having to worry about being passive-aggressive.

        1. Anon for this*

          Wow, I’m sorry your managers reacted that way. That was hugely unprofessional of them. Every man I have reported to (since this first one, obviously) had zero tolerance for this kind of thing. As they should. And if they dared fire someone, in this day and age, for telling them that she was being harrassed, that might very well end their career.

          My other problem with the church invitation is that, the creep might just hear the word “invitation”. His reaction won’t be, oh she attends church? screw it, I’m out of here. It’ll be “she wants to meet after work to do something together that she really enjoys. She must be into me. All my effort is finally paying off”. Nope nope nope. Not the kind of message one wants to send.

  35. OP*

    Since we’re all talking…what do I do if “Tom” tells me I’m smoking hot, and I tell him that grossly inappropriate. Then “Bob” gets annoyed on Tom’s behalf because I can’t take a compliment? And then I tell “Bob” I’d rather not be sexualized, and he replies that “Tom didn’t tell me I was sexy. He told me I was smoking hot and if it upsets me so much, I should go to HR.”

    Tom, though, has not made any further comments since, but now I’m concerned about Bob.

      1. fposte*

        Ugh. I forgot this is the HR that wanted you to hug Mr. Skeeve. I still think it might be worth going to HR, assuming you’ve got at least 15 people in the company, but I’d evaluate the move in light of your HR’s weirdness.

        1. MsM*

          Yeah, the more I hear about this place, the more I think your best move is outta there, OP. Sorry.

          1. SystemsLady*


            I would go to HR as well, though, and document every step you take (same for any subsequent incidents you have to report).

        2. Dang*

          Yeah… HR would make Tom and Bob give OP a “hug sandwich.”

          I am so skeeved out by that, seriously, OP… I hope you can get a job where people aren’t such boundary-crossing skeeves.

    1. LizNYC*

      Bob: “What, you can’t take a compliment?”
      You: “Not until he starts commenting on your appearance, Bob.”

      I know you can find this behavior anywhere (unfortunately), but if this is the tenor of your office + the twit of an HR manager = good time to look for employment elsewhere or have the EEOC on speed dial.

    2. Katie the Fed*

      “Bob – you can parse my words but it’s inappropriate regardless, and I’m surprised you don’t understand that. I’m not going to sit here and argue about Tom’s intent – it’s inappropriate and I don’t want to be spoken to that way in the workplace, period.”

      You can also go to HR. But stop talking to Bob about this at all. It’s none of his business.

    3. Observer*

      Good Grief! VintageLydia is right – what on earth are these guys smoking?

      Stay very, very far from Bob. Telling you that calling you”smoking hot” is not sexualizing is an enormous red flag to me. I would not trust him for anything, and to be honest, not just in personal relationship. This is an attempt to twist you into a pretzel. Don’t take the bait.

      Keep it professional. If he created work problems for you, you may have to go to HR – but make it very clear to them that this is most definitely gender based. besides the fact that the original comment WAS inappropriate and sexual, giving someone grief for “not being able to take a compliment” is absolutely gender based discrimination. No one does that to guys.

      1. Observer*

        Is there only one HR person in the place? Is there anyone above him?

        If you are stuck talking to this HR idiot, you need to spell this out very clearly to him. 1. Comments on your “hotness” or lack thereof are most definitely considered sexual, and in any case are inappropriate in the workplace. 2. “taking compliments” from your co-workers is not part of your job duties. Acting as though it is, is something that is totally gendered. 3. Penalizing, harassing (even verbally), or failing to cooperate professionally because of this is clearly gender based.

        If he tells you that you are being “too sensitive” point out that it’s not relevant AND that this is also a very gendered response.

        And, document EVERYTHING. make a record of what happened, including the prior pressure BY HR to hug someone(!) and what is going on with Tom and Bob, even if you don’t go to HR.

        Eventually, if you don’t get out of there, you will almost certainly need to go to Hr or someone higher up in the food chain – and possibly go tot the EEOC. Clear, unemotional documentation will be really useful.

    4. neverjaunty*

      Document document document. And then go to HR. And then when HR waffles, document that.

      Then talk to a lawyer.

    5. Helka*

      Yeeeeeah, steer clear of Bob, holy crap. I’m so sorry you’re dealing with all these boors, OP!

    6. MsM*

      “I think that’s an excellent idea. Clearly there are a lot of people here who could use a refresher on what does and doesn’t constitute appropriate workplace remarks.”

      Or, “Bob, when’s the last time Tom called you smoking hot? Would you ever say that to him and mean it as a sincere compliment? No, because it’d be uncomfortable and weird, right? Then why do you think I feel differently?”

      Or simply, “My feelings on this aren’t up for debate. If you want to compliment me, find a way to do it that I will actually find complimentary. Thanks.”

    7. Dasha*

      I know it sucks but I would really limit any conversation with these guys. I would only speak to them about work related things and if at all possible through email.

      I would also document everything.

    8. Malissa*

      Fantasy: “Bob, I think you need to take some English classes on synonyms.”

      Reality: “Bob that was an equally inappropriate remark.”

    9. moss*

      Is this the same place where HR tried to get a hug? You’re in rampant misogynist land and the solution would be to find a new job.

    10. Zillah*

      Honestly, there’s often no magic bullet – creepers are going to creep, regardless what you say, and I’m starting to feel like you should be looking for a new job, because there seems to be a lot of misogyny in your current workplace.

      But, one thing that I’ve found fairly effective is that I just don’t let myself get drawn into a debate on the principle of the thing. If someone tells me that I’m too sensitive, I say, “Maybe. Regardless, though, I don’t like it, so don’t do it.” If they argue, I just repeat that. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t like it, so don’t do it.” Or, I twist what they’re saying just a little, which usually catches them off-balance.

      In that situation (if I kept my head, which isn’t necessarily a given), I would probably say in response to the HR comment: “I’m telling you that I don’t like those comments. Why are you insisting that we get HR involved in something this simple?”

    11. James M.*

      Tom may not be suave, but it seems that he at least understands boundaries when you set them. Bob, however, has made it clear that he will not respect boundaries, and he will interject on behalf of his fellows. I predict that Bob will influence other coworkers against you. Whatever the outcome, I’m sorry you have to deal with this.

    12. A Non*

      I’d be inclined to go with “No, I really can’t take a compliment. I don’t enjoy comments like that at work.” They want to cast you as the humorless bitch? Okay, let ’em. It helps highlight that you’re not the problem here. (This approach is also easier said than done, so take it with a grain of salt.)

    13. Not So NewReader*

      “Bob, that was a conversation between me and Tom. But for the record, anyone who calls me smoking hot will be told that is not an appropriate comment in the work place.”

      “Bob it’s not yours to decide what is a compliment and what is not. I feel that I have been insulted. You do not get to decide how I feel.”

      “Thanks for the HR tip, Bob. I will. I am keeping a running document of incidents here and I plan on going forward with this document. I will be sure to include this conversation about how the term smoking hot has nothing to do with sexuality. Maybe HR can explain it to everyone.”

      1. Not So NewReader*

        OP, this place really sucks. What is the CEO like? Let me guess, he is a skirt-chasing, embezzler, right?

        Where you see problems as pervasive as these, that means the problems start at the top.

  36. VintageLydia USA*

    Both Bob and Tom are problems also what is WITH the men at your work??? It’s so pervasive I’d start looking for another job. I’m sure Alison would have better advice but I’d consider bringing the entire exchange to your manager, at minimum, as a “just so you know, this happened” thing but considering the behavior you described from HR I’m not sure how much that will actually help. I’m still stuck on sandwich hugs.

    1. VintageLydia USA*

      Supposed to be a reply to OP above, sorry! I literally cannot even so much I’m typoing more than normal and apparently can’t click buttons correctly!

  37. neverjaunty*

    So many choices!

    1) “Bob, I don’t recall asking your opinion/inviting you into this conversation.”
    2) “Bob, sorry, what do you think ‘smoking hot’ means? Are you trying to tell me that Tom meant my clothes were on fire?”
    3) *slow death stare until Bob crawls away*
    4) “You know, that’s an excellent idea. I’ll be sure to let HR know that you pointed that option out to me.” (goes to HR)

    1. V.V.*

      Personally I would go with my favorite which is a a combo of 1 and 3.
      Dirty pointed look with: “Ain’t nobody asked you!”

      Who hell are these people?

    1. neverjaunty*

      It’s that stare that suggests you are being addressed by a talking cockroach, and are waiting for the heat lasers in your eyes to power up sufficiently to obliterate it.

      and/or, the look your mom gave you when you were eight and you tried to convince her that it was actually a mysterious space alien that ate everything in the cookie jar five minutes before dinner.

      1. Bekx*

        This entire situation is so not humorous but I totally just tried to make both faces you described right now!

      2. Rana*

        Yeah, I have two variants too. :)

        One’s this dead-eyed expression that basically conveys “What you said is so appalling and stupid that I’m just going to stare at you until you crawl away with shame.”

        The other’s a much more pointed, hostile glare that says “Get out of here. NOW.”

        Both are worth practicing.

    2. Jo*

      I like death stares, and also mean laughter – the kind that sounds like I’m thinking, “what are you, an idiot?” I’d have laughed in Bob’s face – before laughing all the way over to HR, even if your HR is incompetent.

      This is not to say that I think sexual harassment is amusing. But I do think when somebody tries to debate you that way, they’re trying to make you feel stupid and out of your league so you won’t push back. They’re trying to undermine your confidence so there will be no consequences for them. And I would want those people to know they haven’t succeeded in making me feel stupid or intimidated – that I can see through their game, and they’re the ones willfully missing the point and looking stupid. For me, mean laughter is often the best way I can find to let a predator know I’m not an easy target (before I proceed to take them seriously enough to report them on anything really egregious).

      1. ArtsNerd*

        Ooh, I’ve done raised-eyebrow glares before, but mean laughter is great. I’m keeping that in my back pocket.

        1. ArtsNerd*

          Also, it’s taken me a long time to recognize those kind of undermining traps when someone’s trampling over my boundaries. Sadly.

          OP, I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this. I hope you understand, emotionally as well as rationally that this is not your fault or anything you should put up with.

  38. SystemsLady*

    Eww. I’m really sorry you had to go through that, OP.

    You wanted a friend at work, thought you had one, and he betrayed you. That’s that.

    On still being afraid of people thinking you are having an affair: Your friend is either a terrible friend or (hopefully!) meant to say that *he* may have been *trying* to have (at least) an emotional affair with you. Neither of those cases mean you carry any guilt.

    You know and the facts ultimately – and clearly – show he was making unreciprocated advances on you. What somebody else ends up thinking, including his wife, doesn’t change that. Even if she somehow ends up calling you and screaming at you, it’s his fault, the facts are on your side, and you can 1) hang up on her or 2) tell her just that – then subsequently block whatever number she called you from – absolutely guilt-free. You can block his number right now if it makes you feel better.

    And if being friendly at work with a coworker of the opposite gender at work were enough to raise suspicions and generate a firable offense, I’d have been fired twenty times over. It’s not typical for people to immediately jump to that conclusion on that basis, particularly in this case. That’s exactly why, as Alison said, somebody saying things like that (almost always, but *particularly*) the very first time you ever hang out after work – is a giant red flag. You would be absolutely right to shut that person down right then and there.

    On that topic, I’m going add to the crowd saying that every single one of these red flags are extremely good indicators that, at the *very* least, somebody is looking for something you’re not. Particularly complaining about his marriage and insisting that an after work outing with him not only be just him and you but also making it secret – at least in my office culture, group outings after work are far more the norm, particularly for newer people. Friends who’ve been working together for years will hang out in smaller groups on weekends, but that’s about it.

    In fact, consider this: if he were truly afraid of being thought to be having an affair and had no inclinations to have one, why didn’t he instead invite a bunch of other coworkers for you to meet?

    Again, I’m sorry he pulled this crap on you and I’m so, so glad he’s left the company you’re at.

  39. Lola*

    Not sure I agree with advice to report unwanted advances to HR, especially if you are a junior-level employee and the other person is a respected, senior-level employee. Unfortunately, I’ve had a friend in similar situations at two different (and both large, national) companies. She got fired both times under flimsy excuses. No lawyer wanted to take her case pro bono or on a contingency basis, and she has no money to hire one on a retainer. Sexual harassment cases are notoriously difficult to win. So the situations like this need to be handled with certain degree of diplomacy and finesse.

  40. Lisa*

    Sounds like your coworkers/friends need that mandatory sexual harassment training that everyone scoffs at because “We all know that!” Apparently your network are the people who don’t know that…

    I hope you don’t feel alone in this, I think similar things happen to many if not most young women who are open to platonic friendships with older men. (This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be open to platonic friendships with older men! It isn’t your fault someone chose to abuse that friendship.) I have definitely had the same dynamic happen to me multiple times in my career–I work in tech as a non-engineer who gets along well with engineers and understands code enough to parse what they’re talking about, and that apparently is enough.

    In my last job I had a married male coworker initiate a friendship *by reassuring me* that he is happily married and that he understands young women in the workplace are often rightfully suspicious of the friendship of men at work, but that he just liked my thoughts on X, Y, and Z and wanted to discuss this (work-related) philosophical question further. I totally fell for it, thinking of it as kinda like April Fool’s – if you call “April Fool” on someone who’s trying to prank you, they have to drop the pretense! Who the heck would *mention* sexual harassment and reassure you they understand and sympathize with women who face it, as part of their preamble to sexually harassing someone?

    Welp, this guy, that’s who. After just a couple of “discuss work issue” lunches he started with the personal questions about my dating life and texts like “Give me a hug before I leave for the day?” or “Why have you been so cold to me?” if I ignored his messages for a while. I told my boss immediately and the issue was taken care of by HR, but I still receive the occasional LinkedIn message asking how I am…

    1. A Non*

      Oh yeah, this is totally a thing where some creepers cover their tracks by talking up how feminist they are. In my (admittedly limited) experience, guys who are actually feminist generally show it through their actions rather than bringing up the topic preemptively.

  41. Isben Takes Tea*

    It’s also difficult because Mr. Skeeve can also be Mr. Genuine Nice Guy that you find interesting and intelligent and want to hang out with (right, of course, until you get that knot in your stomach). I’ve found myself in situations where I ignored the red flags because I thought other flags trumped them, like the “pious” flag or the “married” flag or the “happy dad” flag. Skeeves are so very good at distracting you with their other flags!

    I wish every working woman starting out got the message that there ARE many flags, but nothing ever, ever trumps a red flag.

  42. Jess*

    I just wanted to chime in to add that you did nothing wrong here, OP! You thought you’d made a friend, and your coworker took advantage of you being a nice person. That’s on him.

    It sounds like the dynamics at your office are all kinds of messed up, though. (That HR person, ugh!) I’d start looking for a new job if you can.

  43. Harrison*

    This is actually nothing to worry about, the guy is supposed to be worried that he is been unfaithful to his wife. You are just been nice and its not a crime. Just focus on your job and avoid any further distractions of such.

  44. RS*

    Thank you, AAM, for this answer. I completely agree with you. This man manipulated his power over OP in such a way as to make her feel pressured, uncomfortable, and what’s worse: feeling guilty of wrongdoing or embarrassed to go to friends for help for fear of being blamed. That’s abuse in a nutshell, and it’s insidious.

  45. Cynthia*

    I had a very similar situation at my job. The guy was friendly, but it was creepy friendly, and I eventually became comfortable enough to talk to him outside of work, and even invited him over to my place to cook dinner. (Because I was under the pretense that he was trying to be *FRIENDS* and not a creeper at that point.) He actually stood me up, and I broke off all contact with him at work. He then went out of his way to talk shit about me to the other managers.

    Fortunately he left the company, and I haven’t had to put up with his crap since. Given the opportunity to do it all over again, I would’ve ignored the hell out of him like he deserved. :)

  46. Mermaids614*

    Yes, this is a really common thing in the workplace, unfortunately. Doesnt matter your age. If you are somewhat attractive, this is common. The catch is that these guys get away with it because if you do tell on him, he will say he was just trying to help you out. He can say he’s never done anything inappropriate. It’s very difficult to accuse someone of harassment at work. I do know, his intentions were not innocent. Asking for a selfie is usuall where it starts. They will then start asking for “sexy” pics and so forth. It’s good you didn’t fall for that. A married, engaged or seriously involved man has no business asking any woman to directly send him pictures. I agree with the previous poster. Be on guard for the next time it happens. To make it easy, Don’t exchange numbers with male coworkers and don’t go off site alone with them. You can be cordial without getting involved with them outside of work.

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