how to deal with customers hitting on support reps

A reader writes:

I work at a smallish software company (just under 100 employees over 2 locations). I’m middle management in the technical support department, and we have a live chat system that we use to interact with customers. We usually have our pictures up in the chat window so people know who they’re talking to, and the women have a tendency to get hit on pretty frequently (myself included). It’s annoying, but not entirely unexpected.

However, there is one woman who started in the last year that gets hit on fairly regularly, and today a man in online chat was way too forward for comfort. He kept telling her she was “too pretty for a techie,” asking personal questions, saying he wants to ask for her number, etc. These are situations that you can’t really get out of, because the issue the customer entered into chat for needs to be resolved, and it’s hard to know when, as a support representative, you honestly have the right to say “hey, cut that crap out.” These are also customers that we will need to continue working with on a fairly regular basis as they continue to use our software.

What can I do to try and discourage this behavior in future from this client (if he continues to be unprofessionally forward) and make sure my employee knows that this isn’t something she has to tolerate? We are a company that has grown much larger in the past couple of years, so we don’t really have an established HR department or a process for harassment reports. I have mentioned the flirting issue to my senior manager before and he doesn’t seem to think it’s a big issue (he actually said the words “gosh it must be difficult being pretty” sarcastically in response, which was pretty horrible feeling). Is this something I should discuss with the next level up (which would be the CEO of the company)? Is there a method I should be coaching my fellow chat reps on to discourage this kind of behavior? Should we just keep an eye on “repeat offenders” and report it to the CEO when we have a number of cases? What’s the protocol, here?

To be clear: I’m technically middle management, but I have no control over protocol or any other processes in the company. All I am in charge of is organizing our shared workload and heading up meetings. If it were up to me we would get a dedicated HR department at this point, but it’s definitely not.

Well, the protocol really is up to your company; there are a few different options here, you’ll need to get clear guidance from them on how they want you to handle it. And it sounds like that might involve getting them to think about the issue for the first time, given your manager’s awful response.

Companies are responsible for preventing sexual harassment not only by other coworkers, but also by clients (and vendors, and anyone else an employee comes in contact with in the course of her work). The comments you described probably don’t rise to the legal bar for sexual harassment, but your company should be concerned about it regardless — because they should want their employees to be able to do their jobs without being hassled by lecherous customers. Your manager not only doesn’t realize that, but his comment was a good way to discourage people from telling him about more serious incidents. He is gross.

Here’s what I’d do: Find someone in your company who’s above your manager and who you have decent rapport with and know to be generally reasonable. Approach that person, tell them that you have concerns about chronic sexual harassment that you and other reps are facing from customers, that you’d like guidelines on how to deal with it, and that your manager was distinctly unhelpful when you approached him about it, so you’re wondering what your next step should be.

What I’d like to see them do at that point is:
* Remove the photos from the chat system. Clients really don’t need to see what the person they’re talking to looks like. I get that some companies think it makes people feel like they’re getting more personal service, but it’s not worth doing that at the expense of your employees being harassed.
* Arm your support reps with some phrases they can use when customers cross the line, and authorize them to tell line-crossing customers to cut it out. For example, “I want to keep our conversation focused on your account” or “I’m not here to discuss that, so let’s get back to your account.”
* Empower your support reps to escalate things to a manager if the language above doesn’t work.

If it’s a decent company, someone above your manager will take steps like this, as well as set your gross manager straight — but you’ve got to fill them in, since right now it sounds like they might not be aware that it’s an ongoing problem.

{ 425 comments… read them below }

  1. Katie the Fed*

    Uh, WTF with the senior manager’s response? I’ve really had it with people thinking this kind of unwanted attention must be flattering. Way to avoid fulfilling one of your most important jobs as a manager, dude.

    1. UKAnon*

      “With men like you in the world, yes, yes it is.”

      Dead serious face.

      Let the silence continue.

    2. Laurel Gray*

      “I’ve really had it with people thinking this kind of unwanted attention must be flattering.”

      + 1MIL. Being a creep really should be a felony at this point.

      1. Katie the Fed*

        You just KNOW he considers himself a “nice guy” too. What?! It was just a compliment, ladies!

        1. Dan*

          Running off on a tangent just a bit… I stay away from the “you’re really pretty” comments, even with my SO. The thing is, I get told I’m a smart guy All. The. Time. Newsflash: 1) I know that, and 2) That’s a pretty cheap compliment. You get absolutely *nowhere* with me with that one because it’s so shallow. It pretty much turns me off. It throws me into “what do you want from me” mode.

          If you compliment something I’ve done well, and can articulate why, that’s a whole ‘nuther matter.

          That’s probably the closest I will ever get to understanding why women don’t like being told they’re pretty in the workplace. Outside the workplace, I try a bit harder with the compliments.

          1. TheAngryGuppy*

            Thanks for writing this – it’s often really difficult to get men to “get it” about why this kind of “compliment” is so annoying (sometimes bleeding into scary). But I think you pretty much hit the nail on the head….all that’s missing is the “I don’t really have to wonder” cherry on top of this s**t Sundae:

            “It throws me into “what do you want from me” mode.”

            1. Pill Helmet*

              I don’t really think it’s a great comparison. While I can see how that could become annoying if that’s all people say to you, if you (general) were a woman, that person wouldn’t even be getting past your looks to notice that you’re smart.

              This is the first time I’ve ever heard anyone describe comments about intelligence as “shallow”. I agree that simply saying “you’re smart” is an effortless compliment. But there are lots of effortless compliments. Most of them are not equal to the constant conversation that surrounds women’s looks, dismisses their intelligence, and undervalues them (usually in one fell swoop), both in and outside of work.

              Case in point: “You’re too pretty to be a techie”.

              1. Dan*

                I’ve never heard the words “you’re really smart” delivered in a sincere way. With that phrasing, it’s always been to set up something dismissive, a back handed compliment, or whatever.

                Before I started my current career, I did some blue collar work. I used to have people say to me, “You’re a smart guy. What are you doing here?”

                And yes, it’s not constant, because intelligence isn’t like looks that you see miles away. You actually have to have a conversation with them first.

                1. Pill Helmet*

                  Ok I can see that. You were talking about it like the person intended it as an actual compliment rather than a back handed compliment, so that’s what I was basing my comment on. But I can see what you’re saying.

              2. Anonsie*

                I think the “smart guy” thing is the male equivalent default compliment same as “pretty girl” (though to some extend girls do get that one as well, it’s less common than pretty). The rhetoric used to judge women and men is different so the terms are obviously different but those fill a similar space in condescension. It’s just that there isn’t really anything like this that people to do men that’s entirely equivalent to the looks-related stuff people do to women, but if you were to go digging that’s about as close as you’d get.

                I fear this may cheapen the discussion a little bit but all I can think of now is the Barenaked Ladies (BLAM FLASHBACKS) song What A Good Boy where they say “When I was born they looked at me and said, what a good boy, what a smart boy, what a strong boy. And when you were born they looked at you and said, what a good girl, what a smart girl, what a pretty girl”

              3. Melissa*

                I think Dan was saying that is the closest he could get to understanding how women feel when they get “you’re so pretty.” Obviously there’s no clear analogue because women are clearly disadvantaged here.

              4. Vicki*

                No, he’s right (and I’m female).To misquote LOLCats, Shallow comment is Shallow.

                If someone is a techie, these do sound hollow and unappreciated:
                “Wow, you’re pretty smart” (Um, yes?)
                “Where did you learn all of this?” (by studying it)
                “You must be pretty smart to know this!” (Not really, I studied it).

                Some of those imply “you didn’t really work for this; it just fell into your lap”.

                Please don’t dismiss Dan’s analogy. Any time ANYone else gets why ANY of us doesn’t want to be “complimented” on anything other than having solved the problem, it’s a good thing.

                The best compliment isn’t “you’re pretty” or “you’re smart” but “Thank you for solving my problem today.”

          2. Tomato Frog*

            It’s such a misguided way to get what you want, too. “Hey, baby, I value in you the exact same thing that all other straight men value in you. But you should pick me over them.” It’s like hitting on someone by telling them how rich they are.

            1. ITPuffNStuff*

              so presuming we’re talking about outside of work here — how would you prefer men approach you? at the moment of first meeting, they literally know nothing about you apart from how you look. maybe this just means first meetings are not a good time for compliments at all.

              1. Anonsie*

                maybe this just means first meetings are not a good time for compliments at all

                That’s pretty much how I feel. In my experience, guys who feel like they’re supposed to pepper in compliments (who may or may not be ok dudes otherwise but have been drastically mislead) are also guys who feel like women are people who are somehow fundamentally unlike them are are supposed to be treated differently and want different things. Doesn’t mesh for me. Meshes for some women though, since you know, we’re individuals and all, which is the point. But a lot of guys do it as a blanket rule even if that’s not really the type of dynamic they want because they think they’re supposed to, and that’s not good either. Can’t go noodlin and then get mad at the catfish for not being salmon.

                1. Vicki*

                  The only compliment that I consider appropriate for a first meeting is something like “I love your shirt” (e.g. for a theme t-shirt) or “that’s a great color” (for anything else).

              2. Nashira*

                I am a big fan of not commenting on other people’s appearances a) on early meetings and b) at work.

                1. ITPuffNStuff*

                  so i do like to tell my coworkers “you look nice today” when i think they do. i tell this to both men and women — and i give that compliment to men more often than women because there happen to be more of them where i work.

                  so far everyone seems to take this as its intended — “i saw you dressed well and thought a compliment may make you feel good”. no one has ever seemed to think i want anything in return; they seem to understand it’s just an honest attempt to buffer up their self esteem a bit, because i believe everyone is insecure about their appearance, and with the million reasons every person gets daily to believe they are not attractive enough, everyone could use a little self esteem boost.

                  i think if a person responded negatively to a sincere compliment intended only as a show of support and wanting nothing in return — i would feel hurt. there certainly would not be any more compliments for someone who reacted negatively, but i can’t help but think they’d be projecting their own meaning on to it, if such a response were offered.

                2. Melissa*

                  @ITPuffNStff: Two things.

                  1. Complimenting someone on the way they’ve dressed is different from complimenting someone on the way they look. I still thing neither is ideal in the workplace, but the way someone dresses is something they can control – the way they’ve put together their outfit, their personal style. Complimenting them on their physical looks is just an empty compliment on something they can’t control and have nothing to do with.

                  2. Perhaps you would be hurt by someone responding negatively to a sincere compliment, but respectfully, that comes from a focus on how you feel rather than how they feel. We’ve discussed different things on this blog in the past about how compliments can really come across poorly – like telling someone who’s lost weight because of an eating disorder or a terrible medical condition that they look good now that they’ve gotten some weight off. And for women who are constantly accosted by men on the street who tell them they look pretty in an effort to try to get something from them, the compliment (particularly from a man) immediately raises hackles. It’s definitely a “what do you want from me” kind of moment in my experience, too.

                  Basically, intent isn’t magical. Just because you have good intentions doesn’t mean that your comments will be well-received. You have to focus on the impact of your words, too.

                3. ITPuffNStuff*

                  Melissa, thank you for replying.

                  Perhaps the contextual difference here is that I’m not some random guy on the street. I work with these folks every day, they have known me for years, and I think they’ve figured out that if I have not pursued any kind of relationship by now, I’m not going to. It probably also helps that they see me give the same compliments to men. It’s not inconceivable that the women have been suspicious for 6 years that really secretly want a relationship and for some reason never pursued one, but … I think given the positive responses that they know it’s just my way of providing the little ego boost I think everyone needs.

                  Seriously, if we’ve really come to the place that because of what other men do or don’t do, women would refuse a sincere compliment with zero strings attached — then I feel sorry for them, because it would cost them nothing to accept what I offer, and might do them some good. There’s only so far I can go compensating for what other men do; there’s a point where I just have to say that I’m responsible for my own actions, and let other men be responsible for theirs.

              3. Dan*

                At least online, I actually read the bios and address them. I don’t bother with compliments on looks at all. I figure if everybody else is doing it, I want to set myself apart.

                How successful am I? Waayyy better than average, if you believe that guys send out “hundreds” of messages, and hear nothing in return.

                Some guys will ask, “What if they’re cute but have nothing interesting in their profile?” The reality is, if they have nothing interesting in their profile, what’s there to actually talk about?

              4. Sarah*

                Co-signing Anonsie & Nashira, and adding, opening with “you’re really pretty” seems to me* like a) it’s saying all you really value is the looks, and b) not especially useful in starting a conversation, because what can the woman do except say “uh, thanks?”. If the goal is to try to get to know someone, you want to start a conversation, so open-ended questions are the way forward.

                I often recommend Dr Nerdlove’s dating advice, especially the stuff in the Basics section, he’s got some really useful things to say – find him at

                (*caveat, women are not a monolith, some women like it, and of course it can be done in a really charming way, but this is true in the circles I run in)

                1. Anonsie*

                  (*caveat, women are not a monolith, some women like it, and of course it can be done in a really charming way, but this is true in the circles I run in)

                  Yeah. The problem with answering questions like this is that we’re not a hive vagina, it’s going to come down to what the type of women you’re interested in are also interested in.

                2. Afiendishthingy*

                  “Hive vagina” is my new favorite phrase. I want to work it into conversation daily.

                3. ITPuffNStuff*

                  Thanks for replying. I never implied that all women are the same. And never on my worst day has it crossed my mind to think of women as anything like a “hive vagina”.

                4. kt (lowercase)*

                  Literal lol. I am stealing the hell out of this. Also calling dibs on the band name.

                5. Anonsie*

                  Haha no ITPuffNStuff (that is a freaking great name by the way) I’m not implying that you do, I’m just cracking wise.

                6. Sarah*

                  Nesting’s broken for me, so sorry for posting here, but I’m sorry ITPuffNStuff if “women are not a hive mind” sounded rude – it’s a thing people say as an alternative to YMMV (“your mileage may vary”) as a caveat for “of course some people are different, so different people think different things” because I do think it’s important to caveat things like that when talking about relationships advice. I took Anonsie’s “hive vagina” in the same way – grinning at you in a friendly way, not going after you.

                  (But I really recommend spending some time reading Dr Nerdlove – he divides into 101 (for USA types), 201, 301 (erm beginner, medium, advanced?) dating advice, & he genuinely cares about the guys he’s talking to. The commentariat are generally awesome too)

          3. Three Thousand*

            The “what do you want from me ” reaction is a good way to think about it.

            The fact is, I don’t mind if you think I’m pretty. I’m absolutely gorgeous, in fact, so it’s entirely understandable. But it almost always comes with an unspoken, “therefore you’re probably not very smart and I need a thinking person to help me” or “therefore you’re now morally and socially obligated to (give me your number/date me/have sex with me/pretend to show interest in me for the next five minutes).” Often both.

            1. Book Person*

              100% this, yes. Thank you for expressing it so clearly.

              When I’ve come across this phrase in the wild (as a woman who often travels alone for business), it’s most frequently used to interrupt me while I’m reading/eating/listening to a podcast, too. A tap on the shoulder or a wave in front of my face or a loud “excuse me” right next to me so I’ll look up, before the “I just HAD to tell you that you’re pretty.” Well, no, you didn’t HAVE to interrupt me to announce my aesthetic value, and now I am put into the position of wondering what you want / if you’ll go away or sit down across from me and try to pluck the book out of my hand (yep, that’s happened) and talk at me for the next X minutes. Usually, it’s not the going away option, so really, the “compliment” wasn’t for my benefit, but for the dude in question’s.

              1. Afiendishthingy*

                Wow. I would get very hostile if a stranger tried to grab something out of my hand.

                1. Ariadne Oliver*

                  I would have smote him with my book (or my purse, whichever is heavier and would cause more pain).

                  A phrase I remember from a cowboy movie/show when I was a child was, “don’t your worry your pretty little head about that, ma’am”. Even at such a tender age, I found that insulting. Now that my pretty little head is covered with white/gray hair, I KNOW that I can handle just about anything that comes my way, thankyouverymuch.

                2. Book Person*

                  I wish I had been more hostile, on reflection. I was just completely flabbergasted that an actual person had done that actual thing.

            2. Vicki*

              Gah. I’ve known lovely women who have been ignored at trade show booths because of the assumption that a lovely woman is merely booth candy; she cannot possibly actually know what she’s talking about.

              (Men get a similar thing, based not on looks but on attire. If you don’t want to be approached with technical questions in a software / technical trade show booth, just wear a tie. No one will ask you for anything but a brochure.)

      2. ITPuffNStuff*

        granted this unwanted attention would make anyone uncomfortable. since i like being employed, i keep work completely separate from my personal life. i don’t (and won’t) get involved with anyone i work with. i do compliment both men and women on their appearance if i think they happen to look nice that day, but the comment is always exactly these words:

        “you look nice today”

        so far both men and women seem to understand there is zero sexual motive here; just a desire to make people feel good about how they look. i think all people are insecure about our appearances, and compliments like this make us feel a little better. people seem to grasp that i am offering a compliment freely and want nothing in return.

        now, i acknowledge that i think what these men are doing, and particularly what mgmt. is not doing, are not okay. with that said, i have a question for those women who met their current husbands at work — was your husband’s initial approach to you any different? i feel like there’s a very confusing set of mixed messages presented here, and it goes something like “unreciprocated interest = creep; reciprocated interest = endearment”. do you agree? if not, how would you characterize it?

        1. Saurs*

          i feel like there’s a very confusing set of mixed messages presented here

          Welcome to the wild and wonderful world of being a woman.

          Apart from free-for-all threads, this is not a forum for soliciting dating advice at work. Your defensive reaction to the discussion below thread and JAQing off about When It’s Okay / Necessary to Remind Women They’re Gaze-able is not constructive.

          1. ITPuffNStuff*

            hello Saurs, I appreciate your contribution and thank you for responding.

            i’m sorry if this sounded like a request for dating advice; re-reading my own post, i can see how it must have looked that way. so evidently my choice of words was poor. to clarify, i don’t date anyone from work, at all, so i would have no use for that sort of advice. in asking my question, i was hoping some married women would present some positive stories about how their husbands approached them, as a way to balance out the negativity i think is so often directed at men.

            i will acknowledge i do feel a bit defensive, so its no surprise that shows in my posts. there are times i feel the poor choices of some men are projected onto all men, and this discussion is one of those times. i’ll acknowledge that’s more than likely just my own insecurities at work, but given the overwhelmingly negative context in which men are portrayed more as animals than people, i think those insecurities are at least understandable.

            finally, if it wasn’t clear from my statements above, the compliments i’m referring to are given out to men much more often than to women, and when occasionally they are given to women, they have always been received in the innocuous spirit in which they are offered, and it has always been understood that nothing was sought in return. the defensiveness you refer to was more the response that i feel some of the responses here, in AAM, seem to lump me in with men who make advances on their coworkers. that could not be further from truth. given that my boss is female, if something even remotely like that were happening, i feel quite certain i would not be employed.

            1. Saurs*

              there are times i feel the poor choices of some men are projected onto all men, and this discussion is one of those times.

              Multiple men have been harassing the OP’s colleagues. Your consternation and wounded feelings are not important. Please stop excusing sexual harassment by labeling it “poor choices.”

              i was hoping some married women would present some positive stories about how their husbands approached them, as a way to balance out the negativity i think is so often directed at men.

              That is not the purpose of this blog. Women do not exist in the workplace to be marriage fodder. If some men are judged as having behaved badly, that is not a NotAllMenSignal for you to arrive and “balance” things. Sexism is real. You don’t have to take it personally, because it’s not personally affecting you.

              1. ITPuffNStuff*

                i’m wondering if you took the time to read my post condemning these men’s behavior? if not, please do. my position is not at all in support of or defending their actions.

                to your other points, you’re correct and i apologize. i have unintentionally derailed the conversation in a direction wholly irrelevant to the post, so let’s agree that was a mistake, and let the derailing end now by agreeing not to continue this conversation.

                thank you for your replies, and have a nice day.

    3. LBK*

      Yeah, what!? I think that’s the problem that needs to be solved first because there’s no way he’s going to approve or enforce protocols about this if he doesn’t even think it’s an issue.

    4. AndersonDarling*

      It sounds like the OP told the manager that there are problems with “flirting.” If so, that was a poor choice of words. Flirting sounds like it is mutual or cute. If the OP said that there are problems with customers being inappropriate with the techs, then the manager is an idiot.

      1. Katie the Fed*

        Oh good point. This is not the place to downplay the severity. “Several customers are making inappropriate advances toward our female techs. As I’m SURE you’re aware, we don’t want to have our employees working in a hostile environment, so I’d like to work on protocols for stopping these comments.”

      2. The Cosmic Avenger*

        You’re right, that was a huge mistake on the OP’s part, although understandable. They should have called it what it was, harassment, or at least unwanted attention that made the employee very uncomfortable.

        And I’m so glad Alison mentioned nixing the photos. That’s a ridiculous intrusion on their CSR’s privacy and security. If they really want to put a face on their reps, let them pick cartoon avatars. I’ve seen that a lot lately, and it’s a good compromise of privacy and personification.

        I think I said this before, but when I managed a call center, I told my reps to pick a fake name, preferably one that started with the same letter as their real name, and just tell us all what name they were using on the phone. There were only a few of us, so there wasn’t any problem with duplication, but even in a huge call center you could have a directory or spreadsheet of names and aliases. I instituted that practice after a caller just showed up at our reception desk asking for one of my reps. I’m just so grateful that the receptionist was smart enough to put him off, and that we’re not all on one floor, so he had no idea where the rep actually was.

        1. Abby*

          That caller is…super creepy. So glad the staff had the presence of mind not to let it it progress.

          Giving an alias to protect the personal identity of your reps is a great idea, though. As a customer calling in, I could care less if they give me a name or a unique string of letters and numbers with emojis, as long as I have some unique identifier I can refer back to.

        2. Ad Astra*

          It’s not clear from the letter whether OP used the term “flirting” to her manager, or if she was just using the term when relaying the conversation to Allison for the sake of brevity. She may have perfectly conveyed the seriousness of the issue or she may have downplayed it, but the manager’s comment is pretty gross either way.

          It’s like when women complain about street harassment and clueless dudes say “What, you don’t like compliments?” Ugh.

          I really like the idea of a cartoon avatar, something that looks generally like the employee but it’s a real photo of them.

          1. Original Poster*

            Hey, OP here! Ad Astra is correct, I used flirting for the sake of brevity in this contact. My report to the manager involved a copy of the chat record and the comments that concerned me. He’s normally a nice guy, he just doesn’t seem to understand the disconnect between compliment and professionalism as clearly as is necessary in this case.

            It was definitely as you describe, though. He went immediately to the “what’s wrong with compliments?” attitude, which is very disheartening.

            1. Katie the Fed*

              Ugh. That is very disheartening. I think this is where you say “well, as supervisors we have a responsibility to ensure our employees aren’t working in a hostile environment…”

              Any manager worth his salt should hear those words as a wake up call. But he doesn’t sound too worth his salt, does he…

            2. Anonsie*

              He’s normally a nice guy, he just doesn’t seem to understand the disconnect between compliment and professionalism

              Honestly, no he’s not and yes he does. I think people who pull stuff like this hide behind the “I don’t know what you mean!” defense because it works, but it’s crap most of the time. They know. Most people are perfectly capable of understanding why someone repeatedly being invasive in the way you’re describing here is Not Okay and Not Professional.

              And even if he really is just such a troglodyte that he genuinely doesn’t understand (which I highly, highly doubt) he can expend the brain energy to figure figure it out. He does it with other arenas in his job, he can do it with this.

              1. Original Poster*

                I spoke with him more fully today and I think he’s definitely taking things more seriously. The comment may have been more off-hand than anything; once I explained the situation more fully, got several more chat logs together, explained how upset the reps were when this occurred and offered a more expansive game plan (based on this article and it’s responses, largely!), he was much more willing to plan with me and understanding regarding how uncomfortable the situation was. It’s just never something he’s had to deal with, and discussing the issue more deeply helped a lot.

              2. Sarahnova*

                I think this is just another example of so many men’s unconscious privilege. I am so, so sick of seeing any discussion on sexual harassment and catcalling get derailed into “I wish someone would tell ME how good I look!” and “but if I can’t tell random women on the tube that their t*ts are really great, couples will no longer get together and HUMANITY WILL BECOME EXTINCT!”

            3. Ariadne Oliver*

              How would your boss feel if his daughter/mother/sister was the rep receiving these comments? If he thought about it, he might realize that, especially in the working world, these comments aren’t compliments.

        3. Sunshine DC*

          The avatar idea is great! The thing about using fake names though, is you’d surely want, from the management side, to have those officially noted – i.e. who uses which fake name and have them use that name only. Your clients/customers need to be able to note the name of your representative, should there be anything amiss or insufficient in how they do their jobs. The same for if someone provides exemplary service to the clients/customers and they should wish to praise them to the higher ups – or even if they need to follow up on the original issue with the same firson they’d spon with originally (so they can find them again, if possible.) So, to know that Claudia = Sally, Maria = Ingrid, Megan = Dana, etc.

          1. The Cosmic Avenger*

            Yes, but I only had about 3 or 4 people working for me, and (for example) Claudia was Cindy, Maria was Maggie, and Dana was Doris, so it was very easy to remember even without writing it down who a caller meant when they asked for “Maggie”.

            1. OfficePrincess*

              Though this does require that callers get the name right too. When I worked in a call center I kept a running list of all the names people called me after I introduced myself. I would correct people twice and then give up. Some names sounded similar and others… well at least they were female names.

              1. Afiendishthingy*

                Ha, me too. “What’d you say your name was? Okie?” Yes sir, I’m from Muskogee. I think a lot of my customers must have been Starbucks baristas.

        4. Formica Dinette*

          The fake name thing is pretty standard, so I’m glad you brought it up. I remember a friend who worked in collections 20 years ago tell me they all used aliases at his job–first and last names–so everyone who worked there knew that the employee named Hugh Jass was Michael Hunt on the phone. Since the reps at OPs job are on chat, they could all have male aliases, which would solve most of the harassment problems.

          1. Hattie McDoogal*

            I’m sitting here trying not to laugh out loud at your fake names. “Somebody check the washrooms for a Hugh Jass!”

          2. manybellsdown*

            You remind me of the time I was working as a receptionist and one of our field guys called in and told me I needed to page Mr. Padasso, first name Stu, for him. “No no, I know he’s there, he’s in with the owner. Page him for me.”

            I guess he was hoping I wouldn’t sound “Stu Padasso” out in my head beforehand.

          3. TootsNYC*

            Yes, but having all-male names would be a bad thing for our culture–it would essentially erase the concept that women can be experts in this.

            I have to say, I’d love an experiment in which all men took female avatars (photo and name), and women had male ones. For two weeks, so see what it’s like.
            I bet it’d be eye-opening!

        5. Artemesia*

          The photo thing is such a bad idea in this line of work anyway. There are creeps who will just show up or wait outside for the person to exit and harass them.

          1. ITPuffNStuff*

            tech support isn’t usually with local clients, and in any case they generally have no idea where the call center is located. i guess if someone was motivated enough they may be able to find out, but in general the location is not known and not local to the clients.

            1. techandwine*

              I worked support chat for an email marketing company and per CAN-SPAM laws, any emails we sent out included our physical address. We actually had a customer show up in the city, find the office on google maps, and demand that tech support resolve his issue.

        6. Jenna*

          I worked in a call center(not as a rep, but, in a support role) and yes, aliases starting with the same first letter were used.
          If you are on the phone, disguising gender isn’t possible…but, if there is a picture displayed in chat…this is perhaps a text based support role? Here’s an idea that might help keep things more professional from the start. Use a name that is more gender neutral. This is a harassment reduction technique employed by female online gamers since forever, very similar to JK Rowling using her initials to make a more gender neutral pen name.
          I don’t consider this dishonest at all. It isn’t an escort service, it is a tech support role. Gender and actual name are irrelevant. If you HAVE to have a picture, use an avatar or icon that is also gender neutral in association, but, individual to that particular rep.

        7. Elizabeth West*

          The one and only time I ever did phone work, we were told to pick a fake name so that if someone yelled at us, we wouldn’t take it as personally. In your head, you could think, “They’re yelling at Zelena, not at me.”

    5. Stephanie*

      Ick, ITA. I was training a new person at work last week. She is admittedly very pretty. We work in an environment that is 95% male (it’s a warehouse).

      I was showing her how to use the WMS and this woman comes by an introduces herself:
      “Hey, I’m Persephone. You’re the new Teapot Processing Clerk?”
      “Yup, I’m Penelope. Stephanie’s training me.”
      “Ah, cool. Ok, so let me give it to you straight. You’re cute as sh*t. Just warning you, I’ve been here 18 years and these guys are jackals. They will hit on you. They’re all going to be like ‘Oooh, have you seen the new Teapot Processing Clerk? Is she single? Oooh, she’s hot.’ So are you married? Or do you have a boyfriend? They will ask.”
      “I’d prefer to keep my personal life private.”

      I felt bad. It was gross. She probably just wants to show up and work without guys hitting on her.

      1. Stephanie*

        To clarify, I wasn’t saying the “She is admittedly very pretty” to excuse any of this.

      2. Dan*

        I wasn’t there, so I couldn’t see the delivery, but in some senses, wouldn’t you want to be warned?

        I work in an extremely male dominated industry. My boss has been with our work program since she was in grad school. The last time she was in town, she was briefing some folks from industry. One guy walks up to her and says, “I remember you from XYZ school.” She turns to me and says, “That was ten years ago. WTF is up with that?” I don’t think the guy was being creepy, but I did say to her, “I don’t think you realize just how male dominated this industry is. The mere fact that you’re a woman is going to set you apart.”

        I don’t work in a prison, but it’s damn close.

        1. Abby*

          I think the warning was fine, but based on the punctuation, it sounds like Persephone asked if Penelope was married or had a boyfriend for her own information or to pass it on to the male employees. At that point, it was no longer a warning, but rather a rather creepy form of communication…efficiency?– she’s going to get asked the same questions by male co-workers, so might as well get the answers out in the open ASAP.

        2. OfficePrincess*

          Well, there’s a warning, and then there’s what that guy said. I’m also in a very male-dominated industry and I tell any women that I hire “If any of the guys or drivers give you a hard time or say anything inappropriate or make you uncomfortable in any way, let me or [boss] know ASAP”. For the most part, we don’t have any issues, and on the rare occasion someone decides to test the limits, it gets shut down fast.

          1. Stephanie*

            It was actually another woman! I haven’t gotten any warnings that blatant, but I’ve gotten warnings in that vein (usually from older women who have been there a while). Like my shirt raised up a bit in a back while I was crouching (showing all of 2″ of lower back) and this older female admin comes up behind me and pulls my shirt down and is like “Sweetie! Watch your blouse–you have to be careful around all these truckers.”

            The ick factor for me was that there just was tacit approval (“Oh you know these men! They’ll just hit on you because you’re around! Better say you have a boyfriend*!”), kind of the assumption that all of them were horny creeps (I mean, they’re there, but that’s not the vast majority), and that someone wouldn’t know how to deal with a creep. Seems like the better thing to do would be something like OfficePrincess’ suggestion.

            *The boyfriend thing never works with creeps anyway. I’ve said that and gotten “Can I be your friend?” or “Well, you think he’d mind?”

    6. Allison*

      That’s just it, these men think that kind of attention *is* wanted, regardless of what women may say to the contrary.

      1. Mabel*

        Actually, I think they have the luxury of not even giving a single thought to whether their attention is wanted or not.

        1. Zillah*

          I agree. They’re not giving much thought to the woman at all – just their own egos.

        2. Anonsie*

          I think she means the spectators, not the ones actually doing it. If they see another man catcall or a woman tells them about it, they just go “eh she was probably flattered and if she wasn’t she’s being sensitive.”

    7. Anonsie*

      Isn’t it just awesome how you’re not even allowed to be uncomfortable with someone getting too personal with you without someone turning it back around on you like “oh, so you think you’re so hot, huh??”

      1. Formica Dinette*

        So awesome. And if you aren’t conventionally attractive, you must be lying or imagining things because no one would do that to an uggo like you.

        1. Ad Astra*

          I got catcalled outside my office twice in my first week on the job, and I was mortified. The second time, I was walking behind a male coworker I hadn’t met and he didn’t notice me until a guy in a giant pickup truck drove by and said “OW OW HEY BABY.” Confused, he turned around and realized the “compliment” was intended for me.

          Even though I know better, my first two thoughts were, 1.) Is there something about my [business professional] outfit that elicited catcalls?, and 2.) I can’t complain about this because no one would believe someone who looks like me would get catcalled twice in one week.

          And I’m not that bad looking.

        2. Book Person*

          Most vile and explicit catcall I ever had was in the middle of February. In Winnipeg. In Canada. I was under so many layers in the -50C weather that I was an ambulatory fabric lump, with only a teeeeeeny space between scarf and toque left open so I could see. Buddy had no idea what I looked like and it didn’t matter because I walked by him While Female. I wish more people understood that.

          1. Book Person*

            (oops! the Winnipeg/Canada thing is redundant; wrote the latter first but realized fellow Canadians would appreciate the difference between Halifax February and Vancouver February and Winnipeg February, then forgot to delete).

            1. Vicki*

              I have friends in Canada as well as Buffalo NY and Seattle, so I appreciate the difference between Toronto winter, Vancouver winter, and (gasp!) Calgary winter.

          2. Cath in Canada*

            A friend of mine was once mistaken for a prostitute in Hamburg in February, while wearing two sweaters, a jacket, mittens, a balaclava, hat, scarf, and earmuffs.

          3. Vicki*

            “an ambulatory fabric lump”

            I Love this. You must have been wearing bright colors or something…

            In that sort of weather, I think the best response would be “It would freeze and break off, dear”.

            1. Book Person*

              Black and grey, actually; maybe that made me too visible against the all-consuming whiteness of the snow….

              That is a FABULOUS response to winter harassment that I will keep in mind in case I need it in future. :)

          4. Stephanie*

            Oh yes. I used to have a white puffy coat that made me look like the Michelin Man. I got catcalled plenty of times in that.

        3. Afiendishthingy*

          I’m very petite and have always looked younger than I am. One morning when I was 22 I was walking to work in casual clothes, wearing a backpack, and a guy in a truck slowed down and said “Hey…. You want a ride to schooool?” He was right out of a Stranger Danger after school special.

          Also once a plastered guy at a bar was very offended when I yelled at him after he tried to tickle my stomach like I was the damn Pillsbury Dough Boy. RELAX GIRL I WAS JUST JOKIMG AROUND.

            1. Afiendishthingy*

              I was feeling merciful enough to let him off with an obscenity-laced verbal warning

              1. Elizabeth West*

                I just flashed on that old show Happy Days (yes, I’m ancient) and the episode where Arnold was teaching them judo and Joanie flipped all the guys when they tried to come at her. I so wish that could have been the ending to your story.

                *tickle tickle* WHAM!!

  2. Juni*

    Just switch to using stock photos of tech support people. There are thousands of available pictures of women in headsets “ready to help” that are clearly stock photos.

    1. Dynamic Beige*

      Or just the standard blank silhouette. I think getting rid of the actual photos of people would put a stop to most of this. Some people might still think the obviously stock photo isn’t.

      This is the kind of thing that would make a fun Buzzfeed video, swapping out the photos of men who think that women are just lucky to get attention (and why are they complaining about it? I would looooove that!) After a shift doing tech support chat with a photo of a hot blonde up instead of their own, they would be singing a different tune. Like those experiments some people did where a man created a fake dating profile on a website and couldn’t even last 24 hours with the amount of communication and completely inappropriate messages the profile received.

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        Totally, no pics necessary and if they want iy more personal, pick up the phone once in a while. I mean i get chat and tech go well together but building rapport with an occasional call goes a long way. Plus, any type of customer service or support rep gets hit on enough without the pics. I shamefully admit i used to flirt and borderline harrass some of my dstributor customers at Oldjob to get orders (and im female) :/

        1. TCO*

          Sometimes phone contact really does help, but OP’s team should in no way provide extra phone contact with harassing clients. Having a written chat log could provide an important record of the client’s behavior. If they are doing phone calls, they should be recorded.

      2. Lizabeth*

        Forget about a stock photo of a person; just use the company logo or a photo of the actual product.

        Although switching out the photos and giving the males, female ones and vice versa would be an interesting experiment a la Freakeconomics as far as responses, time to fix customer problem etc. And you can take it a step further by using really really attractive stock photos of either sex and some average looking (like 99% of us) and measure those responses against each other. Plus do a customer satisfaction survey for more data. I think I’ll wander over to the Freakeconomics website to suggest it.

      3. Zillah*

        I love that idea so much. I’m sure one or two days and suddenly they’d totally understand where women are coming from.

      4. Sarahnova*

        I think the OP has the perfect opportunity to conduct a little social experiment. Have the male CSRs switch to a female name and avatar, and vice versa. Then have both sides compare stories after a day or two. I imagine some eyes will be opened.

    2. Helka*

      I’m not sure that a stock photo of a female rep would alleviate the problem.

      OTOH, using the same stock photo of a male rep would be a) cheaper than using multiples and b) probably resolve the immediate issue of inappropriate clients. As far as inappropriate manager… that’s harder.

      1. Original Poster*

        I’m planning on pushing for at least just the generic logo. We have a departmental logo that I think will work well. It feels a little like responding to in-person sexual harassment with “well, why were you wearing that?”, but ultimately I think it solves more problems than it causes.

    3. Annonymous*

      This is what the company I used to work for did. I still got comments because the photo was female, but knowing it wasn’t me made things a bit less personal.

    4. BRR*

      I feel like you don’t need any photo. It’s super irrelevant to the position. I’m not sure how much the employee pressed the issue with their manager but if it wasn’t that hard I would stress a little more. Although the manager sounds like one of the customers.

      If bringing repeated attempts to address it with management fail, could you try something like, “*Male employee* is the best person we have at this, let me transfer you to him.” Or could you somehow ensure certain customers only interact with male client reps? Is that illegal? This paragraph is only trying to address getting results and is far from an ideal solution, just wanted to point that out.

      1. Juni*

        Actually, it turns out that chat support is less likely to get abused when there is a photo. Sexually harassed, apparently not, but it’s become pretty clear in the course of business that a tiny picture, even if it’s not actually of the support rep, lowers incidences of general abuse.

        1. LQ*

          Just curious because this is a little confusing. Does this mean it reduces general abuse overall or shifts the target of it? Like if you had a 50/50 center and you were getting 100 incidents previously do you now get 50 with the majority of those happening to women or do you get 100 but all sexually charged and primarily toward women?

          Also do you know if that is different with cartoon avatars vs photos?

          Do you have any of the studies around this?

          1. JB (not in Houston)*

            My guess is that it makes the support person seem more like a person, like how we are more likely to say awful things to people on the internet and less likely to say the same thing to their face.

          2. Juni*

            It reduces general abuse and increases civility overall, and I think it actually requires a photo of a human face, not a cartoon. It might have to do with the eyes. I can’t seem to find studies right now but they’re out there – the relevant field of study is workplace psychology, I think it’s in some journal articles.

            1. TootsNYC*

              Interesting! I worked at a company that was going public, and the designs for their stock certificate were a topic of conversation. I thought I’d heard that there was a requirement that a pair of human eyes had to look out from the stock certificate. I guess it made the company look more trustworthy.

              I can’t find that as an actual requirement, but I know that “human eyes” was a part of that conversation. They had samples of Betty Crocker’s and other companies’ stock certificates on the wall.

    5. Jennifer*

      Hell, if they’re doing online chat, there is NO need to put a photo.

      I wonder if it’d be an option for them to use a fake gender neutral (or let’s face it, MALE) name while chatting, because that’s probably the only thing that would really discourage this.

      1. Chinook*

        While I have to admit that changing everything to a male name and/or male photo alleviates the issue in the short term, isn’t it also doing damage by reinforcing the idea that women don’t do this type of work? Or give the impression that this company doesn’t hire women to do this type of tech work? The issue is really the customer, not the employee, so why should the employee have to hide her gender?

        I am torn between not wanting to hide the women for their safety/sanity/job satisfaction and wanting to find a way to empower those who are being harassed (including the men) by giving them the opportunity to cut a support session short if certain lines are crossed (like they would if someone started swearing a them).

        1. Student*

          “why should the employee have to hide her gender?”

          Because her bosses won’t give her the authority and respect to just hang up when customers behave inappropriately. If her bosses don’t respect her, then the customers don’t have to – so her best alternative is to pretend to be male.

          1. S*

            I really really hope this suggestion is not because you think that Big Boo is too ugly to be hit on, or that large people in general are too ugly to be hit on. Size does not equal attractiveness, and attractiveness to one person Definitely doesn’t influence whether that person will be harassed or not.

            1. Afiendishthingy*

              Big Boo is plenty attractive, but she also looks like she would castrate idiot male customers who tried to hit on her. I mean that as a compliment to her ;)

            2. Chalupa Batman*

              I took it more as that Big Boo does NOT look friendly or open to being “flirted” with by rude customers. I’d go with Crazy Eyes myself…

              In all seriousness, I was just thinking that they can’t choose someone plain or unattractive as a generic avatar because attractiveness is so subjective, and it’s often not about that anyway. Some people think it’s fun to get a rise out of someone by openly hitting on them in inappropriate ways or settings. They aren’t trying to get a date, they’re trying to either make them uncomfortable or get them to “break character” by playing along. Either response is hilarious to them. My husband does a non-creepy version of this in checkouts and the like by saying things like “settle an argument-who has this year’s sleeper album, Taylor Swift or One Direction?” then telling them in detail why whichever one they didn’t choose is ahmazing (he’s a heavily tattooed middle aged man that looks like he eats One Direction for breakfast). If he sees that the person is uncomfortable or genuinely too busy to play with him, he apologizes and backs off, because it’s only funny if they play along. With the other, inappropriate breed like the ones in this letter, it only makes it worse when they seem uncomfortable because it’s a power thing-they’re the butt of a joke, not a co-conspirator in it. Getting management support for techs to shut this down would be best, but barring that, at least the option for a logo or cartoon avatar would be better than a mandatory photo regardless of whose photo it is.

    6. Vicki*

      I was going to suggest this. I admit I’m weird; I like the idea of the little cartoon people. They add a sense of “there’s someone there” to the text conversation.

      I think it’s because I’ve gotten used to this from social media. Everyone has an avatar. And you can tell if it’s the same person because it’s the same avatar. They’re even more recognizable than a photo.

      “Who did you talk to yesterday?”
      “Um, Jane? She’s a sparkly unicorn…?”
      “Oh, right. Let me look that up…”

  3. Isben Takes Tea*

    I wonder if framing it by comparing it to customers coming into a physical store and saying these things to the reps in person you could help get the point across to those who might not understand what the big deal is. (I would think that ideally, the reps would have the authority to exit the support chat if certain pre-approved warnings were given and lines were still crossed, assuming you keep a copy of all interactions.)

    I would also say the first thing to do is see if the pics could come down.

    Thanks for considering this a big deal, and good luck resolving it!

    1. Zillah*

      I think the issue, though, is that it sounds like often, it’s not so much about going dramatically over the line as it is persistent infringement skirting the line by multiple, unrelated customers.

    2. Dynamic Beige*

      I had a friend in college who got a job in a service bureau that was right on the street. She told me she was amazed by how many guys would walk past the store, then spin around and come in to chat her up. She was single at the time and she did wind up going out with some of them. As she was frequently the only one in the store, she was also kind of trapped.

      I also used to post on a dating advice forum and the amount of “so there’s this waitress at this pancake house…” type posts were staggering. A lot of men seem to confuse being friendly with “she likes me!” and this is doubly so when the person is in a service industry where being nice to you is required. Uh, she’s not being nice to you because she digs your chili, she’s being nice to you because 1. that’s a requirement of her job and 2. she knows the nicer she is, the better the tip she may get. That’s it.

      So I can see how some guy chatting online with a female CSR would fall into the same trap. “She’s being nice to me! She’s a female! I should try and see if I can get a date/her digits!” Nevermind that the call center is probably thousands of miles away.

      Aside from publishing a world-wide manifesto on the appropriate ways to interact with people in public spaces that everyone must read before logging on to the Internet, one answer is to have a notepad doc open nearby with a script of quick phrases that can be copied and pasted when this starts up.
      “I’m sorry, sir, but that is an inappropriate thing to say.”
      “If you continue along in this vein of commenting, I will have no choice but to log off and your problem will not be solved.”
      “Please do not make comments like that or I shall be forced to send you to another agent/my manager”
      It would be even more awesome if there was a way to invite another person into the chat, or the chats were generally monitored and could be popped into any time. Because unfortunately people are usually better behaved when they think there could be someone else watching.
      CUSTOMER: Hey, you are sooooo cute! LOL!
      CSR: I’m sorry, sir, but that is an inappropriate thing to say.
      CUSTOMER: Oh, c’mon, I’m just being friendly! You’re so pretty, you have a pretty smile!
      CSR MANAGER company logo icon: Sir, please refrain from speaking to your agent in that manner. If you continue, I will take over this chat/end the interaction/forward you to another agent.
      CUSTOMER: Uh… OK.
      CSR: So getting back to your issue about the chocolate for your teapot being milk and not dark…

      And because without data, most problems don’t exist to others, keeping a log of how many times a day an inappropriate comment is made, copying the most egregious ones into a report that is delivered monthly to the manager is probably going to be the only way he sees the scope of the problem — because some people really love charts and graphs. That or shadowing a different employee a day for a week — probably just a few hours would do the trick if the situation is that bad.

  4. UKAnon*

    One idea to maybe take to your CEO: could you (do you?) ask people to sign up to T&Cs; if so they should include that any inappropriate or unwelcome comments will result in the live chat no longer being available and instead they’ll have to do XYZ instead (maybe email a generic address and wait longer for a response?)

    The customer isn’t always right, and the best businesses get rid of the wrong ones.

  5. Helka*

    Ohhhh my god. Someone needs to have a serious talk with that senior manager, because he’s way out of line with that response. That wouldn’t really be appropriate in the workplace pretty much ever, but pulling it specifically when a report is mentioning unwelcome innuendo/flirting in the workplace? He’s giving you notice that he’s going to be part of the problem.

    Definitely arm the reps with responses they can give. It can be hard for someone to come up with a good response on the fly, especially when they’re constrained by on-the-job protocol.

    1. Helen of What*

      Word. Being a CS rep is tough enough without people being gross. And then to have a senior manager dismiss the complaints?? UGH.
      My old CS team used to have full names in their signatures but thankfully the director understood that his (at the time all female) reps were concerned about harassment and we cut down to first names only. We never had our photos up, which seems like a silly thing to do in the first place. In chat support, language and tone are better markers for “human-ness” than a picture.

      I second the suggestion to give standard wording in response to harassment. I would also suggest that after two warnings that the person be blocked or switched to a manager. If representative of a company, the offender’s chat transcripts should be forwarded to their HR dept or manager.

        1. Colette*

          That one warning would need to be pretty direct and clear that any more personal comments would result in terminating the chat. With two strikes, you could have a softer warning (i.e. “I’m not here to discuss that, so let’s get back to your account.”) before the warning that indicates you’re going to end the chat.

          Very few businesses are going to allow CSRs to end a chat after one warning.

          1. Mike C.*

            One clear direct warning sounds good to me. The feelings of the person who’s crossing the line aren’t important here.

            Understand, I don’t really care that most businesses will place their customers over their legal obligation to protect their own employees from sexual harassment – it’s important to point out that there should be different expectations rather than let what is easy continue to be the norm.

            1. Colette*

              But you run the risk of offending (and losing business from) customers who will stop if you use a soft warning first. You also run the risk of losing customers who may have said something that came across as offensive but was genuinely intended as an innocuous statement. Most of us have had the experience of saying something that was interpreted in a way we didn’t intend for it to be. Do you want to lose those customers?

              And finally, one stern warning means that it will either be used too quickly (with statements that sound a little off) or too late (after an escalating pattern of inappropriate comments), because there’s no intermediate step.

          2. TootsNYC*

            What if you didn’t end it–you simply transferred the offender over to another rep? Even without escalating to a manager?

            I think I might want to try that–At the very first personal comment, the rep transfers the call to any other rep, who says, “Personal conversations aren’t allowed on the chat–I’ll be taking your chat. Is there a work-related issue I can help you with?”

            1. Colette*

              It depends on how they’re set up. They’d probably have to put the chat back into the queue. This means the customer would likely have to wait again, and that they might end up with the same rep, if that rep is the first available rep when the customer gets to the front of the line.

              1. Original Poster*

                There is a transfer available, and a team lead for the group that they can be transferred to, which might actually help keep track of offenders, as well. Good thought.

                1. Colette*

                  If the volume is low enough that you can transfer to the team lead, that’s a good option (as long as the team lead knows what her options are for denying service and the first line reps know when and how to communicate the transfer.)

                2. TootsNYC*

                  It would be a low-disruption (on your end, anyway) to disrupt the caller’s tactic. You just want to knock him off his track.
                  I think you don’t even need to transfer him to a guy–just ANYone else. And add that “you were making personal comments, let’s keep this about work.”

                  I would bet that the team lead won’t have the same problems that the first person does.

                3. TootsNYC*

                  I think I was also hoping that transferring around inside the team might be something you can just slip into the workflow without having to make a big thing about it outside.

                4. TootsNYC*

                  another possible script, if you felt ‘you were making personal comments’ was too confrontations.

                  “I’m sorry, Rep A doesn’t have time for personal conversations; I’ll be handling your inquiry. Is there a work-related thing I can help you with?”

                  So it puts the focus on time. And gives the team lead the opening to say, if she gets any pushback from the transferred client: “We do need to move inquiries along quickly; other customers are waiting for us when you’re finished, and I’m sure you have work to get back to as well.”

                5. Kas*

                  @TootsNYC – making it about the support rep not having time to have a personal conversation doesn’t address the underlying issue, which is that personal or “flirtatious” comments are never acceptable in this context (as well as many others).

                  The “personal conversations aren’t allowed” explanation is much better. However, I’d rephrase it as “making personal comments in support chat is not acceptable”.

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        Yes, transcripts and i was also thinking the harrassee could use such language to get harrasser to stop “you know, these transcripts are recorded so…lets get back to your issue”.

  6. Jubilance*

    This sounds like an incredible clusterf*ck. A senior manager brushes off an employee’s report of harassment by clients? UGH.

    OP, do you have any ability to go higher up with this issue? Can you provide stats on how often this happens as well as examples of the comments?

    1. Isben Takes Tea*

      Oh yes, evidence would be great! As well as specific comments by the reps about how it makes it difficult to do their jobs?

    2. Stranger than fiction*

      Yeah this dude is just plain old school and/or doesnt take the Op seriously, try other managers,present the evidence until something gets done. If theyre all numbskulls about it, bring out the big guns , ie, make them aware of the legal implications, since the bottom line may be all these dudes care about at present

    3. Original Poster*

      We actually keep logs of all chats for all time. I’ve been trying to keep track of which users have been inappropriate, but a more formalized system would be useful to have to keep track of reports, narrow down common offenders, and let everyone know that there IS a system in place and that they do NOT have to put up with harassment in the workplace.

  7. Random Commenter*

    As a female who uses social media and forums for discussing current events, playing games, and the occasional chat platform, it’s been my experience that “let me see who I’m talking to” is a low-key way of sussing out whether I’m attractive. Because almost invariably after I share a requested photo, the person turns really pervy or stops talking to me altogether. I guess it depends on whether they like the photo or not. The sort of person I wouldn’t mind knowing what I look like is also the sort of person who doesn’t really care what I look like.

    Ideally, we would live in a world where it doesn’t matter what someone looks like (outside of hygiene and finding a romantic partner) but I think the OP is describing a common bias against women in the workplace that’s been exacerbated by the perceived anonymity of chat.

    1. Zillah*

      But is the chat even sort of anonymous? IME, I have to provide a lot of information to a rep before they move onto my original issue.

      1. Random Commenter*

        Perceived anonymity is not a logical thing. That’s why people pick their noses in the middle of the street in broad daylight (ie: stoplight nose pickers).

  8. Brett*

    I know this is way above the OP to do anything about….

    But frequently the person contacting tech support is not the decision maker on buying software. Ideally, the software company should be able to contact the purchasing decision maker and say the equivalent of, “Your contact person is being gross to our tech support people. Fix this.” In our org, this kind of behavior from the tech contact towards tech support would be dealt with pretty harshly. Not sure if this would work with other organizations though.

    Customers are revenue, but lost productivity among your tech support (or losing tech support people altogether) is going to increase your burn rate and that hurts the company too.

    1. LBK*

      Totally agreed. If there’s a specific repeat offender or an offender that you know you may have to speak to again, someone else at his company needs to be contacted. If the problem isn’t fixed, I’d fire that client if at all feasible. There are very few situations where the financial hit of losing a client is worse than the financial hit of a tech quitting (or suing you).

    2. Colette*

      A lot of this depends on their client base. If they sell to businesses, this is a possibility. If they sell to consumers, it’s not.

      I’m also not sure this is a good choice for the first offense – it involves a lot of people and doesn’t solve the immediate problem of the rep who is handling the chat.

      If the behavior continues, though, I agree that this is appropriate.

    3. Chinook*

      “(or losing tech support people altogether)”

      I don’t think the OP’s manager realizes that this is a real consequence of allowing this behavior to continue. As well, he is narrowing the future hiring pool because word will get out that female tech support have to put up with low level harassment at this company, which means that female tech support people with skills and options will choose to never apply in the first place.

    4. Original Poster*

      We do work with businesses, but frequently the Decision Maker is the one in chat. However, having the initial account manager reach out to the management at that company where necessary to let them know that a particular user will no longer be supported in live chat may be a good recourse. That could be at management discretion, I could see that working

      1. OfficePrincess*

        Definitely push for that as a consequence of either repeat offenders or way over the line comments. We do that here and it has worked almost every time. One guy’s boss was firmly of the belief that his guy would “never do that, really it doesn’t sound like him at all,” but all the others stop once they realize it won’t be ignored.

        1. Original Poster*

          It helps that we keep all chat transcripts on-file for all companies. We’ve also got account managers who are assigned individually to company projects, so management in that department may be able to assist in contacting them. I’m trying to work out a solid protocol that works for all involved so that there is a clear escalation path in future.

        2. Sarahnova*

          Sigh. I’d hope that being able to provide actual transcripts to this guy’s boss would put paid to that, but I suspect he’d just switch into “but he was just being nice, can’t you take a compliment” mode.

  9. Mena*

    The pics are the problem. Remove them or make them some generic cartoon that plays off of your logo.

    1. Zillah*

      Well, no – the grossness is the problem. The pics are just an excuse – it’s 100% on them.

      1. Saurs*

        Yep. Hate the notion that women are obliged to hide themselves or conceal their gender because men can’t be expected to treat them like humans.

  10. Used to work the phones*

    Completely 1000% agree with “remove the photos”. That’s very old-school and in my mind sexist. 9/10 modern companies that I now deal with as a customer that have live chat either use no image, or use an avatar – something like the company symbol, logo, or sometimes a cartoon character.

  11. Student*

    Give your customer service reps a chat name. Make it non-gendered if possible. I’d go with numbers – “Service rep 0123”. Heck, let the women choose a man’s name if they want as their user name. You just need their user names to be unique so you can track down problems and follow up on customer complaints – you don’t really need them to be real first names.

    If I was one of your female customer service reps, I’d probably go for an androgynous user name, or even a completely male name. I do that all the time on the internet, because it cuts back on the gendered sass dramatically. It will also, sadly, make many people take their technical advice more seriously.

    1. TCO*

      When I worked tech support (as my college job), I definitely got taken less seriously at times because I was a woman. I was one of the better reps but some (not most, but definitely some) clients refused to believe my instructions until they heard the exact. same. instructions. from my male coworkers. It was so frustrating.

      Our work was phone-based so it was harder to conceal gender, but I think OP should definitely consider whether using neutral names would be a possibility. It could be a way to reduce another aspect of discriminatory behavior that could be making her female employees’ work harder and less effective. I’m guessing a smallish company like hers places a lot of value on connecting their clients to “real live” tech support so OP might need to make a case for how a bit of anonymity will improve (or at least not worsen) the service her company provides its clients.

      1. Artemesia*

        The world doesn’t change until people stand up. By hiding gender you just reinforce the view that this is men’s work and those biases have consequences in hiring and opportunity for women.

        1. Saurs*

          Also, that solution isn’t hiding gender. Men have a gender. Using men in the default is actively sexist.

        2. Jenna*

          If you volunteer to make a change, that’s one thing, but drafting possibly the lowest paid people in the company into the fight with no management support is another thing entirely.
          Protect your customer support reps any way you have the means to.

    2. Apollo Warbucks*

      I saw last week tonight with John Oliver the other week and he did a bit about on-line abuse target one line that stood out to me was when he said “if you’ve never been abused on-line then congratulations on your white penis” the interviews with some victims of revenge porn and other on-line abuse were quite shocking.

    3. 42*

      “I do that all the time on the internet, because it cuts back on the gendered sass dramatically.”

      My husband used usernames for the opposite reason: to gain attention.

      Back in the late ’90s when (I think it was) Yahoo games were big (ranked games like backgammon, chess, etc), my husband used to play online chess a lot. When he had his original username (a neutral-sounding word), he rarely got invites to play, and when he would join a game they’d boot him saying that they were waiting for someone specific. End result is he really wanted to play but had a very hard time finding games. On a hunch he changed his username to “Tiny Dancer” and BOOM – got all the games he wanted.

      So yeah, the public-at-large can really suck.

      1. Anonsie*

        Gonna out myself here, I played a lot of MMOs back in the day and people would always assume folks would help the female players out more or that we got special perks. The thing is that a lot of men play as women and use female names anyway just so they can look at the characters, so everyone assumes you’re a guy whether you’re playing a male or female character anyway. You’d get on the voice chat and suddenly OH THAT GIRL IS ACTUALLY A GIRL?

        1. ITPuffNStuff*

          “just so they can look at the characters”

          not sure i like the generalization here about what all men apparently do or the presumption about motives. i used to be fairly heavily into these sorts of games as well, and had an even mix of male and female characters. all of my characters were reboots of old pencil/paper role playing characters, and zero of them were selected for appearance. all of them were character concepts built around what i wanted the character to express, and gender was a deliberate part of that thought process.

          1. Anonsie*

            Noted, it was not phrased well. I didn’t mean to literally oogle them (though I have heard that said by plenty of men, they are also a minority), I put it that way because every guy I’ve ever known who had female characters has been pretty upfront about playing as women because they tend to get sweeter costumes. I’m sure that’s not 100% of guys, and in some MMOs that wouldn’t even make sense, but it’s definitely not unusual for those games to have more interesting or flashier designs done on the female versions of armor and for people to pick female avatars because of it.

            I mean, I do. Normally in games I like to make a mix of male and female characters, but in MMOs the flashiness discrepancy is often large between genders and I always go for women.

        2. Nashira*

          I literally had one World of Warcraft guild tell my husband and I that they thought we were a male gay couple and I was pretending to be female cuz homophobia, after I spoke in voice chat.

          I’m still head desking over that one. Being female was eventually less shocking in other guilds and other games, but having to basically prove I was who I said I was, over and over again, never stopped frustrating me. That and having to make a frequent show of being very much happy w/ the husband so I wasn’t constantly hit on. Ughhhh.

          1. ITPuffNStuff*

            my group of friends therein consisted primarily of married couples (i was one of the few single people in our group), and this was a common complaint among the wives.

      2. Cath in Canada*

        I used to play an online version of Risk through Facebook, and more than once the other players would say “let’s get the b***h out first” and work together to knock me out. One person even said “I hope you get breast cancer”!

        My husband accidentally used my username once and was shocked by the difference. I played using his account after that.

        1. Zillah*

          The name I use on sports blogs isn’t necessarily clearly male or female, but I don’t hide it my gender, either. People have regularly been surprised when it’s come up, bc I do try to mention it occasionally.

          I always know the value of the community when someone starts being sexist – in one, the other commenters shut them down really fast and the mods removed the comments before I even saw them – I only knew it happened because I saw the comments saying “what the hell is wrong with you” and “sexism isn’t welcome here” etc. There was a little pushback when I started my “stop using the word rape in this context,” but people did mostly cut it out after a week or two of my commenting on every single use of the word.

          In the other – which was incredibly blatant and offensive – it took a dude contacting the mods before they did anything.

          Three guesses which one I stayed at longer.

          1. anonymous daisy*

            I used my real first name in a hockey forum and later switched to Mildred. I was amazed at how differently I was treated when I had a stereotypical elderly womans name.

        2. ITPuffNStuff*

          ugh. this.

          i won’t make myself part of this group by apologizing for their behavior, but … no yes i will. i’m sorry they treated you that way. it takes the hard work of 100 good men to offset the stupidity of 1 aggressive adolescent.

    4. Chinook*

      “If I was one of your female customer service reps, I’d probably go for an androgynous user name, or even a completely male name.”

      I find this a shame because it means that I, as a female, never get to see that women can do this type of work too. Granted, I am a Gen Xer who grew up battling the idea that “computers are for boys” and had no clue that you can earn a living with them until I left for university, but this is a field with a small number of women in it to begin with and we shouldn’t be encouraging companies to make their female staff less visible (not that I say they should be promoting someone just because they are female – I am all about the skills).

      I also find it really weird that I am the one taking this point of view in AAM and it hasn’t come up from others more often. How can we expect female techs to be treated with respect if we keep them hidden? Isn’t it better to demand they be treated well and risk losing a few customers? Which would make the worse headline: “Customer cut off from on-line support due to rude behavior” or “Female tech support personnel feel unsafe at work”?

      1. Ad Astra*


        This suggestion is great way to win the battle but lose the war. There is no solution to this problem that doesn’t involve asking these clients to improve their behavior.

      2. Observer*

        Yes. I think it’s time to normalize the idea that women (even “pretty” ones!) can do tech as well as anyone else. And ALSO that women can and should cut the garbage when it starts. It’s high time that “nice” means the same thing for men and women. It’s acceptable for a guy to say “cut it out”. It needs to be acceptable for a woman to say it, too. And, I think it’s only going to happen ig f we let it happen in the open – ie women actually doing that – and NOT while pretending to be men!

        1. Panda Bandit*

          The very first programmers were women and it was known as a woman’s field until the late 1960s. This is history that does not get taught very often.

      3. Student*

        This is entirely misdirected. I’d go so far as to say it sounds like you don’t have much first-hand experience with the problem.

        In a perfect world, these customer service reps would hang up on customers who treat them badly. They can’t do that because their boss doesn’t have their back – their boss is where all the gendered disrespect starts and stops.

        They will get fired for hanging up on guys who are more interested in harassing them than in solving a technical problem. THAT, and only that, is the problem.

        So turn your shaming to that boss. He deserves it. Women trying to protect themselves with the only tools they have available – internet anonymity – are just trying to get by after being denied basic justice by those with authority. We don’t need your holier-than-thou shaming. We need power.

        1. Myrin*

          While I understand your point, this is a very harsh reaction to a civil and taken-well-by-other-commenters comment.

        2. Zillah*

          I can’t speak for Chinook, but I do have first-hand experience with this problem, and I agree with her. Just because people disagree with you doesn’t mean they’re naive or ignorant, and you seem to be reading a lot into her comment that just isn’t there.

          I mean, really, how is:

          we shouldn’t be encouraging companies to make their female staff less visible


          How can we expect female techs to be treated with respect if we keep them hidden? Isn’t it better to demand they be treated well and risk losing a few customers?

          shaming women? That seems to be directed at society and these companies, not women who work there, and I don’t see any “holier than thou” statements directed specifically at CS reps at all.

          What I read Chinook as saying is that hiding women behind male names is a really unfortunate solution in the long run because it perpetuates the idea that women don’t work in these fields, which in turn discourages more women from going into these fields. Rather than make female techs hide behind male names, companies should demand respect toward their techs, even if it loses them a few customers, and proposed solutions should not automatically jump to “let’s all use male names.”

          I really don’t see how that’s disempowering women or indicative of complete ignorance and “holier-than-thou shaming.”

          1. Chinook*

            Zillah, you expressed what I was trying to express. I have worked, and am currently working, in environments that are male heavy and I have worked with bosses that have given varying levels of support for sticking up for yourself. Yes, the boss needs to be called out but so far no one has been disciplined (I think?) for telling the offender to stop it or lose access to this service or been disconnected because it doesn’t sound like anyone has taken it this far yet (which is why the OP is asking for advice on how to do it).

            What would happen if the female techs put their foot down and disconnected the offender after telling them to stop? I would recommend keeping a copy of the chat and letting the boss know this happened so it doesn’t look like you are hiding anything and then let the chips fall where they may. And if a tech is fired for disconnecting a boor, could you imagine the headline that would come from that, especially if she can prove, in writing, what was being said?

            There are some hills worth dying on and, to me, this would be one of them. Nothing is going to change if we women hide behind male personas instead of demanding we be treated with respect.

          2. Afiendishthingy*

            I totally agree. Photos are unnecessary, and I like the personalized avatar idea (so you can be a human dude or lady or an alien or platypus, whatever your little heart desires). Maybe CSRs could use the same kind of aliases we post under here, some of which are gendered and some are not. Personal enough to be humanizing but shouldn’t feel like an invasion of CSR’s privacy.

            But no matter what the sexual harassment is on the harrasers. I would have them check a user agreement thing before beginning chat which would state only support issues would be discussed and that inappropriate comments could lead to termination of the chat session. The No Assholes rule applies to customers, too.

      4. Anonsie*

        This is always the rub, isn’t it? When do I want to prioritize my own safety and comfort and when do I want to put my foot down for me and everyone else in the process? Sometimes you just want to tell the guy hovering over you at the bar that your made-up boyfriend is in the bathroom and just stop it without sticking your neck out. Sometimes you want to shut it down for you because, god damn it, I said go away, he should be freaking listening to me without me having to wave some invisible dude around as my real owner.

        I’ve thought about this a lot as I’ve been trying to progress my career. Women drop out of science frequently when the issues built up to their breaking point. Whenever I hit one of those at work I wonder, where is the line for me? Will I ever hit that line or will I get lucky? How much am I willing to put up with to stay in this field and refuse to let them push me out? I don’t want to be in the statistic of women who drop out, but neither did any of the women who left. Will I meet a point where standing firm isn’t worth it anymore?

        1. ITPuffNStuff*

          bars are not my thing, so i don’t hang out in them, but would you mind if i ask how you prefer to be approached?

          i hear tons of stories about all the bad men in the world and all the bad things they do (in fact, we seem to be the villains in every cultural narrative), but i don’t really hear stories about the loved husbands or how they initially approached the woman that eventually married them. it creates the impression that women just really don’t want men around at all, in any context, but then how do things like marriage actually happen?

          1. Chinook*

            “but i don’t really hear stories about the loved husbands or how they initially approached the woman that eventually married them. ”

            If it makes a difference, I met my husband in a bar when he was out with his fellow infantry trainees. He was noteworthy as the only one willing to approach a woman (which is a shame, because they were a nice bunch of guys once I got to know them).

          2. Anonsie*

            Eh erm. Well, I have two strong reactions to these questions.

            The first is that what you’re imagining women are talking about when they talk about guys bothering them and what we’re actually describing is different. The “crappy guy in a bar” narrative does not come from dudes who just started trying to chat. They’re guys who stuck behind you for an hour refusing to leave you alone and either interrogating you or insulting you until you managed to sneak out and go to a different bar or walked up and started pulling you over to them by the hips. They’re guys who, when you said you didn’t want them to buy you a drink, started cursing at you or even tried to physically intimidate you as punishment. So you should understand that the severity of what we’re talking about is a little different than you may think. It’s not men hitting on you, it’s men being extremely inappropriate and even outright scary.

            And if I’m trying to just live my normal life at the grocery store and some guy comes by and, as I swear to god has actually happened to me, goes “You like Dr Pepper best? Me too! That’s neat. What’s your name?” I don’t hate that guy. I’m not angry at him. But because of the aforementioned men who follow, intimidate, and grab, I am suddenly put in an uncomfortable place: If I tell this guy I’m busy, is he going to get angry and start something? Is he going to keep following me? And usually yes, one decline and walking away doesn’t usually work. Usually there’s persistence. You can’t just be like “yep” and keep shopping, they’ll very often keep going and not accept that you’re trying to move on for at least a short while.

            So suddenly rather than being able to run errands in peace, I have to deal with this. Best case scenario I have the short worry where I decline and hope he doesn’t reappear while I’m still in the store and behave badly. Worst case scenario, he refuses to take no for an answer and follows me around, and then I have to drop this errand and get out and hope he doesn’t try to follow me past that. The problem with this whole thing is that the sheer amount of terrible behavior we’ve seen in the past colors all the milder encounters in the future because we have no way of knowing which one of those people you are. It’s all just frustrating, and while I wouldn’t tell someone to never ever approach women over it, you do have to drop it and bounce at the first decline.

            You have to meet people in the way that makes sense to the kind of person you want to meet. Personally I don’t think I know anyone who met their spouses through one of them just randomly approaching the other in public, in general people I know met through friends or church or or an online game something else they had in common. I know it happens, but different people are drawn to different things and the people in my circles aren’t the type I guess. In my case I’ve asked out guys I saw around on a regular basis say, where I take a class or at a neighborhood rec center. I’ve also dated online and I know people who’ve met their partners that way. So first establish how the women you want to date want to meet you. For example, if you’re not the bar type then women who go to bars to meet men are probably not women you want to date anyway, you probably have disparate interests. In my case this is also true, I’m not super interested in meeting guys in bars so the guys trying to pick me up in a bar are pretty unlikely to be my type.

            The second thing is that you should examine your own reaction to hearing women talk about this and consider what it means about how you think about women and relationships in general. That probably sounds harsh, but it’s important to understand why you feel how you feel about anything and that goes double for how you feel about other people. Because it sounds to me like you’re hearing women talk about their bad experiences and, rather than really listening to them tell you why this is a problem to us and really understanding that, you’re partially taking it in but also partially getting frustrated by how it impacts your ability to meet women. Which is a pretty normal reaction to have on the one hand, and on the other hand it’s exacerbating everyone’s problem. Is there a reason that you feel those complaints reflect on you specifically? Do you see any of yourself in the descriptions above other than that I’m talking about males?

            If so, you need to reassess your approach here. If not, then why do you feel like you’re being blamed and lumped in with aforementioned Men Behaving Badly? If you think we’re being overly sensitive and unfairly blocking regular guys from being able to meet us, why is that? If it’s because you don’t really think those men are behaving that badly at all, there’s one source of your problem that you should examine. You’re hearing a lot of people (let’s take the gender out here) talking about how they feel this is inappropriate and impacts them negatively– why do you still think it’s ok to treat people like that? And then if you do think it’s bad behavior but you’re still frustrated by people complaining about it, why is that? In what way do you think they’re wrong? What solution do you see to this whole thing?

            I don’t know you personally or anything so I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but it’s all worth exploring. The better you understand this, the easier it will be for you to relate to other people and have interactions and relationships that fit. What type of interactions do you want to have? How does that compare to the type of interactions you’re actually having, or that you maybe thing you have to have? What do you think is the disconnect there, and how do you think you can get around it?

            1. Afiendishthingy*

              Anonsie, I’m considering proposing to you on the spot. It’s legal in all fifty states now and I will follow you around this blog until you accept :D

            2. ITPuffNStuff*

              “Do you see any of yourself in the descriptions above other than that I’m talking about males?”

              nope, it’s just that i’m male. good men have nothing in common with these stories. and that’s what aggravates me. it has nothing to do with my access to women — it has to do with my access to respect, to being viewed as an individual human being instead of “another male” (which, in the modern cultural narrative, always seems to carry a negative connotation).

              your story above about being approached by a stranger in a grocery store illustrates the point pretty well — the best possible outcome for this guy was that you would not hate him. this is why i, and i presume many men, wouldn’t approach random strangers. it’s just too awkward, and “well she doesn’t hate me” is pretty much the best one can expect to come out of it.

              forgive me for feeling like “all men” and “bad men” seem like the same thing to women, but in these horror stories that seems to be how it is presented. it would be nice once in a while to hear a story like “hey listen to this great surprise my husband prepared for our anniversary!” or “my boyfriend did something really sweet”. instead, we hear for the 1000th time that men are Bad People.

              1. afiendishthingy*

                I don’t think anyone here thinks all men are Bad People. People DO talk about sweet things their husbands and boyfriends do. I know lots of nice guys.

                However, to me your term “horror stories” calls to mind things like people killed by seatbelts – like sure, there’s a TINY CHANCE your seatbelt could harm you, but the odds of it actually happening to you are infinitesimal. The reason you keep hearing “horror stories” about men pursuing women in creepy, demeaning, often terrifying ways is because it happens ALL THE TIME. It’s not that it’s happened to every woman once or twice. It’s that it’s happened to every woman probably dozens of times. If you’re not a guy doing this, it’s not your fault, and it’s unfortunate that you feel other guys are making you look bad. But the problem is not that women won’t stop telling “horror stories.”

              2. Saurs*

                You are far too invested in feeling good about yourself than in what women are experiencing. If you can’t handle answers to your (rather irrelevant) questions about the female hivemind, don’t ask. Stop demanding cookies for being A Real Man. All men are real men. Knock it off with the No True Man / Only Boys hand-waving.

                +1 to your comment, Anonsie.

                1. Saurs*

                  Feck, I must have missed the memo (or lost it in my comically oversized cat-shaped purse full of used tampons, or something).

              3. Anonsie*

                If you don’t behave that way, then women bringing up dealing with men who do isn’t about you and you can’t take it as a personal affront. What you’re doing is prioritizing your feelings of not wanting to be associated with that (which is a legitimate feeling and is how you should feel about that type of behavior) over the feelings women in that situation get when they have to deal with it. And it’s just not about you, so being aggravated that a woman is talking about some other guy’s crummy behavior as if it has anything to do with you is an internal issue here. She’s not wrong for telling you a thing that happened, she’s not talking about All Men. She’s talking about a specific dude who did a specific shitty thing that you yourself agree is shitty. Or maybe she’s talking about many dudes who have done many shitty things over the years, because these things happen a lot. Or maybe she’s talking about how she has to be cautious around more men than she should because she doesn’t know which ones are dillweeds who will start problems. If you agree that it’s crap them to act that way, why is there somehow blame resting on her for talking about it? Why are you upset at her? Why aren’t you upset at all the guys acting like dillweeds who have so thoroughly ruined this for everyone? You know how much we would really like to not have to have that concern every time a stranger tries to talk to us like that?

                Going back to my earlier comment, what is the source of the problem you see here, and how do you propose it be fixed? Is the source that we’re unhappy with how many people treat us, and the solution is for us to just stop being unhappy about it? If that’s not what you think, then you’re going down a dead end road with this whole train, because there isn’t any constructive place you can go from there without that. With Dr Pepper Guy, if I had engaged him at first and stood around chatting and then after trying to make my excuses and leave he tailed me through the whole store getting increasingly aggravated, how would you see my responsibility to what happened then? Is it different than if I had just said “yep I like Dr Pepper!” and tried to leave right away and he did that? In reality, the latter happened. The problem with this situation is not that it made me mad or that I told people about it later.

                You’re hearing my comparison here and your takeaway seems to be “it’s not fair that she might be upset with me if I did that.” Look at that for a while. Again, how do you think this could be solved? I said that if a guy tries to chat me up it’s not a big deal, but I don’t know how far he’s going to take it so it can make you really nervous when something like that happens until you know for sure they’re actually going to accept a no. But what you took away was how it’s bogus that that feeling makes it harder for you to talk to random women in public because they might not like you afterwards (not even that, you’re concerned about being not hated– meaning neutral feeling, which seems pretty entitled there. Am I somehow obligated to feel good about them? Feeling neither angry nor happy is not good enough?). And fair enough, you know, we all should be able to talk to each other without it being weird, shouldn’t we? I would like that! I’m sociable, I like talking to people. I like talking to strangers even, I’ll strike up conversations in public sometimes.

                But I don’t have the luxury of being able to just talk to strangers all the time, or engage with a guy who tries to chat me up without inviting potential problems. I would like to be able to do that, but I can’t without a very great chance of causing myself trouble. Similarly, you don’t have the luxury of being able to just talk to strange women wherever and expect them to engage with you as if there aren’t dillweeds out there that they need to look out for. Neither of us get to do whatever we want. This isn’t disproportionately unfair to you, and it’s also not the fault of the women in the equation. Your aggravation with them is misdirected. We should all be mad at the dillweeds and we should start slapping their rude asses back in line, collectively, so this type of behavior is unacceptable enough that it doesn’t happen so often that everyone has to be looking out for it all the damn time. We don’t need to be adversarial! We can all hate dillweeds together!

                I’m not really sure how to address the proportion of stories because among people I know and what I normally see around, there are plenty of happy ones. I don’t know if you really don’t ever see any or if you’re fixated on the unfairness of the bad ones, but I kind of suspect the latter has an impact here. Or maybe you’re hanging around with some particularly vocal people who do play the “all men are pigs” card in which, you know, get new friends because they suck.

                1. Elizabeth West*

                  We don’t need to be adversarial! We can all hate dillweeds together!

                  This should be on a t-shirt!

                  What’s that saying–I’m thinking of it now. It perfectly sums up what it’s like to approach a stranger (or be approached by one):
                  Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.

                2. ITPuffNStuff*

                  Hello Anonsie, and thank you for replying.

                  I liked your 1st paragraph a lot, and it resonated with me and felt like it made a lot of sense until it started asking why I presumably blame women for this mess. That’s the point where it started to diverge from my actual feelings, and became a valid criticism of a position that I don’t actually hold. I can see how one would get that impression from my posts on this topic, so apparently I need to learn to choose my words better, but I don’t think women are to blame for this problem. I think it’s critically important that women share their experiences, particularly the crappy ones, because there needs to be an open, non-judgmental social dialogue on this subject. Those stories unfortunately trigger some deeply embedded anxieties in me, so that’s clearly an area where I have a lot of room to grow. I think the root causes, if we’re looking for factors to blame here, are a. men who choose harassing behaviors and b. me for not dealing very effectively with my own insecurities. The rest of your post was all totally valid criticism of a position that I don’t actually hold.

                  I hope this paragraph doesn’t come across the wrong way, because I think your contributions to this conversation have been awesome, but I have inadvertently stirred up a s***storm by expressing my feelings here. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say I should have seen that coming, but all I can do now is chalk that mistake up to experience, acknowledge this was a counterproductive topic to embark upon, and ask if we can allow this particular topic to die a natural death.

                  Thank you very much for your contributions, and I hope you have a wonderful day.

                3. Anonsie*

                  Nah I get that, ITPuffNStuff. It is anxiety-provoking to approach someone and wonder how they’re going to react to you, I hear where you’re coming from. Like I said before, I don’t really know you, so these are just directions you should be looking at to figure out how to deal with it yourself. If you don’t think you match to any of that, then good! But I get it, you know, rejection and feeling judged by the person you’re trying to get to like you can really, really sting. I totally understand how hearing women talk about a guy creeping on them can have you going “oh man, if I try to talk to some girl I like, is she gonna think that about me?” and sitting in the back of your head when you try to approach someone in any setting.

                  I don’t know if this is reassuring to you at all but this is how I think about dating: If someone doesn’t want to date me, then I probably don’t want to date them either because we probably wouldn’t get along. And that’s fine, not everyone gets along with everyone else. The point of dating is to find people who have similar personalities to you, and getting turned down doesn’t need to be insulting. So like I was saying before, different people prefer to meet people in different ways. Having someone not want to talk to you isn’t a big deal, it just means that’s not how they want to meet people. Thinking about it that way I’ve become pretty zen about it, I guess, I’m not afraid to approach guys and I don’t really get bothered when they say no.

              4. Observer*

                It seems to me that the reason you are having a hard time is because you are NOT LISTENING. You ARE dismissing the reality that most women lice with, on the other hand.

                Let me try to spell it out for you:

                Don’t be a jerk
                1. Understand that you may or may not get a positive response. But “not hating you” is all you have any right to expect – and only if you behave yourself.
                2. Don’t condescend, assume that women don’t mean what they say, or are incapable or incompetent in any way.
                3. Don’t have expectations of make (internal) demands of women, especially women with whom you don’t have a relationship. Don’t SAY “hey, smile” and do NOT even think it.
                4. Respect people’s boundaries. Crowding people, physically or mentally / emotionally is OUT.
                5. If you get offered a finger, do NOT try to grab a hand.

                Be a GENUINE nice guy, not a faux “nice guy”
                1. Be polite and friendly – but respect boundaries. That includes respecting a lack of invitation.
                2. If you offer to help someone, do so without strings attached – and make it clear from the get go.
                3. If you offer help and someone turns it down, DO NOT push! Don’t assume that person doesn’t really mean it or that they REALLY DO need your help, but are just too incompetent to know it.
                4. Hang out in places where starting conversations, random or not, with strangers makes sense.

                It’s actually quite simple, really. If you had actually been paying attention to what people have been saying, rather than mentally complaining that women just don’t like and it’s no fair, you could have figured this out yourself, since most of this has been said repeatedly. What’s really scary about this conversation, though, is that even though the “rules” I listed are all really basic courtesy and (what should be) common sense, contravention of these rules, often flagrantly, is a common experience for women – often daily or more.

                1. ITPuffNStuff*

                  I appreciate your comments, Observer, but in this case I think you’ve arrived at a lot of conclusions about me that diverge wildly from my actual behavior. I have already been following the rules on your lists above for years. My complaints, if you’re interested, were based on my perception that a predominant opinion among women is that all men are bad people. I genuinely hope to be wrong on that point. I hope that’s just my own insecurities at work.

                  And honestly, though I genuinely appreciate all of the great feedback there’s been so far, I have inadvertently stirred up a s***storm by expressing my feelings. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say I should have seen that coming, but all I can do now is chalk that mistake up to experience, acknowledge this was a counterproductive topic to embark upon, and ask if we can allow this particular topic to die a natural death.

                  Thank you and warm regards,

                2. Elizabeth West*


                  Every response to these explanations that you’ve posted has contained some version of “But not me!” I really don’t get the impression that you’ve absorbed any of the explanations–you seem to see them as criticisms of yourself. They’re not–you asked a question, and you got some very detailed answers. We’re not trying to vilify you, or include you in the Dillweed Club. We just want you to understand why a lot of women are nervous about men who approach them, especially when it’s a surprise or they start off by saying something really sexist and dumb.

                  It might be easier to understand like this. Have you ever told another dude who was being an asshole (to you or to someone else) to cut it out? There’s always the chance that he’ll want to fight, right? So you say something at your own risk, don’t you? Makes you nervous to say it. Because you don’t know how the guy is going to react. Your heart pounds; your palms sweat; you try to think what you’ll do if you have to defend yourself

                  THAT IS WHAT IT IS LIKE FOR US.

                  It’s like always wondering if the asshole is going to shut up and go away, or haul off and hit you. Every time. Because enough assholes have tried to hit you that you Just. Don’t. Know. what is going to happen.

                  I hope you come back to this thread later and re-read some of the answers and really think about what the commenters are trying to say.

                3. ITPuffNStuff*

                  hello elizabeth, thank you for replying. perhaps you’re right and this is just a request for me to understand what women are experiencing. most likely that would make me a better person.

                  with that said, Anonsie’s post, which is awesome, is a reply to mine, and contains the word “you” 35 times. Observer’s post, which is also a reply to mine, and is full of good suggestions I’m already following, contains the word “you” 14 times. do you honestly believe this was the universal “you” and not pointed specifically at me as an individual? i don’t see how the context of the messages supports that conclusion, but if that is your interpretation, then i can understand and accept it.

                  i think we’re way past the point where this conversation is constructive. i’d like to let it go at that. can we agree to let this end? it’s difficult for me not to respond because the replies that keep coming back feel as though they are full of criticisms, but this is way past the point that it’s not helping anyone.

              5. TootsNYC*

                Believe me, we respect you. The women in your real life respect you.

                We can all tell you apart. You are the only person who thinks these comments and complaints have the tiniest thing to do with you..

                Maybe you need to figure out how to let go of the “it’s all about me” feeling. Because we’re not talking about you, and we have plenty of respect for the guys who don’t creep.

                And….if you want more respect for me, the place to fix that is to rail -at men who do this- or -at men and women who support or excuse it.-

                Not at the women and men who are complaining about it, identifying it, and calling for it to stop.

              6. TootsNYC*

                good men have nothing in common with these stories. and that’s what aggravates me. it has nothing to do with my access to women — it has to do with my access to respect, to being viewed as an individual human being instead of “another male” (which, in the modern cultural narrative, always seems to carry a negative connotation).

                But we’re not talking about you!
                It’s so interesting that you think we are.

                Do you think every conversation that uses the word “men” is always about you? Are you unaware of the great differences in human beings?

                And did you miss the lessons in 4th grade about composition, and topic sentences and paragraphs staying on the same topic? This is not the “paragraph” or “essay” about “How I met my husband” or “the good and bad ways to approach women in a bar, or in life.”

                This is the essay on “what happens when men act inappropriately toward women.”

                Some other time we’ll talk about how we met our husbands. We’re not talking about that here.
                It’s as if we’re talking about football, and then someone comes up and say, “but quilting!!! Let’s talk about quilting!”

                And…did you miss all the instances above of people saying “it took a dude to complain about the sexual nastiness” or “my husband was shocked at the sexual harrassment”? Those are specific examples of the idea that there are decent men out there.

                I always wonder, at the “not all men!” and “all lives matter!”–I think those people don’t realize how clearly they are separating themselves from the victims, how clearly they are saying, “I don’t identify with you, the victim; I have no emphathy or sympathy for you.” Or how clearly you are saying, “I actually identify with the people who do these horrible things. I think I’m in their group.”

                If people were complaining about abuse of animals, would you shout “not all pet owners!” or “not all people!”? I don’t think so.

            3. Clever Name*

              Brilliant. This makes me think of a tweet I saw recently that roughly said, “Men: the assholes have ruined it for you. Police your asshole friends and maybe you can talk to me in 5 years”

              1. Zahra*

                YES! And that’s not men only that are in that kind of dynamic. If you have a car, aren’t you distrustful of a new garage when you take your car in? Maybe they’ll find bogus problems so they can overcharge you.

              2. ITPuffNStuff*

                good men don’t have asshole friends. it’s probably no surprise we don’t like assholes and don’t tend to befriend them. you know who makes friends with asshole men? other asshole men. and i’m guessing they don’t have much desire to police each other.

                1. Saurs*

                  Most sexism is banal and innocuous, implied rather than explicit. Everyone has sexist thoughts, misconceptions, and beliefs. It is, quite literally, impossible not to have absorbed the sexism we’re all drowning in. No one is immune from it. Please stop trying to excuse yourself from the rest of humanity by pretending you and yours are special and exempt. If you can’t handle the conversation because of your own insecurities, don’t participate.

                  This is the same strategy you employed above: women need to be told that there are Good Men in the world, for reasons. No. I will not feel better about my own experiences because I read an anecdote about a woman who met her husband at work after he pestered her enough times.

                  Men are not good judges of what constitutes or what does not constitute sexism. You don’t get to decide. You don’t get to determine that sexism is something only other “assholes” do. You don’t get to dismiss the women here by complaining that calling something sexist is biased against men, or that sexist behavior is so mysterious and subjective it’s impossible to tell. We’re telling. Listen, or excuse yourself.

                2. ITPuffNStuff*

                  sigh. okay.

                  yes, we’re all sexist. everyone. including you. and by your logic, you don’t get to decide what is biased against men and what isn’t. apparently only men can do that. and only women can decide what’s biased against women and what isn’t.

                  let’s all agree that i’m a terrible person and the world would be a much better and happier place if i just go out and shoot myself.

                  now are we all on the same page? great. let’s end this conversation there.

                3. afiendishthingy*


                  If I’m in a group of people and everyone’s telling stories about their upstairs neighbors being loud and obnoxious, I don’t respond with “Sure, those neighbors suck, but we need to counteract all this negativity directed at upstairs neighbors. Can somebody tell a story about a story about a time their upstairs neighbor watered their plants while they were you were on vacation?” Even though I’m an upstairs neighbor. I’m not THEIR a-hole upstairs neighbor, and nobody said everyone who lives on an upper floor is an a-hole. If I responded like that, I’d be invalidating their experiences as neighbors of jerks. Do you know how I show I support my friends in the Downstairs Community? By listening to their stories and saying “God, your neighbors are incredibly inconsiderate, you must be so frustrated”, and by paying extra attention to how my actions may be affecting my own downstairs neighbors. But I don’t need to broadcast what a good neighbor I am.

                  Nobody said you were a terrible person or that you should shoot yourself. Please don’t. I think your intentions are good. However, it might be a good idea to take some time to process everyone’s comments and look at why your defensive responses to stories about some men being jerks touched such a nerve here. It must be very stressful to have been on that side of so much backlash, but I think most of us tried to keep it quite civil, as did you, so kudos to the AAM community on that one. Nobody likes an armchair diagnoser, but since you say this kind of story triggers anxiety and insecurity for you, that might be worth talking through with a therapist.

                4. Zahra*

                  IRPUffNStuff, let me relay something I once saw in a “being a good ally 101” page: If you’re not the problem, then you’re not the problem. If you sincerely think you’re not behaving in the ways women have described as anxiety-inducing, assholish, etc. then you have nothing to worry about on your personal front. You can, however, speak up if you see people say or act in problematic things.

        2. Chinook*

          “Will I meet a point where standing firm isn’t worth it anymore?”

          I think that the important thing to remember is that we all have a different line to stand firm on. I have no problem lying to get out of an immediate threat. And sometimes you have to suck it up because you need the job. And sometimes the principle is worth eating Kraft Dinner for 3 weeks straight. But this is an individual choice.

          A company creating a policy that encourages women to hide their gender rather than stop the harassment is not the same thing. To me, it says that the company doesn’t want to fight for their female employees or women in the workplace now or in the future. A policy decision is much more far reaching than an individual’s choice to be known as Jules instead of Julie.

          1. Anonsie*

            I see what you’re getting at there. I was also operating under the assumption that this would be something the women could opt to do rather than something that would just be implemented across the board.

            1. Zillah*

              Even then, though – if that’s the main way the company chooses to address the issue and especially if it’s the tactic the OP or someone else in a similar position argues for, you start to have a paradigm where nothing is done about the issue of sexism in the industry and it’s set up as the woman’s fault she’s harassed if she chooses not to use a male name.

              There aren’t really easy answers here, unfortunately. :(

  12. Retail Lifer*

    I have a low threshhold for this sort of stuff at work. I deal with the public all day so sometimes I have to deal with this in person. Knowing how much bolder people tend to be online than in person, I really feel for the reps who have to put up with this.

    I had a guy say some wildly inapproproate things to me at work a few months ago. I flat out told him those were not appropriate things for me to discuss at work. Undeterred, he then immediately asked me out so we could discuss those things outside of work. I told him I was not interested and that we needed to change the subject. That bruised his ego and he left.

    Luckily, he wound up getting banned from the building for doing this to someone else so I don’t know how permanent a solution that would have been. My supervisor and security both told me afterwards that I absolutely did NOT need to put up with that. They advised me to do exactly what I did: be direct and attempt to stop the conversation from going in that direction.

    1. Rebecca too*

      I work in retail as well, and I’ve had to deal with men who think that a retail environment is a great place to pick up women. Fortunately, our manager has made it clear to all of us that any customer who makes us uncomfortable (keeping in mind that harassment by it’s very nature isn’t about intent, it’s about how it makes the person at whom the harassment is directed feel) is no longer welcome in our store. Some of our employees (male and female) have been stalked to the point of management having to get the police involved. It’s amazing how entitled “customers” feel; but then again, what’s the golden rule in retail?? “The customer is always right”. Please.

  13. Dasha*

    I have nothing to add- I’m just really glad that Alison takes on these questions. I wish she would do like a giant, more general post dedicated to women in the workplace dealing with this kind of stuff that includes some common scripts we could use to deter inappropriate behavior.

      1. Isben Takes Tea*

        Although it would be equally appropriate to have dedicated “how to find red flags/stop unwanted attention” in general, since men are affected too.

        1. Dasha*

          Yes, exactly- red flags and phrases! I feel like I’m more confident when I have a few lines that will shut someone down.

          1. Dasha*

            Also, I said women but looking back that was kind of short sighted of me. :-/ Men too, are often placed in uncomfortable situations and might want to know how to respond in a professional manner. They get unwanted attention / weird situations as well.

    1. Mike C.*

      I think it would be more appropriate to have a post aimed at men to remind them that it’s not a woman’s responsibility to defect their own terrible behavior.

      It’s like the issue of rape – folks always tell women these ten lifehacks to stay safe (at best) but never say to the dudes, “Hey, maybe you should stop raping people and here’s what real consent looks like”.

      1. Cat*

        I feel you, but I don’t think it’s an either/or thing and advice on responses doesn’t have to be victim blaming. Telling women “just don’t dress like that” is victim blaming. But saying “here’s an arsenal of phrases that you can use to respond” isn’t. That is not necessarily something you know by instinct and especially when you’re young, you may not feel empowered to do anything. Being taught what you can do can be really helpful for teaching you you don’t just have to accept whatever is lobbed your way.

        1. LBK*

          Totally agreed. I don’t think it’s victim blaming to give people some defensive strategies as long as it’s not in absence or in lieu of also trying to cut back the existence of the problem.

          1. Cat*

            And analogous to preventing sexual assault, I would view it as equivalent to reinforcing for young women their right to say no – which I realize seems like it should be a no-brainer but it absolutely isn’t in our society – instead of saying “never wear your hair long or go to a party ever.”

            1. UKAnon*

              Or, for one of my favourite analogies, suggesting people buy door locks isn’t blaming them if they’re burgled.

              1. Ad Astra*

                I’m not a huge fan of these analogies because it equates protecting your personal property with protecting your bodily integrity. Men and women take the same precautions to protect their bikes, TVs, watches, etc. Men and women are not expected to take the same precautions to protect themselves from sexual assault/harassment, because there are greater cultural factors in play.

                It’s not that teaching women how to avoid or exit tough situations is unhelpful. The problem is that I’ve been through probably 20 separate self-defense/safety lectures and never seen my male peers go through even one seminar about consent. It sends the message that women and girls are responsible for their own safety, and that there’s nothing we can say to men to prevent them from assaulting or harassing women.

                1. LBK*

                  Self-selection is an issue, though – there isn’t really any shame in learning self-defense, but who’s going to sign themselves up for a seminar that’s basically admitting “I don’t understand boundaries”? That’s why we have to just kind of blare the message over a megahorn and hope the people it’s for hear it, and/or deal with the cases on a more one-off basis.’

                  I also think that the imbalance in who this advice is directed at is based on who the most likely victims are; men and women are probably at equal risk of having something stolen from them, but statistically speaking they’re not at equal risk of being sexually assaulted. It’s not as valuable for a man to learn to deal with sexual harassment/assault because it’s less likely he’ll encounter a situation that merits it.

                2. Ad Astra*

                  In my example, I’m assuming that all of these sessions were required in some way, like during college orientation or high school health class or whatever. I have never willingly signed up for a self-defense class; I’ve always been required. None of my male peers were ever required to go to bystander training (that’s changing on some college campuses) or informed about consent.

                  So, that’s why I’m saying we put too much of the onus on women. I think you’re right that most men, rapist or otherwise, wouldn’t sign up for a seminar about consent. And while plenty of women do take self-defense courses voluntarily, many more of us were forced to sit through these seminars repeatedly as they were integrated into our high school/girl scout/college/sorority curriculum. Every woman over 21 knows the basics tips so well that it begins to feel like it is your fault if you fail to take one of these precautions and something horrible happens. It’s a recipe for victim blaming, imo.

                  Ugh, I’m sorry I always derail these threads. Honest.

                3. Kas*

                  “…who’s going to sign themselves up for a seminar that’s basically admitting “I don’t understand boundaries”? ”

                  Pretty much every pick-up “artist” wannabe ever? ;)

        2. Mike C.*

          I’m down with teaching empowerment, I just always see so much focus on “what women can do to avoid bad behavior” rather than someone saying, “Hey wait a second, maybe dudes should understand that they aren’t entitled to the sexual attention of every woman they come across”.

          1. LBK*

            I actually see that fairly regularly now, but usually the people who most need to hear that message are usually least likely to listen to it. A woman who’s concerned for her safety is more likely to take heed of a message about how to protect herself; most men who don’t already understand the concept of consent aren’t eagerly seeking out ways to learn about it. To unwrap the issues that lead someone to think that way requires a lot more conversation and education than a Buzzfeed infographic could provide.

          2. Algae*

            I think Sarah Silverman recently had a thing where she tweeted Rape Prevention Tips and they included “When you see a woman walking by herself, leave her alone” and “Use the Buddy System! If it is inconvenient for you to stop yourself from raping women, ask a trusted friend to accompany you at all times.”

            She got a lot of backlash for it, too. People seemed to be upset that she would dare suggest that men shouldn’t rape women.

            1. LBK*

              Amy Schumer has a recent skit about a high school football coach telling his players not to rape and it causing an outrage in the town. It’s pretty great.

            2. Ad Astra*

              There was also a great Daily Show skit with Jessica Williams and some male correspondent giving tips for college freshmen. The guy’s tips were all things like, “If you fall asleep with your shoes on, people might draw on you!” Jessica Williams’ tips were things like “Never let your drink leave your sight or you might get raped,” and “If you have to be on campus after dark, bring a friend with you so you don’t get raped.” Eventually the dude asks, “So do women just spend all day thinking about ways to avoid getting raped?” And she’s like, “Pretty much.”

              I want to believe it was an eye opener, but the Daily Show is so often preaching to the choir.

            3. Elizabeth West*

              I saw that and I loved it.

              I also liked the consent one about the cup of tea–you can offer your friend a cup of tea but you can’t force them to drink it.

      2. Colette*

        The issue is that a post aimed at men will reach the men who read this site, and won’t help the women dealing with men who don’t read this site (i.e. every woman).

        1. Mike C.*

          I don’t think that’s true at all. Lots of men are extremely clueless about these issues (because they never experience it personally) or have simply never had their assumptions challenged.

          1. Ad Astra*

            I have seen some comments here from several men that make me think even AAM readers could benefit from a “Men, please stop doing these sexist things at work” post. We often treat sexism like it’s an intentional and unchanging way of life, but that’s not the case at all. Most men who do and say (and, to an extent, think sexist things at work don’t realize they’re being sexist, or they don’t understand the broader context that makes these things a real problem.

            1. Artemesia*

              I have dealt with this my whole work life. In the early days I was often the only woman in the room or on the panel at the conference etc etc. I cannot begin to tell you how many men began their remarks — whether a keynote or dinner speech or a formal presentation of some sort with a sexist joke or comment. The most benign are the ones that mention what a treat it is to have all the beautiful women in the room — Even after decades of consciousness raising, they still do this. And often these are not bad people and not people who harass women, but they still make these ‘complimentary’ remarks oblivious of how demeaning they really are.

              If these were racist remarks would we be telling black customer service people to pretend they are white? Of course we need to be making sure that managers stand up and support their female employees, but suggesting women cower behind male names just perpetuates the notion that only men do this work.

              On line game sites and other common venues for some of the most vicious harassment ought to ban users who use that sort of language. I think we can differentiate between a discussion group in which some man advance sexist ‘ideas’ and men playing games who say ‘let’s get the b#$ch’ or ‘I hope you get breast cancer’ to or with regard to a female player. I have always been close to an absolutist on free speech but threats, revenge porn, and sexual overtures especially once they are rejected could certainly be weeded out of the internet without a threat to civic discourse.

              1. Dan*


                We sort of are suggesting that overseas call center workers should imply that they are American, by giving them Anglo names on the phone.

              2. Nutcase*

                While we still have a hell of a long way to go with stamping out racism, I hope I live to see the day where sexism is taken as seriously as racism is even today. “Casual racism” is a fireable offense where I work. Casual sexism however is just seen as a bit of fun “banter”.

      3. Observer*

        I’m so tired of this. As a woman who has experienced workplace harassment, and has to deal with the safety issues every woman needs to deal with, I find this kind of thing just as disrespectful as victim blaming.

        Think about it – this argument NEVER comes up with issues that affect men as much as women. When was the last time you head someone say something like this when hearing tips on keeping your car from being burgled, or your PID being used to wipe your bank account? Somehow no one seems to think that people should just sit back and let their cars be stolen and their bank accounts be looted until all law enforcement catches all the less competent crooks and the competent ones repent of their ways. Sure, that would be ideal but that’s not happening, so let’s do some realistic risk mitigation and loss prevention.

        Or to paraphrase something an old driving instruction used to say to all of his students “You can be right, or you can be alive and whole.” He was talking about defensive driving and walking and making the point that even when you are technically in the right, common sense says you do what’s safe even when you have the right to do something else.

        The same thing applies here as well. A woman who gets jumped in a dark alley doesn’t deserve it. But, if she can avoid the dark alley, and save herself an assault, she is better off. And, women in the workforce don’t “deserve” the garbage they get, but some tools to protect themselves and minimize the problems still put them in a better place than they would be if they just waited for all the guys around them to change their ways.

        Now, if you want BOTH – I’m totally with you.

        1. Colette*


          There’s also an element of expecting women to be passive instead of active in the idea that they need to rely on everyone else to behave well instead of learning how to protect themselves.

          1. Apollo Warbucks*

            I really don’t think its about anyone expecting woman to be passive and just sit back and wait for men to behave well. Harassment isn’t aceptable so should be stopped, to me the people doing the wrong thing should have the obligation to stop, in others words an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.

            1. Colette*

              I think it’s important to tell men what’s appropriate, and to push back about anything that makes women out to be less than men. (My current pet peeve is men who make “jokes” about their wives, including the term “man cave” – if you don’t want to be part of the household, there’s the door.) It’s absolutely true that the person in the wrong is the harasser.

              But that doesn’t mean that women can’t be made aware of common dangers and assess risk on their own – because when it comes right down to it, they’re the ones who bear the consequences when they’re kept in the dark. It’s not their fault, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to live with the aftermath.

              1. Apollo Warbucks*

                I completely agree, with you, woman should be aware of the risks they face and I’m not saying that saftey advice aimed at woman is a bad thing. I just think the advice aimed at men comes from a good place and the problem is big enough there’s more than one solution.

                1. Colette*

                  Completely agree, and I have no problem with advice & education aimed at men. I do have a problem with giving advice to men at the expense of practical advice for women who deal with these situations.

        2. Ad Astra*

          The difference is that all thieves know they’re thieves. A thief and a victim have the same definition of stealing, and the thief has consciously decided to take your stuff even though it’s clear you didn’t want him to have it. There is no misunderstanding.

          That’s not necessarily the case with all sexual assaults, and especially not with all sexual harassment cases. The unwillingness to even talk to boys and young men about consent and harassment is part of why we can’t seem to make any headway toward ending this behavior. The assumption that every rapist or harasser is a Criminal Minds bad guy, and that there’s nothing you could do to change a rapist or harasser’s behavior, is problematic.

          1. Colette*

            There’s value in speaking to men about what is appropriate, absolutely. But the problem is that you can’t speak to all men, and even if you could, not all of them would listen or understand. And women will still have to deal with the ones who don’t care or understand.

          2. Observer*

            Oh, please. Most guys are VERY well aware when they are crossing a line.

            No one is saying that men and boys shouldn’t be told what they need to hear. But, responding to every suggestion that we talk to women with “no, talk to men instead” is not useful.

            1. Ad Astra*

              It is useful to suggest talking to men instead because that’s something we haven’t been doing for decades. It’s not an either/or situation. We can educate both sexes. We’ve been educating the living daylights out of young women for some time now, but they’re still being assaulted at an alarming rate. It’s extremely useful to think, “OK, what have we not tried yet?”

              1. Observer*

                Again, NOT “instead”, which is what keeps on happening. Also, we actually DO do a lot of talking to me – and if you look up-thread, you’ll see how “effective” that often is.

                To paraphrase President Obama “We don’t need more conversations.” I think we need to continue to give women PRACTICAL and USEFUL advice. Also to empower them to defend themselves at all levels AND to have real consequences to the guys who don’t behave themselves.

            2. Zillah*

              I actually tend to disagree with you on that.

              If we’re talking about really egregious behavior, sure – most guys understand that it’s not acceptable to grope a woman and then threaten to get her fired if she tells someone, for example. However, when we get into stuff like complimenting a woman on her appearance or describing women as bossy/abrasive or dismissing accusations of rape or complaints of sexual harassment – no, I think that most men (and many women) are not consciously aware that they’re crossing a line, because a good deal of prejudice is subconscious.

              Teaching people how to address behavior that makes them feel uncomfortable or threatened in the workplace is absolutely important – but I don’t think you should be so quick to dismiss the importance of also raising the issue with the people who often contribute to the problem.

              1. Observer*

                I’m not dismissing the importance of raising awareness. But, let’s be very honest. The whole “No let’s talk to men instead” gets thrown out all the time, not just in talking about the stuff that could be legitimately confusing. When keeps on side tracking a conversation with a tech by saying she’s “too pretty to be a tech” and making her life hard, he knows perfectly well that it is NOT welcome. Sure, he thinks it’s ok, but that’s because he’s an entitled jerk (or immature adolescent) who thinks the world revolves around him or that women were made to serve men. And, maybe he’s also stupid enough to really think that women (or pretty women) really can’t be competent. But, he knows perfectly well that she doesn’t like it.

                Of course, it would be a good thing to push the idea that it is NOT ok – the world doesn’t revolve around you, women are not here for your pleasure and women can actually be quite competent, thank you very much!

                But it would help if we stopped with the (implied or explicit) “instead”. And it would also help if he actually recognized that guys are perfectly capable of understanding what they are doing. So often the claim that someone didn’t realize is just an excuse. It’s time to stop buying those excuses.

                1. Zillah*

                  I feel like you might be projecting your frustration with the whole situation onto me, because you seem to be responding to things I haven’t said. I don’t believe I ever said “instead” – I certainly didn’t in the comment you responded to here. In fact, in both that and my comment below, I specifically noted that it is important to teach people who to address uncomfortable or threatening behavior at work.

                  I also did not say that men never realize what they’re doing, and I absolutely do not subscribe to the “boys will be boys” mentality or that they don’t understand sexual harassment. If I came across that way, I apologize – I find the benefit of the doubt many people give to men who act in clearly predatory ways to be absolutely repugnant, and I have no patience for excuses on that front.

                  However, I do believe that just as there is egregious, predatory behavior rampant in our society, there is also a great deal of subconscious sexism ingrained in all of us that is deeply problematic and needs to be addressed. An enormous part of the problem is that men who don’t engage in these behaviors often fail to notice them at all, and I think that you’re being too quick to dismiss the importance of educating people about it.

        3. Mike C.*

          I never said anyone should sit back and do nothing. There are thousands of posts out there about “what women can do when facing these issues”, but there are few if any out there saying, “dudes, quit being a creeper”.

          Instead of telling women once again not to wear short skirts or make direct eye contact we should instead tell men they aren’t entitled to the sexual attention of every woman they come across. That’s the root cause of the problem, and that’s what should be addressed.

          As for the issue of “this never comes up in any other situation”, have you never seen me post here before? Do you know how often I address and attack systemic issues over blaming the individual? Just a week or two ago I was shouting at the top of my lungs about the hiring managers and the requirement of significant amounts of PII just to save a little bit of time. I firmly believe that companies that hold on to such data should be held responsible for keeping it safe and should face damages for not taking care of it, for instance.

          I never said, “don’t use common sense”, I’m saying, “maybe we should address the root cause of the problem here”. For this issue, the root cause are men who treat women like shit. We should address that.

          1. Colette*

            As a society, addressing the root cause is important. However, no one person can do that, so it’s not helpful as specific advice for a woman dealing with inappropriate behavior.

            1. Dana*

              How is educating someone not as helpful as educating someone? We should be educating both males and females. I think that’s Mike C.’s point (correct me if I’m wrong) that much of the easily accessed information about the topic only applies to women. It would be nice to see lists and articles also addressed to men. Education for both sexes, which would benefit everyone.

              1. Colette*

                If I call you and say “My car broke down, can you come and pick me up?”, answering “You know, I think everyone should take the bus” doesn’t solve my problem. It may be the best option from an environmental, financial, or city planning perspective, but I’m still sitting by the side of the road in my broken car.

                Educating men (and women) about appropriate behavior does not help someone dealing with inappropriate behavior. They already know it’s inappropriate, but that doesn’t help them get the person harassing them to stop.

                1. Ad Astra*

                  That’s… not what’s happening at all.

                  In this scenario, the OP’s car broke down because customers kept slashing the tires and shoving bananas up the tailpipe. Allison has already picked up the person whose car broke down, and she’s given some tips to help this particular driver deal with the customers who keep messing with her car. Awesome, thanks Allison.

                  Now someone says, “Hey, Allison, could you write a post about how to keep your car running safely?” That’s a perfectly fine idea. Someone else says, “That would be OK, but what about those customers who are constantly messing with people’s cars? Can we address the fact that so many customers are socially conditioned to think it’s OK to mess with people’s cars? What if we wrote a post about the ways customers are damaging writers’ cars and why that’s not cool?”

                  And you’re saying “NO, CAR MAINTENANCE IS THE ONLY POST WORTH DOING” even though there are many, many existing car maintenance posts out there already, and relatively few posts addressing those who go around messing up people’s cars.

                2. Colette*

                  My issue with educating men is that it tends to be suggests as an alternative to giving women ways to handle these situations, instead of in addition. If Alison wants to do both, that’s fine. But if someone has a specific problem, “well, society should change” is not a solution she can implement. It’s not wrong, but it’s of no practical value to the person asking the question.

                3. Zillah*

                  @ Colette – I would agree with you if she were responding to an actual question, but what I think is being talked about here is a separate post entirely, not using a letter and derailing the answer from the person’s immediate problem.

                  It’s also worth pointing out that there are answers to many, many previous questions here about sexism in the workplace that provide strategies for dealing with it in a practical way. It’s not as though Alison hasn’t addressed that, though consolidating it into one post could be useful. There’s less opportunity to organically address what’s being discussed here.

        4. Book Person*

          To turn that around, though, when was a man asked if he REALLY wanted to press charges against a thief, because that would ruin the thief’s life? When was the last time someone was asked what she was wearing when her identity was stolen? When was the last time a teenager committed suicide over a stolen laptop because zir friends and schoolmates ostracised zim? I don’t think those crimes or how they’re treated in the culture can be called equivalent.

          Preventative messages are well-meaning, sure, but I think they A) are already coming at women from all angles (I was 12 or 13 the first time I was told to NEVER leave my drink alone) and B) are geared toward a small subset of attacks. Women aren’t statistically likely to be “jumped in a dark alley.” They’re likely to be raped by the trusted friend who walks them home “to keep them safe,” or their roommate’s boyfriend, or their own partner, or a family member.

          Programs in Edmonton and, I believe, Vancouver created “Don’t Be that Guy” ads that pointed out issues of consent, and sexual violence in both cities fell the following months/year. That’s what works. Speaking about consent to men and women, how to say and hear a no, instead of “don’t have long hair don’t go out after dark don’t wear that skirt but do wear this rape drug detecting nail polish” may actually have an impact.

          1. Observer*

            how to say and hear a no, instead of “don’t have long hair don’t go out after dark don’t wear that skirt but do wear this rape drug detecting nail polish” may actually have an impact.

            I’m not sure what you are trying to say here. No one here who is suggesting that women be given reasonable advice thinks that the line you quoted represents “reasonable advice.” In fact, if you look at the comment that spawned this sub-thread it was about EXACTLY what you say you want – language that helps the reps clearly push back.

            1. Saurs*

              The thing is, women have developed good and bad risk management strategies to navigate patriarchy, but some are unpopular and deemed as man-hating or just gossip (Schrodinger’s Rapist, privately identifying Missing Stairs) or others are counter-productive and oppressive (women policing other women’s bodies and sexual behavior to “save” their “reputations,” etc.), and it’s generally the oppressive ones (just don’t go outside with your vagina!*) that get the most traction even though they’re unfair and, for most women, impossible. They become victim-blaming because the average woman is not a socially mobile, independently wealthy, well-educated, attractive, young white woman like on TV — she can’t afford and does not have the privilege to avoid those proverbial dark alleys. Reminding her fifty times a day that she’s vulnerable!!! doesn’t help her physically or mentally. Further, that kind of blanket advice erases intersections of oppression. Women are more than their gender and gender identity; they belong to an economic class, have an ethnicity / ethnicities, have a sexual orientation, can be located somewhere on the neurodiversity spectrum, etc.

              But, yes. Scripts! The more the better, and especially from other commenters who are a diverse lot.

              *cis-normative language

              1. Observer*

                Oh, I do agree with this. Which is why asking someone like Allison for scripts and advice is good, but asking some other people is useless or worse.

                Just because a piece of advice is not usable by everyone does not mean that it’s a bad piece of advice. But, I do agree that when advice is dished out, it needs to be done with the awareness of the realities people live with. Also, it needs to be done in a way that it’s clear what people can actually DO. Saying “remember you are at risk” is stupid. What good is that going to do? “Always figure out your escape rout” makes a lot of assumptions that, as you say, are not always valid. But “Keep your eyes and ears open, so you have a chance of avoiding a problem or finding an escape rout” is sensible.

                And, YES to the idea that women are more than their gender!

          2. Observer*

            how to say and hear a no, instead of “don’t have long hair don’t go out after dark don’t wear that skirt but do wear this rape drug detecting nail polish” may actually have an impact.

            Have you bothered to read what people have been saying? No on this thread has come close to endorsing the kind of advice you are talking about. And, in fact the the comment that started this sub-thread was about giving women scripts to clearly push back.

            1. Book Person*

              Observer, I was speaking more broadly to your comment about being “tired of” hearing that the focus on harassment/rape prevention should be on men. So, yes, I was reading what people have been saying. You said: “A woman who gets jumped in a dark alley doesn’t deserve it. But, if she can avoid the dark alley, and save herself an assault, she is better off.” What sort of things are women told to avoid “being jumped”? The don’t have long hair, etc.

              Since you invoked the spectre of stranger assault in the context of telling women to protect themselves vs men not to attack women, I responded to that theme. There’s a strange, knee-jerk reaction in our culture to pushing back immediately and emphatically the moment anyone suggests, as Mike C. did above, that maybe we should focus on talking to men about harassment/consent/etc for a change, which I saw echoes of in your post.

              1. Observer*

                Actually, women are told to avoid dark alleys to avoid being jumped. Now, it’s true that that is not always practical advice, and therefore that advice needs to be given with the understanding of that caveat. And, if possible, take some self defense classes. Interestingly enough women who actually can physically defend themselves are less likely to be assaulted.

                The problem is that just as too often there is a knee jerk reaction to pushing back at men, there is a knee jerk reaction to arming women. In this context, someone said that it would be nice to have a post on scripts that women could use – and this in a context of a situation where getting the aggressors is not an option. STILL the reaction was “no, let’s talk to the men instead.”

                That’s a useless and disempowering response. And it simply ignores the reality that sometimes that all women have. It should not be that way, and, as I’ve noted elsewhere, I absolutely think that men should be held to account. I also think the employers need to be held to account as well. But in the meantime, give women the tools they need!

        5. Sarahnova*

          I get both sides, but I genuinely think the prevention debate is uselessly stuck on the “don’t walk down dark alleys”/”it’s victim-blaming to say don’t walk down dark alleys!” debate. For several reasons:
          a) only a tiny percentage of rapes and assaults actually happen when a stranger leaps out of the bushes, but there is no useful advice on how to avoid getting raped by a man who know who uses alcohol and social manipulation, the far more likely scenario;
          b) it’s very classist; a woman, say, working the night shift on motel reception HAS to walk alone at night in dodgy areas, and now anything that happens is her fault
          c) women have all heard all of these suggestions, several hundred times, since we were children.

          Conversations/advice that I think are worth giving time to:
          1) talking to people, esp. at work, to get support for giving harassment consequences (I bet Alison could do a great post on this)
          2) red flags for manipulative and inappropriate behaviour generally, and how to respond in particular environments – work, a date.

          1. Observer*

            I agree that a lot of the discussion focuses on irrelevancies or fails to take reality into consideration. But part of the problem also is that when someone says “teach women x” we get into a whole discussion about “well, women can’t necessarily do Y’ etc.

      4. Zillah*

        I’m inclined to agree with you. I do think that scripts for an immediate reaction can be helpful, because part of how these people – especially men, but not exclusively – operate is exploiting the fact that people – especially women, but not exclusively – tend to freeze in uncomfortable situations because they can’t think of a response. Having a response on hand can be an enormously helpful tool in deflecting predators.

        However, I also think that a larger post about what constitutes sexual harassment (and uncomfortable/prejudiced behavior in general) would be enormously helpful, and saying “Well, the people it needs to reach won’t read it anyway!” is a bit short-sighted. Sure, the most egregious offenders likely won’t read it, but many other people either aren’t aware that their behavior is problematic and/or aren’t very good at recognizing predatory behavior in others, and a post outlining it could be very helpful in starting to separate some of the egregious offenders who aren’t reading this from everyone else that is.

        1. Observer*

          I think you are right. I also think that it would be useful to a lot of women who sometimes mis-read the signals or don’t have the experience to anticipate the problems that might come up.

      5. ITPuffNStuff*

        unfortunately in the realm of law, real consent doesn’t defend a person against accusations. one could have a video recorded consent statement and a notarized consent forms, and it still wouldn’t protect him from accusations, because a person can claim to have withdrawn consent at any later point.

        1. Observer*

          It most certainly defends against convictions. If someone claims to have withdrawn consent, they are going to have to prove it- and even then it might not fly.

  14. Rebecca*

    I’d get rid of the actual photos ASAP, because you never know if someone could be stalking a particular employee, could easily figure out their work’s physical location, and then pick them out in the parking lot.

    And in my opinion, if a customer is getting personal to the point of hitting on the tech support rep, that rep has every right to first say that he or she is not discussing this, but rather trying to help with a tech issue, and if the person persists, ending the chat right then and there with the caveat that when the customer can be professional and stick to the topic at hand, they’re more than welcome to contact the company again. I’d even go so far as to tag them as a problem child if they have specific user names because they’re paying for support so the next poor tech knows they’re a handful.

  15. Apollo Warbucks*

    OP I’m worried about your attitude towards this

    “It’s annoying, but not entirely unexpected.”
    “These are situations that you can’t really get out of”
    ” Is there a method I should be coaching my fellow chat reps on to discourage this kind of behaviour?”

    It’s not something to be tolerated or accepted, give the employees the option to tell the client that they will end the chat if the behaviour continues and then let the end the chat, who cares if the customer is left hanging with a problem?

    Also if any of the messages are particularly offensive then send copies of them to the clients, I assume you have a contact who you can reach out too.

    Do not make this your reps problem to handle it has a faint whiff of victim blaming about it, everyone deserves to be taken seriously at work and judged on more than just their looks. If some sleazy guys can’t keep their hormones in check you should be calling them out on it.

    1. UKAnon*

      I didn’t read victim-blaming in it, more just a resigned acceptance of the fact that women who leave the house (either in person or through the internet) and enter the “public sphere” put up with this and worse on a daily basis. I agree, though, that it’s the wrong attitude to have; it’s also a fairly common attitude among women (myself included) to this problem in all its forms.

      1. LBK*

        I don’t think you need to be resigned to it, but maybe just emotionally prepared for it. Even if you’re not subject to sexual harassment, customer service does require a thick skin for generally abusive/inappropriate conversations. It’s not realistic to think we’ll ever completely weed out jerks, whether they be sexist jerks or just the general kind that yells and swears.

      2. Original Poster*

        Just to confirm what others have inferred, I wasn’t attempting to say it was something that was okay. I would say it’s unrealistic to not expect for this kind of behaviour to occur, as much as we would like for it to be a non-issue. The first step to dealing with and addressing a problem is realizing there is a problem. I would never put the blame on any of my reps.

        1. Apollo Warbucks*

          That’s for clarifying, I didn’t think you thought it was OK just that the language in your letter seemed a little too soft.

          Good luck in addressing the problem, I hope you can achieve a better working environment for your reps.

          Please come back with an update.

    2. LBK*

      I didn’t read that quite the same way – I took it as the OP saying that on some level those things will always happen when you deal with the general public because there are always jerks/creeps out there. The question is how does the OP prepare employees to deal with these situations that will inevitably come up? And I agree that a big part of it is empowering them to end inappropriate conversations and making it clear that you value your employees having a safe environment more than closing a tech support case or keeping a customer.

    3. Apollo Warbucks*

      Maybe victim blaming wasn’t quite the right phrase to use.

      I just think the focus on trying to discourage the behaviour is misplaced. I seriously doubt that the employees are doing anything even remotely proactive in the work place so there is very little they could do to stop these jerks.

        1. Sunshine DC*

          A question I have for AAM on this is, does the law have anything to say about a workplace that permits OTHERS to harass/discriminate employees who belong to protected categories (race, gender, religion)? I.e., say that the management co-workers are themselves appropriate in their personal interactions with such an employee, but the normally daily activities of the employee are known my management to continually put them in “harms way” to face such behaviors from others beyond the company/organizational staff—and said management does nothing to protect or shield said employee from such treatment and behavior?

          1. Mike C.*

            Being a member of a protected class doesn’t mean you get to sexually harass others. You can still fire them for cause, and breaking the law is a great cause to put down.

            It’s nothing more than management not knowing or willing to make the records, keep the notes and act in a consistent manner.

          2. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I think you’re asking about the law when someone outside the company is harassing someone, right? Wasn’t totally clear from your wording and I think Mike above interpreted it as something else entirely :)

            But assuming I’m reading that right, yes, that’s called third-party harassment, and the employer’s responsibility is the same in that it needs to take action to stop the harassing behavior.

            1. Elizabeth West*

              At a place I used to work, we had a vendor whose rep got fired for repeatedly harassing the women at the businesses on his route. He always said leering, flirty stuff to me and asked me out once, but fortunately it didn’t get worse after I turned him down.

              We found out about it when a new guy showed up on the route one day. We asked him where Dillweed was and he didn’t want to tell us, but we pried it out of him. That’s when I found out he had done it to my coworker too–she hadn’t said anything.

      1. Mike C.*

        I see what you’re getting at here. The focus should be on stopping this behavior or being empowered to tell these folks to knock it off or have their contracts cancelled with penalties.

        1. Sadsack*

          Yes, there seems to be a feeling that they must keep the customer, so this is something they’ll have to deal with. That is really wrong and shameful for management not to put care for their employees above their potential loss of a customer.

  16. CAinUK*

    I slightly disagree with Alison re: going over manager’s head. Yes, he’s an ass. Yes, he is part of the problem. But I think the first step is to go back to him. If your first attempt was just mentioning this harassment in passing, then him brushing if off means you second attempt must be direct.

    Go into his office and give him specific examples as well as proposals for fixing the problem. The discussion is then about the solutions, not his opinion on the problem.

    If he resists in any way at that point, then YES go over his head. He will have no ground to stand on. But if you go straight above him now, I can imagine him saying “Oh, Lady Sansa mentioned this situation in passing but I didn’t think it was that serious – she should have come to me!” and the relationship deteriorating (you know, beyond the level it deteriorates because he’s an ass already).

    1. Apollo Warbucks*

      Yeah in think one more try at talking to the boss would be a good idea. Directly mentioning what you expect the boss to do about it. Hopefully he’s more ignorant more than a complete ass and will want to do something to help.

  17. KT*

    I would definitely take out the pictures…I am always paranoid because I used to work for a call center that had my photo, and years later, someone emailed me to say my photo was on an escort website…it was the call center headshot (Seriously people, wtf).

    People just dont need it–in other places that insisted on photos, we used stock photos of generic looking people and used fake names.

  18. grasshopper*

    Remove the real photo. That isn’t necessary to show that you aren’t a bot; how you interact and solve issues will prove that. If the company really wants to show the faces of everyone who works there, have a group company photo on the “about us” section of the website.

  19. Gene*

    I have mentioned the flirting issue to my senior manager before and he doesn’t seem to think it’s a big issue

    Instead of mentioning it to him, hand him a copy of the chat log for one of the really bad ones. If you’re lucky, he will see how inappropriate it is.

    1. E*

      Or include info about what happens if an employee files a complaint of harassment in the workplace (investigation, audit, etc.). Hopefully he’ll see how important it is to fix the situation, even if he can’t understand why such statements are wrong.

  20. MsM*

    Asking for personal contact information or continuing to pester for personal details after being told once that you’re not going to give that information out seems like a pretty clear line to me: “Sir, I’m just here to help you with your computer issue. If you’re looking for a date, I suggest you try a different type of hotline.”

    Agreed on getting clear protocols and additional scripts in place, though, and making sure senior management is aware of the problem and understands why it’s a problem. Tell the jerk who doesn’t get it in particular that it’s not about being pretty: it’s about not being treated like you’re the product on offer.

    1. TootsNYC*

      Asking for personal contact information or continuing to pester for personal details after being told once

      Actually, I think it’s tremendously out of line for it to EVER happen.

      It’s stalkerish from the get-go.

      1. Anna*

        I don’t think it’s stalkerish from the get-go, but it is a wildly inappropriate place to do it. If you’re going to be the kind of jerk who asks for it once, at least don’t be the kind of jerk who won’t let it go after that once.

        1. Student*

          Don’t fool yourself. These guys are specifically targeting people that they think can’t get away from them.

          It’s not like guys go to tech service reps for help with a problem, see their captivating photo, and fall-head-over-heels in love.

          They go to a tech service rep for a problem, see that it’s a woman, and give her as much crap as they thing they can get away with.

          1. TootsNYC*

            yep! It’s perhaps not “stalkerish” because it’s the first time, but it’s exactly the same kind of “I will insert myself and my sexual needs into your life and demand your attention, even though I’m not entitled to it. And I will play on society’s pressure to keep you from objecting.”

            Maybe “pervy” and “creeper-y” is better than “stalker-ish.”

            But it’s completely rude and out of line. Completely. The first time.

  21. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

    This was in-person, so it’s different, but I had a brand new client who got stalker-ish right off the bat (ie, starting send me handwritten letters pouring his heart out about how much he wanted to be with me – covered in hearts, etc). This person was a total and complete stranger. I re-directed, rejected, re-directed, told him clearly to stop, to now avail, and finally asked my boss what to do. This was a social service agency and the person wasn’t well and needed help (this kind of behavior was a large part of the reason he needed help), so we were trying to provide some option beside just kicking him out, although we would have been within our rights to do that. Boss told me to tell the client that because his case with so important, we were escalating it to a supervisor who would handle it personally (my male boss). The guy immediately disappeared.

    You would be in the right to tell the customer to knock it off, but if the company isn’t willing to do that for some reason you could have a policy of “escalating” harassers to someone very different (different gender, age, etc.) than the person they are harassing.

  22. Kaitlyn*

    This is a problem that is going to get worse, not better, as the company grows. My suggestions?

    1. Work with whoever can update your TOS agreements with customers. Make it clear in the company’s agreement with clients that, while online customer service can be provided, the company has the discretion to provide support in other media, including phone and email.

    2. Work to develop stock phrases that online reps can use to defuse or end an abuse conversation. Things like, “I’m only authorized to discuss your software,” and “How can I help you with your technical problem?” can be supplanted by “This conversation is no longer within the scope of the support our company provides” and even simply saying, ” We do not tolerate personal comments regarding our employees” can be helpful. Also, allow your CSRs to make the call on when a conversation is abusive, and allow them to end it if necessary.

    3. Track these buffoons! Abusive chats from a particular client or organization should be monitored, because if and when the pattern is clear, you’ll want to be able to point to a chat log and say, “This happened six times in the last six months, therefor we can no longer offer you online CS.”

    4. Help develop and support a culture where people recognize harassment for what it is. People like that manger are part of the problem; if there was a CSR wearing, say, a turban in his chat photo, and he had to field multiple questions or comments every day about what that, the company should be concerned. Likewise for this.

    I dunno if those will solve the issue, but hopefully they might help?

    1. OhNo*

      I love these suggestions! Especially the second part of #2. I think that giving reps the right to decide when a conversation crosses the line and needs to end would do a lot for ensuring that they feel safe (as opposed to if they had to ask permission from a manager or someone every time to make sure it was “bad enough”).

    2. Sunshine DC*

      Great Suggestions. What about also emphasizing the thing I often hear when calling service reps – the whole “this call is being monitored for quality control.” OP’s employees can make that a go-to response as well, like “My supervisor monitors every call/chatand it’s not permitted to communicate with any clients in this way.” If the rude callers were reminded that other people were reading their chat or hearing their conversation in real-time, it might dampen their aggressive and misplaced attentions.

    3. Student*

      I also like “This conversation is monitored and recorded for quality assurance reasons.” Helpful reminder that every crazy thing is recorded for posterity.

    4. Sarahnova*

      Great suggestions!

      An important one: encourage your reps to trust their instincts. If they feel a customer is being inappropriate, they are. Any time they need to redirect or end a conversation, they have done right. The danger that they will be overly quick to act is basically nil; the danger they will doubt themselves and put up with more than they need to is very large.

    5. Elizabeth West*

      Oh these are brilliant! I especially like the responses. And “we can no longer offer you online CS.” It’s okay to sanction or fire bad customers.

  23. mel*

    Higher-up Manager:
    *Hears there is a problem with sexual harrassment*
    *RESPONDS with MORE sexual harrassment*

    1. Anonsie*

      “I see no reason I did not handle that in the best way possible!” –That dude, probably

  24. I'm a Little Teapot*

    I wish more businesses took harassment by customers seriously, rather than expecting their employees to be punching bags and sex toys for the public. When I was 22 and working retail, a male customer grabbed me from behind while we were completely alone in the store, spun me around to face him, and said “Turn around so I can see you.” I told him in a quiet, deadly voice to get his hands off me; later, when I was running his credit card, he said defensively “I’m just a friendly guy.” I was so freaked out that I went in the bathroom and cried.

    My older female coworker told me when I related the incident that I shouldn’t have been rude to a customer. What was I supposed to do? Did she think his shopping in a store where I worked gave him a right to my body?

    1. Laurel Gray*

      So sorry this happened to you. Your older female coworker was a dingbat and probably born during the time when some women graduated high school and went into courtesan training where they worked until they met their eventual sugar daddy, King Francis I.

      Anyway, the dialogue he used here is a dead giveaway that this guy is a creep. Self proclaimed “nice/friendly/good etc” guys are creeps. Being any of these is not something you have to disclose if you truly embody it.

      1. Anonsie*

        Right? If you feel the need to tell people you’re a good person, perhaps you should examine what it is you think you’re trying to make up for with that.

      2. I'm a Little Teapot*

        That’s a great observation. I can’t count the number of times my sleazy boss from back in the day with a habit of not paying people rambled on about what a good, ethical business owner he was. (And how it was a terrible idea for any of us to leave because every other place was a big bad evil corporation.)

    2. Camellia*

      I’m sorry this happened to you and sorry that you did not get the support you needed from your cow-irker. And congratulations on your “quiet, deadly voice” – this is what got him to back off. I hope you kept that in your arsenal!

    3. Anna*

      There are many, many correct ways for your coworker to have handled this information. None of them include them telling you not to be rude to the customer.

    4. Artemesia*

      My mother was a nurse in the late 30s and early 40s and told me of countless incidents where male doctors treated nurses like this. At one point a doctor pushed her up against a wall to feel her up and cracked a rib. Nurses got almost no support. In her case, a colleague of the gross doctor actually stepped up and told him to cut it out or he would be fired — but there were no other consequences for him and she was lucky to have that support at that time.

      There are fewer men like this today, but there are some — they think women are there to entertain and serve them — and when they marry they expect their wife to ‘fix their plate’ at the buffet and otherwise be their maid.

        1. Artemesia*

          She probably weighed 99 pounds and he was huge and he pushed her up against the wall with his full body. Doctors were gods then. She felt lucky that one of her doctors took care of making sure he didn’t do it again. These days, I would hope he would go to jail.

    5. Afiendishthingy*

      God, how terrifying. Screw that coworker, that customer should have been banned from the store.

    6. Elizabeth West*

      Ugh. That sucks. And I’d like to have words with your co-irker.

      I used to work at Golden Corral, way back in the before time when they were a steakhouse and not a buffet. Our uniform was a brown plaid kerchief, a brown plaid shirt, and a very short brown polyester skirt (like the stuff ugly coach pants are made from). I remember one night I had my hands full of plates and some guy pulled me onto his lap. I wish now I’d dumped the hot food on him.

  25. Sabrina*

    My first job was at an amusement park in the Chicago area that had a lot of flags. One day I was working at my ride and watching as my counter part counted people in to the ride. A guest had already chosen his seat and was sitting somewhat near me. He lifted up his shirt to tuck cigarettes or something into his jorts, rubbed his belly and said to me, “This isn’t a beer belly, it’s a fuel tank for a sex machine.” I said “That’s nice. I’m 16.” That shut the idiot up. Anyway, if someone was really going overboard, we could call security who would escort them out of the park without a refund. My point is, management needs to have employee’s backs on this stuff and employees have every right to draw the line and find behavior like that unacceptable. Too often we (especially women) are trying hard to be nice and accommodating when we should definitely not be.

    1. Kate M*

      It’s amazing how this starts for teenage girls so young. (And by amazing I mean horrifying). Men start harassing girls at 12 and 13. And the general response that “well they looked older!” is such bs. These types of guys choose girls like this exactly because they look innocent and unlikely to fight or say anything back. They have more power in the situation. It is so sickening.

      1. OhNo*


        I tend to assume that this is the same reason that men tend to harass women working in customer service as well – they think that, as a customer, they have more power than the CSR. A good way to nip that behavior in the bud is to make sure that’s not the case, and make sure both the CSRs and the customers know who has the power in that relationship, by doing like Sabrina’s workplace did and supporting their employees.

        Now if only our society could do the same thing for young girls. :(

        1. Sabrina*

          I think a lot of companies take the “easy” way out and don’t do what’s best for the customer or the company. Because really, if the harassment were allowed to continue and the company did nothing, word is going to get around and then parents 1. Stop letting their teenage and college age kids work there and 2. Stop taking their families. In the above work place the customer’s actions are less noticeable but still, you need a workforce as much as you need customers, and if you can’t keep good employees, it will be harder to keep good customers.

        2. I'm a Little Teapot*

          You’re right, and it’s the same reason a lot of people are terrible to CSRs in other ways – they think they have more power. And, sadly, they’re usually right.

      2. Zillah*

        Yep. I think I’ve said this here before, but it’s terrifying to me how much street harassment decreased for me once I hit 19 or 20. The men harassing me did not think I looked older – they thought I looked like an easy target who wouldn’t fight back.* It’s similarly disturbing how much more harassment my friends who didn’t have the “mess with me and I will end you” face that I did received. Guys like this intentionally target women they know are less likely to fight back. It’s sickening.

        *I sometimes did, though – I was definitely known for yelling “What the f*ck is wrong with you?” and “Go f*ck yourself!” at them sometimes, though not when I felt isolated and vulnerable/unable to escape (e.g., public transportation).

        1. Anonsie*

          Holy crap I just realized this happened to me, too. It started when I was 11 and dropped off significantly around 20. I also got tattooed up around then so I thought it had something to do with that, but actually I think the drop happened well before that when I developed my tougher attitude overall. I stopped looking like someone who would take that crap and it stopped happening.

          Jesus Christ.

        2. Tomato Frog*

          Yep. Had the same realization, same age. I remember thinking that was weird that I was getting less street harassment after I went to college, considering that I looked more conventionally attractive (I’d lost some weight, had less acne, was generally more put together) and then it suddenly hit me why that was….

          I have a cousin who’s short and looks quite young and she just goes around everywhere scowling.

  26. Allison*

    From a business standpoint, they’re gonna have some pretty bad attrition rates if they don’t do anything about this issue. The good support reps will leave the second they can find better jobs (and they *will* be looking), the only women who stay will be people who can’t get decent jobs anywhere else, and you’ll have mostly men moving up in that career path. And thanks to Glassdoor, this company might get a bad reputation because of this. It’ll be bad.

    I agree that the photos need to be removed, it’s unnecessary. And allow people dealing with this to either escalate the issue to a manager, or have someone else take over the chat.

  27. Cheryl Becker*

    Alison, you are SO smart, and so good at this stuff! Just love your bullet points of suggestions. “I’m not here to discuss that so let’s get back to your account.” So simple, and yet, not always to easy to think of “on your feet.” For some women, it kind of takes us by surprise, and our first impulse might even be to flirt back. NOT the right response, and of course, not at all professional. I think that arming employees with some canned responses is a great idea.
    I’ll be interested to see if the company is open to removing the photos. Like you, I understand why they do them, and it seems they’ve become pretty much “standard.” Maybe another option would be a drawing, caricature, or some kind of symbol.
    Thanks, as always!

  28. anon no name*

    Ugh. I HATE the “it must be difficult being pretty” response, which I’ve received or heard just as much from men as from women. I once had a manager who got angry when someone complained about sexual harassment because she said she’d take it as a compliment from a client/coworker/random guy catcalling on the street. She also had a tendency to be all, “Oh, I bet coworker X only helped you because you’re pretty” or really snotty to anyone she thought was pretty or a male coworker showed attention to. It was awful.

  29. Cari*

    “sir, I think you have the wrong company. We are Chocolate Teapots Inc. not Nerdrotica.”

    Seriously, imo, if your customers are abusing the support service and treating it like a dating service, they should lose access to that privilege.

  30. Observer*

    I agree with Alison that this manager is gross. It seems to me, however, that you are enabling the man, and to some extent, the out of line customers, by the way you discuss this. It’s WAAAAY to tentative. Also, a bit vague.

    Here is an example of what I mean. You say that the manager “doesn’t seem to think it’s a big issue.” Well, that’s not accurate. A more accurate description of the problem is that this is not a problem at all, and raising it is nothing more than the whining of spoiled women. And what happened to your tech was not “unwanted flirting”, but disrespectful and disruptive behavior that may or may not rise to the legal line of harassment on a one time basis, but would almost certainly rise to that standard if it because a regular feature of client contacts.

    This should not be presented as “unwanted flirting”. To people with sense that’s clearly a problem, but it’s easy to see how someone might not get how much of a problem this is. But, if you present it – accurately- as “this client was repeatedly disrespectful, kept on questioning the technician’s competence and trying to divert the conversation from the tech issues he was having to personal conversations, and wouldn’t stop trying to pressure her into a PERSONAL relationship on work time” it becomes a lot harder to wave it away.

    1. Panda Bandit*

      The OP responded earlier that they didn’t describe it to the manager as flirting. They called it flirting in their message here for the sake of brevity.

      1. Observer*

        That was after I posted this. But my point still stands. Her descriptions here really downplay the issue. And the need for brevity doesn’t really explain it. For one thing, there are other ways to encapsulate the problem briefly. Also, her description of her manager’s reaction is not especially brief and wildly at odds with his actual reaction.

  31. TootsNYC*

    Can you propose that customer service reps can “delegate” problem clients laterally? To another customer service rep? If you’re in charge of workflow, maybe you can just slip that in.

    And maybe the new service rep can say, “Hello, customer. I understand you were making personal comments to the other service rep. Is there some work-related problem that I can help you with?”
    I think this might actually be faster and more powerful than if the same person keep trying to redirect them back to work issues. Because the creeper wants prolonged contact with this person, and they’ll keep at it. If there’s suddenly a different voice on the phone, the creeper may have to get back to business faster.

    By pointing to the bad behavior without actually outright condemning it, then it might not matter which

    And yes to tracking them, yes to printing out transcripts of what is specifically said.
    For one thing, if you can spot one particular problem customer (individual or company), you can go directly to that client and say, “One of your employees is creating problems in our call center. Neither of us wants that. Please address it. ”

    You can perhaps document how much actual *time* is wasted by deflecting that sort of thing. It costs money–in a call center, time is money.
    In fact, that might be the point that lets you eliminate photos, or create some “let’s speed this up” type of reaction (like, bumping them to a different rep and saying, “let’s stick to business”). It’s tremendously inefficient as it is.

    And if nothing else, if you can’t make any other change, work with this particular employee to get a crummy picture of her to put up instead of whatever she’s got now.

  32. nep*

    I’m sure it’s been said 100 times here (haven’t yet read all the comments) — Ugh. Your senior manager sucks and is a jack ass.

  33. Intrepid Intern*

    Could you empower your reps to bump the client to the end of the queue if they’re being inappropriate? I.e., if a client asks “are you single” once, he gets a warning; twice, and he gets bumped to the back of the line of people waiting for the next available representative. They might learn.

    1. Apollo Warbucks*

      That’s a little to passive for my liking, it just going to upset the people waiting thinking they’re getting bad service and it doesn’t adress the root of the problem.

      1. Intrepid Intern*

        Oh, I was thinking the warning would be explicit: “Mr. Client, that’s inappropriate. If you keep making inappropriately personal comments, I will put you back into the queue for assistance, per our policies.” And then a subject change back to the support question.

  34. That Marketing Chick*

    Just yesterday, as hubby was pumping gas in our car, I got out to wash our windshield. The very much older man at the next pump said something to my husband like “how much to do my windows” or something like that.
    WHY do men think this is flattering? All it did was make my skin crawl. My husband was so shocked that he didn’t say a word.

    1. Lurking*

      I think that this behavior is less about flattery and more about asserting dominance over others. For example. I attended a reception once where the bride’s uncle hit on me in front of my husband. I doubt creepy uncle expected me to dump my husband for him and he knew my husband would hesitate to ruin his niece’s reception with a fist fight, so this was a way he could safely show my much larger husband who is boss. In another setting, creepy uncle might not have been so bold.

      Same with these creeps that call in. They know that they have a captive audience so that is why they behave the way the do.

  35. AW*

    Am I the only one who thinks having real photos of the reps is a terrible idea from a safety standpoint? There’s a reason they usually use fake names.

  36. Kiki*

    OP, would it be possible for you to have your techs escalate any chats that get uncomfortable to you, and you have a standard set of comments to use to defuse the situation? And, of course, keep those chat logs.

  37. Grumpy*

    One time though when I was sleep deprived and rushed I said, loudly, to a man hitting on a cashier when there was a long line up forming, “Oh my Cripes, she’s not interested! Move on already!”
    Everyone (but him) laughed and he did move along quickly.

    In my normal state of mind though I’ve got no magic bullet answers or phrases so I currently just put up with bad behavior to keep the workplace peace and the illusion of a good working relationship. Silently I’m so creeped out and sad for the misguided arse who does this every time I phone him (but never when I email).

    One day I’ll get the courage so say, “You’re not seriously hitting on me are you? Seriously? Good because that’s not OK, not even pretending. Too much potential liability. Are we good? Right, so then back to my question…”


  38. Fired First, No Feedback*

    All of Alison’s responses are correct. It sounds like upper management is exploiting the picture system to drum up more traffic/interest at the expense of their employee’s comfort as well as opening themselves up to a huge HR lawsuit.

    I’ve worked as a support tech before, when someone gets creepy/berating you say, “That is inappropriate, I am hanging up now, goodbye.” People are awful on the phone. :/

  39. Check_Your_Collections_Dept*

    There may be resources within your company in different departments even. Do you have a collections department? I can assure you that they have clear guidlines on how CSRs making the collection car can 1) Establish clearly when a boundery (such as yelling/threatening) has been crossed 2) Warn customer that if boundary continues to be crossed, the call will be ended 3) end the call.

    This should be standard for all CSRs IMO.

  40. Original Poster*

    Just as a general comment: Thanks so much to AAM for answering this question for me. I feel like I’ve been the only person taking this seriously and, even though I know for sure it’s something that needs to be dealt with, there is some comfort in hearing someone else say it’s a huge issue, too.

    These recommendations are great, and the comments have been wonderfully supportive and helpful. I definitely feel like removing the pictures and getting stock phrases in place for response to harassment will go a long way toward making our reps feel more comfortable. I’m going to work with management as much as possible to get a system of escalation in place for these reports.

    1. Anonymous Pterodactyl*

      When it comes to developing stock phrases to arm your reps with, I actually really dislike some of the previous suggestions to frame the issue as “personal” comments. This isn’t someone’s mom getting on a call with them to ask when they’re going to come visit or to chat about other genuinely personal topics. Parents, friends, etc, those are people I would give the “I’m sorry, but I can’t discuss personal matters at work” line to.

      Creeps who are harassing, creeping on, and otherwise making your poor reps miserable? The word for that is inappropriate, not personal, and I’d stick with that sort of framing. “Comments like that are inappropriate and need to stop. Have you tried XYZ to fix your problem?” “Wow, that’s completely inappropriate. If they don’t stop you will be put at the back of the queue.” And then if it gets escalated to a manager (you or otherwise), “That kind of behavior is completely inappropriate, and we will not let you speak to our employees that way.”

      Calling it personal might come across more nicely, but someone upthread already pointed out one of the issues with that – it encourages the creeps to try to find a time when “personal” things can actually be discussed, by asking when someone is off of work or trying to get another method to contact them privately. I think it’s better to shut it down straight up by calling the behavior unwanted and unacceptable, and not simply untimely.

      1. Observer*

        Thanks for putting your finger on that. It got me thinking about two other aspects of this phrasing.

        On the one hand, using “personal” gives the creeps an excuse / opening to argue the issue. The CSR didn’t mind, no one will notice a couple of minutes etc. “inappropriate” doesn’t leave much room for anyone to try that out.

        On the other hand, I think that part of the problem we have is that women are expected to be too “nice”. Someone upthread mentioned an advantage of certain wording is that it doesn’t come off as condemning the behavior. I think this is NOT an advantage. The fact that the language clearly and unambiguously labels the behavior as NOT OK, rather than just “my boss doesn’t like when I do this”, is a good thing in my opinion.

  41. ITPuffNStuff*

    management seems to be sending a pretty clear message that they do care about revenue, and they don’t care about employees. it’s mind-boggling to me how they see those 2 items as disconnected things, but then if there were no bad managers, this blog would not exist.

    if senior mgmt. won’t do their jobs, i’d say it’s time to take more drastic steps:
    1. turn on logging for all chats, or use some other method to ensure every single word is recorded
    2. instruct operations staff: as soon as a customer makes an inappropriate remark, turn that call over to mgmt. when this happens, mgmt. needs to advise the customer the comment was inappropriate and refuse to do anything to address the technical issue until they express their agreement to stick only to the technical problem. once they realize their technical problem is not going to be addressed, they will have a reason to cut it out.
    3. if/when senior mgmt. doesn’t back up the OP on this, make it clear that you have kept records of sexual harassment of both you and your employees, and you are doing what the law requires both to prevent a harassing workplace and to ensure employees know they are not expected by mgmt. to tolerate harassing behavior. if senior mgmt. still doesn’t get it, it’s time to hire an attorney.

    i feel like there’s an important point that even if this behavior doesn’t cross the legal line for harassment, it still communicates a very clear message: that mgmt. expects employees to put up with unwanted sexual comments. now, given that expectation has been set, when a customer finally does cross the line into legal harassment, employees will believe (correctly, probably) that mgmt. still expects them to tolerate the harassing behavior. that will make mgmt. liable for the situation, because mgmt. sets the expectations about what employees are expected to tolerate.

  42. Nelly*

    I had a bit of that for a while, when we had to put photos on our emails. I replaced my photo with one of Mimi Bobeck from the Drew Carey show. That didn’t reduce the flirting and sexual harassment much, but I still felt better about it, because they were hitting on Mimi (Pigs!), not me.

  43. Senses*

    This requires management support and probably is less likely if your company is still smallish.

    My company lets our Support team basically cut off the call/chat if the customer’s being completely unreasonable. They’ll basically tell the client ‘We’re unable to assist you when you’re behaving this way. You can call us back if you’re willing to stop yelling at us or otherwise being inappropriate.’ And if that’s not enough – we have a client who was incredibly abusive and unreasonable with ever Support member she came into contact with, so she got blacklisted. She was blocked on both chat and phone. She can only request support through email.

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