my coworker tickled another coworker, and now there is chaos

A reader writes:

My company has had a relatively informal, somewhat relaxed working environment in the past, where colleagues generally got along well and we had a decent time together, even while working hard. Unfortunately, that balance has recently been upended in department I work in.

Two weeks ago, my coworker, Rachel, kicked the power strip under the desk in her cubicle, so she slipped off her heels and crawled under to pop it back in. The young woman in the cubicle behind her, Monica, had a serious lapse in judgment at this point; she knelt down and slipped an arm around Rachel’s ankles when she was vulnerable and began tickling her feet. It was an unusual moment, to say the least, and reactions ranged from amusement to mild horror.

(If you asked Monica, she would would say she only had a light hold to avoid getting kicked during a playful moment that went too far. If you asked Rachel, she’d say she was rendered largely immobile and humiliated. I didn’t have the best view, but it looked to me as though reality was closer to Rachel’s side.)

Our manager, Phoebe, rushed in after several seconds of laughing/shouting to break it up. It was a good thing she was there, because I thought for sure that Rachel was going to slug Monica otherwise! Phoebe walked Monica to HR, and we wondered if Monica was done for. Apparently, they allowed her to remain with the company, but told her she’d be dismissed if she put one toe out of line (heh).

I don’t know the details, but I do know that Rachel was furious that the girl wasn’t fired. Since that point, she has done everything she can to make Monica so unhappy that she feels compelled to quit, from passive-aggressive emails, to trying to rally coworkers to petition management to let her go, to bringing up “the incident” (as it’s come to be called) at every available opportunity. As a result, Rachel is becoming difficult to work with, and Monica is becoming a basket case. It’s gotten to the point where yesterday, I talked to Monica because I felt sorry for her (I’d heard her crying in the ladies’ room that morning) only to have Rachel snarl at me later for trying to be friendly.

I’m fairly certain that Phoebe knows what’s happening, but is hesitant to address the issue with Rachel since she was the original victim. Phoebe is also rather hands-off in management style, so that isn’t helping the situation.

The environment is becoming increasingly uncomfortable and our department being split on whether Monica should have been let go from the start hasn’t helped, and I can sense people starting to take sides. Any advice would be appreciated.

Rachel’s manager, Phoebe, needs to tell Rachel to cut it out and then she needs to hold her to that.

People can debate all they want whether the company’s decision was the correct one, but the reality is that Monica continues to work there and they can’t allow one employee to bully another or try to turn people against her.

So Phoebe needs to sit down and have a serious talk with Rachel and explain that while she understands Rachel’s feelings, she needs to be polite and professional to all of her coworkers. That includes Monica and that also means that she can’t snarl at people who talk to Monica. She also needs to explain that what Rachel is doing now is disruptive to the office and becoming toxic, and that it can’t continue.

Since she doesn’t seem to be making any moves to do that on her own, you could consider pointing out to her and/or HR that if that doesn’t happen, things are going to become increasingly contentious — and that you’re not okay with being snarled at for being polite to a colleague.

As for whether your company should have fired Monica over this … if Monica does good work and hasn’t had serious judgment problems in the past, I wouldn’t advocate firing her over this. Clearly they need to have a very serious “you cannot touch a coworker ever again and there will not be another warning” conversation with her (which it sounds like they did), as well as a “do you understand how people may react to being restrained and touched against their will” conversation. And they need to keep a much closer eye on her judgment for a while. Maybe move her desk if it seems like giving Rachel some space from her would help.

But ultimately, it doesn’t matter what I or others think; Monica remains employed there, and as long as that’s true, your organization can’t allow another employee to wage a campaign of hostility and ostracism against her.

{ 963 comments… read them below }

  1. Jabes*

    I really don’t think a coworker ever has a right to go on a crusade against the conduct of another coworker. Tickling of the feet is simply not a fireable offense by itself – a very stupid thing to do, completely unprofessional and misguided, sure – but the consequences for that are squarely the manager’s problem.

    1. starsaphire*

      Agreed. What Monica did was a momentary lapse of judgment. Yes, a ridiculously HUGE one, potentially career-ending in the moment, but definitely a one-time thing.

      What Rachel’s now doing is an ongoing campaign of hostility. Way more unacceptable in the workplace.

      Just my two cents.

      1. AMPG*

        Well, we don’t actually know that it was a one-time thing, just that she apparently hasn’t done it to other coworkers in this office before. I agree that Rachel’s actions are inappropriate, but I have a lot of sympathy for the fact that I’m sure she feels extremely violated and probably unsafe around Monica.

          1. AMPG*

            In THIS office. Unless it’s her first job, she may well have done something similar elsewhere.

            1. Forrest*

              So it is a definition of a one-time thing since it’s the only time she did it in this office.

              1. AMPG*

                If she’s done it elsewhere, it’s a pattern. Not sure what’s unclear here? I was challenging the idea that she’s “definitely” only done it once. We don’t know.

                1. Forrest*

                  Because I’m not sure why what she’s done outside of work matters. Her work considers it to be a one time thing and unless she has a hidden record of tickling at that place, then yes, it’s a one time thing.

                2. Bolt*

                  I’m dying of laughter at the thought of someone being classified as a serial tickle monster that hides her tickling past.

                3. Lets All Be Rational*

                  No offense, but there is no pattern. You can’t seriously say she might have done it elsewhere so it’s a pattern. Pure conjecture, pure hypothesis, pure making things up. As far as anyone, aside from Monica knows, it’s definitely been done once.

            2. fposte*

              And Rachel may have bullied people elsewhere. But since we don’t know either of their pasts, it makes sense to focus on what do *do* know.

        1. Flurtisho*

          Unsafe seems like strong language. I would say that Monica is now the safest person to be around because there is no way in hell she’s going to do anything like that to her again, both because she’s been warned further stuff like that means immediate firing and because Rachel has waged all out war on her. It really seems more just that she doesn’t feel valued, the fact that Monica didn’t get fired means she doesn’t have as much clout as she thought so making the whole office uncomfortable and Monica’s life miserable is her way of feeling important.

          I’ve been in a position where a co-worker (usually one I already don’t care for) does something that isn’t a fireable offence, just something that makes you feel uncomfortable or hurt and you just have to move on, either literally move to another job or move on so the office can function.

          1. AMPG*

            I was talking about Rachel’s feelings – I agree with you that Monica is probably a very safe person now, but when someone has made a huge judgment error like that and you’re on the receiving end, it can make you really question whether there’s any way for that person to understand why their actions were wrong, since they shouldn’t have needed to be told in the first place.

          2. Willow Sunstar*

            I have a coworker who, when he was new 3 years ago, once tried to stop me from going home for the day. He also followed me around the building (after the first week and we weren’t going to,the same place), and stood up and watched me work over the divider walmfor minutes at a time without saying anything. I’m in my early 40’s, and wear pretty conservative clothing to work. He’s in his 20’s and from another country. Went to the boss on the worst of his behavior after I had tried getting him to stop, and co-worker refused.

            He’s still there, though we have since changed buildings and no longer sit together. If he didn’t act like he had mental problems and/or a possible disability of some sort, I would have gone to HR. Needless to say, I still don’t trust him. Trying to move on from job, but no luck yet.

    2. Mike C.*

      I disagree – the sort of ongoing sexual harassment that was going on at Fox News is a perfect example where these sorts of crusades should be happening. Other grossly unprofessional or illegal behavior would also fit.

      I don’t think it’s called for in the OP’s example, but I don’t think you can set a hard limit in all cases.

      1. Marillenbaum*

        I agree. It is, in general, an unprofessional and inappropriate way to behave. Not every case fits that, so we need to rely on judgment instead of hard-and-fast rules.

        1. Working Mom*

          Agreed. Monica made an extremely poor decision (extremely), but Phoebe’s lack of managing the situation and Rachel’s reaction is making the entire thing much worse.

          1. Anon von Riverbend*

            What’s a better reaction to being held immobile and forced to be tickled by someone who doesn’t have permission to touch you? Why are you victim-blaming?

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I’m not sure I understand this comment. You’re saying that it’s appropriate for Rachel to respond by waging a campaign of bullying toward Monica now? And that it’s victim-blaming to say that she shouldn’t do that?

              1. Student*

                Calling this “bullying” seems inaccurate to me. This is ostracism, specifically. That can be a type of bullying – but in this case, it’s extremely clear that there’s a specific motivation for the ostracism, and I think Rachel ostracizing Monica is a proportionate response to Monica’s physical assault against Rachel. Bullying means you think it is a disproportionate response, which we can agree to disagree on, but I think that rational people could consider this Monica’s just desserts, a deserved retaliation for an extreme boundary violation that is otherwise not getting a clear punishment.

                The manager, Phoebe, is allowing the ostracism. It’d be a different matter if Phoebe had intervened and ruled against Rachel ostracizing Monica, because Phoebe is the boss and sets the rules. We don’t know why Phoebe has taken this position, but she has. It could be ineffective managing, as AAM has assumed, or it could be Phoebe’s attempt to push out an employee she does not want and is not allowed to just fire, or it could be that Phoebe will allow it for a little while as a form of punishment and expect it to stop after a while – I’m not so quick to assume Phoebe is incompetent.

                I think that physical attacks at work should be a zero-tolerance issue for adults in the normal world. This is a physical attack. It didn’t draw blood, but there is absolutely no question that Monica physically incapacitated a co-worker with zero provocation, for her own entertainment. This is far beyond normal. I don’t know why she wasn’t fired, I don’t understand why you think this physical attack is not sufficient for firing (how many people does she need to do this to in order to merit firing? Two? Why that number?). If you do physically attack somebody at work, you should be prepared for that person to retaliate within the bounds of acceptable behavior – ostracism doesn’t prevent her from doing her job, as far as we can tell, doesn’t deprive her of money she has earned or work resources that she needs, and she isn’t being targeted for something outside her control unjustly – she’s being deprived of having her crazy behavior normalized, of friendship, of happiness and acceptance.

                1. Mustache Cat*

                  but I think that rational people could consider this Monica’s just desserts

                  …no….no. I’m going to say no here, as, I guess, a rational person.

                2. A Rational Person*

                  Well, even if I agreed (which I don’t) Rachel’s directing her anger onto other people as well. She has no right to control who OP talks to, and shouldn’t be making colleagues cry. I’m not saying Monica was right by any means. But you cannot snarl at people for who they choose to talk to.

                3. Pebbles*

                  We will agree to disagree then. Monica has been dealt with. The business decided not to fire her and that is their call to make. Now everyone needs to get back to work, and if they can’t, take it up with management or leave, not take it out on each other. Rachel doesn’t get to lead a one-woman campaign against Monica indefinitely.

                4. Parenthetically*

                  “a deserved retaliation for an extreme boundary violation that is otherwise not getting a clear punishment.”

                  Um… no? Literally no one is saying Monica did an OK thing here, or that Rachel needs to change her feelings about what Monica did.. But days/weeks of constant ostracizing, recruiting people to her “side,” berating coworkers for being kind to Monica, for God’s sake — there’s nothing about that retaliation that is proportional, to say nothing of its being professional or acceptable in a work context.

                5. General Ginger*

                  “ostracism doesn’t prevent her from doing her job” — except that it clearly does, since Rachel is snarling at coworkers who so much as talk to Monica.

                6. Emi.*

                  it could be Phoebe’s attempt to push out an employee she does not want and is not allowed to just fire, or it could be that Phoebe will allow it for a little while as a form of punishment and expect it to stop after a while

                  Um, I would file those both under “ineffective managing”/”Phoebe is incompetent.”

                7. TrainerGirl*

                  Oh my…just desserts???? Are we now saying that retaliation in the workplace is fine, and because the offender earned it, according to the victim??? That the victim gets to mete out the punishment they see fit. Thank goodness it’s Tuesday….

                8. Amy*

                  “I think Rachel ostracizing Monica is a proportionate response to Monica’s physical assault against Rachel.”

                  ???????????????

                  I don’t understand how this is in any way a proportionate response. Let’s assume that Rachel considers this a physical assault (not everyone does, with tickling; people’s responses vary), and let’s even assume that this is a huge deal for her and feeds into a history of trauma that makes her reaction much more severe than it would be for most people. Even then–the proper, proportionate response is to go to your manager and have them handle it. If they handle it badly or you can’t live with their solution for some reason, then the proper way to handle that is to go to HR. If they don’t have a solution you can live with, the proportionate response may even be to quit and walk away.

                  I have a really hard time imagining circumstances where “Ignore your coworker entirely and refuse to interact with them” would come up as a good way to handle anything in the workplace. Refusing to interact with my coworkers would likely lead to me getting reprimanded, since I wouldn’t be able to do my job as effectively without interacting with them. And it’s absolutely beyond the pale to try and bully other coworkers into also ostracizing them!

                9. Forrest*

                  …she wrote a petition to get Monica fired and got others to sign it. If we’re calling anything “crazy,” it’s Rachel’s actions.

                  This is not a case of “I’m not interested in water cooler chit chat.” That is straight up bullying and well past what the situation warranted.

                  Frankly, I think actions with the actual intention to hurt someone is far far far worse than accidentally hurting someone.

                10. Ted Mosby*

                  So it’s not bullying because it’s ostracism? I feel like this could give way to a wealth of new excuses. “It’s not bullying! It’s punching!” “It’s not bullying! It’s sexism!” They’re not mutually exclusive.

                  Talking about a “physically assault” is taking things a bit far. She tickled someone. Tickling doesn’t meet the definition of assault, even if it’s a bad idea. Can you physically incapacitate someone by holding their ankles with one hand while using the other to tickle? Seems like a stretch to me. She didn’t attack anyone.

                  “The manager, Phoebe, is allowing the ostracism. It’d be a different matter if Phoebe had intervened and ruled against Rachel ostracizing Monica, because Phoebe is the boss and sets the rules. ”
                  There is no such thing as “ruling against” an ostracism in the workplace, because they’re just never allowed or appropriate. It’s not something a manager takes a stance on then acts accordingly; it’s just never ok. Allowing one employee to be mean to another and then be mean to anyone who is nice to that person as some type of retribution for something she did is inherently terrible, terrible management. Allowing this “for a little while,” until the office has become toxic, people have been forced to choose sides, and people who weren’t involved in the first place have gotten roped in against their will is so incompetent I can’t even begin to imagine a semi decent manager ever taking that stance.

                  Maybe best case scenario Phoebe wants to fire Monica but isn’t being allowed, even though she now has the perfect excuse, so she’s being insubordinate and disobeying the wishes of her manager, who won’t let her fire Phoebe, and in the mean time is letting Rachel be rude to other coworkers, who were not involved in Ticklegate, making the office a crappy place to be for anyone who doesn’t want to participate in Monica’s ostracism.

                  Best case scenario this is sneaky enough or Phoebe is hands off enough that she hasn’t seen it yet, followed by Phoebe is just not doing enough to handle it. There is no case where Phoebe has decided to allow this kind of office cruelty as a brilliant management plan.

                11. Ramona Flowers*

                  No. A proportionate response would be avoiding her. You cannot seriously think this is okay.

                12. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                  I’m not sure who’s included in your definition of “rational people.” Rachel’s behavior is absolutely, 100% inappropriate and unacceptable. And it’s 100% bullying that is preventing Monica from being able to do her job. I think it takes a lot of willful minimization to come to the conclusions you’re advocating.

                13. Alternate Analysis Josh*

                  Ostracizing is bullying, the ‘silent treatment’ is so effective because we are social people and feel a need to ‘belong’ Rachel is literally taking whatever action necessary to take that from Monica.

                  In a more ancient context, we homo sapiens and neandertalus were weaker, slower, inferior in most ways to m0st contemporary predators. The only way they could survive was by working together and helping each other. A human at that time consigned to isolation was going to die if they could not find another group to run with.

                  Rachel’s behavior is using that genetic instinct against Monica, by making her feel like she is consigned to a solitary death bu making her feel unwanted in her social group of work.

              2. Anon von Riverbend*

                No, I apologize – I thought Working Mom meant Rachel’s original reaction, not the subsequent bullying – or rather, as Student says, ostracism. (What Monica did was bullying and I’m not convinced that the company handled it appropriately but I agree that the ostracism and seeking revenge is going too far. Rachel needs to be detached and professional. Difficult! – but doable)

            2. Natalie*

              There are probably dozens of better reactions than ostracizing her co-worker, petitioning to have her fired, and attempting to get the rest of the office to join in.

            3. MegaMoose, Esq*

              I really think that victim-blaming is about not holding an individual responsible for what happened to them, rather than not holding them responsible for how they react afterwards. Being victimized doesn’t give one free reign to do whatever one wants afterward.

              1. Amazed*

                You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you!

              2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

                Exactly.

                Victim-blaming is “Well, Rachel should have expected someone to grab her feet and tickle her — this wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t taken her shoes off.”

                Victim-blaming is not “Well, Rachel was the original victim here, so any response she makes is a-ok.”

            4. Serafina*

              No. What’s “a better reaction” to a single workplace incident than harassing someone for weeks on end and inciting colleagues to do the same?! How about…NOT harassing them and NOT inciting colleagues to do the same!

              Seriously, Monica did something wrong and was disciplined for it. Rachel has decided she’s going to force Monica to quit by bullying her. Not. O.K. Not excusable by ANY previous victimization – you don’t get to “cope” with previous victimization by victimizing someone back, no matter how inappropriate the original. If Rachel can’t bear to work with Monica, she can respond by appropriate official work channels.

              I can’t believe you’d attribute “victim blaming” to trying to halt a workplace harassment campaign! No matter how strongly you OR Rachel feel about Monica’s tickling, bullying someone is Not. O.K. Not. Acceptable. Seriously.

              1. Student*

                Most people don’t consider a toothless scolding by HR to be a punishment. If they won’t fire her for attacking a co-worker purely for her own entertainment, then what exactly will they fire her for?

                1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  A serious conversation and a “this cannot happen again and if it does, there won’t be another warning conversation” isn’t toothless, and it’s appropriate. It’s pretty typical, for example, in sexual harassment situations as well. It’s very rare for someone to be fired for a first offense in that context. What they get is a serious talking to and a clear warning that they’re on thin ice. (Sometimes remedial training as well, depending on whether it seems needed.)

                2. Naruto*

                  If management doesn’t fire someone you think should have been fired, then extremely inappropriate, unprofessional conduct targeted at that person is okay?

                3. Mustache Cat*

                  Actually, most people do consider that a punishment. Is it possible that as a student, you don’t understand normal punishments in the professional sphere?

                4. Yorick*

                  Tickling is inappropriate, and it can make people feel very uncomfortable, but it is really just not an “attack” in the vast majority of situations.

                5. TrainerGirl*

                  Attacking, really??? Hyperbole much? Between this and the bullying letter from last week, people are projecting all over place. This was an inappropriate incident. But an attack? No.

                6. Katie the Fed*

                  It’s worth considering too that Monica seems really, really remorseful. I’d be less inclined to want to fire someone who realized the severity of their poor judgement and felt terrible.

                  But yeah, Monica has gotten much more than a toothless scolding. She’s now bypassed all progressive disciplinary action and will be fired immediately if there’s another incident.

                7. Mookie*

                  That’s the wrong question, but “punishment” is an interesting word choice. I don’t really think employers are dolers-out of punishment or that they ought to be. Anything less than behavior meriting immediate dismissal has to be dealt with (through discussion, admonition, guidance and advice going forward, the introduction of a PIP where appropriate, followed by a strict and watchful eye), not assigned a penance. Employees are not being paid to sit in corners and think about what they’ve done. If that’s not satisfactory for colleagues — and that’s perfectly fine because we are all entitled to assert a boundary, not impose one on others, and then be prepared to accept the consequences of that assertion — they need to move on and find work elsewhere. “Punishment” is not a morale-booster, but a non-constructive threat with limited benefits. Recognizing and rehabilitating an employee who demonstrated poor judgment is precisely what management is there for.

                8. Dan*

                  I feel like you don’t quite understand just how serious a firing is. It’s not only losing your income (and in this situation unemployment payments are potentially unlikely). It’s potentially losing your home or apartment, your car or at the least having to badly deplete your savings and delay financial goals like home ownership. It’s having difficulty getting another good job, potentially forever. It may be having to switch fields to one that pays far less or that you don’t want to work in.

                  In short, it’s a huge deal and not something companies do lightly. In the professional world there is a fair bit of leeway and understanding that we can all have one lapse of judgement. Being told your next incident will result in immediate dismissal is certainly no slap on the wrist or

    3. Kelly*

      Yeah, but touching someone without their consent, including anything that could be construed as ‘restraining’? That’s not okay. That’s fireable, to me.

      1. Jessesgirl72*

        I have such bad memories of being held down and tickled as a kid that I’d probably quit over it.

        Which is what Rachel should do, instead of this crusade of bad behavior, since she seemingly feels so strongly about it.

        1. AC*

          I agree that it is fireable. In fact, I just fired a contractor working in my home for tickling my child.

          Tickling is a deal breaker for me – I have a part of my childhood that was traumatic and tickling is a trigger for me. That’s not something my coworkers would know, but this would bring up a lot of traumatic memories. (Just reading this article brought up a lot of trauma for me)

          Because of my background, I know I’d have lost it if this happened to me, and being around Monica would be difficult for me. If I couldn’t quit, I could see myself reacting as Rachel is at first as I tried to separate Monica and my now cut out of my life relative in my own mind.

          1. aebhel*

            Same. I probably would have punched her. Not even intentionally, but someone I don’t know well restraining me while I can’t really see her and tickling me? I’d freak out.

            That said, Rachel needs to stop this. It’s not a productive way of dealing with the situation. If she really can’t work with Monica after this, she needs to talk to her manager about trying to move desks/arrange her work schedule so that they’re not interacting much–or quit. A prolonged campaign of harassment against a coworker is both unprofessional and unproductive.

            1. Stranger than fiction*

              I’m dying to know if they had monica apologize to rachel. It doesn’t seem like it from her reaction. I get her being upset about it, but all the other stuff seems excessive if she got a sincere apology from monica.

          2. Observer*

            Did Rachel ask to be transferred to another department?

            If the issue is that she is traumatized and can’t be around Monica, that’s the first step. And the company should definitely try to find a way to transfer one of them. And, I’d be surprised if they didn’t try – they clearly didn’t think that Monica’s behavior was close to ok.

            Oh, and I agree that you did the right thing in firing the contractor.

            1. Katie the Fed*

              Yeah, I was wondering this too actually. In sexual harassment cases where I am, they usually move one party immediately, even while the investigation is ongoing.

        2. Anon for this comment*

          I was sexually abused by a relative when I was a kid – and the way he got things started, on almost every occasion, was with foot tickling. My case is extreme, but if anyone even touches my feet I hit the roof. I’d likely quit too.

          I don’t think Rachel’s bullying behavior is justified even if she is in a similar position to mine, but it’s worth bearing in mind before you touch someone that their life experiences might mean that your touch does not mean to them what it does to you.

          1. Not Yet Looking*

            +100. I’m appalled by the number of people thinking that this wasn’t an attack. Seriously, if someone had lightly stroked her calf and foot, everyone would be rightly freaking out over “sexual assault”, and restrained tickling is so much worse than light stroking. Think this through, folks, don’t just blow it off because you personally wouldn’t mind.

      2. my two cents*

        I think Phoebe needs to have a solid discussion with both HR and Monica, framing the ‘tickling’ as what it is – sexual assault. I don’t think Monica should be fired, if this is indeed an isolated incident. But it IS a serious thing and needs to be communicated as such.

        Rachel also needs a sidebar discussion, in that the ‘circling the wagons’ to campaign against Monica does really appear to be some sort of revenge and/or coping strategy. Offer up HR or Phoebe if Rachel still needs to vent about it, but Rachel CANNOT continue to engage others about it because it’s a huge distraction. I’d say give Rachel the first shot at moving to a different team – maybe Rachel’s already been eyeing up a different department. If Rachel otherwise LOVES the team she’s on, then handle moving Monica to somewhere else.

        Not sure if this is something that’s ever done, but maybe Rachel would also benefit from learning that Monica had a HR ‘refresher’ regarding sexual harassment and assault. The point would be to let Rachel know that the company DOES take the incident seriously, as sexual harassment, but that the company also understands that Monica’s behavior will be stopped immediately (without firing her).

        1. Relly*

          Why do you see this as sexual assault?

          I’m not being snarky. I wouldn’t have viewed it in that light, so I’m curious why you do.

        2. Lissa*

          How is tickling somebody’s feet sexual assault? I could see certain types of tickling that way, or as sexual harassment, but what makes this “sexual” assault when we have no evidence anything like that even came up? I am not trying to be snarky, this is something I don’t entirely get. I remember with the letter about the guy who put scissors on his coworker’s chair and his coworker was injured, there was a commenter who said this could be sexual assault because it was his rear that was affected, but that would never have occurred to me in a million years.

          (Obvious caveats that I am not defending Monica’s behaviour and don’t need it explained to me that it was bad – I know that, I just don’t get the leap to sexual assault here.)

        3. Britt*

          Tickling feet being sexual assault is easily the biggest grand canyon sized leap I’ve ever seen someone take on this website. Good lord.

          1. Aveline*

            Well, a lot of courts view tickling as assault with a sexual nature. It’s a grooming behavior among child predators and adult rapists or both sexes.

            Further, restraint + tickling has been used for the entirety of human history as a torture method and as a sexual game among adults.

            You may think it’s a derail, but it is e a valid point. Your lack of knowledge on this doesn’t make them wrong or their point that it could be viewed that way invalid.

            Just google “tickling + sexual assault.”

            1. LBK*

              This is false equivalence out the wazoo. Context matters – surely you don’t think Monica was trying to groom Rachel or torture her, so I don’t see how this has any relevance at all.

                1. JHunz*

                  The only difference between a prank and deliberate torture is what reaction you think you’re going to get. Popping out from behind a doorframe to startle someone who you think is going to laugh about it afterwards is maybe a prank. Popping out from behind a doorframe to startle someone who has an outsized startle response due to previous trauma is torture. Same with lighting a firecracker to scare someone (someone with combat-related PTSD), doing anything even mildly humiliating (lots of people have been bullied), etc.

                  Since there is literally nobody on earth who enjoys being tickled without consent by someone they are not close to, this wasn’t a prank: it was assault.

                2. TrainerGirl*

                  Have you surveyed everyone on earth? Because unless you’ve asked everyone how they feel about tickling, you can’t really speak for them. You can’t speak to Monica’s intentions, and we don’t have any evidence that Rachel has PTSD. She could just be an overreactor, and I have about as much evidence of that as you do. Her campaign against Monica says that perhaps her response is just a bit outsized.

                3. LBK*

                  The only difference between a prank and deliberate torture is what reaction you think you’re going to get.

                  This is a mind-boggling statement.

                4. Elizabeth West*

                  @JHunz–I was speaking to Monica’s motivation. She probably thought it would be funny, like the letter where someone put a fake spider on a coworker’s (or was it their boss’s?) shoulder. It backfired horribly. Both were extremely thoughtless and stupid, but neither that person nor Monica intended to hurt anyone.

            2. Sylvia*

              Giving gifts can also be a grooming behavior. Being sometimes correlated with assault does make an act assault in itself.

                1. Sylvia*

                  I hear he liked dogs, too. I bet a bunch of people here drink milk and like dogs. Oh, no!

                2. Creag an Tuire*

                  To be fair, Adolf Hitler wasn’t all bad. After all, he killed Hitler.

                1. Specialk9*

                  “To be fair, Adolf Hitler wasn’t all bad. After all, he killed Hitler.”

                  Bwahaha nice.

        4. K*

          My husband is a prosecutor. He had a case where a teenager who’d been hired for some yard work broke into the woman’s house at night and tickled her feet while she was sleeping. He apparently had a foot fetish, so it was a question of first impression for the courts whether this was sexual assault or not. Unfortunately he pled out before we got an answer.

          Which really has nothing to do with this situation, but it’s a fun story.

            1. Retail HR Guy*

              Saying a story is fun is completely different from saying a story depicts fun things.

            2. SideshowStarlet*

              I read the “fun” as sarcasm. Like I could see an innocent bystander in Rachel and Monica’s department going to Central Perk at the end of the day and talking about all the *FUN* shenanigans going on at work, while a laugh track plays in the background.

        5. Flurtisho*

          I don’t agree that tickling, in this specific case, is sexual assault but to some degree is a show of dominance or forced humiliation, even if it’s mild (which I would argue this was.) And while tickling isn’t sexual for most, I do see how it creates a very similar feeling of an intimate act (way too intimate to be happening between coworkers) and somewhat out of control so I can see how it feels violating in a way that is uncomfortable (or traumatic for some)

          But I will also say, sometimes I feel tempted to tickle someone (my husband or my best friend) when I see exposed feet just in a playful, non-controlling way just because it’s a fascinating human reaction (but again, only with someone I know REALLY well!) So I wonder if she just saw feet and had a similar, mispalced reaction OR she doesn’t like Rachel and wanted to see her squirm.

          My husband and I were staying at a B&B (it was already a strange place, an Irish themed B&B on a working alpaca farm) and the owner would bring you breakfast in bed- like literally sit trays in your lap in bad. As a bonus, he also tickled my foot. I didn’t consider it sexual assault but I did consider it super weird and inappropriate! But we do now laugh any time we stay somewhere if they have a foot tickling service.

          1. SebbyGrrl*

            Yes, this and,
            There’s an aspect that Monica saw Rachel in a inadvertantly physically vulnerable position and chose that moment to ‘exploit’ the vulnerability to touch a co-worker with out permission in a very intimate and dominating way.
            I am one of those reacting very negatively to this behavior.
            I screams bully to me and I would want Monica moved or me moved (up and better or lateral).
            I could not work with her directly if this were me.
            But I would be very interactive with Phoebe and would got around her, back to HR, if she was being ineffective.
            I wouldn’t make things toxic for everyone else.

      3. anonny*

        I have to agree here.

        For the record, I am 100% against Rachel’s bullying of Monica since the incident and thinks she should be dealt with appropriately for her awful actions. But she’s not wrong to be furiously angry at Monica either. I feel Monica should’ve been fired and at this point, Rachel should be too for her bullying.

        Here’s the thing about tickling. People consider it a silly, carefree, harmless thing. In almost all cases, it’s NOT. Tickling a person who is not your partner or child or close friend is absolutely, positively inappropriate. (And if your partner or child or friend doesn’t like to be tickled, then that’s inappropriate too.) Surprising your COWORKER with physical restraint and tickling when they’re in a compromising position is disgusting.

        I hated being tickled as a child. It’s frustrating at best, and can also escalate into being humiliating or abusive. I remember being tickled by people who thought they were so funny and harmless and silly, but they made me feel helpless, violated, out of control, and confused about how someone could think it was funny that I was being held down and screaming and crying. It never felt good or funny as the person who was being pinned, that’s for sure.

        As a survivor of two rapes – one of the “random guy you don’t really know in college takes advantage of you when you’ve had a bit too much to drink and can’t physically fight him off” variety and one of the “physically attacks you, restrains you, and beats the hell out of you afterwards” variety – I am a person who does not like to be physically touched or feel in any way that I’m out of control of my body or my surroundings. Pretty standard for someone with my experience. My coworkers don’t know what I’ve been through because it’s my private, ancient history (20 years at this point). But if someone dared to restrain my feet and tickle me while I was under a desk, I feel like it would awaken a sleeping trauma beast in me. I’m not sure if I’d physically punch the person, or if I’d flip a desk, or if I’d just unwittingly curl into the fetal position and go completely catatonic but SOMETHING would happen.

        1. Kathy*

          Sorry to hear this, Anonny. I am somewhat ticklish and probably wouldn’t react as vehemently as Rachel. My daughter and husband are extremely ticklish; so I can see where an incident like this could put them over the edge and make them feel very vulnerable; not to mention humliated.

        2. pope suburban*

          Yeah, I understand that for a lot of people, tickling *is* a silly, harmless, fun childhood game. But it’s also *not* that way, for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons. I am not, to the best of my knowledge, a victim of any kind of sexual abuse, but I hate the everliving stuffing out of being tickled. It makes me panic. I am 100% confident that I would have reflexively kicked Monica in the face- not because I think it’s okay, but because something about that stimulus turns me into a meat suit piloted by a very fearful animal. I’d have felt terrible pretty much immediately, but that doesn’t un-kick a face (or un-break glasses, or any number of other damages). It’s not a “no big deal” kind of thing, and perhaps HR or Phoebe could have let Rachel know that they did take it seriously. That said, Rachel is way out of line in attempting to sabotage Monica and control their other coworkers’ behavior. She either needs to request a transfer, find another job, or learn to tolerate Monica’s presence. An extended campaign of harassment isn’t exactly trauma-neutral behavior either; how many letters do we see about the lasting impacts of childhood bullying, or the horrifying demoralization that comes with workplace bullying?

          1. Elise*

            Yep, I would have unintentionally kicked her in the face. My 5 year old loves to climb under the covers in the morning and tickle my feet. I’m always warning her to be careful because I tend to kick my feet uncontrollably if I’m surprised by it. Luckily, a 5 year old climbing under my covers is pretty obvious so I’ve never kicked her.

        3. Falling Diphthong*

          I am so sorry this happened to you.

          I think there is a massive lapse in judgment for the wide-eyed claim “I had no idea trapping her in a small space, pinning any limbs that could strike me if she fought back, and then (performing any verb on) her would freak her out.” Whatever the verb, you could have figured out the first two were going to get a negative reaction from a normal human.

        4. Mookie*

          EXACTLY. Tickling (outside consensual romantic and sexual gestures) can be frustratingly infantilizing, as it’s often associated with poking fun at children and pets. The last thing survivors of childhood trauma need is to be objectified this way or witness the objectification of someone else.

          I’m so, so sorry you’ve had to deal with this anonny. Thank you for sharing your story.

      4. The Final Pam*

        Yeah, if I was restrained and tickled at work I would fully expect the person who did that to be fired, and if they didn’t want to fire her to at least reassign/rearrange things to the best of their ability so that I wouldn’t have to interact at all with that person. That is beyond inappropriate behavior.

      5. JessaB*

        The problem is that Rachel is not dealing with this well. On the other hand Rachel needed major assurances that Monica would NEVER again and she’d be protected, and considering how ineffectual management seems to be, I don’t think she got that.

        They’re both wrong. And Rachel needs a huge talking to about her behaviour not only toward Monica but towards everyone. But management also has to realise that they partly brought this on themselves. Is Monica’s behaviour in any way driving Rachel’s? I dunno. But now it’s on management to manage and to sit down and tell Rachel to quit it, and to also make sure she knows they’ve got their eyes out for her wellbeing.

        1. nonegiven*

          Rachel’s behavior needs to be addressed.

          Also, whatever needs Rachel has that aren’t being met need to be addressed. The letter said Monica is in the cubical BEHIND Rachel. So, I’m guessing that Rachel has to sit with her back to Monica all day.

          I wouldn’t feel safe.

    4. Mazzy*

      I very much agree I don’t get how firing. Even comes up in some letters like this unless the jobs are really low level and replaceable but for most positions I wouldn’t treat employees as so disposable

      1. Anon von Riverbend*

        I would say that by restraining and assaulting another coworker, Monica was basically saying she didn’t want to work there any more. That’s not just unprofessional behavior, it’s cruel and I’d call restraint and assault criminal as well. (Yes, I’ve commented three times already. Yes, I have very strong feelings about this issue!)

        1. Anonanon*

          It’s really not, though, and your strong feelings on the matter don’t actually change it.

          Here’s the thing, and I’m coming from fairly traumatic experiences myself, your history of trauma and your strong feelings about the situation do not actually make your feelings rational. My history of trauma does not mean that when I’ve freaked out on people for things is okay. It means that I need to take a look at how I’m handling my trauma and get a grip on my reaction to thing that remind me of that trauma. Rachel’s (not even remotely known and possibly nonexistent) history and strong feelings do not excuse her bullying. It gives it context, but it does not excuse it.

          1. Aveline*

            Yes it is.

            I’ve seen courts rule that it is on many occasions.

            When attorneys get training for child sexual abuse and adult rape, we are taught that tickling is a grooming behavior and control behavior.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              That’s a very different context. Buying treats can also be grooming behavior for predators, but that’s totally different than offering your coworker a bagel.

            2. Anna*

              Literally two unrelated things. If I’m remembering correctly you’re a lawyer and should know better.

            3. Alternate Analysis Josh*

              but are lawyers aocio and anthropologists? That is not how the field of sociology has defined tickling, just how lawyers can color and influence a Jury’s perception in favor of their client.

              What are you taught when defending someone accused of sexual assault only because they briefly tickled them? Is there a precedent?

          2. Amy the Rev*

            This^^

            One of the people I’m closest with is dealing with this with a relative with BPD. He’s had to learn to find a balance between wanting to accommodate and respect that person’s mental illness, but also wanting to make sure they know that it while it may partially explain some of the ways they treat him, it doesn’t justify it or make it OK.

            Of course Rachel is within her rights to be upset, her feelings are valid, and she has total sovereignty over what goes on in her own head (aka her internal reaction), but that doesn’t mean that however she *externally* reacts, especially this long after the fact (as in, it wasn’t something she did out of a startle reflex or PTSD flashback or just general embarrassed awkwardness) is automatically exempt from professional consequences.

            I think it would be one thing if it happened on the day of, and Rachel was chilly towards Monica and chilly towards those who seemed super friendly with Monica that day…it wouldn’t be ideal but it would at least be understood that some cooling off time was probably needed and that Rachel’s behavior would likely be back to professional the next day…but a calculated scheme of social shunning/exclusion days after the fact, an organized attempt to get Monica to lose her job…it stops looking like Rachel coping with something crappy that happened or seeking to have a pleasant and supportive working environment (by asking to transfer or something like that), and begins to look like an effort at retaliation, which isn’t professional by any means, nor is it acceptable.

        2. TrainerGirl*

          OP said they didn’t have the best view so “restraining” is a reach at best. I know that this is getting ratcheted up in severity as we go on today, but our own personal views are not necessarily the right ones. To say that Monica should have been fired, that it’s okay for Rachel to bully her, that it’s “just desserts”, and that this act was sexual assault is really just taking this to a different place.

    5. Hrovitnir*

      I’m sure my comment is extremely redundant by now, but I want to say that (a) I agree, Rachel’s behaviour now is not OK, and (b) it is probably more common to find tickling an assault than people might think. If someone tickled me in that position and they didn’t stop the millisecond I yelled at them I think I would probably kick them in the face. Tickling makes me absolutely panic, so while I think that Rachel’s current behaviour is gross as well as inappropriate, I want to contribute another data point for “tickling is really horrendous for a lot of people”.

    6. Winger*

      Maybe it’s not a fireable offense unless it caused Rachel to jerk around and hit her head on the desk she was stuck under, requiring stitches or leading to the loss of teeth or a concussion. I have seen this kind of thing happen. Oh Joey thought he was joking around, he didn’t realize the ladder would give way and Chandler would break his leg. Oh Janice had no idea that grabbing Carol from behind and tickling her would give Carol a panic attack and cause her to reflexively turn around and deck Janice in the face.

      Just because these things don’t happen in any given incident doesn’t mean people should look the other way. I think physically manhandling a coworker like that is 100% a fireable offense, regardless of whether it leads to dire injury, but I know debating that question doesn’t resolve the issue.

  2. anon for this one*

    TW for molestation and assault discussion.

    I was molested when I was a child. If my coworker touched me without permission, especially when I was in such a vulnerable position, I would have called the police and if they were not fired I would quit on the spot.

    I’m sorry OP but your company has serious judgement issues if they are keeping Monica around. If I was you I would be looking for a new job stat. Monica has shown a complete lack of boundaries and professionalism and I wonder what in the hell made her think her actions were okay.

    1. fposte*

      There are likely going to be a lot of disagreements over whether they should have kept Monica or not, but since they *have* kept her, they need to manage Rachel’s responses to her appropriately. Right now Rachel is the one who’s out of line and at risk of being fired.

      1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        Agreed. Monica’s infraction, while severe, has been dealt with; Rachel’s behavior needs to be.

      2. Stephanie*

        Yeah, I agree that the real issue is with Rachel. It sounds like HR has dealt with her in the manner they’ve chosen, but let’s not forget Rachel is at fault in her own way. The crux of the issue is that Rachel’s acting inappropriately at how her company’s handling this disciplinary issue–it’d be a similar issue were she acting immaturely about not getting a promotion or something.

      3. PM Jesper Berg*

        Problem is, if they fire Rachel then this company almost certainly has a lawsuit on its hands.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          For what? I don’t see any real legal issues here. The company disciplined Monica appropriately, and they’d be disciplining Rachel appropriately for bullying a coworker if she refuses to stop.

          1. Aveline*

            Rachel was assaulted. You may not think she was, but legally she was.

            Depending on where she lives, she may have a suit b/c of how her company responded to it.

            I’m a lawyer who has seen assault cases and I can’t say whether there is or isn’t a case. I think you are being far, far to dismissive of the assault aspect of this incident.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I’ve asked above that we not derail on that element since every letter here that involves someone touching another person derails on a long debate about the legality.

            2. Naruto*

              Civil assault isn’t defined the same in every jurisdiction (nor is criminal assault), so at the very least, it’s a big stretch for you to say that “legally she was assaulted.”

            3. Forrest*

              But what’s the basis of the lawsuit? Rachel wasn’t fired for being “assaulted.” She was fired for being abusive to another coworker. A coworker who was disciplined in a way any court would agree is appropriate.

          2. Pwyll*

            Back when I practiced employment law (advising employers), my law partner would constantly say something like this to our clients: “People can sue anyone for anything. You can have the law and the facts on your side and still get sued. Then it’s a question of whether it’s worth the money for us to defend you, or cheaper to settle. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. Like anything else you do with your business, it’s about balancing the risks and balancing the costs.”

            Here, I think they’d be well within their rights to let Rachel go if she continues to harass her coworker. But she could still sue the employer, and it’s anyone’s guess whether the cost to defend would outweigh the cost to settle. So I think the point is not to be so concerned with the possibility of getting sued, and instead focus on the loss of productivity this behavior is causing. Sure, not addressing the issue could prevent a lawsuit, but how much money are they losing by letting this controversy continue?

            1. Amy the Rev*

              That’s really important perspective- thanks for sharing! Reminds me of that guy who’s suing Taylor Swift for not having dinner with him or something, because he has facial paralysis. He can bring any suit he wants, but doesn’t mean that she did something wrong by not accepting a date invitation.

              1. JessaB*

                This. Phoebe is failing in a big way as a manager to both of them. Even if you can’t discuss/shouldn’t discuss discipline practise, she should have made it abundantly clear to Rachel that whilst they were not dismissing Monica they were keeping a VERY close eye on it, and making sure Monica didn’t harass Rachel in any way.

                On the other hand if Phoebe had been paying attention the first time Rachel went off the rails because she perceived herself as still being unsafe/management not really caring about things (I’m not arguing true or false on this, just what’s probably going through Rachel’s head.) Phoebe would have taken Rachel aside, assured her she was safe, and told her that her attitude/reaction was neither productive nor appropriate and she’d better quit it now.

                The fact that it got to this mess, is straight on Phoebe.

              2. Mookie*

                Yes. Successful claims against work-based harassment demonstrate that an employer failed, not that another employee did something and was reprimanded insufficient to the victim’s expectations (which here are not reasonable).

          3. Falling Diphthong*

            It’s not clear to me from the letter that they did discipline her appropriately. That is, the “if you mess up again you could be fired” seems to be OP’s understanding from reading between the lines. There’s nothing about Monica having to apologize to Rachel, for example. From Rachel’s perspective, the manager intervened, took Monica off for a while, and then Monica came back and all was as it was before.

            I am NOT saying that Rachel’s current actions are called for, and management should have been in with hammers for the “Sign if you want to fire Monica” petition if not before. But we seem to be assuming that management made The Serious Nature clear to a humbled and repentant Monica, and that’s really not in the letter. Laughter followed by reminding her that Rachel doesn’t have much sense of humor seems on the table in terms of what might have happened during the march to HR, from the viewpoint of Rachel and the rest of the observing office.

            1. Anna*

              I’ve commented about these things before, but just because a letter writer doesn’t give a step by step bullet pointed list of every single step taken, we shouldn’t assume that certain things did not happen. The OP didn’t mention an apology. So what? The OP is giving us what they do know, which is that Monica was given a talking to by HR and that her job is on the line if she messes up again.

    2. Just Another Techie*

      I wonder what in the hell made her think her actions were okay.

      People who have never experienced abuse or trauma really really don’t get it, is the best I can figure. What would come across to me as incredibly threatening or violating behavior is just some fun and games for people with a different history.

      1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        It took me so, so long to get a close friend to understand that when she tickled me, I couldn’t breathe and it was profoundly terrifying and physically painful. She literally could not understand that just because my body’s automatic reaction sounded like laughter (it wasn’t; it was wheezy screaming), that didn’t automatically mean I was having fun deep down inside.

        1. Just Another Techie*

          I have ended friendships and romantic relationships over people’s inability to understand that tickling is a PTSD trigger for me. I’ve broken leases because of roommates who would not stop f—ing tickling me. I can totally sympathize with Rachel in this story. But her reaction isn’t appropriate either. Even if the campaign of ostracizing was justified (I don’t think it is), it’s going to damage her professional reputation and her prospects at this company, and possibly also her ability to get a good reference when she leaves. She’s got to pull herself together and stop, or find a new job.

          1. Alex the Alchemist*

            Slightly off-topicish, but it’s comforting to know that there are other people out there who are triggered by tickling. I thought it was just a weird thing about me after I got out of an abusive relationship, but (even though it shouldn’t have to happen to anyone else bc it’s so horrible) it’s good to know I’m not alone.

            1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

              It is so, so, so not just you. Internet hugs if you want them – you’re far from alone.

            2. Tammy*

              Absolutely not just you. Tickling and not stopping when I said “please stop” (or even “stop right the f*** now!”) was one of the things my abusive ex used to do to me, and I had that momentary sense-memory trigger reading this post too. Part of it for me is that I have asthma too, and not being able to breathe really freaks me out, but that’s not all of it. Safe, supportive hugs if you’d like them.

            3. Mobuy*

              It’s totally not just you. However, I think it is worth stating that it’s not a super common reaction to being tickled either. If someone won’t stop when asked (or tickles at work — weird!) that’s wrong and should be dealt with, but for most people this is an oversized reaction to being tickled. I get that it’s not for you, but for most people? Yes.

            4. Serin*

              Nope. Not just you.

              Alison’s advice is on target, but this story is a horror to me — not least because it sounds like Rachel was in a position where she could not do what I’ve always sworn I’d do if anyone tickled me as an adult: either hurt them as badly as I am physically able, or piss on them.

            5. TootsNYC*

              I’ve never had an abusive relationship ever, and I think tickling is absolutely a dominance / power thing. It’s effing rude, in fact.

              I think it’s perfectly reasonable for someone being tickled to get pretty damned pissed off about it. Yes, even if it’s just a light finger-brush across bare feet (that’s still “I have power over you”).

              1. TootsNYC*

                add in the fact that Monica held onto Rachel’s feet, and I’d be “done” with her too.

                I’d be saying, “I don’t want her in the cubicle near me–can you move her?”
                And I’d probably be pretty distant and curt with her for a while–she’s rude, so I’d interact when I needed to, and brusquely.

                But the greater campaign? Nope. And even my coldness would probably fade a lot, gradually. It might never go away–or, it might, if Monica’s apology gave me an indication that she understood why I was mad, that it came across like a power thing.

            6. Parenthetically*

              Tickling when a person has not consented to it is, in my opinion, abusive. My parents felt very very strongly about touch and consent, so they invented a game where we could tell the tickle monster to “wake up” and “go to sleep.” We had total control over the situation. We learned a lot about no meaning no and stop meaning stop, and they never, EVER violated our consent with tickling. Obviously I still deeply appreciate that stance to this day. It viscerally horrifies me that some parents just continue to tickle even when a kid is saying, “No, stop! Stop!”

              1. AB*

                This is amazing! I’m so going to use this with my kids. Sounds like a playfull way of teaching kids about consent and body autonomy without scaring them. I know so many people in my life who teach their kids about stranger danger but then tickle them but they’re angry/upset and shouting at them to stop. Or force them to hug and kiss relatives/friends when they don’t want to. Talk about mixed messages.

                My dad was terrible at tickling. Being not particularly ticklish makes people try harder. Mostly it just hurt and felt like someone was repeatedly poking my ribs/sides really hard. So yeah i’m not a fan of it.

            7. shep*

              I hate being tickled. My dad would tickle me sometimes when I was little because I would laugh hysterically, but that was purely a physiological reaction. Once he realized I actually hated it, he stopped, although it took me screaming at him quite a few times to realize I was serious. (I think my parents ascribed to the whole idyllic parent-child scenes in movies with the “tickle monster” or something similar, where it looks like the parent and child bond over some tickling before the kid gets tucked into bed.)

              NOPE.

              And I will KICK YOU IN THE TEETH if you tickle me now. I’m still a very petite person as an adult, but I have insanely strong legs.

              That said, if someone tickled me at work on the feet for two seconds, I’d probably freak out and half-jokingly yell at them, and maybe try to laugh it off.

              However, if someone grabbed me and tickled my feet for a prolonged period of time, I would scream and scream and let my feet kick as much as they wanted to.

              I’m assuming Monica’s experience falls somewhere between this continuum. Utterly unpleasant, regardless. I don’t *think* I’d advocate getting that person fired, and I would maintain professional appearances, but I can definitely understand not wanting to interact with that person anymore. Unless, of course, they were a work friend that just showed poor judgement. Then I’d have a stern heart-to-heart about how that is VERY NOT OKAY.

              1. shep*

                *Clarifying: My parents never tickled me before bed or anything–those are just the kinds of scenes I think of in movies.

            8. Elizabeth West*

              Not tickling, but when anybody does ANYTHING to me and won’t stop, or restrains me, especially if they’re holding me down. They’re likely to get hurt.

              **more hugs from me if you want them**

          2. A Rational Person*

            The only really odd thing is this comment is how many adults in your life think it’s OK to tickle other people. I’ve never had a partner, friend or roommate(!!!!) try to tickle me.

            1. Marmite*

              I was just thinking that too! I used to work as a nanny and occasionally children I worked with would try to tickle me (usually as part of the ’round and round the garden’ nursery rhyme) but I can’t recall an adult friend, roommate, coworker, etc. ever tickling me (or seeing it happen to anyone else). I wonder why this is so common for some people?

              1. Mel*

                I had to train myself to NOT respond violently when watching my 3 year old twin cousins. They lived tickling me. (Fortunately my big problem is elevated startle response, and I have hit people before I could consciously control my reaction. )

            2. Just Another Techie*

              Casual tickling was part of the culture in my college dorm. It was seen as really no different from casual hugs. It suuuucked.

        2. Callalily*

          For me tickling is quite often a painful experience… my husband once playfully tickled my legs/feet and I was in pain for almost 20 minutes. My skin can be so sensitive that I can’t even scratch an itch without subjecting myself to later moments of intense pain.

          There are a lot of times where pain is mistaken for pleasure; often people are mistaken for laughing when they are crying.

      2. JamToday*

        It doesn’t even have to be that extreme — has anyone ever been *tickled*? It does not feel good! It renders you immobile and unable to control your response. I’m free and clear on the trauma front but if someone tickles me they will get hit, kicked, or bitten as I’m trying to get away from them.

            1. Amy the Rev*

              Yep. The only people I tickle are my sister, my significant other, and the kiddos I babysit. And I ALWAYS stop if/when they say stop. Especially for the babysitting kiddos, because I want to reinforce that they are allowed to dictate how/when they are touched. So with them, I always ask ‘do you want to be tickled?’ and if they say yes I say ‘ok, tell me to stop and I’ll stop!’ (and I usually stop before they say so to let them catch their breath anyway, and wait for them to say ‘do it again’ or something like that before I resume).

          1. Rebecca in Dallas*

            Right? I don’t understand people wanting to tickle other people, it’s weird. It’s weird no matter where you are, but work makes it even weirder.

          2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            The feet part makes it especially weird to me (all tickling is overly personal/intimate, but foot tickling is next level).

        1. Alienor*

          Does anyone actually enjoy tickling? I can’t stand it and everyone I’ve ever met has hated it. I wonder if the people who go around tickling other people like to be tickled themselves, or if they just get off on the sadism factor.

          1. Kyrielle*

            Yes! I dislike tickling intensely, and find myself in the odd position of tickling my youngest on a regular basis, because he loves it. Only when he’s in the mood. Sometimes I offer by asking if he wants a tickle; sometimes he comes up to me and asks for one. (I pause every few seconds, sometimes more often, and he will often demand more – but I figure the pauses let him have breath and time to call for it to end if he has had enough!)

            1. No, please*

              My toddler requests tickling but otherwise I would never tickle him. And I’m not going to tickle another person, kid or adult. I hate being tickled and instantly kick really hard in all directions like a giraffe.

          2. Serin*

            My kid loved it in early childhood. It was so weird, because I’ve only experienced it in an abusive context, so I’d wait to be asked, and then I’d keep stopping to say, “OK? Still OK? Still having fun?”

          3. Evan Þ*

            Yes, I like being tickled. When my sister and I were growing up, we had a whole lot of fun with tickle wars.

            (One of the many forms of fun that not everyone enjoys, and that would be completely inappropriate in the workplace.)

          4. Indigo*

            I think of it as the physical equivalent of teasing somebody. I don’t understand relationships where people call each other stupid idiots, but if all parties involved think it’s cute and funny then ehn.

          5. Turtle Candle*

            I do. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized that a lot of people really hate it. (Fortunately, I think of tickling as, for lack of a better word, a pretty intimate act, so I didn’t spend my teenage years running around tickling people or anything–it was pretty well restricted to family–but yeah.)

            I think it helps that when we’d have ‘tickle fights’ when I was a kid, if someone said ‘stop’ you stopped immediately, but I think there also must be something in the personal wiring whether you find the sensation enjoyable, annoying, or downright agonizing.

            1. SimonTheGreyWarden*

              I know for me it can go from fun/funny to painful almost instantly, and so for us it’s never more than a one-two tickle or so. Husband respects my boundaries and recognizes the difference between playful-no and real-stop when I say each.

          6. Rat in the Sugar*

            YES! I looooooove being tickled! I’m so ticklish that someone just making a motion towards me to tickle me will set me off giggling before they even touch me–even thinking or talking too much about being tickled makes me laugh! I genuinely enjoy the breathless laughter. It’s weird, cuz normally other people touching me is overwhelming, and any physical loss of control freaks me out pretty bad, and when it comes to tickling all of that is turned up to 11 but I love it! It’s like sticking your face in a fire hose when you’re thirsty, lol. It always gives me a sort of cathartic feeling.

            I wish people would tickle me more but it’s weird for adults to do that to each other, I guess. Boo.

            1. Bobbin Ufgood*

              I also enjoy being tickled and my own kids LOVE it! As a kid, I thought that everyone just felt it was a fun game. I can totally imagine how it would show up in abusive relationships, though — just like the insults that are “just a joke,” tickling is an intimate, invasive, and sometimes uncomfortable activity that has plausible deniability of being “all in fun.”

            2. fposte*

              Wasn’t it being tickled that made rats laugh in experiments? So your name is apropos :-).

          7. Amy the Rev*

            I love to be tickled- it’s not a negative sensation for me and it makes me roar with laughter, and when I’m having a tickle fight with my sister or significant other it feels kinda like we’re ‘bonding’ (that sounds very national-geographic ish but that’s how it feels). I guess I like it precisely *because* of the intimacy, and also how much I love to laugh and hardly anything makes me laugh in my day-to-day life, and because I don’t find the sensation to be unpleasant.

          8. Facapalm*

            My son is 2 and he adores it. He laughs so tremendously hard and I stop and wait for him to catch his breath, and he says, AGAIN!! AGAIN! MORE! Sometimes I ask if there’s a specific spot he wants tickled and he’ll be like, “Ummmm, arm!” or “Ummmmmmm, back!” and lift his arm or turn around. I always am careful to pause in between each time and ask if he wants me to stop and he usually tells me MORE! I almost always am the one to stop a tickle session. I hated being tickled as a child, although I didn’t have super traumatic experiences, so it always feels weird that my son likes it so much. But I love hearing his wild little childish laughter, so as long as he is initiating it, and having fun, I’ll keep obliging.

          9. Scotty Smalls*

            I used to tickle fight with my sisters all the time. I wouldn’t say I enjoy the actual tickling. But I have pretty nice memories of it and it’s fun for all. Team ups kinda sucked because you were helpless but I never got lastingly upset about it. It was basically like our rough housing, since actual fighting wasn’t allowed in our house.

            I have gently tickled other kids, for maybe 2 seconds tops and would never do that to an adult. I generally make it clear I’m gonna tickle so they can say no or back away.

            I once saw a friend tickle another friend’s foot and I visibly cringed and they asked me what was wrong. Don’t touch other peoples feet. That’s way too intimate.

          10. Anon-na-na*

            I can’t stand it, not for one second. I have nightmares about being tickled from negative experiences in childhood. Even reading this post is making me squirm, but I’m glad to know I’m not alone in my utter hatred/revulsion for tickling!

        2. Wren*

          I have to admit that I love being tickled and tickling people. My partner doesn’t like it at all, so it is one of the few things I miss about my ex. Epic tickle fights were the best part of that relationship.

      3. Temperance*

        Exactly this. If someone started touching my feet while I was vulnerable under a desk, I would have instinctively kicked them, and kicked them really hard. I would also have probably had a weird panic reaction and tried to flee. I absolutely would have cursed her out.

        I’m not even reactive to being touched, normally; one of my coworkers is a hugger, and that’s NBD, and a few others will put their arms around me or lean on me, and I don’t react to that, just don’t corner me and tickle me.

        1. Detective Amy Santiago*

          And if they held my feet down, like it implies in the letter, I probably would have screamed “WTF ARE YOU DOING” out loud. I don’t always have good impulse control.

        2. KatRaz*

          I too would have involuntarily kicked.

          When tickling happens in romantic relationships I warn them that involuntary kicking/punching is a very likely result. And I have hurt people when being tickled. It’s a reflex, I cannot help it.

          I might have seriously hurt Monica in this case… and then what?

      4. Kate*

        Yes! A thousand times yes! I have good reason to react very badly to being touched without my consent. It isn’t really a particular type of touch that sets me off, although I would react much worse to some kind of touches than others. It is ANY touch WITHOUT my consent.

        Even “innocuous” touches, like hair ruffling or shoulder patting. I feel wrong and violated for about an hour or so after being touched involuntarily, and that is while I am trying to distract myself and not think about it. Being restrained would make it a thousand times worse.

        If I consent to the touch, by which I mean I solicit it, not just endure it to get along (like at work where the hair ruffling and shoulder patting tend to happen) I am completely fine. I can hug family members and friends, etc. It is only unwanted touching that reminds me and upsets me.

        Why can’t people just get that barring imminent death it is NEVER okay to touch people without permission?

        1. Marmite*

          I make a conscious effort to remember the no touching at all rule (and I am not overly touchy), but I am someone who defaults to tapping people gently on the shoulder or back of the arm to discretely get their attention. It’s something I was taught to do as a kid by teachers from the ‘children should be seen and not heard’ school of manners and it’s been a hard habit to break.

      5. Fiennes*

        Please consider that not every person who’s experienced assault or trauma reacts in the same way, and that you may be misjudging the experiences of people who do not agree with you.

      6. blushingflower*

        You don’t have to have experienced abuse or trauma to know that you shouldn’t tickle someone at work.

        I am very ticklish and actually LIKE being tickled in the right context and I would be very upset if someone tickled me in the office (in fact, even if it were someone who could tickle me in other contexts I wouldn’t appreciate being tickled at work where my coworkers could see).

    3. LizB*

      You would be well within your rights to quit on the spot, but you would not be within your rights to make your coworker’s life miserable once your company decided not to fire them. It is totally reasonable to decide you can’t work at a place that wouldn’t fire someone over this behavior. It’s not reasonable to continue working there but be hostile and aggressive towards your coworkers.

      1. Amadeo*

        Precisely. Rachel’s behavior needs to stop immediately. Phoebe is falling down on the job here. The company has made the decision with regards to how they wanted to handle Monica’s Big Judgment Lapse (who of us hasn’t had one of those at some point in time) and now Rachel gets to decide if she wants to continue to be employed with them based on their decision not to fire Monica.

        She doesn’t get to bully and abuse her coworker. She needs to suck up and at least be professional and polite if cool and distant or leave.

      2. paul*

        Yep. And I’d have a fair bit of sympathy to someone that quit over it TBH, but you can’t do what she’s doing.

      3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Exactly this x 1000. Monica’s behavior was bizarre and definitely out of line. Rachel’s response is completely out of line and unreasonable.

        1. Oranges*

          Sometimes when you’ve been triggered your response goes a bit hay-wire. Mine did and I did try to get a co-worker fired. Not my best hour but I wasn’t thinking straight.

          I’d say give the two some space so the drama can calm the hell down and give Rachel the reasons that she needs. Eg. Monica has been a good worker etc etc. Your feelings are valid etc etc. This campaign cannot continue however. etc etc. Also see if there’s a way to give Rachel some breathing room.

          1. Oranges*

            In my case the drama died down in a couple of months when I could think again. It did ding my reputation as it should have but people were very understanding even when I was a bit off the rails.

            I also knew enough to not go this far.

    4. The IT Manager*

      I think Alison’s answer is spot on for everything, Including this: … if Monica does good work and hasn’t had serious judgment problems in the past, I wouldn’t advocate firing her over this

      IMO, management did the right thing – even Phoebe – in the moment. They acted immediately. Actions were taken, stern warning, and punishment doled out. The problem is now Rachel is being the troublemaker and the one causing problems. And now Phoebe does need to take more action to get Rachel is back off and treat her co-worker professionally, and not bully her and anyone else who is even somewhat nice to Monica.

      There’s no sign in the letter that Monica did not learn her lesson and that she still thinks what she did was okay.

      I fully understand Rachel’s reaction in the moment. The ongoing vendetta now that the adrenalin has cleared and Monica has ben warned and punished is much less understandable to me.

      1. The IT Manager*

        And somehow I thought in my original read that Monica had been moved to another department after the incident. Upon reread, I see I made that up. If possible, that should be done. As should moving desks. But, still, they are both employed there, and Rachel has to at least treat Monica professionally in the work place.

      2. Jessesgirl72*

        See, but to me- and I am quite obviously not the only one who feels this way- it would be the same as if she’d sexually assaulted me. Or just plain assaulted me. That is normally a firing offense. If Chandler had done it, rather than Monica, I am doubtful that HR would have decided to just let it go with a stern warning.

        But that doesn’t change the fact that Rachel is wrong. She needs to either accept HR’s answer or quit.

        1. Relly*

          Ooof. I didn’t think about it until you said it, but … were this Chandler, I’d be more in favor of a stronger punishment. I don’t know why. Maybe the inherent power differential, maybe some of my own biases.

          I have to think about this, now.

          1. LGBTQ Person*

            Maybe inherent strength differential? Chandler, assuming to be a man, restraining even lightly a woman, to touch her?

            But then you get into… what if Monica is a lesbian? Is it even worse in that case than if she were heterosexual? So many nuances to consider.

            1. Relly*

              Whatever is tripping my weird radar must not be directly connected to sex, because making Monica gay/bi or conversely setting Chandler as gay didn’t change my feelings.

              I think maybe it’s the foot restraining that’s getting me. If Chandler did a drive-by tickling, that would push it back over to “dumb but benign.” A man holding a woman down seems to set off alarm bells in my head.

              1. Detective Amy Santiago*

                A man holding a woman down seems to set off alarm bells in my head.

                I think that would add a different dynamic that would make this far more squicky.

                1. Student*

                  What if Monica is substantially a different age than Rachel? Does it “squick” you more if a young person is holding down an older woman? Because as I read this, I can’t help but picture my mother, who’s got a leg injury that doesn’t amount to a disability but still causes her difficulty, being held down by a co-worker at humiliated for entertainment, in pain and afraid.

                2. Relly*

                  @Student, “in pain and afraid” applies only to your mother, because of her leg injury, not necessarily most/all people. I’m sure if this had actually caused Rachel physical pain, that would have been mentioned as a factor in her response. So no, age of participants doesn’t change my view.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          But managers/companies don’t make policy around unknown factors, including the severity of the “ticklee’s” response.

          I don’t think Monica’s behavior was ok, but objectively, it’s not anywhere near on the same level as assault/sexual assault. I think things could be different if Monica had known that Rachel had a history with trauma or had otherwise explicitly told people not to tickle her, but absent that knowledge, it’s entirely reasonable not to fire her. I wouldn’t have. And my opinion doesn’t change if the tickler had been Chandler.

          1. JamToday*

            ” it’s not anywhere near on the same level as assault/sexual assault.”

            Why not? She held someone down and hurt them. That’s battery.

            1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              I’m not going to get into a debate about legal definitions of assault/battery and their severity. It’s not productive, it happens every time we have questions like this, and it involves a lot of spurious and inaccurate armchair lawyering. And it does nothing to help OP, who is neither Monica nor Rachel but has to work in this stew of anger and toxicity.

              Criminal assault and sexual assault have very specific definitions. In most states, what happened here would not meet those definitions. Reframing the issue as “holding someone down and hurt[ing] them” is a reductionist mischaracterization, and I’ll leave it at that.

              1. Detective Amy Santiago*

                I assume it’s from this:

                she knelt down and slipped an arm around Rachel’s ankles when she was vulnerable and began tickling her feet. It was an unusual moment, to say the least, and reactions ranged from amusement to mild horror.

                (If you asked Monica, she would would say she only had a light hold to avoid getting kicked during a playful moment that went too far. If you asked Rachel, she’d say she was rendered largely immobile and humiliated.

        3. Relly*

          Oh, I was distracted and forgot to say the rest: I think this differs for me from assault or sexual assault in that the former involves malice, and the latter … it’s a whole pile of non-work-acceptable things. Tickling could mistakenly be considered camaraderie.

          If a co worker punches me on the arm, I’m going to HR. If the co worker punches me on the arm during a road trip and shouts “punch buggy blue!” then I’ll still go to HR, but their response will be less extreme, I would imagine.

          1. Trout 'Waver*

            Tickling could mistakenly be considered camaraderie? What? Never in a million years would anyone think collegial thoughts about a coworker who tickled them.

            1. Allypopx*

              No, not never in a million years, I’ve certainly seen it happen in a friendly fashion. But you need to know it’s okay. I think the commentariat here is skewing towards an aversion to tickling but that percentage breakdown isn’t universal.

            2. Relly*

              I would hate being tickled at work. So would most of the commenters here. But see elsewhere, where people also said it was viewed as familial rough housing.

              No, co workers aren’t family, but some people suck at boundaries.

            3. Bobbin Ufgood*

              When I was a camp counselor, I was routinely tickled at work and it was lighthearted fun only — context matters! (also, I, personally, enjoy being tickled). Now (as a middle-aged professional) it would be much weirder, but, if it were at an office party, for example, it’s possible I could still see that person as collegial — it would all depend on context.

            4. Honeybee*

              I’ve been in situations where people who are close have tickled other people and been okay with it. I don’t like being tickled, but if one of my coworkers I am close with tickled me I would interpret it as them trying to be silly and not trying to intimidate me. Not that I think that what Monica did is a-ok, but tickling in and of itself is not a threatening act. (It can be turned INTO one, but it is not inherently threatening.)

          2. Anon von Riverbend*

            Tickling is always an act of malice unless the ticklee has specifically asked to be tickled. It’s an abusive power-play. There is no friendliness involved unless the ticklee has specifically asked to be tickled. This is something that most ticklers don’t want to admit, even after being told over and over again. I just don’t understand the innate meanness that has to exist inside someone who would do this uninvited and think it’s funny.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I think you’re bringing your own experiences to this, because there are a lot of people who genuinely enjoy tickling in the context of affectionate relationships. There don’t seem to be many of them here, but they’re certainly out there in the wider world, which is why tickling is generally understood in many (not all) contexts to be a playful, affectionate act.

              1. Student*

                There’s a lot of people who genuinely enjoy holding hands, hugs, kisses hair as affectionate physical touches. None of them are acceptable at work with a co-worker!

                There’s a lot of people who genuinely think wedgies, bra-snapping, pinching, wrestling, racial jokes, diminutive nicknames like “sweetie”, and pranking each other are reasonable and affectionate behaviors. That doesn’t make them acceptable at work, either.

                This is about consent, and physical boundaries, and hurting someone else for your own entertainment. Monica gave no thought to what Rachel wanted here – there’s no contention that Rachel wanted this at all – Monica saw an opportunity to entertain herself and treated Rachel as an object of entertainment whose consent was irrelevant. That’s abhorrent in an adult.

                1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  No one here — literally no one — has argued that what Monica did was okay. The question is about the appropriate aftermath.

                2. Honeybee*

                  Sure, but I don’t think anyone would say hugging or kissing is an “act of malice.” Tickling, also, is not inherently an act of malice either.

              2. Bobbin Ufgood*

                I do! I enjoy being tickled! Even still as an adult — and I have several close friends who also still enjoy being tickled — I DO have to actually like the tickler. As in all interpersonal activities, consent is KEY. Consent makes things fun, absence of consent makes things icky.

              3. Anon von Riverbend*

                That’s why I specified three times that it’s malicious if it’s not requested. If the ticklee asks to be tickled and participates willingly, there’s no malice involved. What Monica did – malicious.

                1. fposte*

                  But that’s not what malice actually means. Malice is a descriptor of Monica’s intent; she can have malice even if the ticklee asks to be tickled, and she can tickle without malice even absent consent.

              4. Alternate Analysis Josh*

                we are out there, I promise! :) To me, tickling = ‘free laughter’ and I’m all for it in the right context and with someone whom I’ve established a lot of trust.

            2. TL -*

              As a youngster, I used to love getting tickled by various family members (while screaming at them to stop, naturally) and even now, if my friends walk by and tickle me – I’m not super ticklish but I won’t feel violated or abused or anything like that; I’d either laugh or give them an “are you 2?!” look, depending on how I was feeling.

              If my friends held me down and tickled me, I’d be extremely angry, but if I’m stretching and a friend tickles my ribs quickly, I just don’t feel violated and might even be amused. It doesn’t have to be an act of malice – it certainly can be. But it is not an inherently abusive act. It’s a know-your-audience thing – and if you’re not sure, then don’t.

            3. Observer*

              That’s a provably incorrect statement. The fact is that some people like to be tickled and assume that others like to be tickled as well. In fact, several of the commenters here have specifically mentioned their experiences with tickling as being very far removed from malice. Your experience is what it is, but it doesn’t invalidate other people’s experiences.

        4. The IT Manager*

          You may not be the only one, but I think you must be in a small minority. I think you will always be in the minority even as our society is moving to a place where tickling is less acceptable than it used to be. It used to be completely acceptable and considered fun.

          Society at large does not equate tickling to sexual assault or assault (yet). Those should be automatic firing offences but tickling is not.

        5. Aveline*

          ” Or just plain assaulted me.”

          This is legally assault in most states. There was a nonconsensual touching AND restraint. It was an “offensive” touching. Monica heard “no” and didn’t stop.

          Let’s stop pretending this wasn’t an assault. It was.

          It may or may not be a legally actionable one where Monica and Rachel lives.

          1. SimonTheGreyWarden*

            Right, but if Rachel wants to make a legal deal about it, she needs to talk to a lawyer, not turn this into a crusade at work.

          2. Honeybee*

            This would not legally be assault in my state (WA). Nonconsensual touching by itself does not amount to assault, at least in Washington state (and I’m sure most others). Assault requires the intent or possibility of causing physical, bodily harm to someone.

            1. JB (not in Houston)*

              In my state, too, this would be a stretch to meet the definition of assault.

    5. Anon now*

      So was I and I would find it very distressing to be restrained and touched against my will. I would miss several days of work to get back to a stable place mentally and would seriously not trust this colleague or want to engage with her socially for a long while.

      But for people who havent been through that its really difficult for them to understand how big an issue it really is Monica crossed a serious boundary, was unprofessional and poorly thought through. But she likely saw it as a playful thing at the time with no malice intended. I would be far from happy about it but if its the first and only time than firing her is a bit extreme. She has learned a valuable lesson but doesnt deserve to lose her income and potentially her fiscal stability over it. Or to have a toxic work environment. I can totally relate to how Rachel felt at the time but its way too extreme a response

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        There are two problems. The first is that, as Kyrielle notes, our society somehow thinks tickling and other transgressions of one’s personal, physical boundaries is ok in some contexts and absolutely not ok in others. That lack of clarity and socialization can lead people to make asinine decisions like Monica’s decision to restrain and tickle an adult coworker (so much wtf, there).

        Second, we don’t know if Rachel has had an experience like yours, and traditionally, organizations don’t formulate their HR policies around whether their staff may have experienced prior trauma. I’m sympathetic to the reaction you and others have described; Monica’s behavior absolutely could trigger deep fight-or-flight reactions that no one should have to endure in a workplace. But I also think that most folks—in particular those without histories of physical trauma—see tickling as an inappropriate but benign transgression. In light of that context, I probably wouldn’t have fired Monica, but I would have done what OP’s employer did.

        Perhaps this is a good reminder that we should be proactive about protecting vulnerable employees, who should not have to out their prior history of trauma/abuse before someone respects their personal physical boundaries. And maybe this is an opportunity for OP’s employer to reassess how to deal going forward.

        But Rachel’s ongoing response (bullying, ostracizing, haranguing other employees to make Monica miserable) is unacceptable, and she needs to cut it out or quit.

        1. Lissa*

          I agree totally with this comment. I have seen random tickling happen many times as an adult (unfortunately even at work when I worked at some restaurant-type places), and while I personally *hate* it, I have never seen somebody call the police, threaten to call the police, or need days to recover – it’s not that these don’t happen of course, but until this thread I had no idea that so many adults would respond like this, and I suspect many many people have no idea that people do see it that and would respond like that, so the response has to be proportional to that.

          I am a huge anti-tickler but till this thread wouldn’t have seen a brief interaction like this as assault, certainly not sexual assault, and not something that causes the person to be forever traumatized to be in the presence of the coworker as an expected reaction.

        2. sfigato*

          I agree. I think tickling falls into what some people consider playful rough housing,and what others consider a total violation of their personal space.

          Even with kids it isn’t totally clear. I make a conscious effort with my daughter to respect her space and have her respect other people’s space, which means not rough housing if she isn’t in the mood, not tickling her if she asks me not to, etc. But it is still pretty socially acceptable for a grown up to invade a kid’s space without respecting their boundaries or wishes. There’s more awareness now about not forcing your kid to give hugs or kisses, etc., but that’s pretty new.

        3. nonegiven*

          Maybe HR should ask Rachel if she would like some information on getting counseling to deal with her reaction to the incident, EAP if they have it.

    6. Kyrielle*

      I can see this, absolutely – but here’s the thing – you would quit. You wouldn’t stay and campaign to have her fired.

      The reality is, our society teaches people that tickling is okay. (I disagree with that, though for different reasons than yours.) Monica made the mistake of bringing what is often “acceptable” (or treated as such) in social situations to a work situation.

      Completely out of line. Totally. But she very well may not have understood that it is painful and/or scary to some people. She has been reprimanded, and told to shape up or else. She’s on last notice.

      Rachel, in campaigning to have her fired and being rude to people who are polite to her, is out of line. Rachel would be totally within her rights to politely ask to have seating arrangements changed so Monica wasn’t physically adjacent to her; to be no more than icily professional to Monica, so long as work communications were not disrupted; and to quit or ask for a transfer to another department. There might be more actions she could reasonably take. But the decision on not firing Monica has been made, and Monica’s actions are ones that are likely to be seen as unprofessional but not based in ill-intent by most people; giving her a last-chance warning is not a surprising or wholly unreasonable decision, even though it is hard for Rachel.

      1. Case of the Mondays*

        “Our society teaches people that tickling is ok.”

        This.

        I’m so sorry for what you’ve been through. Those that haven’t suffered a trauma don’t understand how triggering it can be to be touched without permission. That said, you aren’t going to find a police department that would care about a coworker tickling you.

        I think overtime, however, our standards as a society are changing. We realize that things that we thought were all fun and games really do hurt people. Parents are teaching their children that they don’t have to hug and kiss every adult that demands it, even if it is grandma. Schools are taking a harder stance on bullying. There is a lot more awareness about tickling not being appropriate. Not that long ago, it was considered funny to spank someone. My high school boyfriend actually got in a lot of trouble at school because a female friend was bent over in class with her butt up in the air and he spanked her from his desk. She thought it was hysterical but he was almost suspended. This was (OMG) over 20 years ago now just as the times started changing. They will continue to change.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          This is one area where our society has improved. You are right on all counts. I have noticed the same thing. Stuff we used to have to put up with is now out in the open as unacceptable.
          There are enough people out there who hate tickling that it’s wise not to tickle anyone. We can show similar rules of thumb on other behaviors.

      2. General Ginger*

        “You wouldn’t stay and campaign to have her fired.” — this, exactly.

      1. Aveline*

        Yes. It’s an assault.

        She was touched in an “offensive” manner against her will. (Offensive doesn’t mean grossly bad, just of a nature that is unwanted “bad”.)

        Also, she was restrained against her will. That’s a separate legal issue.

        Grant it, this would likely not be prosecuted, but it is still criminal.

        1. Forrest*

          This is why a lot of serious crimes get put on the back burner. I’m not saying what Monica did was right but good lord, I think there’s something else going on if someone goes to the cops for being tickling.

          And where are people getting that she was held down?

          1. Sylvia*

            Monica held her ankles with one arm. Rachel was under a desk, so maybe couldn’t move much or would have smacked her head if she jolted away?

        2. Amy the Rev*

          Under that definition, though, tapping someone on the shoulder would be criminal/assault, if it happened to a person who didn’t like being tapped on the shoulder (whether or not the tapper was aware of that). I think a lot of the commentariat could stand to listen to Mr. Montoya’s sage advice when we throw around words like “criminal” or “assault”:

          “you keep on using that word- I do not think it means what you think it means”

        3. Anna*

          I doubt very seriously this would fit the definition of assault in pretty much any jurisdiction.

        4. DMD*

          I agree calling the police would not be a viable course of action, at least not in my city. Here, they don’t even come out for car theft. They just ask you to file a report online. Most police departments are not going to see this as a good use of their resources and are likely to ignore it, and honestly, I think the credibility of the person calling the police for such an incident would take a serious hit. Also, I don’t see imprisoning someone for assault who made a one-time mistake and tickled a coworker’s foot. In the U.S., at least, jail space is already on a shortage.

    7. JS*

      That is completely 100% understandable you would feel this way and would be compelled to quit. I don’t think it would be necessary to call the police in this situation it seems unnecessarily extreme. Note: I am coming from the standpoint of its all well and good if the police do their job correctly but in this day and age with all of police violence, calling the police on someone could have deadly consequences for the simplest misunderstanding (not in anyway trying to invalidate your feelings of violation).

      I also wouldn’t automatically assume Monica has a complete lack of boundaries. It seems from OP saying the office was informal and they all have a good time together can mean everyone is relatively close-like friends who hug, touch, etc. It was a definite misjudgment and bad decision to do this to someone who she didn’t have that relationship with. Even if Monica and Rachel did have that relationship doing it in the way it happened with restraint and tickling while Rachel was in an awkward constrained position is something that would happen in middle school not any kind of work environment, so bad call all around.

      Also did Rachel have her shoes off to begin with because it would be SUPER weird for Monica to have taken off her shoes too??

      1. fposte*

        The OP notes that Rachel took them off to crawl under her desk. I think the unshod feet were likely what tempted Monica (though the holding the feet is a whole ‘nother degree of WTF).

        I do wonder what the relationship was like between them before this.

    8. Mazzy*

      Sorry for what you went through but as I’ve written before the police in most jurisdictions wouldn’t take this seriously

    9. Forrest*

      I’m sorry about what you’ve been through – as a rape victim and a sexual assault survivor, I can some what relate.

      But if this was your reaction to simply being touched without permission – not tickling, but being touched – I think you might want to consider seeing someone for coping mechanisms. It’s not feasible to go through life expecting to never be touched, whether accidentally or someone just trying to get your attention.

      1. Retail HR Guy*

        Agreed. I can’t help but think this is exaggerated. Someone tapping you on the shoulder is so traumatizing that you’d call the police and quit your job?

        1. Forrest*

          Yup. And if it is exaggerated – which it may not be – it’s pretty harmful to other sexual assault and rape victims.

          PTSD is a thing. It’s a thing that should be taken seriously. But a lot of people don’t and it sucks. Exaggerating responses makes it even harder for these people to start taking PTSD seriously.

          1. Madison*

            “Exaggerating responses makes it even harder for these people to start taking PTSD seriously.”

            This so much! Thank you

          2. Anon for this*

            I agree. I’ve been raped and I actually find it offensive to equate tickling or tapping someone on the shoulder to rape.

            Not the same thing. Not at all.

    1. Blue Anne*

      I thought we were going to be reading about a new office fad for constant tickle fights.

    2. Serafina*

      Heh! I found it disappointing. From “Now There Is Chaos” I was imagining something more like…

      “I am writing this letter crouched under my desk as a Jerry Springer-esque brawl rages through the cubicles! Phoebe is calling in the National Guard, Ross has Chandler in a headlock, and Rachel just threw a chair at Monica!”

      (Okay, that’s *mostly* tongue-in-cheek, although if there hasn’t already been a letter about a free-for-all beatdown in a workplace yet, I predict it’s only a matter of time before we get one, either here or in the news!)

    3. PollyQ*

      It’s almost a haiku:

      My coworker tickled
      Another coworker and
      Now there is chaos

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        As with interpretive dance, it could be a new trend in corporate communication.

        First, distill the problem down into a haiku.

  3. The Bread burglar*

    I would be horrified to be Rachel in this case but firing her and petty passive aggressiveness is over the line.

    I hate being touched or tickled and I would have been mortified. In fact it probably would have majorly affected my anxiety as well. I would definitely be uncomfortable for a bit around her while some trust boundaries were reassured but as an isolated incident it wouldnt be worth firing someone over. I could see if Rachel was distant and not as friendly with monica as before for a while but openly campaigning to get her fired is pretty extreme.

  4. Roscoe*

    Despite the fact that Rachel was the original “victim”, it seems she is going WAY over the line with this. Pheobe needs to be a manager and deal with it. Monica had a lapse in judgment (and the way the OP says it, seems like it was just that) and the company decided to keep her on. Rachel needs to deal or s