my coworker wants our office to do a sweat lodge ceremony

A reader writes:

I serve in a central administrative role for a regional office of the nonprofit I work for. My supervisor, who I have a good relationship with, works in our main office in a nearby city. I get frequent positive feedback from him and am routinely the highest achiever among my peers. There is also a regional director in charge of operations at my location, and while it makes day-to-day life in the office more pleasant if I get along with this person, he doesn’t have any authority over me or my work. The regional director, Bob, was recently promoted from another part of the organization. Our relationship was strained before he even started based on a bad experience working on a project together when he was in his previous role, but I was open to making a fresh start. My supervisor was aware of the tension and sympathetic, but urged me to try and make it work. And I have tried. But I am at my wit’s end.

Bob is a very touchy-feely sort, which is pretty consistent with the kind of social justice work we do, but not my style at all. I just want to keep my head down and do good work. He wants us to be a happy family and has been organizing an endless schedule of team-building activities, ranging from a weekend potluck at his house to group yoga in the break room. I’m not the only one who finds all of this to be awkward, but he seems to think it’s especially urgent that he and I “get past our issues” and pouts when I don’t participate. But if I am anything less than chilly toward him, he wants to clasp my hands in his and talk about our feelings. He doesn’t understand that demanding a hug will not improve our relationship.

And now he’s made plans for everyone in the office to do a sweat lodge ceremony together. I’m starting to hyperventilate just thinking about it, and about what could possibly come next.

I know my supervisor is supportive and there are limits on his expectations that I “make it work,” but he’s also some distance away and doesn’t really know the new director. Complicating matters further, the director is dismissive of the work I do. I’m a licensed professional with a busy schedule, but he assumed I (a woman) would be available to answer his phone when his assistant was out and got annoyed that I couldn’t help set up for a office party because I had an off-site meeting with a client. I dread going to work now. How do I address this, especially since he doesn’t seem to respect me?

You can read my answer to this letter at New York Magazine today. Head over there to read it.

{ 220 comments… read them below }

  1. Aurion

    Without Googling, I thought a sweat lodge would be some sort of exercise bootcamp where everyone would sweat buckets and bond over how grueling the workout is. The context in Alison’s answer makes it even worse.

    Just thinking about how touchy-feely this boss is makes me shudder. Ugh.

    1. AvonLady Barksdale

      I am massively claustrophobic. I would sooner do the workout you described before I would agree to participate in anything that required me to be in a hot, humid, closed-in space, especially with my co-workers. (Meaning no disrespect to those for whom it’s an important ceremony– and I’m pretty sure those people would understand.)

      That said, I used to do hot yoga. Wearing just a sports bra. Not a co-worker activity. No no no no no.

      1. INTP

        And beyond the awkward grossness of sweating with coworkers, and phobias and other things making it unpleasant, people have DIED doing these. I would point that out to management. No manager/employer in their right minds would want the liability that comes with this being done as a company activity.

        1. Koko

          That was my first thought too – sweat lodges are physical strenuous and even people in the best health can fall ill in that setting. People who are older or have health conditions are even more at risk. This is not a good idea.

          1. Elysian

            I’m pretty sure steam rooms and the like (anything with lots of heat – hot tubs, baths that are too hot…) are on my pregnancy prohibited list. That could be an awkward conversation.

        2. Amadeo

          Yes, I’d be one of those that physically just wouldn’t handle that very well. Like, at all. I have suffered heat exhaustion sitting still in the shade on 90 degree days, so this would be a hill I would die on in refusing to participate and suggesting that the folks that let him organize this need to do their research and reconsider.

  2. Junipergreen

    Ack… ack!!! I too would have a hard time showing up to work with this sorry excuse for a director. I can just imagine the OP trying to calmly discuss this, and Bob wanting to hug it out afterward. OP, please don’t let this guy ever touch you again. I’m so dismayed by Bob’s touchy-feely behavior… it got buried in the letter but is probably the core of the matter.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      That’s interesting — I debated with myself about what the core issue is, but there are so many that it’s hard to choose (the sexism, the touchy-feeliness, the crazed ideas about office bonding, the hurt feelings when the OP isn’t interested — there are too many!).

      1. Overeducated

        Not to mention the cultural insensitivity! That was my #1 red flag. Ugh. So many issues I guess we can all pick our own. . .

        1. Mander

          Ugh, me too. Native Americans are dismissed and ignored enough as it is; so let’s go ahead and take a ceremony that is very important for some groups and turn it into a new age team building exercise.

          Gross. You might as well pass out plastic tomahawks and have a Cowboys vs. Indians fight with the next department over as part of your team building exercises, too.

          1. an anon

            It seems particularly poignant that Bob (who is presumably non-native) is choosing to appropriate sacred rituals while DAPL protests are so prominent in the media…

      2. The Cosmic Avenger

        It seems like they’re all based on an inability to empathize or imagine another’s viewpoint. The director seems to have an idea of what people want, and their actual opinions or feelings be damned, they’ll want what he says they want!

        Of course, it’s not as simple as that, it very possibly doesn’t even occur to this director that people want something different than what they want, but if someone can explain it to him sufficiently, it’s possible to have a breakthrough with someone like this. He doesn’t seem to be saying “this is how people should act/feel”, he’s saying “this is what will make them happy/satisfied workers”.

        It’s not always easy to get through to someone like that, and they may not be open to people wanting things that they don’t want, but it’s possible. I’ll bet Captain Awkward has advice about this specific kind of issue.

      3. Junipergreen

        Yeah Bob is a smorgasbord of awful, making this a particularly tough one to triage. I think in the OP’s shoes, I’d take my pick based on whatever awful behavior he offered up next, and tackle them as they come (which is essentially what you’ve recommended).

        1. JMegan

          That’s one option, or else make a list of all the awful behaviours and prioritize them by which one is bugging OP the most. That might be my approach – like, I can let the yoga go with a simple “no thanks,” but I will definitely push back on the hugging.

          It’s a bit of a Gordian knot either way, and it sucks that it’s on the OP to untangle it.

        2. AMPG

          Personally, I’d focus on the unwanted touching, since that opens up the company to a harassment complaint. From there, you’ve successfully established a boundary, which makes subsequent ones easier to deal with.

          1. Jeanne

            I also think that seems like the most direct to start with. “Bob, I do not ever want to hold hands with you or hug you. Please stop. I am sure you are aware that Company has a policy against sexual harrassment.”

      4. designbot

        I think the core thing is to separate their previous personal conflict from any current issues. They do indeed need to “move past” that item–otherwise any issue brought up by OP will be taken as “well she just doesn’t like me” instead of seen as a legitimate item for concern.

        1. Editrix

          Bob is the one who needs to “move past” it, though – it sounds like OP is more than willing to and capable of doing that, and would have long ago if Bob wasn’t reviving the spectre every time he’s unhappy with her reaction to his unwelcome behavior.

          1. Editrix

            I should say, her *perfectly reasonable* reaction to his behavior, which he is turning around to make her seem like an unreasonable grudge-holder.

          2. designbot

            totally agree–that’s part of why I think that’s a really interesting element of the question. How DO you get someone to stop associating every single time you don’t agree with them 100% with some long-past conflict? How do you get your voice heard on important topics, when your voice is discredited by the person who needs to hear it?

            1. Camellia

              This is my own personal definition of prejudice. They see you through their filter and it doesn’t matter what you say or do – they literally can’t see or hear it.

      5. Engineer Girl

        The lack of boundaries is the root issue. They’re manifesting in so many different ways. And sexism as a cherry on top.

      6. Clever Name

        Bob may very well be harmless, but the sexism plus him demanding to touch you plus yoga at work plus sweat lodge, I can’t help but wonder what Bob is getting out of all these activities. Especially if the office is primarily young women. Just…..gross.

        1. mmsw

          I would not be at all surprised if bob is a serial harasser/abuser with a history of gaslighting people. “Oh she misunderstood I’m progressive I’m sensitive I want us to work out our issues”. Hope OP starts documenting these events- times he tried to hug her, wouldn’t take no for an answer etc.

          1. Formica Dinette

            This sounds so possible. I didn’t make the connection until Junipergreen mentioned it above, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the hugging, insistence on “getting past [their] issues,” etc. were all part of Bob’s overall harassment strategy.

          2. Tyrannosaurus Regina

            A lot of abusers will co-opt the language of “sensitivity”/social justice/progressiveness as sort of a juggling trick to keep their various nefarious balls in the air indefinitely, and make their victims feel responsible for their own harassment or abuse or lower-level jerkishness. It’s pretty insidious. “I could never do THAT; I’m one of the Good Guys.” Blargh.

      7. mmsw

        Also does he try to hug everyone, or just women? If so red flag for sexual harassment/abuse which the progressive nonprofit world is not immune from.

      8. Minister of Snark

        Not to mention the underlying threat of “give me the huggy, open, “happy family” dynamic I want – even if you have to fake – or I’m going to put you in a dark, hot, cramped room where you will sweat to the point of discomfort, have difficulty breathing and possibly have physical distress to the point of hallucinations. Oh, and I’m going to make it clear to everybody else that our strained relationship is the reason the WHOLE OFFICE is participating, so they’re going to blame you.” It’s a threat. It’s a punishment. Is he honestly trying to say there’s no other way to “clear the air” between you besides participating in a physically uncomfortable situation where clothing will be minimal?

  3. Chinook

    My first question to OP is whether or not you work for a First Nations’ owned company or an organization that works with First Nations. If you do, saying no could have different consequences as this is a part of some of the cultures. That being said, any elder running a sweat lodge should know that not everybody can handle it physically, mentally or spiritually and not force anyone to participate.

    I have done a sweat lodge with a Northern Cree tribe and it was enlightening in a way I can’t explain and I would jump to do it again. I was part of a co-ed, multicultural group and we translated it as a “sacred sauna” to those who couldn’t speak English. We did wear swimsuits inside and there was chanting and meditation and I saw things (but only two of us saw them – not everybody) I can’t describe. But, this was also part of a larger cultural experience (we were exchange students with Canada World Youth) and everyone knew that we were not required to participate for any number of reasons, especially if you are claustrophobic or scared of the dark.

    What does it look like inside? This one was dark with one small entrance and a pit in the middle. You sit on the edge of the tent and rocks are placed in water that is in the pit (I think – it was dark after all). I can’t tell you how long we sat in there, but we went in and out a few times and there was plenty of water to drink when we were outside.

      1. mccoma

        I’m betting “new age”. I should point out that an improperly handled sweat lodge is a dangerous thing. I’m writing from a rez and they don’t invite non-tribal members. Different for other tribes as Chinook found out.

        I would flee with great haste from this job.

    1. Observer

      I posted before I saw your post. But, I agree with Allison. The likelihood of this being a First Nations’ organization seems pretty low.

      Even there, it would be pretty bad of the director to push it, but at least there would be the context. And, your practical caution would be warranted.

    2. Natalie

      I would bet approximately 1 billion dollars that this is not a First Nations organization, and furthermore, that Bob has arranged this sweat lodge with a white, new-age “shaman” rather than any actual First Nations people. Sweat lodges are one of the currently popular appropriation items.

        1. MoinMoin

          This story was my first thought. As someone who sweats very minimally and has to be very careful not to overheat (I’ve passed out multiple times, generally just being hot, not even exerting myself), this makes me so anxious to think about.

        2. MommaTRex

          Yes this! I came to comment because I am worried about the OP’s safety if someone doesn’t know what they are doing.

          1. INTP

            Or even if the person running the ceremony knows what they’re doing, I could imagine people feeling like they have to suffer it out because Bob will get really weird if they leave the lodge because they aren’t feeling well. In the presence of a high pressure person like this, I just don’t feel like it could ever be safe.

      1. de Pizan

        There’s also been some significant issues with those new-age shamans doing sweat lodges when they aren’t following tradition or safety practices. In 2009, 3 people died and 21 were sick from one of those types improperly setting up a sweat lodge and overcrowding it (he was charged with 3 counts of negligent homicide and served 2 years). Not to mention the grossness of commodifying a religious ceremony not your own, where the guy in question was charging over $9600 for attending those sweat lodges.

        1. INTP

          Yep, improper running of sweat lodges can definitely result in serious injury or death. I’d be tempted to bring this to someone above Bob’s head to put a stop to it, because no manager in their right mind would allow the sort of liability it would bring to do a sweat lodge as a work activity, at least once they were informed of the dangers.

          From what I’ve read it’s much safer as practiced by tribal elders, but in this case I don’t feel like it could be safe no matter who is running it. The key is that people need to feel free to leave if they are sick and it doesn’t feel right – and no matter what the person running the ceremony says, it sounds like people will be afraid of what Bob thinks if they don’t participate to his standards.

    3. Blue_eyes

      That was my first thought too. The only way the sweat lodge is *maybe* ok, is if the organization serves and/or employs significant numbers of First Nations/Native American people. But even then, it’s still not a great idea.

      1. neverjaunty

        No, it really isn’t. Forcing employees to participate in religious or spiritual ceremonies does not become OK because the population served shares a particular faith.

        1. an anon

          Note that not all native people share the same faith–every group has its own traditional beliefs, and besides many native people are actually Christian or have other non-traditional religious beliefs. So the invite would be based on ethnicity rather than religion.

      2. De Minimis

        I know a lot of the time a genuine sweat ceremony would be segregated or be male-only.

        May depend on the individual tribe though—I’m Native but sweat lodges aren’t part of my tribe’s tradition so I’m not that familiar with it.

        1. Mander

          That’s the other thing that bothers me about this — it’s not like Native Americans are a uniform block and everyone does the same thing. People don’t understand that there are hundreds of different cultures and languages in the Americas.

      3. Liz

        Thing is, there’s a gajillion things which are awesome for some people and horrible for others- but are NEVER ok to push as a work appropriate activity. I’m looking at ice breakers for an event now and rejecting 90% of them because they involve touching or not wearing business clothes. Would they be fun? Sure. Would they be appropriate for our context? No way!

        I’ve love a sweatlodge experience- on my OWN. This boss definitely seems to have ego/inability to separate his view from reality issues.

    4. Joie De Vivre

      “… not everybody can handle it physically,…..”

      That would be me. I have problems with heat & have had issues with sitting in a hot tub. If I tried to do a sweat lodge, it would make me sick.

        1. SpaceySteph

          There also might be pregnant women who are supposed to avoid saunas and hot tubs, too. And they may be early in pregnancy and not ready to tell their boss yet.

          He’s really asking for disclosure of all kinds of private medical information that folks aren’t ready to or shouldn’t ever have to tell their employer.

    5. the gold digger

      I had coffee with a guy who works for a company headquartered in Finland. (We are in the US.) He told me about going to a sauna with his co-workers – that first you drink a lot, then you get mostly naked and sit in a really hot space and sweat, and then you jump into very cold water.

      “And that,” he said, “is if they LIKE you.”

      1. Koko

        An Irish friend of mine worked abroad in Iceland where this is also the custom. She was always a very modest person and was initially horrified and reluctant (and did a swimsuit when the others were naked), but she said that actually after about two months she just got used to the nudity. It’s fascinating to me how she so completely reversed her feelings about it in such a short amount of time, just because of being so fully immersed in a culture where it was normal as opposed to being in a culture where it was unheard of. There is no way she would have come around on the issue if it had been happening in Belfast.

        1. Elizabeth West

          I’ve heard people have the same reaction to the communal bathing in Japan. I’m open to it as a cultural experience (in a setting similar to what Chinook described above), but I’d probably not want to do it with coworkers.

    6. Parcae

      Interestingly, I *have* worked for multiple Native American controlled organizations, and one former employer proposed a sweat lodge ceremony as a team building exercise. I demurred on religious/spiritual grounds– I’m white, and while I’m sure that the elder would have handled things in a way that was totally appropriate, I wasn’t comfortable putting myself into that kind of situation with coworkers for whom the practice was part of their spiritual tradition.

      In any case, the ceremony ended up not happening, but I still wonder about it. Quite aside from the cultural aspects, I think it would have resulted in crossing some boundaries with my coworkers that I prefer to keep intact!

      1. Jeanne

        To truly have a sweat lodge experience, don’t you have to accept the spirituality of it? That might really conflict with other religious beliefs and is a bad idea for a workplace to require. I will also agree about not getting naked with coworkers. (Are they always naked? I don’t even know.)

    7. Chaordic One

      This is what I was thinking. It might be appropriate if you regularly deal closely with native Americans and it is part of their heritage. I’m aware of people who work in schools, counseling facilities and healthcare facilities that work closely with native Americans and in such a context it can be an extremely enlightening experience and help to form bonds of trust between you and the people you are working with. If this is the context, seriously consider going. I would.

      OTOH, if it is just some sort of “new age” gimmick that doesn’t really have anything to do with the people you are working with, it would certainly be acceptable to opt out of it.

      1. Mander

        Yes, given my type of work if I had been invited to participate in a ceremony of any kind I would have. I have attended various ceremonies for religions that are not part of my heritage and I do so with the idea that I am there to learn and experience, not to judge or analyze or to achieve any spiritual aims for myself. But I also don’t have any strong religious views that would preclude me from basically worshipping someone else’s gods, to put it crudely, and I can also see that being a problem for many people.

  4. Observer

    The irony of someone in a social justice position acting i a way that sounds highly sexist.

    OP, skip the part about hyper-ventilating, and just lay out the facts for your supervisor.

    Make sure that your supervisor and HR know that the regional director know that he’s pushing staff to engage in a *religious ceremony* at work. That should send the blood pressure of any competent HR person through the roof. (Don’t let him get away with claiming that this is not a religious ceremony. It most definitely is, and the groups who do practice it, find people who claim otherwise to be very disrespectful, at best.)

    1. irritable vowel

      Yeah, I would have zero qualms bringing out the “cultural appropriation” talk here. (Heck, there are even some people who oppose yoga as being cultural/religious appropration, but the sweat lodge is much more clearcut.) I’d probably start first with the regional director, make it clear that I thought it was completely inappropriate and that it needed to be cancelled, and if he gave any kind of pushback at all, I’d then escalate to HR and my supervisor.

      1. Chinook

        “Yeah, I would have zero qualms bringing out the “cultural appropriation” talk here”

        This is the one reason I spoke up so quickly on this. There is a slight chance that the OP works with First Nations people (up in Canada, a lot of social justice groups do), in which case this brings the conversation in a completely different direction based on who invited whom and why.

        But, if this wasn’t an invitation from a specific community, this is something a social justice group should NOT be doing because it is literally making something that is not only sacred but also banned by white government because of its sacredness and making it a team building experience. This is so very much wrong.

        As a last resort, or if OP needs to save face, tell your boss that you have claustrophobia and being asked to sit in a hot, enclosed space for an unknown amount of time will cause you to react badly. I am sure you can even get a doctor’s note if you need to.

        1. Observer

          Why in heaven’s name should the OP need to make excuses, much less go through the hassle of getting a doctor’s note.

          The regional director is waaaay out of line here, and unless the workplace is totally dysfunctional, she shouldn’t have to doge and weave.

          1. OhNo

            It’s not a matter of “should”. Obviously, the OP should feel free to say no to whatever they want, but sometimes situations arise where you just can’t. If that ends up being the case, it’s always good to have a back-up plan in place.

            Ideal? Goodness no. But occasionally necessary.

            1. Chinook

              Exactly. The OP should not feel obligated to do something she feels uncomfortable doing without committing career suicide. But, sometimes that isn’t an option. Knowing that you can have a legit way to back out can be a good way for those that either hate confrontation or are worried about their job security.

          2. gubuphet

            At the very least, this activity will require all participants to sign a waiver which, if it were me, I would absolutely refuse to do. I would let the director know ahead of time that in addition to everything else that’s off-putting about this activity, I will not be signing a waiver.

        2. INTP

          And even if it WERE an invitation from a First Nations group, unless my understanding of the traditional role and purpose of this ceremony is off (which it could be, I’m not an expert), the way it’s being used here could still be considered offensive. Specifically, that people feel pressured to do it regardless of their own comfort levels due to Bob, and that it’s being used as a sort of corporate forced-bonding tactic that won’t be meaningful to many of the people involved.

      2. Troutwaxer

        For me, the question about any practice is whether is is “cultural appropriation” or “cultural exchange.” As I see it, the situation involving Native Americans is different than the one involving (Asian) Indians. The relationship of a European-descended American with Native Americans is very much one of exploitation, which means that if European-Americans formally or informally borrow a piece of Native American culture, there’s something suspicious going on. We stole their land, we stole their independence, we stole their way of life, and we didn’t give much back. One culture benefits – from sweat lodges, for example – and the Native American culture doesn’t benefit. That’s cultural appropriation.

        Our relationship with the (Asian) Indians is a much more egalitarian one. They borrow justified intonation and musical theatre (for example) and we borrow Yoga. But in this case both cultures benefit. That’s cultural exchange. It’s an informal exchange, but it works well for both sides.

        1. Retail HR Guy

          Eh, I don’t think it works (or should work) like that, wherein we have to see if there is some kind of balance to what each side is getting out of the exchange before declaring it either benign cultural exchange vs. malevolent cultural appropriation.

          The Sweat Lodge appropriation business is yucky because it takes something that is sacred and trivializes it. However, I don’t think anyone would or should have a problem with a bunch of white folks playing Lacrosse or fixing up some fry bread. So I think it’s less a matter of which cultures you borrow from, and more a matter of how you do it and the motivation behind it.

          (Also, as an aside, many East Indians would probably beg to differ with you on whether their experience with Western culture was exploitative vs. “egalitarian”.)

          1. Troutwaxer

            Certainly the relationship between the Indians and the British wasn’t remotely equal, and anyone from that part of the world could feel some very reasonable resentment for the wrongs which were done, though as an American, I don’t feel an obligation to accept British guilt – we have quite enough guilts of our own! (Sighs.)

            As the issues of spiritual appropriation go – I’m no expert on this part of history – my recollection is that Hinduism has sent its own missionaries to the West, so I’m less worried about cultural appropriation from that source, as they have deliberately sent their spirituality over here, hopefully with the understanding that any two cultures will have a pretty chaotic boundary which will do things like spin off Ganesh as the Hindu God everyone in the U.S. likes, without necessarily bring Shiva and Vishnu, or even Ganesh’s own theology, along with those neat elephant-headed statues.

            As William Gibson said, “the street finds its own uses for things.” That’s a fact you live with when you send out missionaries.

            For to the rest of it, I don’t claim perfect understanding or education on the “cultural appropriation” issue, but I’d certainly want to look at the level of equality between the two nations and cultures as I consider the problem.

            1. Gadfly

              My husband is a Vaishnava (a form of ‘hinduism’, not that they like the word, but that is a different matter.) He grew up in New York, converted at 15-ish.

              It’s complicated. The whole history of the West with India is a complicated mess. I had no idea before meeting his friends, and I’m comparatively well educated on this sort of thing, how big of a mess it is.

              I wouldn’t use the Missionary excuse.

              1. Anna

                I think it’s better to look at how yoga is used as opposed to how sweat lodges are used. For the most part in the US, yoga isn’t a religious practice. It’s used as an exercise (and I cannot say with any authority that this negates any cultural appropriation, I’m just trying to wrap my head around how it might be viewed differently). In no context have I seen the use of sweat lodges as anything but a spiritual cleansing ritual. Were the various religions in India suppressed during British occupation? Genuinely curious and I don’t know that part of the history of colonization.

                1. Gadfly

                  I’ve seen semi-spiritual-generalized sweat lodges that are more like a meditation routine, which is is something I’ve seen in yoga. And a lot of Indian practitioners are particularly upset at taking something full of spiritual significance and making an exercise routine out of it, stripping it of the spiritual meaning. Like buying Euchrist patens to serve tea-cakes on.

                  As for the religious suppression–it is mixed. Some believe the British saved the native traditions that were being destroyed under Islam. At the least they saved a lot of temples and artifacts. But it was done in conformance with Victorian values. Save and degrade simultaneously?

                2. Gadfly

                  Also, there isn’t a monolithic governing body. Just because some temples and guru-lineages accept the idea of Western devotees does not mean that all will. There are temples that will not allow you entrance if they do not believe you are Indian, born of Indian parents (A friend of my husband’s was turned away from one on a pilgramage for being pale and having a bit of an English accent after living abroad… He was born in Bengal, as were his parents. Americans are warned to not even try.) Not every sect of Christianity agrees with what the other ones do, and they are (in my opinion) more uniform in belief.

            2. Newsie

              Hey Troutwaxer, I know you don’t mean this to sound flip, but in 1923, Asian Indians were ruled by the Supreme Court as ineligible for citizenship because they weren’t white. Literally, Asian Indians could not be a citizen of the United States until 1946 – people who were naturalized before that through marriage had their citizenship taken away. What you call “missionaries” were a couple of prominent Hindus who were often denied the chance to speak at World Congresses of Religion who attracted celebrity followers. Meanwhile, missionaries sent to India sometimes forced those people to convert for food. I am a proud American, but I would by no means call the history between the two peoples as “egalitarian.” Any equality has come recently, with Indian economic power.

              Alison, I’m sorry, I’m done, I don’t want to derail, but I felt like I had to speak. I’ll go lurk again.

          2. Chinook

            “I don’t think anyone would or should have a problem with a bunch of white folks playing Lacrosse or fixing up some fry bread.”

            But the difference is that nobody ever told them they can’t play lacrosse and then suddenly make lacrosse a hip thing for white guys to do. Ditto for food (though I did call all my coworkers heathens for not enjoying the fry bread with homemade saskatoon jam that was brought in for an Aboriginal Day celebration. Our First Nations liaison got a laugh as the two of us ate as much as we wanted).

            Cultural appropriation comes into play when something is not only taken away from a people but then used in a casual way by those who took it. So, wearing mukluks and moccasins are fine because white guys adopted the clothing because it made sense and acknowledged local wisdom and experience. Wearing feathers in your hair, on the other hand, is disrespectful because the wearers usually have no clue that what they wear has important symbolism.

            1. Troutwaxer

              The casualness of the appropriation is definitely a huge, major issue. As for the missionary issue, I could easily be convinced that for every Hindu who believes that missionaries should be sent to the West, there’s another Hindu with completely different priorities…

              The real offense is the total lack of thought to other peoples beliefs!

    2. Dot Warner

      Yes, and most American Indians are justifiably extremely offended when a white person tries to appropriate such a sacred tradition in this way. Heck, I’m offended by it, and I’m whiter than sour cream! OP, if your organization is located in an area where there’s a significant Indian population and word gets out about this, it could be a PR nightmare – and that’s also something to tell your boss and HR.

      1. Minister of Snark

        This. A First Nation friend of mine compared it to a Native American family holding a fake Christening for a baby they have no plans to raise in the church because they “like how the long white lacy gowns look in pictures.”

    3. zora.dee

      There might be a tiny bit of a workplace culture thing here, I have worked at small nonprofits in a sector where the hugging and yoga and quasi-spiritual ceremonies were extremely common, even including team camping trips with skinny dipping, etc. But THANK GOODNESS, the one where I worked had moved on from the most extreme of these just before I started working there, because I wouldn’t have been able to handle it. [[cough*cultural appropriation*coughcough]] As it was there was some extensive team drinking that was basically expected, and some touchy feely talk was common, but not the actual touching.

      That said, I think it is all terrible and inappropriate, and the few organizations that still do stuff like this REALLY need to get a clue and stop doing it. There are better ways to work on diversity, cultural literacy and cross-cultural communication than making people get naked in front of each other, or even holding your coworkers’ hands. Rawr.

      1. Observer

        SOME of what you describe MIGHT fall into the kind of workplace culture you describe. But much of it just doesn’t fly, even in that context.

        Certainly, the sweat lodge is NOT “quasi” anything. It’s a full on spiritual / religious ceremony. And there is nothing REMOTELY similar to “team camping with skinny dipping.” The clothes or lack thereof in a sweat lodge are generally not meant to expose people to each other’s view – genuine sweat lodges are generally conducted in the dark, if I understand correctly.

        1. zora.dee

          Yeah, that’s why I said “tiny”, I think a few of these things could be cultural. But I agree, Bob is waayyyyyy over the line with all of them.

          And I mean, my former org did quasi-spiritual ceremonies, not that a sweat lodge is. They were different, and in my opinion still pretty bad, but not quite as bad as a full on sweat lodge, ugh.

          The only point of my comment is that some people are super shocked by everything Bob is doing, and honestly, I’m not that surprised, some of these things I have seen in certain kind of offices. Maybe that’s where Bob got these ideas. But yes, this has all passed the line at this point, and need to be stopped.

  5. anon for this

    I’m a Canadian Aboriginal person – I hope this comment is okay to post here.

    Sweats are a cultural and spiritual experience. Each nation has their own rituals and ways of knowing/doing sweats, so I can’t speak for everyone. I know that for my nation, the most important thing is that you have to come to the sweat willingly. You cannot be forced or coerced in to coming. You are also free to leave at any time you want during the process, and if the Elders believe you shouldn’t be there for whatever reason, they can also ask you to leave. You need to feel safe and open to be able to fully experience the sweat, as it is a intense and deeply personal spiritual experience. Yes, it is also a bonding activity for the people who participate, but I would never suggest it as a work place activity, just as I would never expect a communal church outing to be suggested as a work place bonding activity.

    I have worked with many Aboriginal focused organizations over the years, and I have never, ever had to do a sweat as part of my job. If I had to, I would whole heartedly hope I had the option to opt out, because for me, it’s not something I feel comfortable participating in for a variety of reasons, and I should hope my employer would respect that.

    1. Lucky

      As a California Native, I’ve done a few sweats though they’re not a huge part of our culture. But no, I don’t want to sweat and sing with coworkers, especially non-Native coworkers playing tourist in my/others’ culture.

      Imagine a Native-run company saying “Hey everyone, we’re going to dress up in white robes and go down by the river and dunk each other. It’s called ‘baptism’ repeat after me – baaaahp-tis-m. It’s totally spiritual. We’ll have coffee after, like the Lutherans did in olden times.”

    2. Dynamic Beige

      just as I would never expect a communal church outing to be suggested as a work place bonding activity

      That was my thought, beyond the “don’t you have to truly desire to do the sweat for deeply personal or spiritual reasons?” I mean, this ain’t exactly zip-lining, trust-falls or building bikes for kids for charity. It’s one thing to have a boss or manager who strictly adheres to their faith, but it’s another thing entirely for them to demand that everyone else be of the same faith or devotion that they have, attend their place of worship, etc.

      If Bob wants to go to a sweat lodge on his personal time and he is accepted within the community that holds these sweat lodges, that’s entirely his own business. If another employee expresses interest in it, that’s their business. Making it so that everyone has to attend, no. Just no.

  6. MegaMoose, Esq.

    Oh wow… this guy sounds like a piece of work. Even with your boss being remote, I hope they support you in creating real solid boundaries with the director.

    Also, NO HUGGING AT WORK! Yeesh.

    1. AnonEMoose

      I completely agree that Bob sounds like a piece of work and also hope that the OP gets the support she needs to create solid boundaries.

      I do think the “no hugging at work” is more contextual, though. Anyone should be free to opt out without consequences, with a simple “I’m not a hugger” or offering a handshake instead. In my job, I work with a lot of remote folks, and it’s a fairly casual environment. I’ve worked with some of the remote folks for quite awhile now. So on the rare occasions that we’ve met up in person, some of them have hugged me. It’s fine with me – they’re not creepy about it, and it’s not an every day thing. Definitely a “know your audience, and generally, better not” sort of thing, though.

      1. Jaguar

        Yeah. There’s a sentiment on AAM that hugging at the workplace is way over the line that strikes me as strange as well. I never initiate hugs, but I’ve worked with plenty of people who do and I have no problem with it. You should be able to refuse to be hugged, of course, but for me and most people I know, it’s a completely platonic, non-invasive, and unobjectionable gesture.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Well, that’s not my sentiment, for the record! Some people/fields/offices are huggers. I’m not. But the key is just to be aware that some people aren’t and to watch for cues and try not to violate people’s boundaries if it’s not welcome.

          I’ve actually written about hugging at work for U.S. News for next week!

          1. Jaguar

            Yeah, I meant a sentiment in the community. There’s a lot of comments I’ve noticed that seem to be saying that hugs are unacceptable behaviour in the workplace (or even broader) that strike me as really odd.

            Having boundaries is obviously okay. Having your boundaries for how everyone interacts isn’t.

            1. Anna

              I think it’s dependent on the individual and the workplace culture. Where I work is huggy, but not everyone that works here likes a hug and sometimes I don’t want to hug even though I’m usually fine with it. Not all hugs are bad; but any hug that ignores a person’s preference is.

              1. Dynamic Beige

                $LastJob was all about the hugs. I don’t think anyone ever shook hands, unless it was with a client. When they have reunions, everyone hugs. Hug hello, hug good bye. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone refuse, unless they’ve got the Walking Death… then it might be elbow bump.

            2. MillersSpring

              At a lot of jobs, I’ve hugged coworkers from other offices if I hadn’t seen them in a while. A handshake would have been great, too. But hugging someone in your own office is weird and unnecessary.

              Some huggers are angling more for the gratification of pressing your body to theirs. I usually have my antenna up for those jerks.

              1. Jaguar

                Yeah, this frottering suspicion is what I’m talking about. Again, I rarely hug people (I don’t think I have in at work in years) and even more rarely initiate hugs, but being suspicious of people that attempt a hug as being a pervert right away seems really extreme to me.

                It’s also worth noting that there is a cultural component to this. There are cultures (I’m no expert here, but my understanding that many middle eastern cultures fall into this) that show trust and acceptance of others by physical contact or sharing personal space. That can be hard and seem really intrusive to North Americans who aren’t familiar with it and set off all kinds of creep vibes. The point being that there are many perfectly valid (even positive!) reasons people will attempt to hug you / throw their arm around your shoulders / whatever else people are uncomfortable with. It seems unfair to me to view everyone with suspicion just because there are some perverts out there.

            3. aebhel

              I think my problem is that once someone starts going in for a hug, there’s no graceful way to get out of it without hurting their feelings. Most people who do hug don’t ask if I want to hug them and then take a ‘no’ with good grace, in my experience. They’ll either swoop in with their arms wide open, or they’ll ask offhandedly and then get offended if I say no. There’s no option for be to avoid a hug without awkwardness, generally speaking.

              So, yeah. I do think that workplaces should err on the side of ‘no hugging’, or at least ‘caution around hugging’, because otherwise you’re putting those of us who don’t like to hug (or don’t like to hug coworkers) in a pretty unpleasant situation.

              1. Jaguar

                You do lose something by stating that nobody can hug in the workplace, though. I come from the perspective of never initiating hugs and not really being a hugger but if other people hug then, sure, whatever. So, indifference, basically. If I had it communicated to me that hugging was frowned upon by an employer, that would seem really strange to me and I’d be on the alert for other things that are really strange (am I going to offend people if I let a swear word out? has someone here had a traumatic incident that forced this rule? am I working with germaphobes and people are going to start looking at me weird if I sneeze?). And that’s from the perspective of someone indifferent, let alone someone that is “a hugger” or, as discussed by me and JKP below, physical contact is also tied to different cultures, and formalizing this sort of thing can be a soft sort of discrimination.

                I don’t mean to be insensitive, but maybe letting people’s feelings get hurt is a choice you have to make if you don’t want to be hugged by people? I know it’s a tough decision, and I’ve been hugged and went along with all manner of stuff I shouldn’t have because I didn’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings. But I also have strict boundaries (usually in the form of voicing opinions – i.e., I’ll just start arguing with people if they say something like vaccines cause autism), and I’ll let someone feel hurt before I let those boundaries get crossed. It’s the cost of doing business socially. I don’t agree that nobody gets to eat cake because some people can’t eat eggs.

                1. Ask a Manager Post author

                  Agreed. Banning hugging would come across as weird and kind of micromanagey. Plenty of people like to hug. It’s better to trust people to be adults who can manage their interactions with others, and just to step in if there’s some specific problem.

                  (Also, if I saw a manager under me hugging employees and got the sense it was anything less than 100% enthusiastically received, I’d talk with that manager privately about that. It’s different when there’s a power dynamic in play.)

                2. Jaguar

                  And, to be clear, people shouldn’t get their feelings hurt if they’re refused for a hug. Assuming there’s no culture shock at play, that’s childish and should be treated as such.

                3. aebhel

                  I don’t think it should be banned, but I don’t think that everyone should operate from the assumption that their coworkers would like a hug, or that refusing to hug is offensive or some kind of reflection on the quality of the working relationship. If other people want to hug, that’s their business, but I think it’s rude to assume that it’s okay to just grab anybody. It’s not a ‘THIS MUST BE BANNED’ thing; it’s just rude. If you want to hug people, ask them, and accept a ‘no’ with good grace.

                  For what it’s worth, I do duck out of hugs, and I do refuse hugs, and I do face a fair amount of social opprobrium for it. I hate hugging people I don’t know well to the point that I am perfectly willing to hurt their feelings over it. But in my opinion, they’re the ones making it awkward, and if they’d just keep their hands to themselves it wouldn’t be an issue.

              2. Elizabeth West

                Ha, yes, super awkward. At Exjob, the president of our North American division arrived for a visit. I came out from behind my desk to greet him (I liked him and was enthusiastic about his visit) and this happened:

                “Fergus! Hi!”
                “Hi Elizabeth!” *HUG*
                “Heh heh, good to see you.”

                I hugged him back, but I remember thinking *what!?* He didn’t do it to anyone else (unless he hugged Bosswife and I didn’t see it) and hadn’t ever done it before. I didn’t get a chance to see if it would have happened again–I got laid off before his next visit.

          2. jamlady

            My field is full of huggers! I’ve had several conversations of “hey, I get it, but I’m very private about my personal space” with the touchy-feely types – but unlike the OPs coworker, they are kind and understanding and don’t push.

            1. Purest Green

              Some days I feel like I need a floating sign beside me that reads, “Inappropriate interactions with me include any and all forms of touching.” Because some people just don’t seem to understand personal boundaries.

          3. MegaMoose, Esq.

            I look forward to reading about it! I realize that my comment could be read as “no hugging by anyone in the workplace ever” as opposed to “no hugging ME in the workplace ever”, which is what I intended. Watching for clues and not judging people who don’t want hugs is the way to go.

      2. Karo

        I definitely agree that it’s a “know your audience” thing, but I disagree with “people should be allowed to opt out” thing – It’s more of a “people should be allowed to opt in” thing in my mind. Like, the expectation should be no hugging but if two people want to, go for it.

        1. AnonEMoose

          I don’t know if “opt out” is the right phrase, exactly. I was thinking of it more as one person might offer a hug, and if the other person says “I’m not a hugger” or offers a handshake instead, or whatever, the person who offered the hug shouldn’t react negatively. No one should just up and hug someone without indication that the other person consents.

      3. hbc

        I think it has to be deployed very, very carefully. For one thing, hugging is so much more intimate. Even if you’re doing the barely-touching pelvis-separated maneuver, you’re much more up in the other person’s space. Far more people are going to be uncomfortable with a hug than a handshake. Personally, I prefer the double cheek kiss to any form of mashing up bodies with anyone but family or romantic partners.

        It’s also easier to avoid a handshake. Their hand is out, you don’t grab it, done. A handshake doesn’t happen without the active consent of the other person*, absent some really strange grabbing maneuvers. A hug, on the other hand, must be dodged. You absolutely can have a less-than-enthusiastic participant. And unless someone asks “Can we hug?”, it’s much more awkward to stop them as they come at you with arms spread. You’ve got to jump back or do a Heisman, and that doesn’t save you from a sneak attack.

        It’s weird to put it on that level, but hugging in the workplace is like telling dirty (non-sexist) jokes: best not to initiate it, but if you ignore the general rule, be darn sure you know your audience.

        *Granted, once you’re in, someone can make it hard to get out. I still remember a multi-minute handshake with my high school guidance counselor. Around the 30 second mark, I think it starts counting as holding hands.

        1. MegaMoose, Esq.

          Hey, I went to lunch and pow, hugging controversy! I really meant that comment for myself – I’m not going to be mad if other people want to do the hugging, but hugging is a friend thing for me, not a work thing. I really like how you put it, hbc – hugging is more intimate contact and dodging a hug coming your way can be very awkward (especially if, like me, you are shorter than most other people). It’s much better if you do the arms open, questioning look maneuver, because that allows for a more graceful transition to the handshake if the other person isn’t up for hugging.

          1. AnonEMoose

            I totally agree that the arms open, questioning look is the way to go. That gives the other person the opportunity to lean in and accept the hug, go for the side hug, or offer a handshake or high five or fist bump or whatever.

            Or, if so inclined, to say something like “I have a thing about being touched,” or “I’m just getting over a cold and don’t want you to get sick,” or whatever. And if one of those things is said, the person who offered the hug should accept it without question or comment, beyond something like “oh, sorry, I’ll remember for next time” or “thanks – hope you’re feeling better!” at most.

      4. Sparrow

        Seconding your last sentence. If you don’t know your audience, I feel you should default to assuming they don’t want to be hugged in the workplace. I am not a hugger in general, but it feels very awkward to shut down someone who’s already half-way to hugging you, regardless of the setting. I far prefer people to let me opt into the hug (“Are you a hugger?” or “Do you mind a hug?”) rather than forcing me to opt out, if that makes sense.

      5. JKP

        Hugging can also be related to culture. I had one job that included required sensitivity training to understand the population we served. Part of the cultural differences were that this culture had less personal space and were more touchy/feely, so hugs were the standard greeting instead of handshakes and people stood closer when talking to you. It would have been rude to not hug or to step back if they stood too close to you.

        But obviously that’s not applicable to this situation.

  7. Sara M

    Alison, I like how you always add “to be clear, there are people who enjoy these things”. (about potlucks, rope courses, whatever)

    I’m one of the people who generally likes that sort of thing, but I would _never_ push it on people who didn’t want to. My thinking is very much like yours on this topic, even though we have different feelings about it for ourselves! :)

    And a sweat lodge ceremony is way too personal, yeah.

    The best team-builder I ever did was laser tag. It was a young and mostly-male workforce, so it went over really well. One person sat outside the playspace and watched us shoot each other, and we were all fine with that.

    Funniest part: we had a manager who was very nice, but also very “corporate tool” and not very athletic. Eight guys from the department trapped him in a corner and shot him nonstop. :) He was laughing as much as they were, and I have to admit, it was satisfying to be able to shoot the guy.

    (This is in the era before there were so many public shootings, sigh.)

    1. designbot

      I like those things under certain circumstances (like, I did the ropes course girl scout camp EVERY SUMMER as a kid without fail). But in a business context, they usually seem like they are used to manufacture some sort of closeness or camaraderie that is glossing over real issues on the team, and I’d really rather spend the time talking to my manager about whatever the real issue is and actually being heard.

  8. PeachTea

    The sexism is what gets me even more than the touching, though that is also weird. I am the newest member of our HR team and am the youngest person in our corporate office, both male and female. My boss, also a woman, resolutely refuses to add me to the phone rotation for when the receptionist is out. The company buys us lunch everyday and the receptionist rounds up the orders and picks it up. The first time she was out, one of other big wigs (ironically also a woman) asked me when I was coming to get everyone’s orders. I calmly told her I was not and my boss was so angry I was even asked and made sure to let the other woman know I was not a receptionist and would under no circumstances act like one.

    It was awkward at first because I’m so used to just helping wherever I’m needed, but now I just so thankful that she has my back. I do want to move up into one of the leadership roles in the department and that’s practically impossible if everyone equates you to a receptionist. So moral of the story, go OP for standing up for yourself and not answering his phone or planning an office party!

    1. S

      It kind of seems like the touching could be related to the sexism. He thinks he’s entitled to touch women and he pouts if they don’t want to touch him. Gross.

      1. Clever Name

        I pretty much said this above. I’m glad I’m not the only one who made the connection, because I thought maybe I was just speculating too much.

    2. Lucky

      Your boss is awesome. It took me years in my professional career to figure out that I was being asked to jump in to help serve cake or take notes at a meeting because of my gender, and that I was allowed to say no, nope, not my job.

    3. Annie Moose

      That’s really great.

      I gotta try to keep all this in mind… I’m going to be starting a new job next month, going from a place with a shockingly high percentage of female IT employees (like… 25-30% of us are women!) to a place where I’ll be one of the only female developers. And while my future coworkers I’ve met have all been really great, I’m still kind of nervous about what it’ll be like to be “the woman” on the team. I went through that in college, and even when people don’t make a big deal out of it, it’s still sooo uncomfortable.

  9. Michelle

    Yuck, yuck, yuck. Bob would get a sharp “please don’t touch me” if he tried to grab my hand or hug me.

    I loathe group-bonding activities, especially when they are not optional and people say it hurts their feelings if you don’t participate. Work is for work. There is no way in Hades I am getting mostly naked to do a sweat lodge activity and I think it’s very disrespectful of Native Americans to try to turn one of their spiritual ceremonies into a group-bonding/team-building activity.

    1. Lemon Zinger

      Native Americans aren’t the only ones who do sweat lodge ceremonies. First Nations tribes in Canada do them as well. But I agree with you, it sounds like cultural appropriation, which makes Bob’s suggestion even more inappropriate, unless he is a member of a participating tribe (which I doubt).

      1. AthenaC

        Total side point, but seeing some of the terminology here is interesting to me –

        1) I know we say Native American to refer generally to indigenous people in the lower 48. (specific tribe names as well, if known)
        2) I also know we say Alaska Native to refer generally to indigenous people in Alaska (specific ethnicities as well, if known)
        3) Is First Nations the generic term for Canadian indigenous? I see someone above self-identified as aboriginal Canadian.

        Just want to be familiar with the right terms.

        1. ThatGirl

          (I am not First Nation/Native, I have absorbed these definitions through the Internet, I may be wrong)

          My understanding is First Nations is a term for Canadian indigenous tribes but is not all of them – Inuit and Métis are separate. It is however broadly similar to our use of Native American/American Indian.

            1. AthenaC

              Oh very interesting – thank you! One thing I noticed is that as a general term, Aboriginal seems to be the preferred way to refer to Canadian indigenous, whereas Native seems to be the term in the US (both lower 48 and Alaska).

              1. Chinook

                The preferred term also depends on the community that you are talking to. Some of the terms also have legal weight behind them (Metis used to mean “mixed blood” but now legally means those who are descendants of a certain mixture of Plains Indians (usually Cree) and European) and is evolving over time. I suspect this evolution is the same in the U.S. as you get closer to Canada (as some of the Nations cross borders), it just isn’t discussed as openly??

        2. Turtle Candle

          One other thing to be aware of is that, while there are guidelines for respectful terminology, all these groups are huge and diverse, and may have different opinions on an individual basis. This is something that used to happen a lot where I grew up, where the nearest tribe specifically preferred the term “Indian” or “American Indian” (sometimes written NDN as well) to “Native American” for various reasons; I’m not a member of the group and am hesitant to speak for them, but you can find various explanations from members of the group of why this is online if you search a bit. There was a constant turnover of well-meaning outsiders from the local university taking people to task for using the “wrong” term, only to find out that the people they were supposedly defending preferred the supposedly “wrong” term. Another tribe close to where I live strongly prefers not using generic terms unless absolutely necessary, instead preferring actual tribal identifications (so they accept that an overarching term is necessary for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but request corrections when e.g. newspapers refer to the “local Native American reservation” instead of naming it by tribe). Etc. These questions can be quite complex.

      2. Michelle

        I’m not familiar with tribes other than Native Americans. I know there are other tribes/indigenous people in the world, but I’ve only heard of Native Americans doing sweat lodges. No offense mean to other tribes/indigenous peoples who practice this form of spirituality.

        1. AMPG

          “Native Americans” is actually a catch-all term for the many different indigenous tribes/cultures in the lower 48, though, so you also have to be careful about making generalized statements. My understanding is that it’s sort of like “European” vs. “Germans” – some cultural similarities exist, but not as many as we often assert.

    2. Blurgle

      Group bonding exercises are so often inadvertent exercises in exclusion and coercion.

      Potluck? Retreat? You’re excluding the employee with severe food allergies and may very well be excluding the employee who uses a mobility device because many homes and lodges aren’t accessible.

      Yoga? You’re excluding the employee whose religion frowns on yoga as well as many disabled and/or less agile and/or less financially stable employees. Exercise clothing is expensive.

      Trust falls? You’re excluding older, disabled, and less healthy employees, many of whom might not wish to disclose (for instance) spinal instability or osteoporosis.

      Anything athletic at all, without exception or discussion ever? You’re excluding a wide swath of employees. You think everyone on your staff can do a 5K walk if they ‘take it slowly’? What about the person who just had their ankle cast taken off (ahem)? What about the person whose cardiologist or orthopaedic surgeon has warned them against walking more than a few blocks? What about people with arthritis, who can’t judge whether they’ll be able to walk more than a hundred feet on some random day in the future?

      And that doesn’t even begin to get into the money and transportation issues. “Mandatory potluck at my house two miles from the nearest bus stop, Sunday night!” means your employees who use transit either have to walk two miles with food or spring for a taxi – or whine to their coworkers “gimme a ride, gimme a ride” as if they were ten years old. And they need to have the free time and perhaps money for babysitters and they need to buy ingredients for a ‘nice’ (ie. impressive) dish they otherwise might not be able to afford. How bonded is this person going to be to his job if he feels coerced into spending $$$ all the time for something unrelated to that job?

      I may have feelings on this issue.

      1. Jeanne

        I have feelings too. People think an activity is no big deal. Always tend toward inclusion, to kindness, to compassion. Try to think about how your mother, your cousin, that guy at church would adapt to your activity. You know some personal things about your coworkers. Sallly has a 65 minute commute. Jane has 4 kids under the age of 7. Robert has a restriction on lifting. Sam had a broken leg last month. Don’t ignore those. Think!

        1. Serafina

          A. Men. If it’s so dang important to a supervisor that there be separate meetings for warm and fuzzy conversations and inclusiveness and exploring feelings, then dang it, they should designate a time during the work day and have the employer eat the cost in non-productivity, refreshments, rand other resources rather than foist it on the employees! And this way the employer is required to comply with all rules of accommodation, disability, religion, etc in carrying out this heartfelt mission of theirs and there’s no blurring of the boundary between work obligations and non-work obligations.

  10. BananaPants

    1. Holy cultural appropriation, Batman!
    2. This is basically the equivalent of Bob saying, “Everyone, we’re going to go to a revival meeting down at the bible church on Friday as a team-building exercise!”
    3. I am not participating in a religious/spiritual ceremony that conflicts with my own religious beliefs, and a sweat lodge ceremony would do that.

  11. EGdub

    Only partly related, but I had to go to a ropes course at a job once, at the beginning of a seasonal staff increase, and it was useful because day 1 with our new teams I discovered my team lead was the most difficult to work with! Not helpful bonding, but like I said useful information about the team. (It turns out the ropes course is owned by the same umbrella organization as us, so maybe that’s why we were made to go use it.)

    1. TR

      Yeah, I was on a team once that cheated (on a puzzle kind of activity) by googling the answer. I knew most of them already, but it was definitely not a great impression.

  12. BBBizAnalyst

    It always amazes me that people don’t understand personal boundaries at work. This guy sounds like a moron.

  13. Bad Candidate

    Alison’s response is blocked for me, but I’m going to get out my big red NOPE! stamp and pound it all over this one.

    1. Kyrielle

      Yeah, I’m watching the Nopetopus frantically scuttle away from this sweat lodge in my mind’s eye….

  14. AndersonDarling

    How much time is Bob spending planning group activities? I mean, does he have actual director work to do?
    Also, I’m reminded of the Letter Writer who was concerned about her co-workers seeing her in a bikini. I can’t imagine my co-workers seeing me sweating buckets and swaying with delirium!

  15. Jessie

    Ugh. Managers trying to make employees be “into” the same things as them.

    I once had a manager who declared that you can tell if you’re a good leader because all your subordinates will start copying your hobbies and interests (he was particularly into cycling.) And I immediately thought to myself: “no, people get into cycling because talking about bikes is the only way to get two seconds of your time, not because they want to be like you.” He was the sort who would be far to busy to answer a simple question or ask you how your day was going, but tell him that you’re thinking about buying a bike and he’ll give you two hours one-on-one.

    1. AF

      NOOOO. I’m glad you no longer have that manager. Why would you want your employees to be mindless sycophants?

  16. Gadfly

    So is Bob also the sexist? I am reading that as a different director that the OP can’t report to because of the sexism–someone who otherwise would need to rein Bob in.

  17. Murphy

    The touching would bother me more than anything else. There are very few people I’m OK with touching me. *shudder*

  18. Kathleen Adams

    I’d almost rather die that go to a sweat lodge with my co-workers. Seriously. I mean, I wouldn’t be amendable to the idea under any circumstances, but with co-workers? Jeeeeez.

    I mean, where does it stop? Hey, Bob, I know – instead of getting a smear of ashes on our foreheads for Ash Wednesday, let’s celebrate the new fiscal year by appyling the ashes in the shape of our company logo.

    Idiot.

  19. The Optimizer

    Aside from the completely legit cultural appropriation concerns and the whole inappropriateness of this type of activity as a work event, please google Kirby Brown and James Ray.

  20. SusanIvanova

    I’ve worked with teams that have done the sort of things some managers see as “team building” – going out to movies, playing games, etc – but those are a *result* of us having a strong team, not a cause. Teams are built by having a good working relationship with each other and – hopefully – management. Pushing stuff like that on a dysfunctional team is only going to make it worse.

    Also anyone who hugs me unexpectedly after I’ve already told them not to may discover that my karate reflexes aren’t all that rusty.

  21. Engineer Girl

    As mentioned, a sweat lodge ceremony is a spiritual ceremony. That makes it religious. Forcing people to participate could easily violate their deeply held religious beliefs. And that would be illegal (unless this was disclosed ahead of time AND the employee signed a waiver AND they works for a religious institution of that belief). Any competent HR person would be on this quickly.

  22. Maxwell Edison

    The touchy/huggy stuff has my shoulders up around my ears, and possibly over the top of my head. Ugh.

  23. JMegan

    a cold fish who doesn’t appreciate weekend potlucks and the glories of post-staff-meeting yoga.

    This also needs to go on a t-shirt. I for one would be proud to be that kind of cold fish!

  24. Biff

    Ya know, this honestly sounds like it’s potentially an HR/lawyer issue. I don’t think any of this is even remotely appropriate. I don’t think this is really a job for the OP to better enforce boundaries. Bob is over-reaching in a multitude of creepy, unacceptable ways. Not partaking of a religious ceremony at work should be a given (outside of a church or somesuch.) No one should HAVE to enforce these kinds of boundaries because management should know not to cross them.

    It sounds like Bob might be actively worse to younger people whom he might feel are more ammendable to being abused. This is just disgusting.

    1. ArtK

      I agree. Bob’s fairly far down several roads, all of which can run through Lawsuit-ville. Better that the company figure out how to deal with this now, rather than when the excrement hits the air distribution device.

  25. Ed

    This sounds like a coaching opportunity to design a metaphorical sweat lodge that would be evident in their working relationship. It’s as if Bob wants to go through a crucible together via how he feels most comfortable. It would help to discover how he defines a good crucible, devoid of hand holding and intense emotional connections, and what he wants afterward. If all he wants is an emotional connection, that won’t serve the organization nor the working relationship, especially for the OP.

    Seems like Bob needs to explore a logical, left-brained approach to team building and exploring further tactical steps together. It might be helpful to discuss with the OP how she identifies and improves flow or synergy in working relationships.

    1. ArtK

      The first coaching opportunity is this: “Bob, all of these behaviors are completely inappropriate and must stop at once.” The next coaching step is “Read all of Ask A Manager before doing anything else. You have until next week.”

    2. Chinook

      BINGO!
      I even got the top right corner of the “corporate lingo bingo card” – crucible – and am impressed you used it twice because I have been holding on to this card for years and never heard it used once, which is sad because there had been annual staff meetings I came just that one word away from winning the corporate swag bag!

  26. nonegiven

    I think I’d want to just lay it out. Look Bob, I’m not into this touchy feely stuff. It makes me feel uncomfortable. You need to back it way up or I’ll be forced to take it to HR. Now, I think we can get along fine, if we can keep our relationship in the office on a professional level and you start respecting my position here.

  27. Tiny_Tiger

    This whole situation is all kinds of NOPE! I’m already not a fan of “Team-Building Activities” as there’s no reason for me to be any closer to my coworkers than I am now (read: I’m not a buddy-buddy person at work). And the touchy-feely? No way. I might be touchy-feely with my actual friends, but in the office, I’m a strict “keep your hands and arms and all other body parts to yourself” type. Even without going into the blatant disregard for your position within the company, this speaks volumes about his level of respect for you that he can ignore your personal boundaries. I currently have a coworker that also has a tendency to try and treat me like his personal assistant, every request either received a swift, “No, this is your job, you can do it” or if that fails, it’s sent to my manager with a clear note of “This is not my job, it’s his, make him do it.” Unfortunately, you might be past the point of no return on setting boundaries with him yourself. If his behavior has persisted this long you might need to get your manager involved directly.

  28. Rusty Shackelford

    Since Bob is all about feeeeeelings, I would put my feelings on the table.

    Bob, it makes me feel icky when you insist on hugging me.
    Bob, the idea of partaking in another culture’s spiritual ceremony makes me feel very, very uncomfortable.
    Bob, I just don’t feel like partying with you.

  29. AF

    I love that this is a social justice organization, and yet Bob obviously has an issue not being a sexist jerk. I’ve had a similar experience with another social justice org. It seems that a lot of folks “in the movement” have a lot to learn…

    I feel like Bob’s focus on feelings is just a gross excuse for him to be a creep. Best of luck on shutting him down, OP – please keep us posted!

  30. Always Anon

    I feel so sorry for the OP. Many years ago, we hired someone into a senior leadership position where I was working who felt that employee morale wasn’t high enough and that we needed to do more “team building”. This resulted in regular potlucks and a social committee. It was horrendous. There was nothing that drove employee moral down more than forced social activities where we all had to pretend to love and adore each other. The employee who came along and demanded all these activities was eventually fired after about 4 years for failure to produce.

    1. AF

      That’s amazing – they prioritize team building over doing work, whereas most of us would have healthier teams if we all actually just did our fair share of the work! It’s like they’re trying to game the system and get paid for doing nothing.

      1. Always Anon

        Yep. I always found it hysterical that this person was going on and on about employee morale when she managed to go through 5 assistants in 4 years, and did the following:

        1. Explained that one of her assistants “wasn’t much of a looker” and so we should be extra nice to her.
        2. Brought in a bunch of used clothes for a co-worker because she didn’t feel that she dressed professionally enough (all the clothes brought in where about 4-6 sizes too small, and some had holes), forced the co-worker to do a fashion show of these extremely small clothes, and then criticized the co-worker about how she needed to lose weight.
        3. Told our CEO (in front of the board of directors) that he sexist pig and started crying because he mentioned that he was going to the middle east on vacation.

        Plus so many more incidents of equally inappropriate and unprofessional behavior. Although, she did create a bonding experience for every single employee in the building. Everyone bonded over how ridiculous she was. So I’ll give her that!

        1. Observer

          These are all so “out there” that it’s hard to choose the most bizarre. But #1 is the weirdest, to me.

          1. Always Anon

            She was the most bizarre person I’ve ever worked with. And given the crazy people we seem to attract that is saying something!

            1. Observer

              Well, much of Middle Eastern culture is rather sexist, so I suppose that if you tilt your head and squint just right, it can kinda-sorta look like a visit there is sexist.

              Yeah, not exactly rational. Never mind bursting into tears…

    2. Isabel C.

      Uuuugh, yes.

      Guys. Employers. People.

      Your employees do not need to feel like they’re “on a team.” We don’t need trust falls. We don’t need to hug and cry. Some of us might enjoy a completely voluntary lunchtime/holiday party/picnic, but mostly? We’re fine. Want us to stick around and do good work? Not that Don Draper’s a great model of bossdom, but “That’s what the money’s for!” is pretty relevant here.

      Pay us well. Give us flexibility as the work allows. Give us *work*-focused support–resources to answer questions, clear objectives, people to talk to if we run into problems, meaningful feedback on our performance. Skip the camping trips.

  31. Lady Blerd

    As someone with low blood pressure, this would get a big nope for me before I’d get into ceremonial/cultural aspect of it. I love going to Scandinavian/nordic spas but I usually can only do the steam room only once. I get light headed the second time I do in there, something I’ve figured out over time. Being naked around my coworkers doesn’t bother me, we have a gym at work with communal locker rooms so I’ve seen many of them, ok only the female one, in various state of undress.

  32. insert pun here

    This kind of ceremony, in its original spiritual context, is something like taking communion in the Catholic church. You can’t take communion unless you’re part of the community (confirmed) — and there are other restrictions as well, of course. Other religious traditions may have other, similar rituals, but this is the one that is most familiar to me, because I once accidentally took communion even though I’m not Catholic. In my defense, I was young (early teens) and didn’t know any better. Not sure we can say the same of this dude.

  33. Rachael

    Being in Seattle has brought me into the company of a man (now and then) who think that they are so enlightened and “champions for women” that they honestly think that it is okay to touch women in ways that the rest of the male population wouldn’t get away with. I’ve had my butt patted, shoulders massaged, legs rubbed, hair caressed….etc by men with this mindset. I think that they honestly think that because I am in a “safe place” that I should relax and not worry about inappropriate touching. They are “friends of women”, after all.

    I’m from New York, so it is in my nature to tell people when they are making me uncomfortable. I’ve had to take arms slung accross my shoulders and tell them to stop touching me, slapped hands of my legs, etc.

    OP: Unfortunatley, I have not had much success with trying to get it to stop….I’ve done it nicely, politely, with a giggle, angry, annoyed…..multiple ways….and each response is the same: There is something wrong with me and I need to relax. So, I encourage you to stand up for yourself (and because it is a work relationship) follow your sexual harrassment procedures. Tell him directly that you don’t like to be touched. If he continues, report him to HR. Unfortunately, there hasn’t really been an easy way to get them to stop without being forceful and “rude” – and it is within your rights to not be touched. THEY are the rude ones if they continue to do something when they know you are uncomfortable.

    1. Happy Cynic

      I was hoping I wasn’t the only commenter who got a bad vibe from this letter.

      Creepy Uncle Bob and his petulant insistence that he be all up in your personal space has sexual harassment written all over it. Does he act like this toward male employees, too?

      The most telling move would be to get every female employee to refuse – and then see if Creepy Uncle Bob is really all that interested in getting all the men into a sweaty lodge situation.

    2. Trillian

      It’s a pity that hat pins like my grandmother used to wear went out of fashion. Roll on the invention of the personal forcefield.

    3. Dust Bunny

      (I’m a woman) and I don’t like women touching me, either. It’s not a safe place if your personal space isn’t respected. What a bunch of pervs.

      My boss is a nice guy. For real. The kind who doesn’t crow about being a nice guy, doesn’t make assumptions about coworkers based on gender, and doesn’t like it when people make his coworkers uncomfortable. And keeps his hands to himself, thank you very much. (Seriously, I can’t even picture him doing this. If he did, my first reaction would be to wonder if he were OK because it would be so out of character for him.)

    4. NavyVet

      W.O.W.

      All the touching. Even after you ask him to stop. That is sexual harassment. Full Stop. Next time he touches you, tell him no. Then go straight to HR. Tell them he consistently touches you even though you have asked him REPEATEDLY to stop. Let them know that when you ask him to stop he gets upset. And also make sure they know that you feel unsafe at work because of his refusal to stop touching you.

      Whenever you set a boundary with a person, and their reaction is “hurt” or angry, they are in fact trying to intimidate you into accepting the behavior you clearly stated you did not like. Do not let him bully you into accepting this nonsense.

      You have every right to NOT BE TOUCHED at work.

      I can’t believe I have to say this out loud.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Honestly, it’s probably not sexual harassment in the legal sense so I don’t want to encourage the OP to think that, but it absolutely should stop and she absolutely should talk to HR about it if he doesn’t stop after she’s asked him to.

        1. NavyVet

          I’m never certain on the legal sexual harassment line. But as someone with severe sexual assault related PTSD, this is an absolute no go for me, and his refusal to respect my boundaries the way this man is doing would absolutely trigger me. Because almost all the creepers I have known start this way….What’s a hug? It’s nothing….stop being so sensitive and give me a hug. You are hurting my feelings by not letting me touch you in ways you feel uncomfortable with….ick, ick, ick, ick, ick.

          I am a fan of whatever keeps me from hiding in my car trying to come down from a panic attack.

          In my mind, once you set boundaries, if the individual in question refuses to respect them, and continues the behavior, it is now harassment. (I suppose you can pick whichever harassment label you would like) It’s clear cut in my eyes, perhaps not legally, but once I say no, if you insist on continuing your behavior because me saying no makes you sad…..It’s not too far away from a much darker set of expectations.

          It also shows that he does not respect you as a person or a colleague.

  34. Susan the BA

    I love that sometimes I see the subject line of an AAM post in my Feedly and think ‘hmmmm, interesting, I bet this could go either way!’ and sometimes my reaction is just ‘NOPE, NOPE, NOT IN ANY UNIVERSE, A WORLD OF NOPE’ before I even read the question.

  35. Dust Bunny

    If you do social justice work, how do you feel about cultural appropriation? Because, unless y’all are Native American, that’s basically what this is. Maybe pointing that out would temper his enthusiasm, if he prides himself on being so aware.

  36. James

    The hugging thing….I know huggers. People who hug fairly indiscriminately as a form of casual greeting. It’s always made me fairly uncomfortable, but I’ve not seen any evidence that such people are necessarily sexually harassing others. It’s just that they consider it an appropriate greeting. This may not be the case here, but we should assume positive intent until evidence to the contrary surfaces. If they don’t listen when you say “Stop doing that please” it’s possibly an issue of them simply being morons, not skeevy.

    Regarding the sweat lodge thing, it’s extremely inappropriate. It’s a religious activity–as others said, it’s the equivalent of receiving the Eucharist as a team-building activity. In fact, I’d say it’s worse if you’re of European ancestry, with the history of native peoples in the Americas and European settlers.

    I get the sense that rather than being skeevy, this guy’s merely grossly mistaken. Sweat lodges ARE a way to re-enforce bonds between community members, but ONLY within certain communities (the ones which, oddly enough, the rituals were made by and for). Similarly, hugging is a way to re-enforce social bonds–but only between people who are bonded by specific things, some of which are almost certainly not the case in a workplace (being members of the same family, for example). Same with sharing feelings–it is absolutely necessary in a marriage, vital in a friendship, but not necessary at all in an office (I’ve worked with people for nearly ten years and I doubt we’ve spoken about emotions once in that time, despite a strong working relationship). This type of thing happens when someone mistakes the effects of a strong community for the causes–they try to create a strong team by doing the things strong teams do, without regard for the foundations strong teams build upon.

    And it never works. Think about it–the people in the group that want to hang out together probably already do. The people who don’t hang out together outside of work probably don’t want to. That’s not to say that they’re not good working together, or that they don’t socialize at work–but a 20-something football fan and a 50-something grandmother have different personal lives that probably aren’t going to cross outside of the office. What that means is, any attempt to force extra-curricular activities is necessarily going to mean forcing people who don’t want to socialize outside of work to do so. If there is a way to force people to do what they don’t want to do that doesn’t breed resentment, I’ve not heard of it!

    This may have been the most important thing I learned in college. My dorm was–and continues to be–extremely close-knit, and we were always doing things together, because we chose to. The dorms that put a huge emphasis on “community building activities” ended up with the residents ignoring each other, if not downright hostile to each other. On the surface, we did the same things–poker games, social gatherings, BBQs, intermural sports–but the effects were very, very different.

    1. Isabel C.

      This. All of this. Especially the last paragraph.

      Freshman year at college we went through all those WOO BONDING sit around in a group tossing balls and saying things about yourself unit-games activities for a week. After that week? I got involved with people on campus who actually shared my interests and wouldn’t know anyone in my dorm or class outside that group if they came up and bit me.

      Not everyone has to be BFFsies 4Ever to do good work.

  37. Vicki

    One of my favorite Miss Manners responses was years ago in response to someone asking about work “retreats”:

    The sweetly misguided notion that no problems exist among different people except communication problems, and that we would all love one another if only we knew one another better, does seem to Miss Manners to have been exposed with time.
    — Judith Martin (Miss Manners)
    “Employee Retreats Should be Overtime”

  38. Candace

    I have a medical condition called anhydrosis where I cannot sweat – at all. I overheat and faint. I once fainted in the NYC subway; my husband had to carry me onto the air conditioned train when it arrived and steam was rising from my skin. I have twice fainted at work when the AC broke. This kind of team building exercise could kill me.

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