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.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 946 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*


                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*


            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.)


              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.”


        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 she should be the one to go. I personal think that the term bullying is thrown around pretty lightly, but this seems like its definitely the case. Making someone cry in the bathroom and yelling at others for being friendly? This is ridiculous.

    1. JS*

      Exactly. I would have gotten Rachel right together QUICKLY if she had dared to tell me who I could and couldn’t speak with and be nice to. This isn’t a playground or social scene, it’s work. Monica violated that, but Rachel is violating that as well. OP is a saint because my tolerance and sympathy for Rachel would have gone out the window and she would have gotten an earful.

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Agreed. I’m really disappointed/frustrated with my alter ego.

      1. Lefty*

        Agreed- Phoebe needs to step in on this and stop Rachel’s campaign against Monica. OP says they are fairly sure that Phoebe knows already, but I agree with Alison’s suggestion that OP points it out. Phoebe may know “Rachel isn’t happy that Monica’s still here” but hearing that Rachel is avidly confronting others (like OP) for being civil/nice/friendly to Monica may change her approach… hopefully.

        PCBH- I was hoping you’d say something about this, I’ve always loved your chosen name here.

      2. Buffy Summers*

        Maybe Phoebe should have done the “Phoebe” thing to do in the moment. Grabbed them both by the ear and separated them, then calmly inform them that in prison, they’d be her “bitches”.

        That was a pretty great response, in my opinion.

    3. Falling Diphthong*

      One thing that struck me by the end of the letter is that this appears to be a bystander. So the question is largely academic–OP can be advised to tell her manager how to manage, or tell some higher managers how to manage, but OP really doesn’t appear to have much direct power to affect this situation, beyond setting an example of civil neutrality as a coworker to both.

      1. Zombii*

        Civil neutrality went off the table as soon as Rachel got in OP’s face for daring to speak to Monica. Now she’s been targeted by Rachel, and has even more of a right (responsibility?) to take it to HR than when she was “just” witnessing one coworker harassing another while their manager does nothing. :(

  5. Stephanie*

    This sounds like a basket o’ crazy on all fronts.

    1. Tickling is way too intimate for two coworkers.
    2. That being said, firing for tickling someone seems extreme (and I’ve worked at some kind of dysfunctional places), especially if the offender was fine otherwise. That seems like an EAP referral or HR consults about employee policies or some training about appropriate work boundaries at most.
    3. Rachel is definitely reacting disproportionately.

    I hope this is resolved soon, OP.

    1. anon for this one*

      We don’t know Rachel’s history. If she was a victim of what I went through when I was a child, her reaction wouldn’t seem so disproportionate. Rachel is allowed to feel however she wants about being held down while in such a position.

        1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

          Yes, that’s what I was trying to say in my comment immediately below. Her feelings are her own business, but she’s obligated to maintain a professional relationship with Monica.

        2. Stephanie*

          I agree. I can empathize with a trauma victim, but petitioning to fire a coworker Rachel has no supervisory authority over is unprofessional and out-of-line.

          I’m also not sure how the company would know something like this without Rachel disclosing it, which I imagine would also be difficult. Were this a triggering event for Rachel based on things in her past, she should seek out her EAP (if she has one), talk to a counselor that specializes in trauma/abuse, or maybe talk to HR.

      1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

        Yes, absolutely. But her feelings don’t get to dictate what happens next, outside of her own relationship with Monica.

      2. Anna*

        You are absolutely correct. But Rachel has to also realize her THEORETICAL past traumas do not give her permission to bully a coworker.

      3. starsaphire*

        I don’t think anyone is judging Rachel for her feelings. I agree that she can feel however she needs to feel. It’s her actions — an ongoing campaign of bullying — that are inappropriate.

      4. Manders*

        I’m sorry that you went through a thing no child should go through, but as an adult, I’d hope that you aren’t in the habit of behaving the way Rachel did after the incident. People are free to feel however they feel–but at work, we have to be polite and professional even when we’re upset.

        I think both Rachel and Monica made the mistake of thinking that behavior that might be acceptable in their private lives is ok at work. Monica made a mistake by touching a coworker in a way you might touch a close friend; Rachel responded to that mistake by treating the rest of their coworkers like a social circle that could cut Monica out, not a group of professionals who just need to get on with their jobs.

        1. Ramona Flowers*

          I don’t see anything in the letter about Rachel being a trauma survivor. Maybe she is, but we don’t know that.

          1. Manders*

            Oops, I was trying to respond to anon for this one, who suggested that Rachel might be a trauma survivor. Did I end up in the wrong thread?

            1. Ramona Flowers*

              No, I was just generally wanting to point out that we don’t know this and shouldn’t assume. I don’t think you’re in the wrong thread!

        2. Falling Diphthong*

          Behavior that might be acceptable in their private lives is ok at work.

          This is very insightful. I do think the initial offense was pretty grave, because of first pinning her so she couldn’t fight back. (So inconvenient when people fight back.) But the appropriate response if your company keeps Monica on is to escalate your complaint up the chain of command, start looking for another job, etc. Not trying to get your coworkers to be mean to her.

          1. TrainerGirl*

            Holding her down? Pinning her? Where are people getting this? OP said that Monica looped an arm around Rachel’s ankles. It would be great if the OP commented to clarify. I get that posts like this tend to bring out the projection, but OP did not say that Rachel was pinned or held down.

            1. Falling Diphthong*

              She was constrained under the desk, and Monica specifically took steps to make sure she couldn’t kick out. How is this not holding her down and pinning her?

              Seriously, what role is the arm around the ankles playing in this geometric arrangement, if not to prevent her from fighting back or escaping?

              If Rachel had been sitting in the conference room with her bare feet up on the table, and Monica reached over and tickled them, and Rachel shrieked and said ‘no no no’ but didn’t make any attempt to move her feet, push away from Monica, etc, then this would be very different. Still a bad idea, but without the ‘ooooh, this is great because she can’t fight back or get away and is at my mercy until I decide we’re finished’ element.

      5. Forrest*

        Then someone should point out to Rachel that she’s now making Monica a victim.

      6. Amazed*

        She’s allowed to feel however she wants, but I’m also pretty well allowed not to have to worry about Rachel sweeping me up in her campaign of retaliation and ruining my day just for asking Monica where a TPS report is.

        And we are allowed to ask this question without “Rachel was a victim” being used to shut it down.

      7. Not So NewReader*

        If Rachel is wrestling with a larger story, she could choose to seek counseling. Instead she is choosing to seek revenge by involving everyone around her. The problem comes in when sometimes revenge is insatiable.

    2. Is it Friday Yet?*

      Agreed. I’ve worked in some pretty casual work environments. I’ve even considered some of my co-workers to be friends, but I can’t recall ever being tickled by any of them. I don’t know what I would do if this happened to me.

      1. fposte*

        I think I was once; I was engaged in horseplay with a guy in another department, and I think he tickled me. He then whined I’d stretched his expensive tie; I pointed out he’d perforated my expensive skin. We called it a draw.

    3. Falling Diphthong*

      I come back to this line: She would would say she only had a light hold to avoid getting kicked during a playful moment.

      I think tickling plus restraint–on the grounds that the person you’re tormenting might physically harm you if they could get away–is where this goes off into some very weird territory. It’s one (bad) thing to have the office tickler who comes up behind someone, tickles their side, and maybe gets whacked in the nose when the tickled person uncontrollably flings their arms out in reaction. (Or ‘uncontrollably’, an excellent learned response to wannabe funny ticklers.) Here the office tickler realizes the risk and so first immobilizes their victim.

      I can’t picture a hold in which Monica controlled Rachel’s feet so that Rachel couldn’t kick Monica in the head but could break free if she wanted to–that’s not how immobilizing holds work, and I kinda doubt Monica has extensive hand-to-hand combat training. So the office tickler is reasoning “First you gotta pin their limbs so they can’t hit or kick you, then you tickle!!!!” based on past experience with reluctant victims, and that is getting really weird.

      I get what Alison is saying about the company chose A, they need to back up A as a response, but this is veering closer to locking your coworker on the balcony when they’re due to give a presentation–where ‘immobilize, control, humiliate’ is very woven into happened, whatever ‘playful’ label is slapped on.

      1. Fiennes*

        That doesn’t seem to veer very close at all. Monica certainly made a huge error and Rachel’s upset is wholly understandable–but there’s nothing suggesting active malice from Monica. Nor does this suggest more than a second’s premeditation. Locking someone on a balcony before a presentation is much, MUCH more malign and dangerous.

        1. Falling Diphthong*

          How is pinning someone down so they can’t fight back against you not malicious?

          1. fposte*

            Because an action doesn’t automatically indicate the mental state of the person performing it, and holding somebody’s foot down to tickle it would be a non-malicious action in the course of some kinds of roughhousing.

      2. Snorks*

        It’s pretty easy to hold someone making sure they can’t go into you, think of it like a hug but instead of closing your arms around them you hold them straight. They can’t come forward, can’t go to the side, but can easily go backwards.

  6. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

    Holy craparoni!!

    I hate, hate tickling, and I have had friends, family, and partners in the past who did not understand that. So on one level, I completely and utterly understand Rachel’s position, because I would be blindingly furious too. I have kicked people out of my apartment over tickling, I have left other people’s apartments over tickling, and as a child I managed to give my much older, much stronger, military-trained brother a pair of black eyes over a tickling attempt.

    That said, Rachel is way out of line here. Her attitude is atrocious, and she needs to rein it in. Presumably Monica apologized during the march down to HR, but one way or another, the matter needs to be settled. Rachel doesn’t have to be friendly, but she has to be at least minimally polite. Yeesh!

    1. fposte*

      Yes, if Rachel had broken loose of the hold [!] and accidentally or “accidentally” kicked Monica in the face in the moment, that would have been an understandable consequence. But now she’s expected to be in command of herself, and if she chooses to become a bully in response that’s going to hurt her job, not Monica’s.

      1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        Yep, agreed. I don’t want to downplay just how blazingly unacceptable Monica’s act was (because that is bananas!) but this is a two-wrongs-don’t-make-a-right scenario and just because Rachel was the infringed-upon party doesn’t give her carte blanche to respond on an indefinite basis with unmitigated hostility.

        1. Jessie the First (or second)*

          “doesn’t give her carte blanche to respond on an indefinite basis with unmitigated hostility”

          Well said. I am floored that Monica did what she did, and I make no apologies for the fact that my reaction would have been to “accidentally” kick her in the face as I was being held down. And then I would be civil – not friendly by any stretch, but civil, from then on. You don’t have to like everyone you work with. You can actively dislike people. You can not trust them. You can avoid ever having to talk to them about anything other than work. But you can’t bully. If it is this bad for Rachel to be in the same building with Monica and to interact in a professional manner with Monica and with people who talk to Monica, then she should probably quit.

          1. Serafina*

            Amen to that. Seriously, nobody’s saying Rachel has to like Monica after the tickling. There’s absolutely no obligation that everyone who works in a place should be BFFs. Cool professionalism and declining to associate with Monica apart from workplace requirements are absolutely within Rachel’s rights (and heck, I wouldn’t blame her one bit! I avoided the creepy older dude in an office who liked to tickle and poke people in the ribs from behind, and he never even had the chance to do it to me!)

            But what Rachel is actually doing is so far out of line that it has demolished any high ground that Rachel ever had.

            1. BeautifulVoid*

              “But what Rachel is actually doing is so far out of line that it has demolished any high ground that Rachel ever had.”

              This. If I had to pick one of them to keep working with, or even be friends with, despite Monica doing something really dumb, I’d probably pick her over Rachel at this point.

      2. MadGrad*

        This exactly. The fact that she’s extending this hostility *to other people* who dare so much as make conversation with Monica is the biggest deal for me. Monica may have been a dunce but Rachel is being continually malicious.

        (On that note lw: if Rachel isn’t above you, I’d recommend being nice to Monica with impunity and a firm “excuse me? I’m a professional and my interactions are not ANY of your concern” if she gives you trouble again. Bystander shaming can be powerful on its own)

      3. Spoonie*

        Precisely — I broken free from my much older/larger/supposedly stronger brother and the boyfran during tickling incidents and had to remind myself that while it is tempting to hurt them, I should refrain. But the key word is *during*. What Rachel is doing is definitely after the incident, and she’s encouraging other coworkers to engage in treating Monica poorly. I think that’s what bothers me most — Rachel isn’t keeping her actions to just herself.

      4. LBK*

        Yeah, I’m reminded of the letter about the employee who scared their boss with a fake spider and the boss called them a fucking bitch, but then proceeded to pursue a pretty aggressive HR campaign to get the employee fired.

        It’s one thing to have a strong reaction in the moment, but there’s a limited timeframe in which you still get to use the “instinctual response” explanation. We’re way past that now; this is actively holding a grudge far beyond the point where you’ve been able to regain conscious control of your actions.

      5. L Dub*

        My knee jerk reaction to tickling is to flail around, so I would totally have kicked Monica in the face without even intending to.

  7. Katniss*

    I HATE being tickled and Monica probably would have end up kicked in the face, though it sounds like Rachel was rendered immobile in this case. But yes, it’s very extreme for Rachel to be campaigning for Monica to get fired and for her to be bullying her at every opportunity. It sounds like both people need a serious talk about professionalism, and Phoebe needs to be told that having a relaxed managing style isn’t an excuse for not interfering when it’s clearly needed.

    1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

      Good point! Phoebe is a problem here too.

      (Also, it took me until now to notice that these were Friends-themed names.)

    2. Stephanie*

      This is a good point. This is akin to someone being a “fun parent” and forgetting that they actually need to discipline at some point.

  8. Postess With The Mostest*

    Who would have thought that “touching co-workers without permission is bad, mmkay?” would be so hard for people to remember? It’s been something of a theme lately.

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      I feel like there’s been a lot of these lately. Things not to do with your coworkers: tickle fights, calling their daughters whores, joking about 9/11….am I missing any? Seriously, how do people reach adulthood with boundaries this poor and judgment this bad?

        1. Hermione Lovegood*

          Also the coworker who would punch and kick her colleague under the table at meetings.

        2. Stephanie*

          Ugggggh, I hate that. It hurts! A coworker at an OldJob was about to do that and I shot him the most withering death glare that he just backed off before he could say I was “no fun.”

      1. Rikki Tikki Tarantula*

        It makes me really glad I work from home full time and the only boundary violations I have to worry about the cat stepping on my keyboard.

      2. Serafina*

        Right?! Some people use that as argument that one letter or another simply must be fake, and yet…dunno about other commenters here, but I’ve seen multiple examples of people being spectacularly inappropriate in professional workplaces! It doesn’t seem to be confined to any one age group – although we can chalk up the younger offenders to some (but not always) lack of experience with professional norms as opposed to school norms. (Hell, I even knew a MALE professional – well into middle age – who thought tickling young female colleagues around the ribs and waist was a-okay, and “heh heh heh, ain’t I a joker?” And everyone who worked with him just shrugged it off, “oh yeah, that Fergus, what a goof, if it was anybody else, you’d think it was sexual harassment or something, oh, he’s just a big teddy bear”).

        Employing Captain Awkward parlance, I’d hazard a guess that the missing stair can be just as prevalent in the workplace as it can in families or social situations, maybe more so.

          1. Allypopx*

            It basically describes someone everyone knows should be avoided because they’re skeevy and there’s a quiet understanding about that, but because of circumstances (family, colleagues) they aren’t actively excluded from groups.

          2. Serafina*

            I tried to post a link to it, but it looks like it didn’t make it through moderation yet. Basically the missing stair is the person that everyone feels they have to treat differently to avoid that person causing harm (i.e. step over the missing stair instead of, ya know, fixing the stair to avoid falling). I’ve seen it in workplaces as well as family and social relationships: “Mr. X is very OCD, you have to present projects to him just so, or he’ll scream for 30 minutes”/”Ms. Y insults everybody, don’t take it personally”/”Oh, Fergus always hits on female interns, but he’s one of our most successful deal closers”.

          3. JB (not in Houston)*

            It didn’t originate with Captain Awkward, but it’s referenced there a lot. The original discussion was on a BDSM website, and my workplace filter won’t let me pull it up, but wikipedia has an entry on missing stair.
            It’s a term to use a sexual predator or similarly problematic person who people know is problematic, but rather than shun or call the person out, they just warn others to avoid them or take steps to try and minimize their impact on others. The person who came up with the term compared that approach to having a missing stair on a staircase, and instead of just fixing it, people just warn others to watch out for the missing stair.

            1. JB (not in Houston)*

              Whoops, I’m such a slow typer that several people already answered before I did. Sorry for the unnecessary post!

              1. Nea*

                Yeah, in the time I read up to this point I didn’t realize that it had been answered about six times already. Whoops.

          4. Nea*

            Essentially the idea that someone has moved into/works at a place where there is a missing stair. Everyone who has lived/worked there for a while just accepts that the stair is missing and moves around it without thinking, while the new person is all “WTF, why was this not fixed ages ago?!”

          5. Merida Ann*

            The comparison is that you’re visiting a house and there’s a stair missing and everyone living in the house just remembers to jump over it and they’re very casual about it being there instead of getting it fixed and removing the danger altogether. So with a person, the thought is that everyone in the group/organization/etc. has just gotten used to tolerating one person’s bad behavior to the point that they’re so used to just working around the behavior that they never stop to think about actually addressing it and making the behavior stop. I’ll add a link to the better explanation on Captain Awkward’s site.

      3. Partly Cloudy*

        There was a kicking one, too. Co-worker kicked other co-worker under the conference room table or something…?

      4. MegaMoose, Esq*

        I’ve been having the touching issue with a coworker who I think has maybe been thinking of me a surrogate-daughter-type rather than a coworker (not to mention informal supervisor). I think it’s less about not having developed boundaries and judgment, and more about the fact that we have different boundaries with different people and sometimes those lines slip. And besides, it’s not like you suddenly develop good judgment about everything when you turn 25 and never have any lapses again.

        1. KikiKiki*

          Everyone should have finished kindergarten knowing to “keep your hands (feet, etc.) to yourself.”

          Monica made a really dumb, probably very impulsive choice. She was reprimanded and warned of consequences going forward. I dare day she will *never* do anything like that, to anyone at any workplace ever again. Lesson learned.

          Rachel OTOH has started a campaign of attrition. Either “for me or against me.” It sucks as she was the original victim and all, but her responses, and continued actions, especially in regards to her expectations of other coworkwers is going to get her fired.

          She is making a hostile work environment for not only Monica but for everyone else…except apparently Phoebe, as well. That’s not sustainable unless the employer wants to lose -everone else who isn’t Rachel.

      5. ..Kat..*

        People reach adulthood with poor boundaries and bad judgment when they are raised by adults with bad judgment. Adults who don’t allow the children to set and maintain proper boundaries.

        I hated being tickled as a child. I couldn’t breathe and it was like torture. Knowing that I didn’t like it, my father would tickle me anyways. Usually for ten minutes or longer at a time. So long that I was trying not to vomit or wet myself. Because if I had vomited or wet myself, I would have been punished for inappropriate behavior. My father saw nothing wrong with doing this to me. (Not surprising in hindsight; he saw nothing wrong with punching me and beating me, either.)

        I don’t think what Rachel is doing is right. But, did Monica even apologize for what she did?

    2. Sylvia*

      IDK. You would think that “holding someone still to do something to their feet isn’t cool” would also not be something adults have a hard time with, but here we are.

    3. JS*

      I wouldn’t even stop it there. No touching without permission is standard but I go as far to even say “previous consent does not imply future consent”. A coworker may feel comfortable giving a hug, shoulder touch, etc in a more informal work space, office happy hour, event, etc or even an off the clock social event. But that doesn’t mean in every situation they are going to feel OK with it cause they did before and tread lightly. Monica and Rachel could have hung out personally and had a tickling relationship that doesn’t mean she wants that relationship to carry over to work and be tickled there when she is trying to be a professional.

    4. Lissa*

      I kind of wonder if part of it is that there are some workplaces where random casual touching *is* a thing that happens a lot. I have worked in restaurants where I’ve seen loads of things that would cause a huge comment pileon here, but nobody even really thought twice about it there. I did not like it or think it was appropriate, but trust me, it would not have helped to say something like “this behaviour is unprofessional and everyone should stop any touching of coworkers” when 90% of people do it . problem is having an environment where casual touches are normal means it gets way too easy to have a non-evil misjudgment of what is ok. Like, if I just read this site and other professional ones I’d think that many of the things I’ve seen would be immediate firing offenses but this has not been my experience. (I don’t still work in a place like that, happily!)

    5. Jaguar*

      So, I think I brought this up before on a similar topic, but I think there are two things worth considering:

      1) There are a lot (a majority?) of people who are fine with physical contact (arm around the shoulder, horseplay, etc) and it’s a way people bond, show familiarity, and build trust. This isn’t to excuse it – people need to be sure someone is okay with physical contact before they engage in it – but rather to understand it. There is a level of villainizing touch going on in the comments here that makes it sound like it’s always an act of malice and it has no basis in reality.

      2) This aversion to touch is heavily informed by western society. There are many cultures, particularly the middle east, where one of the primary ways someone shows trust and familiarity is by getting in what we would call “personal space” and clasping hands, shoulders, and so forth. This often leads to a lot of cultural conflict with westerners who are not accustomed to this sort of behaviour as well as for people who come from a culture like this because they have to learn a different way of socializing. This isn’t to say you have to be okay with it, but it is to say that when you say things like why is this “so hard for people to remember?”, well, that’s a very western-European-centric thing to say.

      Again, I’m not trying to excuse anything – Monica shouldn’t have done what she did. My intent is to try and get people to change their perspective of this as one of a villain and a victim. I don’t see a villain in this (assuming Monica was just trying to bond with Rachel).

      1. Lissa*

        Nah, I agree. I think it’s less likely Monica was going on a power trip or trying to exert control over Rachel than that she made a major error in judging the work culture and acceptability of these things. People often put the worst possible motivations on those who act in ways that we never would, because it can be hard to put oneself in the shoes of somebody who’s done something that’s totally unacceptable to us. And I get that! I even posted on the work hugging post about how baffled I am by people who “insist” on hugs, like what are they getting out of it? there were actually some really useful replies!

      2. Retail HR Guy*

        Yeah, the “no touching of any kind EVER” vibe is weird, and it comes up a lot in these threads (by which I mean less extreme examples than Monica’s inappropriate tickling). I get if you have an aversion to human contact due to trauma or just personality and might need some special consideration, but you’ve got to understand that many forms of touching are very, very normal even in western society. Handshakes, shoulder taps, hugs, arm clasps, aunts pinching cheeks, elbow nudges, slaps on the back… why is everyone so keen to demonize these things?

        1. Jaguar*

          I think this place skews very strongly towards a certain neuroticism about physical contact (the people with actual trauma associated with it notwithstanding). Which is fine, but people who are some standard deviation from the norm shouldn’t act like their position is the normal one.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Yes! That’s the notable part to me — when people don’t realize that position isn’t the mainstream one, and it’s really helpful context to be aware of.

          2. Sylvia*

            Yeah. It’s a neuroticism that I share, but you have to understand that other people probably aren’t going to correctly assume your preferences if they’re noticeably different from the culture you’re in.

            1. Jaguar*

              Sorry, I’m re-reading your comment but I can’t work it out. You mean, people should have a tolerance for culture shock / cultural friction when people from one culture are in another (I agree) or people should proceed with extreme caution when entering a new culture (I disagree)?

              1. Sylvia*

                Oops, I could have worded that better! People who are different from most others in their own culture – people who dislike hugging in a place that’s very hug-y? – shouldn’t expect others to guess their preferences as if they’re the default.

          3. Kc89*

            Yes, it’s truly bizarre how many people here claim that their first reaction to a quick tickle would be punching and kicking other people

            1. Personal Best in Consecutive Days Lived*

              FWIW I’m probably more touchy-feely than your average North American (I have no problem with hugs, arm touching,long handshakes, standing very close, or a cheek-touch-air-kiss in the right context). But. Tickling.
              Tickling specifically fills me with white-hot rage. There is actually a small chance I would hit someone if tickled. First I would yell at them, but I would hit someone with restraint (open hand, not face) if I had to in order to make the tickling stop.
              I think my strong feeling is because tickling is such an obvious power play attempting to disguise itself as harmless fun and is also weirdly intimate. I’ve never been maltreated and I still hate tickling do much.

              1. Falling Diphthong*

                I think tickling brings out particularly strong reflexive reactions because “normal” tickling involves the ticklee shrieking “No no no STOP” and the tickler not doing so. How do they indicate they want it to stop if “NO STOP” can be taken to mean the opposite?

                It’s why I think trapping and pinning are the greater problems with the scenario described–tickling someone who can easily step away from you is also a bad in-office idea, but it is likely to stop in a second without anyone needing to intervene. The tickler (or shoulder puncher, or cheek pincher, or hugger, or massager) figures out it’s not welcome by that person and doesn’t do it again.

        2. fposte*

          You were probably only asking rhetorically, but hey, that has consequences :-). I think there are a couple of big reasons. One is that “touching is normal” has for a long, long time been a big justification for women getting pawed. The other, I’d say, is that we’re in an era where a lot of discourse (on all sides of the political spectrum) is more comfortable with binary absolutism than nuance and grey areas. It’s certainly a lot simpler to say “Just don’t ever touch people” than to break down what makes it acceptable and when in a way that people learning the workplace and cultural ropes will understand, and the cost of mistake of omission is less evident than the cost of mistakes of commission.

          But I also agree with you that the library of touch is important in human relationships and that we’re running a greater risk than we sometimes acknowledge in trying to forbid it. And I say this as a non-hugger.

          1. Retail HR Guy*

            It wasn’t rhetorical! I am legitimately at a loss to understand it and am curious, especially because I really have only encountered this on AAM.

            I have so many questions: Is this a regional difference? Is this a new trend among younger people? What is it about talking about management issues that attracts the “no touching” crowd? If I continue to develop as a manager, will I become more averse to human contact over time? Is the process reversible? Is it too late for me?

            1. fposte*

              I always assume that it’s too late for me on everything. It’s just easier.

        3. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          I dunno about that. This is a work-focused comment space, and I think all of those except handshakes are pretty weird in the office. In the cube farms I’ve worked in it’s been the norm to knock on the desk or top of the cube wall to get someone’s attention, not touch them.

          1. MegaMoose, Esq*

            I hope it’s not getting into sandwich territory, but shoulder taps aren’t out-of-bounds where I work, since I don’t think I could touch a coworker’s work-space without touching them and we don’t have cube walls. If someone wearing headphones doesn’t respond to a vocal request, then I think a shoulder-tap is totally appropriate. Usually it’s because they’re about to miss a public announcement, so there’s not a lot of waffling-time to be had, and excessive voice-raising is too disruptive.

            1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

              I can see that being something that is very cultural, and much more common when there aren’t cube walls. For us, we do have cube walls and knocking on someone’s desk (so they’ll feel the vibration) tends to produce a lot less startlement than actually touching them.

              1. MegaMoose, Esq*

                I play a lot of inadvertent footsie with the guy sitting across the table from me too, especially later in the day when we both might be slouching a bit. The open office setting just makes it hard to completely avoid physical contact. Out of curiosity, I’ve been glancing around trying to figure out if it’s even possible to knock on a desk for attention, and in most cases there isn’t any open desk space to knock on. We’re pretty sardine-like here. Ug.

                1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

                  Ew, I’m so sorry. We’ve got semi-open cubicles (they sit four) but loads of space, so getting all up in someone’s business is generally something that only happens deliberately, or when there are lots of sit-bys going on.

          2. Retail HR Guy*

            All of the examples except the auntie’s cheek pinch are pretty normal in places I’ve worked. (But, then, I’ve never worked with one of my aunts.)

        4. MegaMoose, Esq*

          I’m never quite sure when the “no touching” is hyperbole or not, to be honest. I think it’s generally hyperbole and doesn’t mean to include handshakes, shoulder taps (which anyone who works in a place where headphones are common will know are definitely necessarily from time to time), etc. The devil is in the level of appropriate familiarity, which is context specific and that context is often missing.

          On a related note, I totally touched the back of a stranger’s thigh on the sidewalk the other day based on implicit (but not explicit!) consent.

          1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

            Yeah, I think for the most part it’s a “if you have to ask strangers on the internet if this is okay, the answer is almost 100% going to be NO” rather than a literal “avoid all potential physical contact with all other human beings ever.”

          2. Lissa*

            I think some of it is hyperbole, but honestly meant — the same way as how I’m sorry but I don’t believe most people who say so would really be calling the police or lawyers over this incident, just because I’ve witnessed things like this and much worse, with nobody reacting especially strongly, but we have a lot of people who say things about getting law enforcement etc. involved…so either people are being hyperbolic/believe they would but in the actual situation would not, or there are lots of lawsuits and police cases about situations like this that I have just never heard of!

        5. Liz2*

          I am in an alternative lifestyle where distinguishing between abusive touch and acceptable touch is key because how it LOOKS is in every way indistinguishable and the ONLY demarcation between is the informed consent given ahead of time.

          I guess I don’t see why someone gets to presume they can touch without asking first, or decide what touching I should find acceptable. Even handshake requires them waiting for me to involve myself. Is it really so awful to say “Hey, can I hug?” first?

          1. Natalie*

            I don’t know, I went to one of the earliest “yes means yes” colleges and even we didn’t apply that to every single possible instance of touching someone. It’s fairly normative to tap someone, place part of your hand on their arm/shoulder or nudge them lightly to get their attention, people get jostled in crowded rooms, etc, etc. I don’t think anyone here is suggesting a touching free for all, or even that tickling should be assumed okay, but simply pushing back on the hard line against incidental contact.

            1. DMD*

              I have definitely found the comments section of Ask a Manager interesting since I’ve been reading it (several years). A lot of the ideas commentators have are completely foreign to me, and I’m in a fairly liberal region. I always appreciate hearing someone else’s perspective, but I often disagree, as in this “no touching ever” case. I do agree, the occasional shoulder top or light touch on the arm to get attention are normal. Grabbing a coworker’s feet and tickling them is not. And, assuming Monica was an otherwise stellar employee, I would not have fired her, either (I would have done some kind of formal, documented discipline). No matter what Rachel’s reasons, she’s definitely showing a darker side of herself and going way to far to hurt someone who very likely (foolishly) meant no harm in the first place and (I hope) already learned a very valuable lesson. For the OP, I would not alter my behavior to appease Rachel. Continue to be polite and professional to both Monica and Rachel. If Rachel snarks at you, I’d very calmly let her know that you don’t want to be spoken to in such a manner, and I’d make sure to tell Phoebe as an FYI.

  9. WPH*

    I…wow. Just don’t touch people at work unless it’s to save a life. Even if you want to administer the Heimlich, you still have to obtain permission.

    1. Robbenmel*

      For me, personally…if I cannot speak or cough, please know that you have my full permission to administer the Heimlich maneuver. All of you, everywhere.

        1. WPH*

          Not to be geeky (and probably because I just finished my job required CPR certification) but the universal gesture for choking, two hands to the throat, would be the gesture needed to imply consent. Adjusts glasses.

          1. fposte*

            It’s a common gesture of people who are choking, but I don’t think it’s been judged legally to mean anything about consent, and I doubt that you’re seriously arguing you’d withhold the Heimlich maneuver from somebody who didn’t make that gesture.

          1. Bookworm*

            I think fposte was making a joking comment on verbal consent since if you can talk, you’re not choking.

    1. Beancounter Eric*

      They never went to kindergarten??

      Power, in many cases. “I can do X to you and you can’t do anything about it!!” drives many.

    2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      My feeling in this case that it was a poor sense of impulse control.

      1. kb*

        I was thinking the same plus misconstruing the casual work environment to mean coworkers are like friends.
        For the record, I don’t tickle my friends (not since childhood, anyway), but I acknowledge it’s a thing in other people’s personal relationships.

    3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I think a lot of people grow up with completely inappropriate/non-existent boundaries or socialization about boundaries. I have several friends who I could imagine doing what Monica did, and trying to get them to understand why it’s not ok has been an exercise in futility.

      1. MadGrad*

        Or just different boundaries, frankly. A lot of people don’t like to be touched at all, some people are living sweaters and everyone else falls somewhere in between. I wouldn’t give my coworkers sensual backrubs, but personally I find the total aversion and offense a lot of people seem to have on this site to be surprising. Not all touch is equal.

        1. Natalie*

          Agreed. I think sometimes people think that the intensity of the reaction informs how out of line the action was, but IMO that’s not remotely practical or fair. I am actually not a big toucher, plus I startle easily, but if I jump a mile because someone touched my shoulder to get my attention, that’s my thing. It doesn’t make the shoulder-toucher out of line.

      2. chomps*

        Yep this is true. As is what MadGrad said about growing up with different boundaries. Plus personal preferences affect this as well.

  10. LizB*

    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.

    Yikes. This is way outside the bounds of reasonable. It could also be a good opening for you to talk to Phoebe about the whole situation, since now you’re personally involved: “I’m very concerned about the dynamic that has developed in our department. Yesterday Rachel said [XYZ] to me just because I was chatting with Monica. It seems like not only is Rachel trying to get the whole department to ostracize Monica, which I’m not comfortable with at all, but she’s also being aggressive and hostile towards anyone who doesn’t feel the same way she does. This really needs to change.”

    1. Just Another Techie*

      Yes this. Phoebe is way waaay falling down on the job here. Her behavior is even worse than Rachel’s, IMO, since in the most charitable reading, Rachel was badly triggered and is not feeling safe at work, and therefore acting out of some deep seated defense mechanisms. Phoebe is just abdicating her responsibility as manager.

      1. Serafina*

        But even if we assume that Rachel was badly triggered, mounting a harassment campaign against Monica should result in discipline no matter what. An accommodation of any kind is not a license to harass and bully a coworker! And unlike Monica, Rachel is acting out of open malice. She needs to get slapped down hard by Phoebe and HR.

        1. Just Another Techie*

          I’m not saying she shouldn’t be disciplined! Her campaign against Monica isn’t acceptable at all. I’m just saying, my visceral reaction, is that Phoebe has even less justification/I have no sympathy for Phoebe not doing her job and nipping this in the bud.

          1. Serafina*

            Ah, I get you. Although, re-reading the letter, I wonder if the LW could be wrong. She says “I’m fairly sure Phoebe knows what’s happening” – but all the behavior she describes by Rachel is directed either at Monica herself or Monica’s other (I’m assuming lower-level than Phoebe) coworkers. If everybody is tiptoeing around because Rachel was the original victim, it’s possible that Phoebe doesn’t realize how far Rachel has taken this.

            Now if Phoebe has witnessed Rachel’s harassment of Monica and is still doing nothing, I agree with you 100% that she’s neglecting a major responsibility to manage her employees.

      2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        Yes, this is a very good point. This is a situation that needs active managing in one way or another.

        1. VroomVroom*

          And active notifying-of-manager! OP can’t assume manager is fully aware of this if OP hasn’t explicitly discussed it with Phoebe herself.

      3. ByLetters*

        This. As bad as the experience was for the ticklee — making someone feel this way in retribution, to the point that you are lashing out at individuals who are not associated at all with the event, is horrible. The last time this happened to me (a coworker had a vendetta against me, and approached a coworker threatening to get her fired if she continued to speak with me), I marched straight to HR where the words “hostile workplace environment” came up faster than “hello how are you.”

      4. LBK*

        In Phoebe’s defense I don’t think this is the kind of scenario most managers have had experience with; interpersonal conflict, particularly with physical contact involved, is pretty uncommon in a white collar office. If she hasn’t been a manager for a long time she could be struggling with how to handle a situation where emotions are running so high

        (I definitely didn’t handle it gracefully the first time I dealt with it – my attempt at resolution resulted in the two offending parties screaming at each other in Spanish so loudly that my GM overhead it from outside the office and had to step in. And I only note that they were screaming in Spanish because I don’t speak it, so it made it a lot harder to attempt to resolve an already messy situation because I didn’t even know what they were saying to each other.)

    2. Pebbles*

      Regardless of how I initially felt about “the situation”, I would have lost all sympathy for Rachel and ripped her a new one right then and there (unprofessional, I know). You do NOT get to tell me how to interact with others.

      1. LizB*

        The OP doesn’t give a lot of detail, but I think this incident could have been a great opening for them to talk to Rachel directly (although that is not easy to do in the moment, so no judgment from me for not doing so – I’m just Monday morning quarterbacking here). Something like, “Whoa! I have a ton of sympathy for you, but I’m not okay with how you’re treating me right now. You are welcome to be angry at Monica, but you can’t require me to have the same feelings, and it’s not okay to snap at me. [Optional sentence about “I’m not comfortable ostracizing someone who’s going to be working in our department for the foreseeable future, even though what she did was egregious, so I’m going to keep having a positive professional relationship with her.”]”

        1. Pebbles*

          +1 This would be the professional way to handle that opening. I like your wording, and I agree that this would not be easy to do in the moment.

      2. Temperance*

        I totally would not have done that with someone who apparently has anger issues and is currently on the warpath against a colleague. I’m not about to jump that grenade when, frankly, I would be peeved at Monica for doing something so juvenile and stupid.

        1. Pebbles*

          Oh, I agree that Monica’s actions were stupid, but they’ve been dealt with by management. And while my opinion of Monica would have been lessened by her actions, I can (and would) still feel empathy for her after watching Rachel relentlessly be vindictive against her. She’s already been disciplined. Bringing her to tears from days of harassment is just.not.nice.

          And someone focusing her anger on me because I SPOKE to someone she doesn’t like? I would not handle that well because that’s my reaction to middle school behavior in a workplace. (Again, not saying this is in any way a professional way to handle it. Go with LizB’s script above instead.)

    3. Lissa*

      Yeah. I had an interaction like this years ago and it was awful. My coworker, who I got along really well with, and most other people at our level *hated* one manager for, well, being really incompetent. They assumed she had horrible intentions, when honestly I think she just was pretty incapable. It didn’t help that she was dating the owner. So yeah, my coworkers hated her and I honestly never minded her as a person. One day I was working with her and chatting and laughing, and my coworker/work friend went off on me about it! It was so shocking and weird to me to get told off for being pleasant to somebody.

  11. Anna*

    I just did my required yearly training on harassment and bullying yesterday, so as soon as I saw the OP’s description of Rachel’s behavior, alarm bells went off. Rachel is bullying Monica and despite Monica having made a huge error in judgment, Rachel is now the one clearly in the wrong. OP, please don’t let Rachel bully YOU into not being cordial to Monica and please do bring it up with someone who is in a position to do something about it.

  12. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

    I’m concerned that the comments here are going to go the way of the bird-phobia thread; there are a lot of similarities (especially the company “siding” against the original victim).

    I agree with Alison, strongly disagree with “anon for this one” above. Tickling is not a no-second-change, you’re-gone-immediately offense and Rachel doesn’t get to dictate how the company responds. The suggestion to move desks is a good one, and Monica should apologize (if she hasn’t already done so), but other than that Rachel needs to pull herself together and be professional.

      1. AnonEMoose*

        By the way, I wanted to say thank you for being on it in situations like this. I know it isn’t easy, and I really appreciate your hard work in trying to keep the comments section reasonably cordial and on topic!

    1. Serafina*

      Exactly. Unlike the bird phobia episode, no lasting harm was done to the victim, AND the company reprimanded Monica and gave her a pretty strong warning. Also unlike the bird episode, this isn’t a situation where Rachel quit and refused to work with Monica – rather, Rachel is now launching a full-blown harassment campaign against Monica. Hello, hostile work environment!

      It’s at the point now where Rachel needs to be given the same dang warning as Monica – hell, maybe an even stronger one, because unlike Monica (albeit her behavior was seriously bad judgment), Rachel’s is unmistakably malicious.

      1. AD*

        Let’s not make comparisons between the two letters. They’re apples-to-oranges, and comparing a prank/joke gone wrong with a panicked/unintended reaction to a severe phobia (with underlying issues of mental health) just doesn’t sit right with me.

        1. Anna*

          I think there are enough similarities to warrant comparisons. The differences you described exist, but the situations can be discussed in a compare/contrast way.

          1. AD*

            No, not really. One situation led to serious injury, and the other led to…..shame? Humiliation? Annoyance?

            Neither the incidents themselves nor the results/aftermath are remotely similar.

    2. fposte*

      I think an important difference here is that there’s an original victim who has now turned the tables in ongoing victimization of her co-worker.

      1. the other Emily*

        There was a lot of victim blaming against Liz in the bird phobia letter and a lot of not so nice comments directed at her. Even though she didn’t do anything other than quit her job and refuse to come back.

        1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          It was also pretty unclear in the original letter whether Liz had only responded to the company’s ask about what she would need to come back, or whether she had proactively demanded that Jack be fired. This situation is more clear-cut.

        2. fposte*

          And that’s why I’m saying it’s different; Rachel is doing something significantly blameworthy here.

    1. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms*

      Seriously. I like to imagine that this is happening in the same office where people are wheeled away from the table during coffee breaks after they argued about how fresh the coffee should be….

      1. Beancounter Eric*

        Not to say that Rachel doesn’t have grounds to be miffed…do something similar to me, and you will likely be spitting out teeth…but Rachel needs to shift her complaint to HR now….they made their call, and she either needs to make a cogent argument to them in an appropriate manner, live with it, or go elsewhere.

        1. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms*

          Oh,agree 100%. I would be very upset. But then, I’d be upset if someone tried to intimidate me out of a spot in the break room too. But tickling is definitely day-care behavior.

        2. nonegiven*

          Yeah, my 20 years ago reflexes, I would have been able to break her hold, take her down with my legs, and be kicking her in 2 seconds or less. I like to think I would have come to my senses fast enough to not have kicked her more than twice, but I don’t know.

          Today I would be looking for someone to crawl under my desk for me, its too hard to get back up.

          1. nonegiven*

            If it was me that this had happened to, I can’t see chewing people out for talking to Monica but I’d be campaigning hard to move my desk so that my back was to the wall and I could see everyone in the room at all times.

    2. Kowalski! Options!*

      I swear, two to three times a week a letter like this will come up, and I end up feeling convinced that I have the most laid-back, normal work place on the planet.

      1. HisGirlFriday*

        Reading AAM has done wonders for helping me put in perspective my work place’s own idiosyncrasies and quirks.

        Don’t get me wrong, we’ve still got some ridiculous behavior, but nothing like what I see on here.

      2. Elizabeth West*

        I know–either with these letters, or when Alison asks for *worst* stories, I’m glad I don’t have any as bad as some of the stuff people post.

      3. KTB*

        Me three. My workplace is quirky as hell, and dysfunctional in its own way. That said, those quirks/dysfunctions are TAME compared to other people’s stories!

  13. AMPG*

    If the company is big enough, just moving Monica to a different department could go a long way towards fixing things. I agree that Rachel’s out of line, I agree that Monica should not necessarily have been fired if this was a first offense and she’s appropriately apologetic, but it still sounds like the relationship is broken beyond repair, so get them off the same team. Monica made the error, so she should be the one to transfer.

    1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

      Moving Monica to a new department is a huge thing, though. It’s not a simple solution; it’s a massive disruption to Monica’s career, and IMO it is way disproportionate to the crime.

      I don’t know if the relationship is beyond repair, but if it is that is not entirely on Monica. Monica behaved inappropriately and harmed her coworker. Rachel is also behaving inappropriately and harming her coworker (and others); she can choose to dial it back.

      That may be the fundamental difference between commenters who disagree with each other here (at least, I think it is for me): I believe that Monica can choose to maintain her professional relationship with Rachel, and therefore it is her obligation to do so.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Agreed. But I’d much prefer if Phoebe just stepped up and did her job. I suspect Rachel’s calculus about the wisdom of her bullying war would shift if she realized that she’s not exempted from discipline or professional expectations.

            1. JessaB*

              I really wonder if Phoebe had kept an eye on things post tickling episode, this would have been nipped in moment one. Phoebe is kind of not thrilling me with her visible level of management skills. In addition to reassuring Rachel, Phoebe should have been watching BOTH sides for potential retaliation.

      1. paul*

        I’d have moved her after the incident (honestly from OP’s description I’m not sure I wouldn’t have fired her) but at this point I’d spin them both off into other departments.

        1. Detective Amy Santiago*

          This was my thought too. I don’t approve of how Rachel is behaving right now, but I also don’t think it’s fair to expect her to work with someone who violated her personal boundaries that way.

          Also, did Monica apologize to Rachel? Did HR talk to Rachel after the incident to let her know that they understood her concerns and were going to take Steps X, Y, & Z to ensure this didn’t happen again? If all Rachel knows it that Monica got dragged off to HR and then was right back working like nothing ever happened, I can see why she would be so upset still.

        2. AMPG*

          Yeah, this is more what I was thinking – Monica should have been moved immediately before Rachel started her retribution campaign. If there are career repercussions for Monica, well, that’s a natural result of making poor choices. At this point though, you should probably move both if possible.

      2. Allison*

        Right. Seems like if someone an admin who serves a specific department, moving them might be relatively simple. But many people have department-specific jobs, skillsets, and careers. I work on an internal recruitment team, I could work in marketing or sales operations but it wouldn’t be an easy switch.

        Now, depending on the size of the company, how many products or accounts they may have, it could be possible to move one person from one team to another without a huge change in their career path.

    2. Ramona Flowers*

      Some positions don’t translate to other departments though, so this isn’t always an option.

    3. Sadsack*

      I agree with Victoria that transferring Monica is excessive and unfair. Monica was immediately dealt with by management. Why should her career be impacted by this one mistake? Besides, how do you know that Rachel won’t attempt to mess with Monica in her new department? Rachel needs to straighten up and act like an adult now. I think Monica has been punished enough.

      1. AMPG*

        Sometimes people make career-altering mistakes. I do understand not firing Monica on the spot, but this was such a huge lapse in judgment that I don’t see a problem with a career setback as a consequence.

      2. Falling Diphthong*

        Lots of careers get impacted by one mistake. Sometimes, not even the person’s own mistake, and they’re just caught in the blowback to someone else’s mistake.

        The only official consequence we or Rachel know about is that Monica got marched down to HR. Then she came back and things continued on just as they were before. (I do think Rachel is way out of line now. But ‘the manager said to break it up, and went off with Monica for a few minutes’ doesn’t strike me as the sort of consequence that makes things okay going forward for someone who got pinned down so she wouldn’t be able to fight off her ‘playful’ attacker.)

  14. JamToday*

    Jesus Christ. Tickling *hurts*. It is used as a *form of torture*. People don’t laugh while they’re being tickled because they enjoy it, they laugh because laughter is an autonomic response; it is uncontrollable. If someone had done that to me I would have kicked her square in the jaw. She’d have come away lucky that I didn’t knock her lights out.

    Since the company bizarrely doesn’t seem to think this is a fireable offense (would they fire someone who put a coworker in a hold and then punched them in the kidney?), Monica should leave, and then sue their pants off. Shut the entire operation down.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      There’s nothing here to sue over. I suppose you could try to press charges for assault, but that’s very unlikely to go anywhere, and there’s no civil issue to sue over.

      1. JamToday*

        If one of my coworkers grabbed me in the hallway and punched me, and the company took no action, I’m reasonably sure I could find an attorney who could gin up a case of hostile work environment or somesuch, local employment laws depending.

        1. fposte*

          Hostile work environment is a work environment that’s hostile for a reason forbidden by law. Unless you can prove that Monica tickled you because you’re white or female or disabled or whatever, it’s not a hostile work environment.

          And absent a solid course of action, you won’t get attorneys to take the case on the usual contingency; you’ll have to pay hourly instead, so you’d have to pay all the costs to somebody who thinks you’re not likely to win.

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          In addition to fposte’s explanation of why it’s not hostile workplace in the legal sense, punching tends to read differently than something that, as pointed out above, is often considered acceptable in social situations (wrongly acceptable in my opinion, fwiw). It’s also not true that the company took no action here; it sounds like Monica was nearly fired and is on a final warning.

        3. Drama Llama*

          The company HAS taken action though. Not firing Monica doesn’t mean they didn’t do anything. They took it seriously, and she was reprimanded and warned. There’s no case here.

          Also you can probably find a lawyer to bring a case for just about anything – that doesn’t mean the case has the slightest merit to it, or a chance in hell of succeeding. You’d be laughed out of the courtroom (if you even caught sight of one) and just end up paying a lot of money to that oh-so-helpful lawyer (cos they’re NOT taking this on contingency, I promise you!)

          1. Katie the Fed*

            This is what I’ve had to explain to employees before. Just because you’re not privy to disciplinary discussions, doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. We take things seriously, but you also aren’t entitled to the details of someone else’s disciplinary record.

            1. paul*

              How’s that go when the person is being disciplined for something they did to another person? I generally err on the side of butt out, but if a coworker did something nasty to me and I was just told to drop it without knowing the company actually *did* anything I’d be pissed.

              1. fposte*

                I think it’s a walkable line, though obviously it depends on the action. “Monica’s actions are being dealt with by management, it’s clear to her that this was a very bad mistake, and if there are any future instances we’d like to know immediately.” It doesn’t detail the nature of management’s actions but makes it clear we’re on it and that any hint of a pattern is a big deal.

              2. Katie the Fed*

                But you can say “the company has addressed it. I can’t go into details on disciplinary actions, but please trust me that this is taken very seriously.”

                1. JessaB*

                  This. There are ways of reassuring Rachel that I’m just not sure happened. When things like this occur good management makes sure to let the injured party know that they’re not being ignored, and they will be protected, even if the specific details are not their business. I don’t think this happened here. Again Phoebe may have dropped a bunch of balls.

            2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              But also, it sounds like Rachel (or at least others) are aware that Monica was disciplined. So her issue is really about being angry that Monica wasn’t fired; i.e., she wasn’t disciplined the way Rachel wanted her to be disciplined. I feel like employees misunderstand this point all the time. You get to be mad, you get to be upset. You don’t get to wage a bullying campaign just because your boss didn’t pick the form of discipline you wanted to see.

          2. Falling Diphthong*

            There’s actually nothing about consequences in the letter except:
            • Their manager broke up the fight, then marched Monica off for a bit
            • Monica then came back to work just as before
            • OP understands that Monica was warned not to do this again (sounds grapeviney)

            There’s nothing about Monica apologizing to Rachel, for example. From my third hand perspective, this seems pretty weak as an attempt to ensure things were workable going forward. Not that Rachel isn’t now miles out of line–she is. But we shouldn’t read in dire consequences and stern talkings to and tearful apologies–it seems possible that Rachel believes Monica was told Rachel has no sense of humor and that was it for her consequences.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              The letter says: “they allowed her to remain with the company, but told her she’d be dismissed if she put one toe out of line.”

              That’s actually a pretty serious consequence.

            2. Forrest*

              OP understands that Monica was warned not to do this again (sounds grapeviney)

              I’m not sure what you mean by this – do you think HR should hold a press conference about every disciplinary action?

        4. Decimus*

          The thing is, a lot of this stuff is determined by “facts not in evidence” here. History of past behavior, past work history, the precise events – stuff we weren’t there for and can’t know.

          Even punching could lead to a last-warning action. Hypothetical example – a male colleague goes to ask a female coworker a question. She’s standing in a supply closet, back to the door, and it’s after 6pm. He taps her on the shoulder, she gets scared and hits him. Firing offense? Maybe. Maybe not.

          Is it comparable to the tickling here? Not really. The company did take action – serious action, even if it didn’t lead to a firing. The real flaw here is the manager falling down on the job.

        5. Dan*

          It may not be right but your recourse would be to the police and the court (through a civil suit).

          It would be perfectly legal, though very bad policy and disastrous for morale, for a company to have an employee beat you senseless in the elevator and take no disciplinary action at all. In states that do not make crime victims a protected class (and I don’t think any do, except possibly some municipalities, and domestic violence victims in California if I recall), they could then fire you for bleeding on the floor. The lone and sole exception to this is if they were negligent in hiring someone, this is one reason that employers refuse to hire convicts, because they could be found to have negligently hired (and thus be liable for everything) if someone had a history of violence and they attacked you.

          TL:DR version: US workers really have almost no meaningful protection even where common sense would indicate they really ought to.

      2. Alton*

        Assault and battery can be a civil tort as well as a criminal charge, but Rachel would be unlikely to get much from it. This doesn’t sound like something that would be likely to incur punitive damages, and there’s no indication that Rachel has lost wages or incurred medical expenses as a result of this.

        1. MegaMoose, Esq*

          Yeah, this falls firmly into the category of things that technically might be a tort and a crime, but are never going to get prosecuted absent some really specific additional information we don’t have here.

      3. Aveline*

        There are at least two civil issues to sue over: the assault and the restraint.

        That doesn’t mean it’s smart to do so as there are no damages.

      4. Admin Assistant*

        I really, really hope you take a shot every time someone comments “THEY COULD SUE!” over some noncriminal workplace issue.

    2. imakethings*

      It wasn’t malicious, so I don’t see how putting someone in a hold and punching them in the kidney is comparable at all. This is a very extreme reaction.

      1. JamToday*

        I take it you’ve never been held down and tickled. I have, several times, by people who derive enjoyment from holding people immobile and torturing them. I don’t know now to characterize that other than “malicious”.

          1. JamToday*

            Monica literally held this woman immobile and tickled her. I think its a reasonable assumption that she did it because it was funny to her.

            1. Relly*

              I agree with you, but that does not necessarily equate to malice. She may have thought Rachel would laugh about it afterwards.

              1. fposte*

                Right, I know families where the bare/stockinged feet would have been pretty much asking for this, and where it’s just goofy in-group roughhousing.

                1. K.*

                  Exactly. When my brother and I were little, our mother used to run her finger up the soles of our feet if she saw that they were bare and she had access to them, and she’d go “Babinski!” (after the Babinski reflex test done on babies) It was a playful, loving gesture. I can think of a few different families that I used to babysit where the kids would play “let’s catch and tickle the babysitter.” I’m very ticklish (in Rachel’s place I’d probably have reflexively kicked Monica in the face, to be honest), but it doesn’t feel like pain or torture to me.

        1. LBK*

          This seems like projection of something that’s happened to you, so I wonder if maybe you have a particular bias that wouldn’t be reflected in how this kind of thing would usually be viewed or treated. You obviously have an intense dislike of tickling, but it’s wildly unlikely a court or anyone else are going to agree that it’s the same level of severity as punching someone, which is much more accepted as a form of assault.

        2. DArcy*

          I would argue that in an office context, just causal tickling would be inappropriate but possibly innocent behavior, but actively holding someone down in order to tickle them is prima facie evidence of malicious intent.

          I would consider it a far more overt violation than kicking someone under the table, to compare to a less controversial and also more comparable AAM post.

      2. WPH*

        I don’t think maliciousness should be the bar in the workplace though, there are tons of things that people do in the workplace that are inappropriate for the workplace but not malicious*. I’m sure over half the horrible things on this site (the pinching, the shoving into a car, the calling a daughter a whore, etc.) weren’t done maliciously but they were still incredibly inappropriate in the workplace and actionable.

        *I’m definitely not excusing Monica or Rachel what Monica did is just mindbogglingly, judgement questioning stupid and only not assault because we don’t traditionally consider tickling assault. And Rachel’s action while understandable (to me) are way over the top. This whole office could benefit from some sort of workplace development activity.

        1. Relly*

          Not the bar, but an important factor to consider when addressing the issue. Malicious intent is bad because it reveals that this person is in no way able to be part of a functional team. A mistake in judgment is just that, a mistake.

          1. WPH*

            I respectfully disagree.Some mistakes in judgement are severe enough to require sanction/punishment regardless of intent and do signify that a person may not be able to be part of a team. To this company, this mistake was worthy of action. Monica is on her last leg there. No, she wasn’t fired but one more incident and she will be. It may not be enough of a punishment for Rachel but that’s a different issue.

            This is not the case but mistakes in judgement can still get people hurt/maimed/killed regardless of intent and being able to say “I made a mistake” is not an excuse or exemption, to me.

            1. Relly*

              Just to be clear, I don’t mean that “it was a mistake” should be an exemption from firing. I mean what I said: intent should be a factor. Not the only factor. There are transgressions severe enough that a mistake merits firing, of course. There are also matters where the handling will differ based on the employee’s reasoning.

              I think we agree more than we disagree, actually? I was explaining why I think intent matters, but I didn’t mean it’s a cure-all.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          The issue isn’t what the company’s policy is. It’s that JamToday thinks this is torture and merits a lawsuit, which is why people are talking about things like intent (which matter in law, even if they should not matter in the same way for managing humans).

    3. Some sort of Management Consultant*

      Whoa! Sueing was definitelt not the first place my mind jumped to when reading this letter.

    4. The Wall of Creativity*

      Apart from the error at the end (Rachel should leave and sue, not Monica) I’m with you on this one. Rachel was trapped and tortured. Monica really did deserve to thumped. Unfortunately Phoebe spirited her away before that could happen.

      1. MegaMoose, Esq*

        This is not torture, and calling it such is really disrespectful both to people who have been tortured and the English language.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            In a totally different context. In other contexts, it’s widely acknowledged to be used as a playful, affectionate thing. I hate tickling, but we’re not analyzing the situation accurately if we refuse to acknowledge that.

            1. Emi.*

              Calling this torture is a little like claiming your coworker waterboarded you because they dunked you at a company pool party.

              1. Arpai*

                Or that you’re waterboarding a child if you pour water over their head to wash their hair.

              2. JHunz*

                Waterboarding is a torture method, dunking isn’t waterboarding. Tickling is tickling, whether it’s intentionally being used as a torture method or not. Completely false equivalence.

                1. fposte*

                  Cutting off somebody’s oxygen is a torture method. It’s also something that happens playfully when people get dunked. Tickling can be a torture method, but it hasn’t been widely used and doesn’t seem to be official policy anywhere; I am skeptical of any claim that this is the dominant use of tickling given its popularity between parents and kids.

        1. JamToday*

          Tickling is literally a form of torture, with documented cases and instances of death as a result (I’m guessing from asphyxiation).

          1. fposte*

            So is beating people, but that doesn’t mean that the person who kicked her co-worker under the table was torturing her. Amnesty International is not coming out for Rachel.

            1. JS*

              +1 This. I don’t see why people are ignoring context. Unless Monica managed to dip Rachel’s feet in salt water and find a goat that’s missing out of OPs post.

            2. Myrin*

              Exactly. The way some people seem to want to define “tortue” in this thread would mean that any form of violence is automatically torture which is simply not the case. Words have meanings, so let’s use them correctly.

          2. paul*

            Severity and duration matter. Sleep deprivation is used as torture, but having to work a “clopen” isn’t torture despite the fact it results in sleep deprivation.

          3. Aurion*

            Isolation is also a form of psychological torture, but I’m sure we don’t argue that every parent who send their kids to their rooms for a time-out is torturing their kids. The context matters.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Very much agreed. It does no good to anyone to take an incident and interpret it in the extreme. The extreme is not what happened here, and it’s not helpful to the discussion.

    5. Katie the Fed*

      OK, let’s slow the roll about the “torture” talk. This, while upsetting, was not torture.

  15. kapers*

    Management and HR missed their opportunity to nip Rachel’s reaction in the bud. They should have communicated to her how seriously they are taking this (because it is serious), what they will do to ensure it doesn’t happen again (because they are in charge of managing all employees an creating a safe workplace), and what the consequences will be if it does (because there ought not to be a “strike two” for this.)

    1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

      Agreed. Management is substantially to blame for the escalating drama here.

    2. ByLetters*

      This. Whatever people think about the Ticklee/Tickler in this case .. management here has SERIOUSLY fallen down to let things get to this point. One of my biggest lessons in the professional world was how much of a responsibility management truly has regarding the culture and culpability of employees. As frustrating as they sometimes seem, most people aren’t stupid — they wouldn’t do something if they knew they were going to face serious consequences. Managers should have intervened long before the tickler here ended up crying in the bathroom or the ticklee snarling at employees who extended courtesy to her.

  16. Midge*

    In addition to the conversation that Phoebe needs to have with Rachel, I think Phoebe needs to also make it clear to Monica that she owes Rachel a sincere, profuse, and maybe even public apology for what she did. It sounds like Monica has never tried to make amends for tickling Rachel. If I was Rachel, I would still be very upset. I would feel completely violated if a coworker held any part of me down and tickled me. So while the way Rachel is behaving is inappropriate, I get why she’s still so angry. Having an apology may help dispel some of the anger that is behind the unpleasant way she has started treating Monica. And really, it’s just the right thing to do.

    1. Here we go again*

      I think a public apology would make it worse. Rachel’s already felt violated once, and now the person doing the violation is making a big production of it? That sounds horrible to me!

      1. Natalie*

        Ugh, if I worked at this place I would not want to have to witness any kind of public apology. It doesn’t seem at all related to the offense, so the only purpose I can see is shaming.

    2. Roscoe*

      I’ll be honest, I’ve never really understood a workplace public apology. It seems more forced and insinncere. It also seems to do nothing but try to embarrass the person giving the apology.

      Even if you are still angry, you need to be able to not harass your co-worker.

      1. MegaMoose, Esq*

        I’m with you here – the only time I see a public apology making any sense is if the person is apologizing for something that somehow affected the entire workplace.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Yeah, in my experience workplace public apologies are designed to shame and humiliate. I hope Monica apologized to Rachel, already, but if not, she should. And Phoebe needs to get involved, which may require OP (or others) flagging how serious the issue has become. It’s possible that Phoebe can tell there’s a frostiness between the two but doesn’t realize the full extent of Monica’s anti-Rachel campaign.

      3. Sylvia*

        Agreed, particularly with your last sentence.

        Public apologies also put the person receiving the apology on the spot in a weird way.

    3. Caro in the UK*

      I agree. I think a large part of Rachel’s response stems from a feeling of humiliation, which is one of the hardest emotions to counter. An honest, sincere apology might mitigate some of that.

    4. Midge*

      Wow, I didn’t intend for it to shame Monica! The whole thing occurred in public, and Rachel’s campaign against Monica has been happening publicly. So my thought was that Monica publicly clearing the air may help smooth things over. Regardless of whether it happens in public or private, I still think that Monica owes Rachel a sincere apology for tickling her. And then Rachel owes Monica a sincere apology for the way she responded.

    5. Elizabeth West*

      Making people apologize, especially publicly, seems infantilizing to me. I worked at a place where someone was forced to do this after making a gentle joke at someone else’s expense by emailing the entire company. We all agreed that the forced company-wide apology was waaaaay out of line even though the offense (not as bad as what Monica did) legitimately upset a coworker. An apology to the offended coworker in private should have been fine.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Clarification: The apology was the email to the entire company, not the joke. The joke was said privately and someone tattled to a person in the department to which it referred. Who then tattled to management. This place was a veritable tattletale factory.

      2. Cassie*

        Forced public apologies are weird. In our regional ballet company, one of the teen dancers skipped out on rehearsal to attend something else (even after the director denied his request to miss). As his punishment, he had to read a written letter of apology to the rest of the company and he was replaced in one of the ballets.

        I get the company’s reasoning for wanting to punish him but the apology was pointless. Replacing him in one of the ballets was already punishment enough because it showed that the directors were serious. All we got from the apology was an awkward 5 minutes (that should have been spent rehearsing!).

        In this case, Monica should (have) apologized – if not on the spot, soon after the incident. But please don’t make it a public apology. That would just make it embarrassing for both of them. (Well, considering how vindictive Rachel is being, maybe she will want the public apology).

    6. JulieBulie*

      HELLZ YES, Midge. That’s what I’ve been thinking as I’ve scrolled through the comments. There needs to be an apology. (Maybe there was one, but it doesn’t sound like it.) A private one, not a public one. This is a workplace, not a daytime TV show.

      Unfortunately it may be way too late for that now.

      In no way do I approve of Rachel’s behavior, but if there was never any apology then at least I understand why she’s spewing venom all over the place.

      IF in fact there was an apology, then Rachel’s behavior is much harder for me to understand.

      1. JulieBulie*

        After reading Elizabeth West’s comments, I’ll add: the company shouldn’t have (had) to MAKE Monica apologize. I should hope that she would have (had) the good sense to do that on her own. But it wouldn’t have been a bad idea for HR to *suggest* that she apologize, because some people aren’t very smart about these things.

        At this point, however, Rachel owes Monica an apology as well.

    7. TootsNYC*

      I have been the person who owed her colleague a sincere apology. And my apology went a LONG way to healing things, because it was so very sincere. He could tell that emotionally, I “got it,” I understood thoroughly the damage I had done to him, and I was very remorseful.

      A public apology wouldn’t have been healing at all. The private, one-on-one conversation in which he was able to tell me exactly how horrible it had been for him was really helpful for him–he got to lay it out for me, and in a way, I think it helped him to “scold” me a little (he didn’t just scold me–it was far more explanatory).

      And he got to hear and see what an impact that had on me, and how I really understood the difficulty I had put him in.

      Our private conversation was “brokered” by the HR person, who did a masterful job.

  17. Yorick*

    I wish there wasn’t such a tendency to assume mental health diagnoses and past trauma when there isn’t any indication of that in the letter.

    1. Serafina*

      Amen to that. There’s no denying that tickling a coworker is incredibly inappropriate and Rachel may well have been freaked out and/or humiliated by it – a lot of people feel that way about being tickled. But lately there is a trend of people leaping to assumptions of some horrible traumatic history to explain away bullying and/or harassment.

      Heck, even if those things were true and the bully/harasser did have PTSD and/or mental illness that caused them to feel worse in reaction to some work incident, someone (I forget who) has said online, “A diagnosis is not a license to asshole.”

      Accommodation of a disability, mental condition, or PTSD should never extend to allowing workplace harassment or bullying.

      1. Marillenbaum*

        Thank you, Serafina. Tickling in the workplace is clearly inappropriate–I think even people who don’t mind being tickled in the context of an affectionate and respectful personal relationship can agree it’s not a workplace behavior–and I think we can acknowledge that Monica’s actions were wrong AND that Rachel crossed the line of acceptable response about five miles ago. I respect that there are all kinds of reasons someone might find what happened deeply upsetting, from past issues to simply really hating it, but none of that makes it okay to wage a campaign at this level. Be frosty with Monica if you like, as long as essential work is done and it remains professional. But snarling at other people for being nice to the person you reduced to tears? Nah, fam.

    2. Liane*

      It shouldn’t be happening at all on this site because Alison’s commenting rules forbid internet/armchair diagnosing.
      Plus it’s just wrong.

    3. Ramona Flowers*

      Indeed. Already posted above about this but it bears repeating: we don’t know Rachel’s history.

      I also don’t want to see this go the way of the bullying post where a lot of people seemed to be enjoying the schadenfraude.

    4. Amber Rose*

      No kidding. I have neither, and if someone tickled my feet like that I’d have been livid beyond belief.

      Most of my body is very ticklish, and like my mom, I have almost no control over my body while being tickled. Someone who grabs my feet unexpectedly is going to get kicked. I kicked my masseuse once. I have broken my husband’s nose. It’s involuntary (and it makes me feel bad about myself). Also if I hurt someone, it’s my fault in the Court of Public Opinion. I don’t want to deal with any of that.

      All of that said, I would never bully someone who tickled me. That’s out of bounds and childish. Icy Politeness is how adults do it.

      1. Business Cat*

        + 1,000 for Icy Politeness. I practice a slightly different shade of it that I called Aggressive Politeness.

        1. OhNo*

          I mostly use Aggressive Politeness with customers, and people I really can’t have second-guessing my professionalism. Icy Politeness can come across as rude or unfriendly if the ice-to-politeness ratio is off, so IME is best reserved for coworker situations like this one.

      2. Ramona Flowers*

        My husband is also incredibly incredibly ticklish. He just always has been.

      3. Manders*

        Oh yes, Icy Politeness is absolutely the way Rachel should have handled this. I’ve deployed it a few times and it can be more emotionally satisfying than shouting or gossiping. Plus, even faking politeness can help you stop picking at that emotional scab, and right now Rachel is taking every opportunity to repeat and relive the incident.

        1. Marillenbaum*

          It’s one of the best tricks I learned from my Bostonian aunties; Yankees have a knack for being perfectly polite and utterly unfriendly that, while different from the Southern “bless your heart” school of insults, is just as devastating when well-deployed.

          1. Manders*

            I learned it from my Bostonian mom! It is absolutely terrifying when deployed correctly, but still 100% within the bounds of professional behavior.

    5. Business Cat*

      This. Even assuming the Rachel in this scenario has some underlying trauma:
      1. Unless we are told otherwise, I think it’s safe to assume that Monica was completely unaware of the (assumed) trauma and wasn’t consciously antagonizing Rachel.
      2. Rachel is still accountable for her extreme and continued behavior towards Monica after the fact.

      I have a severe anxiety disorder. Pre-diagnosis and pre-therapy, I behaved unprofessionally when triggered. However, just because I had an anxiety disorder does not mean I wasn’t being unprofessional, and my managers would have been remiss in not calling out the behavior. Even people with disorders and trauma have to work on ways to cope in the office.

      1. Marillenbaum*

        Precisely. And I personally dislike the implication that people with past trauma and mental health diagnoses are not responsible for their actions or able to behave professionally when bad things happen. It may be harder in the moment, and it may require doing some extra work afterwards, but it is doable.

      2. paul*

        So much this.

        I don’t want to dredge up too many painful statistics, but a huge percentage of people (regardless of gender) have been sexually or physically assaulted. I think it’s something like one in four over the course of a lifetime and accounting for both sexual and simple physical assault. A large percentage of people (I see between 15 and 20% depending on source) will be diagnosed with a mental health issue at one point.

        That doesn’t give people carte blanche to react wildly inappropriately though. We can still have standards of behavior and hold people to them.

        I’ve been assaulted and I’ve been treated for anxiety and depression. That doesn’t mean I can behave badly without getting called on it or facing consequences for it.

        1. Dan*

          That is very true, however I think your statistics prove something else important. If you engage in inappropriate physical contact, there is a 25% chance that you are going to be dealing with a victim of abuse. That’s one reason this behavior is so wildly inappropriate that it really should warrant someone being marched out of the building under escort and told returning will be considered trespass, because there is a VERY high chance they just really hurt someone emotionally and a not-insignificant chance they could do real damage.

      3. Elizabeth West*

        Yes, this. When anxiety caused me problems at Exjob, of course I got in trouble for it. I did not question that element of discipline at all.

    6. Parenthetically*

      I agree that it’s often misplaced. I do think some of it is just an effort to say, “Hey, we have to take stuff like this seriously because you don’t know people’s histories.” It’s too bad that it often turns into what’s effectively armchair diagnosis, but I think there are times when it can be helpful to get people to realize that X behavior would be very non-innocuous to a person with Y trauma/situation/experience — I’m thinking of the woman who didn’t want to reveal her pregnancy but was getting sick from smelling her coworkers’ food, but I’m sure there are others.

    7. JS*

      I think its OK to mention the possibility of why someone would/could have an extreme “I cannot work with this person any more reaction”. However, it isn’t an excuse for bullying or conspiring or just treating someone like crap for something minor they did, was reprimanded, and apologized for.

      1. Lissa*

        IMO, it’s also not useful to bring up in context of whether or not Monica should be fired — unless Monica could anticipate that, and a lot of people can’t because as said above, tickling is (annoyingly) seen as acceptable, whether or not Rachel has personal history should not have bearing on what happens to Monica.

        I also wish people would stop assuming that because somebody else’s reaction isn’t as extreme as theirs that they must never have had something similar happen to them. Not always true, and it can be a painful assumption. “You don’t react how I think you should so what happened to you wasn’t real” is not a great thing to hear.

        1. JS*

          Saying you can’t work with someone doesn’t mean they get fired, it can be either they or you are transferred teams or departments or maybe even you decide to leave. Rachel is within her right to feel she can’t work with Monica and want to see if she can switch teams/jobs. Monica getting fired isn’t the context here, Rachel’s feelings and choices are.

    8. Tau*

      I didn’t read the comments about mental health as people assuming that Rachel had that sort of past, just pointing out that tickling can be a very serious thing for any number of reasons. I get the impulse – I am another “for the love of God don’t tickle me” person (Asperger’s-related tactile sensitivities which means I may end up applying sandpaper to get the lingering sensation to go away), and it’s astonishing how much tickling and potential bad reactions to it get minimised by a lot of people. From that perspective, a preemptive “just so you know tickling can be a very big deal” makes sense.

      That said, by now I think the point’s been pretty thoroughly made…!

    9. Just Another Techie*

      I think it stems from commenters trying to put themselves in the shoes of the people written about in the OP, and many of us have mental health diagnoses and past trauma. Also, most of the comments suggesting this offer it as a *possibility* and are quite careful to say that *might* be an explanation. I know mine did. I said “the most charitable possible interpretation” implying there are plenty of other interpretations.

      But honestly, 18% of Americans have a mental illness diagnoses at some point in their lives (
      And depending on what study you look at, anywhere from 1 in 6 to 1 in 3 women have experienced sexual assault or attempted assault in their lives. Yes, it’s a minority, but a pretty honking large minority. So it’s not entirely unreasonable to speculate that there could potentially be something like that going on, and (IMO) it’s very valid indeed to point out to people (Letter writers and other commenters) that hey, you can never know if a coworker of yours has trauma or mental illness, and it costs you nothing to respect boundaries and be kind just in case.

    10. LBK*

      Agreed. I think if Monica had been the one who wrote in, it would be different since it might provide something to think about in terms of touching another person like this or might help explain Rachel’s reaction if she were confused, but this kind of “what if?” is completely oblique to the OP’s role in the situation. We don’t need to guess at how severely this would make Rachel react because it already happened and we already know how she’s reacting, and that’s what needs to be dealt with.

      This seems to fall into the “not everyone can eat sandwiches” vein of unhelpful hypotheticals.

    11. Tempest*

      Yeah, I hate to be touched. My husband is the only one who doesn’t make me feel skin crawly doing it. I love my mother to bits and I could count on one hand the number of times grown up us have hugged as we’re not touchy people. But I have no abuse or trauma in my past that makes me that way. I just am. So yes, I would hate to be touched and tickled by a coworker, but it isn’t because of a past assault or abuse. Rachel might just feel that arse up under the desk trying to plug something back in was a very undignified position to be in in the first place and then to be held there against her will and touched against her will made her feel silly and took her agency away in the situation. It might not be triggering her to any sort of past event.

    12. aebhel*

      I don’t really see anyone making that assumption; some of us have mentioned that we have out own trauma associated with tickling, but Rachel is way out of line even if she’s reacting that way because of trauma.

    13. Temperance*

      FWIW, I actually think that the commenting section is doing so in an effort to be empathetic. If this post went up elsewhere, Rachel would have just been called unreasonable and worse for “not taking a joke”.

    14. TrainerGirl*

      I think that sometimes folks want to let someone off the hook for their bad behavior. Ascribing a traumatic backstory to Rachel helps to mitigate her bad behavior after the incident.

  18. Katie*

    On a lighter note…if you’re going to use Friends for the pseudonyms, how did Phoebe get to be the manager?

    1. Isben Takes Tea*

      There’s the alternate history episodes where she’s an investment banker :-)

    2. Bork*

      Not going to lie…I thought the same. In this case Phoebe would definitely be the tickler, Monica shoeless under the desk, and Rachel the manager.

    3. Heather*

      She did have to grab Monica & Rachel by the ears to get them to quit fighting over Jean-Claude Van Damme, so she has a history of breaking up fights between those two ;)

    4. Dweali*

      A dark humor type of lighter note….everyone is talking about reflexively kicking a tickler in a face…farting on them would be more satisfying I think…I mean teeth can be fixed, broken bones and bruised eyes heal but eating another persons fart? That’s a memory that lasts forever….

      *I agree with Allison’s advice and the similar responses so I don’t have anything to add on the serious front…but as I read these comments that was just what kept popping into my head

  19. AnonEMoose*

    If Monica has never done anything remotely similar, I agree that a firm reprimand and discussion of workplace boundaries was appropriate. It sounds like this is what happened.

    In Rachel’s position, it would probably take me awhile to be ok with Monica again, and I think that’s understandable. I’d be uncomfortable, and would want to be sure Monica really understood that this wasn’t ok and should never be repeated. But Rachel is going way overboard and is now bullying Monica. Personally, I’d advise Monica to be looking for another job (if she isn’t already), because no matter what is said to Rachel, I think Rachel has managed to make the workplace so uncomfortable that I don’t see a way for Monica to really recover from this.

    I also think that saying something to Phoebe is necessary. Hopefully she’ll step up. In the meantime, would you be comfortable saying something directly to Rachel? The next time she brings it up, or is nasty to Monica, or to you for being friendly/polite to Monica, maybe take her aside and say something like “Rachel, I’d have been upset by what happened, too. I want to mention, though, that what you just said to/about Monica really made me uncomfortable. I need to work with both of you.” Or something like that. Maybe someone else can come up with better wording. But as you do have to work with both of them, I think you could say something, peer to peer.

    1. SignalLost*

      But encouraging Monica to look for a new job is tacitly and overtly condoning Rachel’s behaviour, which is currently what needs to be changed. If Rachel can get away with this, what happens the next time someone makes her angry? Monica CAN actually recover from the harassment campaign if Phoebe starts actually managing people.

      1. Allypopx*

        Agreed. I don’t think Monica is likely to do this again, she’s suffered pretty severe consequences. If anything I’d be encouraging Rachel to look for a new job if she can’t emotionally handle being around Monica, because her options are a) find a way to deal with it or b) extract herself from the situation. Option c) sticking around but heading a hate campaign cannot be tolerated.

        1. JS*

          Yeah I would also be encouraging Rachel to find a new job because this method of “coworker X offended me, they must go” is dangerous. I wouldn’t EVER want to see Rachel in a management position or one of authority. That kind of pettiness is something you see in grade school not an adult environment.

          1. Annonymouse*

            Oh my god
            I just got a flashback to the employee who came up with a good plan and wanted her manager fired once the higher manager went with her plan.

            Yeah that’s the level of petty I’m seeing here.

      2. AnonEMoose*

        Those are good points. I think I meant it more as, if Monica came to me for advice, I might tell her “You goofed, I know you know that. We’ve all goofed, big, at some point or another. What Rachel is doing is way, WAY not ok. She’s bullying you, now, and I want you to know that I’ve mentioned this to Phoebe. But we both know that Phoebe is pretty hands off. Up to you, but it might be worth considering if, for your own mental/emotional health, you want to start looking. But if you want to stick around and try to ride this out, I’m here if you want to talk.” (Now, that’s what I’d do – what the OP chooses to do may be different!)

        Not because Rachel is right – she’s not. But because, in my experience, workplaces are less interested in being fair than they are in just getting the work done, and Monica might be better off somewhere else. This place might or might not be an exception. And Monica might, in the long run, be better off with a clean slate somewhere else. It’s not fair, and it’s not right, but sometimes it’s what’s real.

        If Rachel came to me for advice, I’d probably say something like “I get that you’re super upset about the tickling. I wouldn’t have been happy about it, either. But maybe it’s time you let up on Monica? She got taken off to HR, and we all know she was told this was her last chance.” With, depending, maybe something like “It’s been really hard/uncomfortable watching the way you’ve been treating Monica.”

      3. paul*

        I’d argue being on a last legs warning is already encouraging someone to look for a new job though, at least in effect.

        1. SignalLost*

          Right, but that’s different from OP and/or Phoebe telling Monica she needs a new job. And if Monica has never racked up a warning before, this may clear with no issues. (In my experience, warnings have end dates.)

  20. Yep, me again*

    I can identify with Monica. Ever since I got in the door, the rep I support has been trying to get me out of it. Worse still, our manager is Phoebe!


  21. Ramona Flowers*

    For reasons not dissimilar to ones others have shared, I would have freaked out in this situation and quite possibly kicked Monica in the face in a panic.

    However, having the moral high ground to start with does not give you carte blanche to mistreat someone else. That loses you the moral high ground.

  22. Celeste*

    I wonder if Monica has apologized to Rachel. That seems like an important part of going forward.

  23. Susie*

    Wow. This place sounds like a daycare, Rachel and Monica sound like children and Phoebe sounds like the teacher or daycare worker. Rachel was wronged but they are both acting like little kids.

  24. The Principal of the Thing*

    Yiiiiikes. Like a lot of other commenters, tickling has a highly negative connotation for me, which makes me wonder whether offering some sort of counselling, such as the use of the company EAP (if you have one) would benefit Rachel as well. It could help her work through what are obviously some pretty strong feelings about the incident.

    I also think bringing in a mediator would be an effective response to that rise in hostility.

    1. Jessie the First (or second)*

      In my experience, mediation does not work when there is active hostility. I’ve been involved in mediations (in professional capacity) and it isn’t therapy, it is meant to solve a problem and find common ground. There isn’t a goal in this dynamic that would be appropriate for mediation.

      1. Dan*


        mediation works to find a middle point, it’s not a good option when one of the positions is totally non-negotiable. “you need to not start petition campaigns to ‘force’ your manager to fire co-workers,” and “you need to not browbeat people for daring to be nice to someone you dislike,” are not negotiable positions.

  25. Allypopx*

    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.

    This is 100% of the issue to me. People are going to react to things disproportionately to things sometimes but it’s a manager’s job to enforce professional standards and make sure personal dramas like this don’t bleed over and impact other staff members or operations, which clearly this is. Phoebe has to address this with Rachel, she can’t put her fingers in her ears and pretend it isn’t happening.

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      Agreed. The more I think about this, the more I want to come down on Phoebe for not stepping in and nipping Rachel’s behavior in the bud. Not to minimize Rachel’s responsibility for her own behavior, but Phoebe is a step up the ladder and that means that Rachel’s workplace shenanigans are her responsibility to deal with. Hands-off doesn’t cut it here.

      1. Allypopx*

        Exactly. Rachel’s responsible for her own behavior but Phoebe is responsible for the culture of the workplace and this is gross neglect of that responsibility.

  26. MuseumChick*

    Ok, can we just send a memo out to the world: Do NOT touch your co-workers. Ever. Unless they are chocking and you know CPR.

      1. MuseumChick*

        Yes, you are correct! Lol, yeah, if someone’s life is in danger and you have the training to help them, go for it. If not, keep your hands to yourself!

        1. Chinook*

          Actually, our Red Cross training was that you can offer help if someone is in danger but you require their consent unless they are unconscious or otherwise incapable of giving consent. So, if you are choking but refuse to let me touch you, all I can do is watch you (and call 911) until you pass out.

      2. Emi.*

        When I last trained, the Red Cross had a protocol they called “CPR for an unconscious choking victim.” Has that changed?

        1. Natalie*

          It looks like it. I was thinking of the times I’ve choked on something but been conscious – I would definitely not want someone trying to give me CPR! But unconscious is a totally different deal. Although if the airway is blocked I’m not sure how CPR is going to be effective.

          Anyway, not the point of the letter.

  27. DecorativeCacti*

    I once had a coworker sneak up behind me and pull my ponytail. I didn’t say anything at the time (I was a receptionist and there were people in the lobby) but I can’t hide what I’m thinking very well. They got the picture. I can’t imagine someone holding me down and tickling me.

    1. Rikki Tikki Tarantula*

      A coworker once sneaked up behind me and tucked my shirt tag in. I let out an involuntary shriek. Seriously people, it’s a tag. Leave it alone.

      1. Whats In A Name*

        Yes, I don’t know why people do this. If I notice a tag out I say “your tag is out”. It’s pretty simple, really.

        1. DecorativeCacti*

          Surprise touches (especially on the back of your neck) are the worst. I have a tattoo on my back that sometimes peaks out of my shirt. I would need at least three hands to count the number of strangers who came up behind me and pulled down my shirt to see the whole thing.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I think people sometimes apply the golden rule instead of the platinum rule. They think “oh, I’d want someone to fix it for me if they saw it,” instead of, “does this person want me to just fix it?” I find, in general, it helps to ask for consent/permission before invading a coworker’s physical space, even to do them a “favor” like tucking their tag back in.

        1. Anna*

          I’m trying to imagine what would have happened if I had tried to wipe the booger away from a coworker’s nose instead of subtly letting her know…No good things, I imagine.

          1. Creag an Tuire*

            Hell, my toddler doesn’t even like it when I wipe the booger from her nose.

      3. Papyrus*

        Ha, just as I was reading this, I felt the back of my own shirt and sure enough, my tag was sticking out. Thanks for possibly preventing the same thing from happening to me!

      4. K.*

        A former coworker once told me that my back pockets were inside out and then moved to fix it. I turned around so she couldn’t reach and said “So you’re just going to grab my butt?” She dropped her hands immediately. I think she was responding instinctively but needed to hear what she was actually doing in so many words.

  28. Katie the Fed*

    Yep. This is where you say “Rachel, HR has spoke to Monica and there won’t be any further incidents. She has been instructed to never touch you again, but they also are not going to fire her at this point. I know you have strong feelings about it, but the decision has been made and I need you to act professionally in your interactions with Monica and the rest of the team regarding her. Is that something you’re able to do?”

    1. fposte*

      I would also explicitly note the harassing of co-workers for their contact with Monica in there and make clear that this is a behavior that puts her own job in danger.

    2. General Ginger*

      Agreed. Phoebe really needs to step in and do this. I wonder if Phoebe actually knows the extent of what’s going on right now, since the OP says Phoebe is usually pretty hands-off.

    3. New Bee*

      Agreed; Phoebe needs to call Rachel’s bluff. She might ultimately need to use language Alison has suggested before when an employee repeatedly threatens to quit: “OK, if that’s your decision let’s talk about your transition.”

      If Rachel has been a rational person up until this point, I could see her behavior stemming from outside opinions (friends, family, etc.). That doesn’t excuse her behavior, but being directly called to make a decision about whether she wants to stay in the job may snap her out of this drama.

      1. Katie the Fed*

        This is true. My mom is an expert on Things That Should Be Sued Over in the Workplace.

    4. mreasy*

      What if Rachel is trying to get fired so she can sue her workplace? I recognize that is an insane theory but WHAT If.

      1. fposte*

        Then she’ll learn that was a bad decision when she either finds out there’s no case or pays hourly fees to a lawyer who doesn’t believe she’ll win but is willing to take her money.

    5. Not So NewReader*

      Rachel has found a way to usurp the bosses’ authority. She does not like management’s decision therefore her plan is to throw the place into chaos to undermine management.
      If I were Phoebe I would be on this one in NO time. Phoebe needs to say, “This is the way it is.”
      We don’t get to pick what management chooses for “punishment”. I remember a coworker picked up a light but large object and raised it into the air as if preparing to strike me. I reported it. My boss said, “Yeah, okay.” A week or so later another coworker made a similar report about the same person. There were no further occurrences. I assume the offending coworker was given a chat because after the second occurrence I was told to report any further problems.
      I was not real happy with management’s decision here. But there was nothing I was going to do to change the decision. I needed a job. So I gave the offending coworker a wide berth as often as possible. Eventually this coworker left. I just concluded that this was one story in a long line of stories that proved I needed to move on.

      OP, it could be that your workplace enjoys upset. There has to be something going on most of the time. Only you would know if this fits your place. But it is something to be aware of and keep an eye on.

  29. Case of the Mondays*

    I think part of the reason these issues keep coming up is due to some of the false intimacy a work environment creates. You start to have “work friends” that are people you are essentially forced to talk to every day. But, they aren’t your real friends. Because it looks like a real friendship, superficially, you start to forget some of your boundaries. You treat them like you would treat your real friends, forgetting that they are at the end of the day, your colleague.

    1. Jessesgirl72*

      The “informal, relaxed” work environment often leads to these kinds of things, especially. There is so often someone who takes relaxed rules as no rules and crosses a serious line. When there are other lines to cross before you get to the OMG one, it can create some natural stop gaps.

      Obviously problems are created by going too far the other way too- different problems- but there really needs to be some kind of happy medium.

      1. k*

        It sounds like this company could benefit from some sort of group training, presentation, or a least a firmly worded memo about what is and isn’t appropriate in the workplace. Something to remind everyone that just because it’s a casual workplace doesn’t mean it still isn’t a workplace.

        1. BethRA*

          Eh, I don’t know – unless boundary-crossing is a more regular occurrence, I’m not sure the entire office needs to be spoken to about what’s workplace appropriate. I think those kinds of general warnings just annoy the people they don’t apply to, and fly over the heads of the people to do apply to.

      2. AMPG*

        I think this is a really good point. And as someone else pointed out, it seems to be working both ways – Rachel responded to Monica’s unprofessionalism with her own brand of unprofessionalism.

      3. GreyjoyGardens*

        I agree: I think boundary violations *can* be an unintended consequence of a “casual, informal” work environment. Ideally, internship mentors and college professors can make it clear (if parents and family don’t, and many times they don’t!) what are appropriate workplace boundaries, and how these differ from school environments. And that supervisors who insist on workplace manners and boundaries aren’t being big meanies!

        In this particular case, I think that poor management is contributing to the fustercluck. If a manager has poor boundaries themselves, or if they are just hands-off, things can get out of hand like they seem to have here.

        1. Yorick*

          College professors don’t usually have much opportunity to teach students about this kind of workplace cultural norm. Things like being punctual and whatnot, but not how to be friendly with coworkers while maintaining appropriate boundaries.

    2. Manders*

      Well said. I made the mistake of thinking I could mix work friends with a real friendship once. Never again.

      A healthy friendship always comes with the possibility of walking away temporarily or permanently. You’re friends with someone because you enjoy their company enough to seek it out, not because you’re stuck with them. At work, you *are* stuck with people and you don’t have the luxury of a cooling off period or a gradual drifting apart when feelings get hurt.

      1. Anna*

        I don’t think it has to be a hard and fast rule, but I’m definitely okay with not being buddy-buddy with my work people. I like them all and I go to happy hour once in awhile with them, but we are not hang-out-after-work-or-on-the-weekend friends.

    3. fposte*

      Though those of us who do have real friends at work are capable of differentiating, too. Experience helps a lot there, though, and my impression is that these people may not have so much of it.

  30. CatCat*

    I agree with Alison’s advice. I’d add that if Rachel has been a good employee, Phoebe should also offer to provide her a positive work reference if she does not feel like she can continue working with Monica and decides to move on. While Rachel is there, she does need to be professional and civil to Monica, but it looks like Rachel has, for reasons we do not know and are probably not relevant, had an extreme reaction and feels furious and humiliated, which all seems to be clouding her judgment.

    Since the company has decided Monica is worth keeping, it does have to put firm boundaries an Rachel’s behavior. Rachel may decide the company is not worth keeping because of this and the company can ease such an exit by providing a positive review of her work (if her work has been good, that is.)

  31. Michelle*

    Is it possible that Phoebe is not aware of Rachel’s actions towards Monica? If not, someone should clue her in. Just basic facts and ask (suggest?) she speak with Rachel.

    I have to say that if I had been Rachel, I would be kicking or attempting to kick as soon as this situation started. I would probably have been kicking even after Monica let me go and that may have resulted in an unfortunate kick in the face for Monica. If Monica had been injured in this incident, would that have resulted in any disciplinary actions toward Rachel? I don’t think it should, but sometimes companies have a policy where everyone gets disciplined even if they were defending themselves.

  32. Anon today....and tomorrow*

    I think everyone, at some point in life, has been Monica. Most of us have done it in middle school – that joke you thought was so funny was also the one that your friend got hurt the most by – and have learned our lessons there. Monica either never learned her lesson in middle school or never did the dumb thing then. She definitely did a dumb thing as most people don’t enjoy being tickled or being touched by people they haven’t first given permission to. Monica did a dumb thing and it looks like Phoebe got involved enough to have HR get involved and make sure that Monica knows that dumb things aren’t okay.

    Rachel knows that Monica was told that dumb things aren’t okay and that Monica’s job now rests on the fact that she doesn’t do any dumb things going forward. I understand that Rachel is upset. I would be too, but Rachel is now acting like a bully. She’s trying to ostracize Monica from other co-workers, insisting that co-workers take her side or she gets angry and snarls at them, throwing up the “incident” at every opportunity. These are all things that are as not okay in the workplace as tickling or touching without permission.

    Phoebe needs to get involved. She needs to stop being flaky about this and set an example by telling Rachel that this workplace bullying is not okay and that if it continues she runs the risk of heading to HR for a chat. It’s not okay to the rest of the team (Ross, Joey, Chandler, Gunther, etc) that they’re being put in a position that they feel like they have to choose between Monica and Rachel. Phoebe is the boss and needs to settle this.

    1. Heather*

      Well,you know Gunther’s going to take Rachel’s side…

      Sorry, couldn’t resist :)

    2. Lissa*

      Yeeees. I have the “dumb thing” I did replaying in my head over and over now, and no I am not typing it here! Remembering it is bad enough. :)

      1. Anon today....and tomorrow*

        My dumb thing was done over 20 years ago and I still get so upset at myself that I didn’t know better.

    3. Mobuy*

      This is a good point. I think we have all done something that we COULD have been fired for, if our boss decided to go that way. As a waitress, I confess I sometimes didn’t offer a dessert beverage. I’ve done other things too, that I didn’t get fired for, but another person has at some point. (Except I don’t care about the dessert beverage. In Utah, we just don’t do that much coffee and people don’t really get a milk after their meal. Whatever, it was a stupid rule.)

      1. Creag an Tuire*

        “We’ve all done terrible things. Sometimes, I neglected to offer a dessert beverage,” just seems like such a Utah thing to say. :)

    4. BeautifulVoid*

      Agreed. For a lot, if not most, of the transgressions written about in letters here (recently, inadvertently calling the boss’s daughter a whore, joking about 9/11), my reaction is “Wow! I would NEVER do such a thing! I can’t even imagine!” This one…yeah, unfortunately I could maaaaybe see myself doing something similar as a stupid joke that backfired spectacularly. I don’t think I would have gone so far as to hold Rachel down, but if I was friendly with Rachel and saw her exposed feet, I might have leaned over and taken a swipe at them. Or yelled something loud and dumb like “I SEE SOMEONE’S TOESIES!!!”

      Note: I am in no way excusing what Monica did, or trying to lessen what she did, or saying it wasn’t so bad, etc. It was a dumb thing to do, and she did show poor judgment, and I think her punishment was appropriate. Just that for me, it’s a lot easier to put myself in her shoes than a lot of other people we see letters about.

  33. CBH*

    I’m not minimizing this situation at all. It seems as though Monica is truly sorry for her actions and learned a lesson. What Monica thought of as a practical joke with a friend was taken the wrong way (rightfully so Rachel should have been upset).

    Rachel seems to be going way overboard in the aftermath. Does anyone think there might be something else going on? Rachel is taking a personal frustration out on Monica.

    I agree with everything Allison said. But looking at this from another angle, Rachel’s response just seems overboard… I mean if there was (for Rachel) a previous phobia or abuse, if the group is as close as OP’s letter indicates, if the group has been working together for so long… don’t you think Monica would of had an inkling (even if not knowing Rachel’s whole story) that this was not appropriate and not have held Rachel’s feet in the first place?

    1. Kyrielle*

      Not necessarily. I’ve worked in a close, tight-knit group in the past. I didn’t disclose all my traumas and issues, when I didn’t think they’d affect the workplace or those sort-of friendships. It’s still work, and conversations still generally stuck to positive things.

      1. CBH*

        I agree with you Kyrielle. I’m not too personal with my coworkers.

        To me OP’s post seemed like a joke gone wrong between two friends. I interpreted that the group was closer than just sharing positive experiences. I do believe Monica acted badly but learned a valuable work lesson. I’m not minimizing anyone’s experiences, phobias, traumas or fears, it just seems like Rachel is on a warpath. After the HR talk, I would imagine things would be “cool” but maintain a professional acquaintance between the two coworkers. I don’t doubt Rachel’s feelings and humiliation, but to me it just seems like she went overboard afterwards. I feel like as a whole the group cares for one another, even if from afar… I would think this would be looked at as a stern talking too, a big mistake, let’s move on.

      2. aebhel*

        Same. I’d have a disproportionate reaction to someone restraining and tickling me like that, and I’m sure my coworkers have no idea, because I’ve never brought it up? Why on earth would I? Tickling is not something that should be happening in the context of a professional relationship anyway, and I’m not comfortable bringing up my personal traumas with coworkers, even the ones I like.

        1. CBH*

          Agreed. If I were in the situation, I’d be ticked off at Monica, but I don’t think I would react the way Rachel is. That’s why I think there is more to the story or something else going on in Rachel’s life that she is taking her frustrations out on Monica. I total agree with Kyrielle and Aebhel that Monica’s actions are not appropriate, and a personal fear should not be obligated to be told to a coworker.

      3. JB (not in Houston)*

        Yep. I consider myself pretty close with several of my coworkers, but I don’t share because there are some things I don’t want to disclose to a coworker, even if they are my friends. I like to have somethings stay in the boundary between work and personal life. If we stay friends after one of us leaves the job, they might hear more of that kind of thing for me.

  34. Aceso Under Glass*

    I realize kicking can be a physiological response to tickling, but I think if you have to do [bad/unprofessional/threatening thing] to avoid getting kicked in the face in response to a thing that is supposed to be fun, maybe just don’t do that thing.

    Actually I think the ideal response here would have been for Rachel to get in a hit while she could claim it was reflexive. The immobilization sounds like as big if not a bigger part of the problem than tickling, and what she’s doing now could easily be an attempt to get back the power that was taken from her.

    1. Teclatrans*

      Yes. I have been skimming to find a comment that centers this. Rachel was *physically immobilized by Monica* (which she was able to accomplish because of Monica’s position) and entirely unable to evade, fight back, anything. *shudder*

      I don’t enjoy being tickled, and if someone had run over to tickle my feet while I was in a vulnerability position, I would have been livid. It would feel like such a physical boundary violation; I would be angry, and would probably lose all trust in that person.

      If somebody runs over, *physically immobilizes* me while I am ass-up and my torso is trapped in order to tickle me? That is exponentially worse. It would take me a very long time to come down to just angry and a loss of trust.

      If Monica wanted to tickle (inadvisably), she could have reached out and done a quick skritch, then run away. (This would have been dumb, and wrong.) What she wanted to do was the bullying type of tickling (described by other readers) perpetrated on younger, smaller, weaker siblings. While tickling is (for better or worse) generally considered friendly by our society, physical immobilization of the tickle target is a lot less common, at least outside of sibling relationships.

      My one bit of speculation today is that Monica is either the older or the younger sibling in such a dynamic, and is sharply attuned to opportunities to pin-and-tickle. Or, hell, maybe such an approach was encouraged in her household, and she has a sibling situation where each participant sometimes had the upper-hand.

      (All that said, Rachel’s campaign is inappropriate, and she should try to negotiate a transfer or severance package if she can’t bear to work with Monica. It sucks that she has to reap consequences as the victim, but using middle-school tactics to try to force Monica out — even if the only power she has to hand — involved bullying, which cannot be allowed in the workplace.)

    2. Saucy Minx*

      Yes, I too noticed that Monica’s playful spontaneity did not preclude her taking precautions against natural consequences to herself.

      If she had just reached out in the moment & scritched a fingernail along Rachel’s arch, it would have seemed more like a thoughtless reaction to a nearby bare foot than what Monica actually did. It still might have caused Rachel to hit her head on the desk while trying to escape, feel humiliated due to being in an awkward position, & harbor a grudge against Monica for playing the fool & including her willy-nilly in the foolishness.

      Instead Monica actually put thought & effort into immobilizing Rachel so that she, Monica, could have fun at Rachel’s expense, & I’m not surprised that Rachel feels resentment. It does seem that Monica has not apologized, or much of this reaction would have been nipped in the bud — at least, I should hope so.

      1. Natalie*

        I’m not sure how we would know whether or not Monica apologized – the letter writer is not their mutual manager and presumably wouldn’t be privy to that. And I wouldn’t take Rachel’s behavior as any sort of evidence since she would be out of line whether or not Monica apologized.

    3. JulieBulie*

      Externally, I am shocked, shocked! that you would suggest this.

      Internally, I totally agree. I wish Rachel would have smacked Monica. Maybe then they would both have been fired, or maybe not, but I bet that would have made it a lot easier for everyone else to deal with afterwards.

  35. Seal*

    Three takeaways here:
    1. Don’t touch your coworkers for any reason, especially if they’re in a vulnerable position, regardless of how tempting it may be.
    2. If you violate rule #1, either intentionally or otherwise, and the person being touched gets upset, apologize profusely and sincerely. If you can’t do that in the moment for whatever reason, do so later when things have calmed down. (Not sure from the letter if Monica did that to Rachel)
    3. If you are the victim of unwanted touching, have made your displeasure known, and the company has taken immediate action (in this case, it sounds like they did) that you don’t agree with, take it up with the company. It’s fine to distance yourself from someone you don’t feel comfortable being around, but actively trying to make them miserable or otherwise bullying them into leave does not bolster your case in any way.

  36. ann perkins*

    It is astounding to me that professional adults feel it is okay to bully other professional adults. As many have mentioned, Rachel is entitled to her feelings. But if she feels that she can no longer work with Monica, she should leave, not bully Monica to the point where she thinks she needs to leave. I have been bullied before and it sucks. And my mistake was just making mistakes that humans make, had nothing to do with physical contact, and I was bullied almost daily by one person, and it sucks, especially when no one intervenes on your behalf. It sounds like HR properly managed the situation with Monica, now they need to do the same with Rachel.

  37. Lynly*

    HR manager in fortune 500 company. Good lord. People do such stupid things at work. There’s really only one right answer here and Allison has given it. In my company, Monica would be placed on permanent written warning — not fired — which would mean that any other performance/behavioral issues of any kind and she’d be out the door. Sounds like that’s pretty much the message Monica has been given by Phoebe and HR in his situation. As Allison noted, the focus now needs to turn to Rachel, and this is where Phoebe is falling down in her managerial role. Rachel needs to be sat down “right now” by Phoebe and told her behavior is unacceptable. Phoebe needs to reiterate expectations for behavior and needs to clearly state consequences for not meeting those expectations. Phoebe then needs to unfailingly manage to those expectations. This has nothing to do with how anybody in this case feels. I tell people all the time that they have the right to feel about a co-worker, policy, job assignment, manager, coffee snob colleauge any way they want to feel, but that expectations for behavior and performance in our workplace are X, Y and Z and that is what they will be managed to. Ugh. Wimpy managers are the bane of my existence. Phoebe needs to grow a managerial spine with Rachel.

    1. Marillenbaum*

      Thank you for this, Lynly. I wholeheartedly agree with what you’ve written; I think this is the moment where Phoebe needs to put on her spurs and do her job as a manager. I get being “hands off”, but that means trusting employees to do their work; it doesn’t mean abdicating all responsibility because it’s uncomfortable.

    2. Natalie*

      Monica would be placed on permanent written warning — not fired — which would mean that any other performance/behavioral issues of any kind and she’d be out the door.

      Permanent even seems a bit much. Maybe this isn’t a factor for your company because people don’t stay long, but I’ve worked at a lot of places where I have many coworkers that have been here for decades. If Monica had some kind of issue 10+ years later, I can’t imagine firing them because this incident was their “first strike”. YMMV.

      1. Lynly*

        Thanks Natalie. People stay in the company for long careers — huge company, international, lots of different opportunities and areas to branch into. The permanent written warning will always be in the employee’s record, but we (HR and current or hiring manager) can apply judgment with regard to it. It’s not like a scarlet letter and I’ve seen many people go on to have great careers in terms of their accomplishments, advancements and respect from colleagues after a PWW experience earlier in their career.

  38. overcaffeinatedandqueer*

    So I’m basically like “The Giver” with most people. You know, “it is considered extremely rude for citizens to touch each other outside of family units,” like they say in that book.

    I do wish I could hug one or two people I often work with, and some people at work do hug, but I don’t want to be inappropriate. Tickling crosses WAY over that line.

    1. Marillenbaum*

      Same. I currently work in higher ed, and my one exception to the “don’t touch people at work aside from handshakes” is when I have students crying in my office. I will always ask if they would like a hug, because I know from experience how awful and embarrassing it can be to end up in tears in front of an authority figure.

        1. Marillenbaum*

          Oh, thank you so much! It’s the end of semester and I’m frazzled, but kind remarks from Internet-friends still makes a difference. I appreciate you!

  39. nutella fitzgerald*

    Am I the only one who immediately wondered if Rachel was wearing pants or a dress/skirt? That would make a huge difference in how I reacted to someone grabbing me by the ankles (!)

    1. VroomVroom*

      Oh yea! And, as someone mentioned above – would we have a different reaction if it were Chandler or Joey who did the tickling? Would we err on the side of Immediate Firing Offense?

        1. Sarah*

          Really? If a big guy held down a woman at work while she was on the ground to tickle her feet, and she had to fight him off (which it sounds like happened since a manager had to step in to break it up), I think this would 100% be viewed differently (certainly I would view it differently). Certainly I think more people would view it in the realm of sexual harassment.

          1. Tempest*

            Unless you could prove the dude was really into feet in a sexual capacity rather than just a moron, I don’t think this would be sexual harassment. End of the day the person doing this was pranking her, not harassing her. It’s not sexual harassment any more than the person who locked their coworker on a balcony when they were afraid of heights or whatever was sexual harassment. It’s a prank gone wrong, one that a grown up with common sense should have known had the potential to go sideways quickly but that doesn’t make it sexual harassment, no matter what gender the pranker is. I think if management made Monica aware that pranks, especially those which involve restraining/touching a colleague, will equal her dismissal from the company going forward, they’ve likely shut this down as hard as they need to.

            Now Rachel is trying to spark off actual harassment, albeit not sexual, in the form of a bullying campaign against Monica. She is trying to start a mutiny of her and all other colleagues against Monica and the manager. That is what they need to shut down harder. That kind of insidious slyness from inside a team is way more damaging than a very stupid prank gone wrong. Monica’s actions were in the moment and in your face. There was no question she did wrong, and she was called for it immediately in a serious way. Rachel is the slimey snake in the background now, slithering around trying to unite everyone against Monica and the manager who didn’t give Rachel her way. I’d shut that down way harder than what Monica did and if anyone was going, it would be Rachel. I don’t need that kind of slyness behind my back, trying to undermine me and not being adult enough to sit down with me and talk about why she’s still upset. Work is not a democracy. We don’t get to start an uprising because we don’t like a decision management made. We just get to be professionals and get on with it, even if we’re being polite through in-observably gritted teeth.

        2. Alternate Analysis Josh*

          I’m afraid I must disagree, unfortunately there is a fair amount of reverse sexism in corporate America. There is absolutely a double standard for a guy in the workplace. It’s just the way it is currently. I cannot tell a female coworker she looks attractive in some sort of attire without running the high risk of being assumed to be flirting or pursuing a sexual relationship, whereas if that woman tells me I look ‘hot’ in those pants. The assumption is that she was just being nice. :)

          Just the way things are, nothing I can effectively change at the moment, so I just live with it.

      1. Statler von Waldorf*

        This might be controversial, but I’d bet that Chandler the manager would get even less of a reaction, but Joey the mail room boy would be treated more harshly. High status men touching women inappropriately is treated differently than low-status men doing the same in my experience.

        1. Relly*

          Honestly, I’d be more furious about Chandler and assume it was an abuse of his power.

      2. Case of the Mondays*

        It wouldn’t change anything to me. I’d see it as a non-sexual prank regardless of who did it, but an inappropriate for the workplace one.

        Also, according to the letter, it lasted a mere seconds so it wasn’t like she/he was holding her against her will for long.

    2. (different) Rebecca*

      I was wondering this too. If it were me, and I were in a skirt, there’d be an added layer of violation on top of the already HUGE violation. A short stack of violation, as it were.

  40. Chriama*

    I wonder if this will get as contentious as the bird phobia guy? Anyway, I’m on Monica’s side. She was wildly out of line, but it also sounds like she might be new to the workforce and she’s been sufficiently chastised and put on notice to not act like this again. Rachel lashing out at her coworkers and trying to organize mass oatracizing is the very definition of workplace bullying.

    1. Chriama*

      Ah, there was a whole other tangent I forgot to mention — physical touch is a funny thing. I have some coworkers who I’ll link arms with or poke in the rids or just generally joke around with. There are others I’ll hug (they work remote so I might not see them for months at at time). And then there are those I remain physically distant from. If someone I worked with observed my relationship with my closer coworkers and misinterpreted my closeness with them, I could see them hugging or tickling me thinking we were all friends. And I can easily imagine someone fresh out of school not knowing how to self-regulate when it comes to boundaries between coworkers.

      So I’m not saying that Monica’s behaviour was correct. But I think she deserves to be cut a little slack.

  41. Karanda Baywood*

    I wonder if Rachel’s strong reaction to this incident is based on being laughed at (the letter mentions laughter and horrified reaction) and humiliated in front of her coworkers.

    Less on the trauma, more on being put in a submissive and powerless situation that others witnessed and laughed at.

    1. ann perkins*

      And now she wants to turn around and humiliate Monica because she feels that helps her have control? I can see that. It doesn’t make it right, but I can see that train of thought happening.

  42. animaniactoo*

    Frankly, I suspect Monica is a scapegoat for a problem that has suddenly just become horribly clear to Rachel about the overall culture of your workplace.

    Your standards are so loose that Phoebe *laughed* – LAUGHED – before wading in.

    So from Rachel’s point of view, Monica made her even more vulnerable than she already was because she was not okay and even her *manager* was laughing at her. (I’ll grant that it may have been nervous-response-to-situation laughter, but I bet if that’s so it still doesn’t feel like that to Rachel)

    Hauling Monica in for a telling off at that point feels more like a “okay, but seriously – heh, heh.” Particularly since Monica is minimizing what she did “I was barely holding her at all” (pardon me Monica, position wise, you had her trapped, barely holding or not. Not okay, no matter how lightly you were holding her).

    In which case, of course Rachel is out for blood. I think it’s misplaced, but the target is understandable.

    Once you get down to this – it’s time for your entire workplace to have some conversations about what’s too much even for a place that’s as casual and laid back as yours.

    1) You don’t restrain co-workers unless they’re about to physically harm someone or something.
    2) See one.
    3) If you happen to see it happening, you don’t laugh at it. It’s not okay, and it’s not okay to laugh at.

    Then you can address retaliation and bullying.

    As for you OP? “Rachel, I understand what happened but I’m not going to keep Monica in the permanent penalty box. She works here and she’s a human. I’m going to talk to her and treat her as a human not a target.”

    1. Allypopx*

      Yeah this is a good perspective. I might be misreading the tone, but referring to this as “the incident” sounds dismissive of something that’s clearly upsetting for Rachel. She might be getting so over the top because she feels like what happened wasn’t taken seriously, and hasn’t been taking seriously moving forward.

      That said Rachel needs to move past this, her behavior is unreasonable, and if she feels enlightened she needs to talk to Phoebe about the culture issues or find a place with a better culture. Again I think this is on Phoebe to fix.

      1. Whats In A Name*

        I had the thought about the laughter, too, but I just keep coming back to that is Phoebe’s issue, not Monica’s and Rachel’s displaced anger is going to end up hurting her. I think she has 100% justification in her feelings, just not in her actions.

    2. Myrin*

      Minor quibble, but I assume you’re referring to “Our manager, Phoebe, rushed in after several seconds of laughing/shouting to break it up.”? This might be an ESL thing on my part that I’m not getting but I read that sentence as the general presence of laughing/shouting in the office or even just Rachel’s own reaction (the weird yell-laugh most people do when tickled), not as Phoebe herself having a god ol’ laugh by herself before intervening.

      1. Amy*

        I originally read it the way you did (I’m a native English speaker). On second glance, I think it could be read either way: “Phoebe rushed in after several sections of laughing/shouting (going on in the office, presumably drawing Phoebe’s attention)” or “Phoebe rushed in after several sections of laughing/shouting (that Phoebe was doing herself before physically stepping in)”.

        If Phoebe herself was treating this as some kind of joke before stepping in, that could point to a larger culture issue. If noise in the office drew Phoebe’s attention and led her to step in, that wouldn’t be concerning to me at all.

      2. Pebbles*

        This is how I read it as well, and English is my first language. I took it to mean that Phoebe was alerted to the something-is-going-on by the laughing/shouting and came to check out just what was happening.

      3. Emi.*

        I’m a native English speaker and I understood that to mean that Phoebe rushed in in response to the laughing and shouting, not after partaking in it.

      4. animaniactoo*

        I could be wrong, but with the “shouts to break it up” I took that as Phoebe’s response. But as I said above, it could have been nervous laughter, not a big ol’ laugh as in a lean back and really enjoy before rushing in.

        Now that I think about it – the fact that it lasted for “several seconds” – initially, I was picturing a quick tickle. Several seconds is a lot longer than a quick tickle, so the idea that it lasted long enough for Phoebe to hear from elsewhere, or be calling to break it up BEFORE she moved in really solidly plants Monica in the “Wow, way overboard” category.

        I’d be curious to know which it was either way. Also – if Phoebe rushed in from elsewhere, then it comes back to the idea of company culture in that several co-workers stood around and watched/laughed at this rather than physically intervening themselves.

    3. Stellaaaaa*

      I agree with you. “Pranks” like tickling are really funny until they’re really not, and many people don’t find them funny in any context. It’s a huge problem that the office culture is so loose that Monica saw Rachel plugging something in and knew it would be acceptable to leave her workspace to put her hands on Rachel in a way that would create a scene and draw the attention of everyone in the vicinity. Seriously, this office needs to reexamine its norms.

      I’m reminded of the time I was on the phone with a customer and the ball from the office ball-toss hit my eye – because a coworker thought it would be funny to throw a ball at my head while I was on a business call. I said the F word loudly and took it seriously. It hurt my eye. But I was reprimanded for cursing on the phone and fir being a buzzkill/not a team player.

      OP, make sure you’re not nurturing the sort of “startup” culture that makes your best and most mature employees leave for more professional workplaces.

    4. Observer*

      If you happen to see it happening, you don’t laugh at it. It’s not okay, and it’s not okay to laugh at.

      The problem is that this is an unenforceable rule. Laughter is an odd reaction that often happen outside of people’s control.

      1. ann perkins*

        Sometimes I laugh when I’m nervous and I can’t help myself, it is just what comes out.

        1. SignalLost*

          My boyfriend does that all. the. time. Drives me nuts, but it’s not a reaction he has control over. I don’t like the assumption in some of the comments on this post that everyone reacts perfectly every time to something they did not expect to see. If a grizzly bear shows up in the office, it’s going to take *everyone* a few seconds to assess what it is, understand it, and take action … by which time it may have eaten half of Finance. We do need to understand what we’re seeing.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        One time I was the butt of a joke. I was standing with a group of people who started laughing, at me? at their own awkwardness? because they related somehow? Not sure.
        Covered by the laughter, one of the men in the group, who was not laughing, whispered to me, “Is it okay to laugh?”

        I was wowed. I had never seen anyone do this. I have tried to remember this one and carry it forward.
        I told him it was okay to laugh. He just grinned.

        1. Not A Morning Person*

          What a kind response to ask if it’s okay with you. I will try to remember this one, too,

  43. Temperance*

    I’m wondering, LW, whether your company is large enough to have a good HR department. I think that a mediation between Monica and Rachel might help this issue. I would have a chat with Phoebe and let her know that the hostility in your department is stressing you out, and maybe HR could mediate the dispute.

    Rachel needs to stop freezing out Monica, but Monica really shouldn’t have done what she did. She can’t take it back, so Rachel needs to move on.

    1. Lynly*

      What is there to mediate? Monica’s behavior was immediately and appropriately dealt with. Rachel’s current unacceptable behavior has not been dealt with and needs to be by her direct manager. That’s the most direct and straightforward way to shut down the creeping “chaos,” and, frankly, is the manager’s job to do. Mediation would only drag out and turn into a bigger thing than what is a fairly simple case of a manager — Phoebe — very clearly needing to manage an employee — Rachel — to performance and behavioral expectations. Phoebe is failing in her role at this point.

      1. Allypopx*

        Yeah Monica’s getting abused here and it’s way outside the scope of mediation. It’s like having a kid go to mediation with their bully. You’re looking for equitable and manageable goals where there are none. Monica was dealt with, and now Phoebe has to deal with Rachel.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I don’t think that’s a fair characterization. While the discipline conversation regarding the tickling incident has concluded, it sounds like there’s still value in getting them at the same table. This isn’t the same, to me, as having a child mediate with their bully. There were two wrong actions taken, and although I think Rachel’s ongoing behavior is unacceptable, I don’t think her behavior negates the harm that Monica did to their relationship. That said, I think a mediation would have to focus on them coming up with how to manage their feelings and behave professionally with one another. It sounds past the point of repair in terms of their personal work relationship.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            I would be concerned about Rachel’s frame of mind, I think where her head is at she would not be able to get through mediation right now. Maybe later on would be okay.

      2. Temperance*

        Yes, Rachel’s behavior needs to be dealt with and she needs to be held accountable, but I don’t think that Monica was appropriately dealt with wrt her relationship with her colleague. It seems like Monica has been acting defensive and while it may not have been included in the letter, she absolutely should have privately apologized for her serious lapse in judgment.

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Normally I would agree, but it doesn’t sound like Rachel’s in the right headspace to participate in mediation. It would require her to calm way down and recognize that her actions are not appropriate, and it doesn’t sound like she’s quite there yet. But Phoebe needs to try to help her to get there or at least articulate the standard of behavior expected.

    3. LBK*

      I generally don’t find mediation to be the right approach for the workplace; I think it’s only appropriate for situations where the two people involved have some vested interest in wanting to be able to get along, like if you’re family members. In this case they’re only held together by the graces of the company not firing either one of them, so all you need is some strong management: you tell Rachel to cut the shit or she’s done. There’s no reason to force two employees who can’t get along to stay together and work it out.

  44. Allison*

    Hoboy, I would be real mad if someone did this to me at work. The occasional tickle fight with someone I’m dating can be fine, but if anyone else tried to tickle me? Nope! Not friends, not family members, and definitely not co-workers. A campaign of hostility to get someone fired would be an overreaction, but you can bet that if someone crosses that line with me at work, I’m gonna be pretty icy to them for a while, and would want to move cubicles. I might also be a tad more open to chats with recruiters at other companies for a little while.

  45. The Bimmer Guy*

    I agree. I can’t say I would fire someone for this if that person had previously shown good judgment—nor that I would necessarily want them fired for doing it to me—but what Rachel is doing is just plain immature. And she needs to quit doing it.

  46. Anon von Riverbend*

    Who does something like that? That’s not a lapse of judgment, that’s just pure meanness. Does Monica always play the mean girl at the office? I know ticklers always say it’s all in good fun, but it’s not fun for the ticklee. It’s meanness and a control issue, nothing more. I wouldn’t want to work with her anymore either.

    1. TrainerGirl*

      This is pure projection on your part to assume that Monica is a mean girl and it’s a control issue.

    2. Jules*

      There are some families where it’s affection, not meanness. I don’t like being tickled, or touched by people I don’t know well. I always ask my son if he wants to be tickled, and stop pretty quickly, so that he has to ask for more. OTOH, I’ve seen families where tickling is part of the physical affection, like hugging. And no, it wasn’t a prelude to abuse.

      In the end though, *why* Monica did it doesn’t matter. Neither ‘familial affection’ nor ‘meanness’ is appropriate for an office. For that matter, why Rachel is retaliating doesn’t matter. Neither ‘trauma’ nor ‘frustration’ are acceptable justifications for extended, deliberate unprofessional behavior.

      OP might be able to address this directly with a ‘Rachel, that sucked, but the company has punished Monica. Your behavior is going past coldly professional, which I would understand, into bullying, which does not do you any good.’ OP should definitely mention it to Phoebe, and Phoebe needs to watch for bullying, and probably step in again. A little physical distance might help if they can do it. OTOoH, (other other hand), it has only been a couple of weeks, Phoebe might be waiting to see if the drama dies down, because you know, this is an office of adults mostly.

  47. Amy*

    Things Rachel could have done that might have been reasonable (or at least understandable):
    -Accidentally kick Monica during the tickling
    -Yelled at Monica immediately after the tickling
    -Talk to her manager afterwards and ask to have a desk a little further away from Monica
    -If the tickling or being held down triggered a bigger problem (e.g. flashbacks from a past assault), talk to her manager or HR afterwards about accommodations for that bigger problem

    Things that are not reasonable by any means:
    -Choose Monica’s punishment for Monica’s inappropriate behavior
    -Bully Monica for an indefinite period of time after the incident

    1. Amy*

      Basically, Monica’s behavior was absolutely inappropriate, but a full-out ostracization campaign targeted at a coworker is really never appropriate, regardless of circumstances. Rachel is setting herself up for a major reprimand of her own, at this rate.

    2. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

      Yes. This list of potential actions Rachel could have taken is helpful. There are a lot of reasonable reactions she could have had. The path she’s chosen is not one of them.

  48. Statler von Waldorf*

    Ok, time for me to disagree with everyone again. I have PTSD and hate being ticked, so I’m 100% team Rachael. Given the same circumstances, I might very well react in the same way. If management doesn’t take a physical assault on one of it’s employees as seriously as I do, I would absolutely go scorched earth. Why should I quit because a co-worker assaulted me? I absolutely would make my co-workers life a living hell until she quit.

    And if management let me go (which would be the most likely probability) then I would turn it up to 11. Get a lawyer, talk to the press on how I was treated, and do everything I could to publicly smear the company.

    For anyone about to respond on how this is not a good plan, I will preempt that by agreeing with you. This is not the smart solution to the problem. It could very well blow up in my face, and cost me more than the smart idea of just quitting the second that Monica didn’t get fired and retaining a lawyer then. It is, however, the one that I would use. I’m vindictive and petty that way.

    1. Katie the Fed*

      This isn’t an issue where there need to be teams (Rachel vs Monica). Everyone agrees that what Monica did was out of line, and the company HAS taken it seriously. Employees don’t get to dictate what disciplinary measures are taken against fellow employees, period. Even in an egregious EEO case, you don’t get to demand as resolution that someone be fired.

      As far as getting a lawyer – for what? What damages? Talking to the press – sorry, but nobody is going to care. Publicly smearing the company will only make you look bad.

      Rachel has the option to quit and negotiate a generous severance package, but that’s about it. The company has dealt with Monica, and it sounds like Monica knows better now.

    2. LBK*

      That might be what you’d want to do but I seriously doubt you’d be able to find a lawyer or reporter willing to talk to you about it. Wrongly or not, most people don’t consider tickling to be that serious (and as PCBH said above it’s unlikely this would even meet the definition of assault anyway) so I don’t think the story would get a lot of traction even if you were fired – I think most people would look askance at you for leading that kind of crusade over something they wouldn’t see as a big deal.

      1. Statler von Waldorf*

        You are all assuming I would only tell the truth. Also, I would never use the word tickle, the phrase is restrained and assaulted. When the company calls it tickling, I call them liars who are minimizing the assault. If you are going scorched earth, you need to commit all the way.

        Just for funsies, I just ran this hypothetical past a reporter who I am friendly with. He said he’d run the story.

        1. PizzaDog*

          So, you’d lie? What would happen when the paper would print the retraction?

          1. Statler von Waldorf*

            Nothing, as mo one actually reads retractions.

            Again, just to be clear, his whole thing is self-destructive and counter productive. I’m not recommending it as a good plan. This is the opposite of a good plan, as a matter of fact. However, people are funny, and they occasionally do very counter productive things. In these circumstances, I might do the same.

            Also, this might be useful for the letter writer, as this is something that they may want to consider as a fairly unlikely but still possible reaction.

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Okay, please move on from this. Advocating lying about something to the media is such a bizarre outlier that it’s not going to contribute to useful discussion here.

        3. nonegiven*

          So, “I reject your reality and substitute my own.”

          Happens all the time.

    3. Jaybeetee*

      While I have the deepest sympathy with your PTSD (my partner also suffers with it, I know how…constant…it is), I’d still like to see the media outlet that would air/print your story of being tickled at work.

      (I’ve had to field that kind of threat before in customer service work. It’s like “yes, go ahead and call the local news about how the CS rep at XYZ company needed to see your ID.”)

      1. Jillociraptor*

        Yeah, I feel very cynical but I think this kind of story would end up more like the McDonald’s coffee lady — something totally legitimate to be aggrieved about, but the headlines would be “Litigious snowflake gets tickled, overreacts.” I completely sympathize with Rachel’s feelings, but I don’t think this is going to cause a public outpouring of support.

    4. PizzaDog*

      Management did take it seriously, they just determined that it wasn’t a fireable offense. Rachel shouldn’t throw away her career over this.

      Even if a reporter WAS interested in the story, what would happen in the second paragraph? “We contacted the HR Manager of Teapots Inc, Janice Whateverherlastnamewas, who informed us that Monica received a written warning.” The story would obviously get out that Rachel has been bullying and isolating Monica in the hopes that she’d quit. She doesn’t look good here either.

    5. paul*

      You can feel however you want, but she’s ostracizing people for associating with someone that she doesn’t feel was punished enough. That cannot fly. I’d also bet real money against your plan working in any way shape or form so it isn’t a plan we should encourage other people to pursue.

  49. HisGirlFriday*

    I think OP’s first course of action HAS TO BE going to Phoebe and saying, ‘Look, I think you’re probably already aware of this, but just in case you’re not, here’s the depth of the issue with Rachel vis a vis the incident with Monica,’ and then lay it all out there on the table.

    Alison has said repeatedly on the blog that we think managers are aware of/attuned to/able to remember things that we told them, but that’s not always the case. They have more balls in the air than we do, and we don’t even see some of them.

    We had an incident at my work a few months ago that was not NEARLY this level of inappropriate or contentious, but nonetheless caused issues. It had a ripple effect: Jane did something that affected Fergus and Fergus complained to Wakeen and Wakeen complained to Bob and so on, and eventually it got to the point that I went to Grandboss and said, ‘Look, I don’t need to know what decision you made regarding XYZ, because it’s frankly none of my nevermind, but the insidious gossip going on is getting distracting and affecting productivity; can you please address it with those affected?’ And Grandboss was genuinely surprised by the breadth of the issue because she had only seen one tiny part of it. My bringing it to her attention opened her eyes and caused her to deal with it differently than she otherwise would have, because it had spread further than she thought it would have done. I kept thinking she must be aware of it, but she really wasn’t.

  50. Jaybeetee*

    I agree that it’s an error in judgment on Monica’s part, but LW refers to her as a “young lady,” and I’ve certainly known some younger boundary-challenged colleagues who didn’t naturally grok that, say, not all colleagues want to be tickled/teased/hugged/etc. I’m thinking of one girl in particular who I actually considered a work friend – she was really a sweet girl in her early 20s and good at her job, but she did have some learning issues and some weird social boundaries. She’d say and do off-putting things at time, attempting to ingratiate herself to other colleagues. I can see her, at that time, tickling a colleague thinking she was just being playful, not realizing that it could be unpleasant or triggering for the other person. And in such a situation, all that would have been necessary for her would have been a warning conversation to knock it off. When I think of her, I cringe at some of the above comments about calling the police or bringing a lawsuit against the company. We don’t know Monica’s motivations, and actions like that (or even firing her) feels like so much overkill. I’d guess she just needed some education. As a few commenters have said above, when you haven’t experienced trauma yourself, it’s not necessarily at the forefront of your mind when you interact with others.

  51. Ashley C.*

    I think Monica’s behavior was more than just inappropriate. I would be furious if someone restrained me to touch/tickle me. And I would’ve purposely kicked Monica in her face. This “incident” could’ve turned violent real quick.

    Has HR and the manager sat down with Rachel to explain how Monica is being disciplined? Was she written up? Put on probation? It may seem to Rachel that nothing was really done and they didn’t take it seriously. This would just add on to Rachel feeling violated and powerless.

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      I don’t think it’s necessary or appropriate that Rachel be told the details of Monica’s discipline. She should be assured that the company takes the situation seriously, and if things can be shuffled so that they have minimal contact, that should be done, but Rachel shouldn’t get any special privileges re: information on Monica’s employee record over this.

      1. Trout 'Waver*

        The way you assure an employee that their concern is taken seriously is to show them the outcome. Not with meaningless words.

        1. fposte*

          But words *are* an outcome. They count. HR isn’t going to whip Monica and let Rachel inspect the welts. If Rachel sees any outcome other than firing as approval, that’s on Rachel.

          1. Trout 'Waver*

            If the only thing Rachel sees is words from HR, why would she have any faith that the situation had been handled?

            1. fposte*

              But I don’t know what alternative you’re proposing. If Rachel doesn’t have respect for basic managerial tools such as reprimands, PIPs, etc., I probably can’t work with her, because I’m not going to fire people for every mistake, and that’s the only action that would be visible to Rachel.

              1. Trout 'Waver*

                Honestly, I don’t have a good alternative in mind. I just envision having HR telling me, “The company takes this situation seriously” without saying any more. That would leave me very unsatisfied and make me feel the opposite of what HR intended.

              1. Trout 'Waver*

                I think Rachel deserves to see what actions the company has taken to make sure it doesn’t happen again. That could include sharing the punishment, a new ‘zero-tolerance’ policy, additional training, moving Monica to a different location or business unit, or whatever. Simply saying ‘we take it very seriously’ is not sufficient.

    2. Humble Schoolmarm*

      My experience when co-workers have been disciplined for a public offence is the no mater how discrete HR wants to be, details of the punishment spread like wildfire. It seems like this may be the case here too as OP knows that Monica is on a last warning (and she’s not the manager or HR person). If that’s the case, I’m not sure a “we take this seriously” is going to solve much.

  52. kapers*

    I think Rachel has been set up to overreact to Management’s apparent underreaction. (“Apparent” meaning, maybe they did give Monica an appropriate talking-to, but they obviously didn’t telegraph to Rachel that they took it seriously, and as the aggrieved party she was entitled to that.)

    This is one of those cases where the normally pointless “what if it were a man?” speculation is actually helpful framing. I think it’s easy to minimize this because it’s two young women. But if it were a man who held/tickled a woman, wouldn’t this be so clearly over the line that Management would fall all over themselves to ensure Rachel was satisfied with the outcome?

    1. Amber Rose*

      The response from management would likely have been much stronger. But all that highlights is a double standard in how men and women are treated in the exact same scenario, and is ultimately not useful here.

      1. mreasy*

        It’s not really a double standard, though. The physical power dynamic, as well as the assumed sexual dynamic, would be different.

      2. kapers*

        To me it highlights that anybody being touched without consent by anybody should be taken seriously, and Management/HR in this case minimized (or appeared to minimize) the seriousness. If they had addressed it more seriously, perhaps Rachel would not have reacted this poorly, is my guess here. Because not only is she reacting to the incident, but its possible minimization by Management/HR as well.

    2. Roscoe*

      So I always wonder what how much people really think they should be privy to when it comes to someone else’s punishment. Like how much to they need to tell Rachel about how it was dealt with for her to be satisfied.

      1. kapers*

        Details wouldn’t be appropriate, but assurance that “we take this seriously, we have taken steps to ensure it won’t happen again, we have addressed this seriously with Monica, please come to us with any additional concerns” would have gone a long way.

  53. Catalyst*

    When I read this, I imagine myself under my desk fixing something and am horrified at the idea of being tickled by a co-worker. I wear dresses/skirts every day and hate being tickled, I would be in an incredibly compromising position and I can certainly see how Rachel would be incredibly upset by what happened. However, I do not agree with her thinking that everyone should black list Monica for her actions. While Monica used terrible judgement and did something inappropriate, it was dealt with accordingly, no one was injured and everyone should just move on. Clearly someone needs to have that conversation with Rachel, and if she doesn’t stop bullying Monica, there should be consequences for her as well.

  54. Detective Rosa Diaz*

    Not trying to be snarky but unwanted touching is actually quite serious and I am wondering if some people are giving Monica a pass because both people were of the same gender?

    Like it’s hostile and Rachel was humiliated and it sounds like it continued. How would you feel if this was a man and woman?

    1. Amber Rose*

      The same, more or less, because it doesn’t sound like it was either hostile or sexual.

      Unwanted touching is serious, but as we’ve seen countless times with countless posts and discussions, it happens a lot, particularly in casual work environments. If this is, for example, a place where hugging is something that happens a lot, it’s not completely unreasonable for someone to make a bad judgement call on other kinds of physical contact.

      Not that this is OK. Nobody is saying that this was OK. It just likely wasn’t hostile. And it does sound like Monica has been firmly reprimanded and is facing some pretty significant consequences.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        If you have to pin me down so I won’t strike you while you do something to me, it should be looked on as hostile.

        Unless it’s a medical situation like surgery, where I signed a dozen consent forms ahead of time.

        1. Amber Rose*

          You’d have to pin me down to touch me at all, since i’m that ticklish. I don’t see hugs as hostile though. Unwanted sure, but not hostile.

    2. Anna*

      Alison has said changing genders really doesn’t change it and it was a one time occurrence, not an ongoing issue, so I’m not sure how you get to it being hostile. People are taking Monica’s behavior seriously, as did the company, but that in no way excuses Rachel for her ongoing campaign of bullying.

      1. Detective Rosa Diaz*

        I feel it sounds hostile because she didn’t just lightly tickle and leave, she held on while people around laughed as Rachel was helpless. That to me seems hostile. Like it’s very mean spirited to keep doing that, IMO.

        1. Amber Rose*

          I understand that and I have two counter points. One, tickling causes involuntary laughter which can be mistaken for enjoyment. Two, Rachel’s face was probably hidden under the desk, so if Monica heard her laughing and didn’t see her anger, she may have just continued on in “fun.”

          It’s only mean spirited if she knew Rachel was upset, but it sounds very much like she did not. Judging by company response (and with the assumption that the company is not otherwise toxic or dysfunctional) they agree.

    3. LizB*

      I’d feel the same way if Monica were Mark, honestly. The behavior was egregious and could verge on sexual harassment no matter the genders involved, I would probably lean towards firing for it unless it was WAY out of character and Mark was incredibly remorseful, but if HR decided to keep Mark on then a bullying campaign would not be an appropriate approach from Rachel. I’m not sure what you mean by “it sounds like it continued,” though, so maybe we’re interpreting the letter differently. I’m not seeing that Monica has done anything to Rachel following this incident other than existing in the same department as her.

    4. paul*

      I don’t think it’s so much giving her a pass as realize she came thisclose to being fired (at least that’s how I’m reading the OP) and being willing to accept that maybe firing wasn’t an automatic decision in this case.

    5. neeko*

      No one is giving Monica a pass. Everyone is agreeing that Monica was in the wrong. That doesn’t give Rachel the right to ALSO be in the wrong. Monica was punished for her actions. Rachel is creating a hostile working environment for everyone.

      1. neeko*

        Scratch “hostile working environment” as I know that it’s a very specific term. Rachel is creating a crappy place for everyone else to work.

  55. Stellaaaaa*

    I think Rachel needs some assurances that no one will ever out their hands on her ever again. OP might even need to instate an official policy, since it sounds like similar things have happened before and Rachel is guarding against them happening again. From her point of view, Monica was lightly reprimanded but the atmosphere that led to the touching has not been adjusted. OP, make new policies prohibiting pranks and touching of any kind. You might resist losing your “fun” office atmosphere because of one incident, but Monica really did take it too far and now Rachel feels unsafe. Rachel might even be dealing with other people telling her to get over it. It’s the company’s fault for burying this kind of environment and it was only a matter of time before someone took it too far. Party’s over.

    1. Anna*

      It isn’t being “nurtured” though since Phoebe went immediately to HR and HR went immediately to Monica. OP can’t make any policies and I don’t think that is going to solve the problem. Monica had an egregious lapse in judgment. HR handled it swiftly. Now Rachel is taking her reaction to the extreme and has long ago left the territory of reasonable reaction. Look, the thing about in the moment reactions is that they are in the moment. Your lizard brain takes over and you react. However, Rachel’s ongoing response is one of planning and thought and does not go along with an in the moment fight or flight reaction.

      1. Stellaaaaa*

        I read the email as acknowledging that the company’s loose culture has blurry boundaries and that those standards allowed Monica to think her actions were okay, which is why it wasn’t fair for harshly punish her – her actions are acceptable by the company’s current skewed standards. The standards need to change.

        1. MegaMoose, Esq*

          The specific words from the OP about their office environment are “relatively informal, somewhat relaxed”, and that although Monica wasn’t fired, she was told “she’d be dismissed if she put one toe out of line.” I don’t think it’s fair to characterize that description as a loose culture or as HR failing to punish her harshly. Sometimes people act inappropriately, no matter what policies are in place.

  56. Ellen N.*

    Although Rachel’s bullying is wrong as bullying is always wrong; I can see why she is frustrated by the response from management. To restrain someone by surprise and tickle them is a big deal, not just a lapse in judgement. If Monica isn’t fired shouldn’t she get more than just a talking to? I would think she would need to take a seminar in workplace harassment. I am astonished that management is permitting Monica to say that Rachel is overstating how she was restrained. Also, if my manager laughed while a coworker restrained and tickled me, I would be seeing red.

  57. Sprinkled with Snark*

    Firing Monica for the tickling offense seems excessive to me. The company did the right thing. And I say that because a lot of people do a lot worse and don’t get fired on the spot. For example, I worked with a man who said to one of my female co-workers, “That’s really an unusual sweater. What is it made out of? ” It was during the big fuzzy pink mohair yarn craze. Anyway, she said, “It’s mohair.” And he said, is that mohair from a llama or something or is it artificial?” She told him, “I don’t want to talk about my sweater with you,” and the guy said, “Okay, I’m sorry for bothering you.”

    Well, she went to HR and filed a complaint, and we all had to make a private statement about it, since we were witnesses, and everyone agreed that the entire incident was ridiculous. Despite that, this is now on this guy’s permanent record. The complainer insisted it was sexual harassment. The company did NOT fire him, but they did make him take a special week-long training program at company HQ all about sexual harassment at the workplace, which he completed and everything returned to normal. But people formed their own “sides” without any more input from either of them. In fact, they were both told to keep quiet about it for the sake of each of their own privacy.

    So what I’m saying is, there are people who have a lapse of judgement at work, and people will think what they want about it regardless of what co-workers think. Maybe some will think tickling is absolutely over the line, maybe some will not. But the company made a decision about the tickler’s behavior, and I’m sure it will be on her permanent record and maybe she also was required to take some kind of additional, private training about the issue, especially when they can do all that online now right at your desk. Sometimes people do a lot worse, receive a reprimand, further training, whatever and they don’t get fired. So at this point, it’s on Rachel to accept that the decision has been made. She may think that Monica deserves to be fired, but the company has decided otherwise. Both Monica and Rachel should not be discussing it in public anymore for both of their own privacy, and eventually things may return to cool-ish if not normal working conditions for the both of them.

  58. dappertea*

    Honestly, it sounds like there’s a big issue with professionalism all around at this company. Might be time to sit everyone down and talk about what is and isn’t okay. It IS NOT okay to tickle your coworker or otherwise touch them without their knowledge or consent. It IS okay to express when a coworker makes you uncomfortable. It IS NOT okay to try to ostracize someone and bring others into a push to get that person fired. Phoebe should have a serious sit-down talk with everyone individually to address the drama and say that it’s been handled and now everyone needs to lay it to rest.

  59. AlaskaKT*

    Does anyone else think it’s nuts that Rachel felt “humiliated” by the situation, yet keeps bringing it up?

    This sounds like the kind of thing that would have been already forgot about if Rachel had just accepted that the company has dealt with it and Monica won’t do it again.

    Rachel definitely needs told she is behaving unacceptably, and if she’s really that mad about it, she should be job searching, not making the environment hostile for coworkers.

    (Maybe not hostile in a legal sense, but causing someone to cry in the bathroom? That’s seems pretty hostile to me.)

    1. Allypopx*

      No I think feeling humiliated is probably fueling her disproportionate rage and lending to her trying to reclaim power and dignity by controlling the work environment around Monica. She’s probably also incredibly frustrated (rightly or wrongly) with how it was handled and is venting that frustration in every direction because it’s eating at her.

    2. Stellaaaaa*

      If Rachel is trying to create an environment where she feels safer, it’s not odd that she keeps bringing it up. What’s odd is that management isn’t looking seriously at the office vibe that only nets you a reprimand for trapping a coworker under a desk with the purpose of imposing unwanted physical contact on her. No adult should be touching a coworker without consent, nor should the touching continue after being asked to stop.

      I’m not cool with blaming a victim of unwanted touching for reacting in the “wrong” way. She’s speaking up because nothing was done to prevent this from happening again.

      1. fposte*

        I don’t think being touched without your consent gives you carte blanche for the rest of your days, though; otherwise one subway ride and we’d all have license for everything. This is not just Rachel reacting to Monica but bullying other co-workers. Regardless of what generated the behavior, it’s not acceptable.

      2. Whats In A Name*

        But Monica was given a strict warning and told if anything similar happened she’d be fired. To me that was a preventative measure.

        No one is blaming Rachel for being upset – I seem to be reading just the opposite. But being upset with other coworkers for their relationship with Monica crosses a line.

      3. PizzaDog*

        I don’t find it weird that she still doesn’t feel safe – it might never happen, but it is odd that she’s doing her best to make the office an unsafe environment for Monica. Not physically, obviously, but being shunned so drastically has to be taxing to Monica’s mental wellbeing.

    3. Amber Rose*

      It does make me wonder if there isn’t some underlying issue there, some old beef between Rachel and Monica. Either way, Rachel needs to find a more professional and adult way of dealing.

    4. Sprinkled with Snark*

      Oh, I get that she felt absolutely humiliated, maybe for screaming, maybe because people were laughing, or because nobody stopped the tickler, but yeah, why keep reliving it? If it happened to me I would never ever want it mentioned again . . ever!

      1. AMPG*

        She’s trying to change the narrative. If she can turn it from “I was humiliated in front of my coworkers and everyone laughed at me,” to “That unprofessional jerk Monica crossed a huge line and shouldn’t be trusted in the office,” then it helps her move on.

        1. WPH*

          This. Rachel’s not right but I can see what she’s doing and it also makes me wonder if a public apology was ever given. I know someone mentioned above that it was public shaming for Monica but Rachel was shamed publicly so…but at this point, Rachel is in the wrong as well.

    5. MassMatt*

      I don’t think it’s nuts at all, she was humiliated and the perpetrator is still working there, this is probably very tough to let go of. She may feel unsafe, or angy, whenever she looks at Monica. I agree Rachel’s actions ongoing are inappropriate, but I sympathize.

      I think the big problem is management, Phoebe’s “hands off” style is allowing this to fester, and I wonder was Rachel informed of how serious the HR conversation was?

      And maybe this is the biggest thing–did Monica ever sincerely apologize to Rachel? That may not sound like much but it could’ve gone a long way to resolve the lingering resentment.

      Monica may be thinking “I made a mistake, but what’s the big deal” whereas Rachel is feeling “I was terribly traumatized and no one seems to care”.

    6. Amy*

      Lots of people react to humiliation with anger, and react to anger by taking things a little too far and holding onto them for a little too long. It sounds counter-intuitive from a logical perspective to draw out your response to something humiliating, but from an emotional perspective, it’s not at all unusual. The nuts part here is that Rachel seems to think she can get away with acting like this in a professional environment.

  60. Liz T*

    Oof. Also let’s remember never to mess with someone who’s under a desk! I’m surprised Rachel didn’t hit her head.

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      I honestly thought that’s where the letter was going as soon as I read that she crawled under her desk.

      1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        Right? Especially given how many desks have things like hookups for a keyboard tray hanging underneath. When the letter got to the under-the-desk part I was expecting the incident to end with a trip to the ER.

    2. paul*

      As someone currently nursing a huge goose egg from cracking my skull while troubleshooting my home modem…YES. My toddler decided to jump on my legs and it freaked me out, I stood up and saw stars. Ow.

    3. Falling Diphthong*

      I think this ties over to the letters where management assumes that if someone is capable of walking into the office, sitting at a desk, and occasionally walking to the water cooler, there is no reason to believe they can’t engage in a ropes course followed by a 5K mud run as a form of team building on Saturday. (Unless they’re party poopers.) There should be a buffer around ‘normal’ where you reason that the boundary is not ‘right up where it is for me and my best buddies, whose likes and dislikes I know intimately’ but well out from that, without needing to know anyone’s detailed history. So shaking hands is normal, as is tapping on the shoulder; pinning someone from behind in a bear hug is not, and you shouldn’t need to know their detailed history to figure that out.

      Most people can swim, but I will be furious at someone who shoved someone else into the water saying “I figure most people can swim, so it would just be funny.”

      Guessing that people don’t want you to trap them under a desk, in a storage closet, or behind the wallboard isn’t some grand leap of the imagination–people don’t like to be trapped.

  61. kms1025*

    Long ago I was a supervisor in a factory where employees were predominantly male (I am female). As such, I developed an appropriately “thick skin”. One day an employee cornered me by a copier inside a small office. He said do I “EAR”itate you, do I annoy you, am I a pain in you a x x? All while simultaneously pulling my ear, then grabbing my side, then patting me on the butt!!! I was p-o’d, offended, and slightly threatened all at the same time. I pushed for him to be fired on the spot. He was given a strict set of “do not do this, do not do that, do not pass go, do not collect $200” etc. as a means of saving his employment. He stayed for a few months and then quit. I avoided him like the plague and never talked to (or about) him again.

    1. Serafina*

      GAH! Now THAT is workplace assault right there, and absolutely sexual harassment! I’d be peeved he wasn’t fired and avoid him like the plague too (but I notice that you managed to advocate for yourself and how the company should respond without engaging in juvenile bullying, despite what he did to you being leaps and bounds more egregious than what’s in this letter!)

      In the South, I’ve dealt with a number of handsy colleagues of varying ages and maturity levels. In some cases, they were absolutely deliberately pushing boundaries/exercising some skeevy control fetish over people, while in other cases, it was someone who was just used to touchy-feely in every situation and had no inkling that some people don’t like being pawed at.

      1. Kms1025*

        It was unarguably the creepiest workplace encounter of my career…I absolutely wanted him gone, but I guess I wanted the memory of the incident gone even more…taught me a lot about situational awareness :) so tiny silver lining…but what a grade a JERK!!!

  62. Observer*

    I’m with everyone who says that Rachel’s current behavior is out of line. But I do think that Monica probably should have been fired – and that Phoebe and HR need to watch her like a hawk. It’s bad enough that she tickled Rachel. But, it’s clear that she knew that it might be unpleasant for Rachel. So instead of backing off, she held Rachel’s feet down so Rachel couldn’t kick her.

    That’s a bit more than just swooping down and giving a tickle. I hope she understands this.

    1. Relly*

      I don’t actually agree that that is clear from the letter that Monica knew Rachel would be upset. If I wanted to tickle husband’s foot, I might latch onto his ankle so that when he giggles, he doesn’t yank it away too quickly. Not because I think he won’t enjoy it.

      1. Observer*

        I hear that. But the OP actually says “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.” She WAS expecting to get kicked, not to get the foot jerked away.

        Not monstrous, but clearly not quite as impulsive and UN-thought out as just a quick tickle.

  63. Mary Dempster*

    The idea that tickling someone’s feet, however inappropriate for the work place, should be considered assault, unsafe, or anything similar, is projection at it’s finest. I am absolutely shocked at the majority of the comments. Especially as the intention was so clearly and obviously a joke. I’m sure people will now say “It’s not a joke if it’s not funny” but intention is everything here, as she was not physically injured in any way. I highly doubt she thought “Let’s tickle her feet to put her through excruciating physical or mental trauma.”

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s actually not the majority of the comments! Most people are strongly disagreeing that it should be treated as assault, etc.

      It’s always interesting to me how often a viewpoint that’s in the minority here ends up getting painted as
      “the majority of the comments.” It must be that those stand out more or something.

      1. Forrest*

        I wonder if it’s because those commenters are more likely to respond to people holding an opposite view. IE, they continue the thread they started and it looks overwhelming.

      2. EA*

        I also think that people might say that because comment culture has changed so much here over the last few months.

        I feel like there are more contentious comments, and more moderation going on these days. Maybe I am looking through rose-colored glasses, but I remember things getting less heated when I first started reading.

        I think that might explain people picking up on the majority of the comments.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Honestly, I don’t think the comment culture has changed significantly. There are more commenters and more comments, and that means that problems that have always been here are more noticeable now (and also that they spin out of control faster if I don’t step in early, which is why I’m trying to do that more).

          1. Allypopx*

            Yeah the great pantyhose debacle of 2010 was pretty intense even though it had less than 100 comments. I think it’s a matter of scale – and Alison you’re doing a great job forseeing which posts are going to need extra moderation, and then putting the time and energy into handling things.

            1. EA*


              That is probably true. I was not here in 2010. It could totally be a matter of scale. I also think there are just some posts that are probably best to avoid (birds, marijuana).

              1. Serafina*

                I can’t find the pantyhose debacle! Could someone post a link to it, pretty please?!

                1. fposte*

                  OMG, I’d forgotten “just another woman looking for something to complain about.”

                2. Serafina*

                  Thanks for that link, Alison! All I have to say is…wow. Wooow. Woooooowwwwww.

                3. paul*

                  good lord. I imagine Allison was tearing her hair out at some of those comments. Wow.

                  I wonder if some of them were sockpuppeting?

                4. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

                  I am delighted that the OP there was Kimberlee! I hadn’t remembered that.

                  fposte, I hadn’t remembered that you had been active here since way back when, either. We are old-timers.

                5. Pebbles*

                  W.T.F. Can I just say that I am so thankful I work at a place where I can wear jeans and a t-shirt everyday?

                6. Mustache Cat*

                  omg, I love the “In 10 years, people will laugh that this debate even took place” comment from Kara. And here we are, only seven years later!

            2. jules*

              I have to thank you for bringing this up! I’m having a crap day and that entire thread was amazing.

          2. EA*

            That’s probably true. It could totally be a matter of scale.

            I also know which posts to avoid these days (birds, marijuana)

      3. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

        I agree with Forrest. It’s easy to miss that it’s one or two people saying the same thing over and over again, especially as they get increasingly dug in. The number of their comments may not be as much, but the volume/strength/power of them is so high they drown out the others. (Like, 4 comments at Outrage Level 10 feel like more than 8 comments at Outrage Level 3).

        Also, I’m guilty of cherry-picking the threads I read. When a comment section gets this long, I tend to search (Ctrl-F) for specific usernames — Alison’s, mine, a couple of commenters whose comments I usually enjoy/trust, and people who I’ve either responded to or been especially interested in in this thread. I also tend to read the threads that have a lot of sub-comments and skim over those that are standalone. So I’m likely missing a bunch of comments that are repeats of others.

        1. Gandalf the Nude*

          I’m glad I’m not the only one who does the Ctrl-F thing. Sometimes I feel like a stalker. Especially when I find myself replying the same person more often than anyone else, haha.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I’ve been doing that, too, but sometimes it makes me sad (like I’m missing out on an excellent comment because I feel overwhelmed with the sheer number of comments).

      4. Mary Dempster*

        It definitely must just stand out more in my head, as I also definitely didn’t go through counting!

      5. Emi.*

        I think it’s partly that the more outraged commenters are more likely to present their view as The One True Normal View, whereas other commenters tend to write more nuanced comments.

        So out of every ten comments, you get eight comments saying “Well, I think X,” where X is something within one standard deviation of the mean, and then one “Clearly Y, because I’m SENSIBLE!” and one “As a person who CARES ABOUT TRAUMA VICTIMS, I think Z!”

        And then you think “Yeesh, wow, I guess you have to think Y and Z to be considered sensible and minimally caring around here, all righty rooty then.”

          1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

            Me too.

            This is going to show my age, but back in the day I ran a BBS (an online “bulletin board system,” i.e. an online forum before the internet existed). I made a conscious (and transparent) choice to be really heavy-handed in my moderation because I just wasn’t interested in the kind of self-righteousness that dominated most boards. I made a subjective choice about what kinds of tones were and were not acceptable, and deleted comments in alignment with those choices. Some folks chose not to participate in my BBS on principle, objecting to the censorship; others ended up with most of their posts getting deleted but continued to participate; many didn’t care or notice; and a few gravitated to my board over others because it had a different vibe.

            I’m not advocating that you do that, just reflecting on what it took to get rid of those kinds of comments, and what the consequences were.

          2. Mustache Cat*

            If it makes you feel better, it makes me feel better that you also hate it! It makes me feel a lot more sane about myself and the reactions I always thought were normal.

        1. paul*

          I have strong tendencies in that direction and try to self-moderate because it becomes just a back and forth between two or maybe three posters and goes nowhere, but I agree. most of the more….ardent…comments in any contentious thread seem to come from the same usernames (not the same people from letter to letter, but within a letter) and it never seems to actually resolve itself well. That isn’t unique to this site either, seems really common online.

      6. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I think it’s also a matter of perception. The same way that people tend to focus on negative statements (even if those statements are outweighed by positive ones), they tend to latch onto arguments that seem out of the norm. And because of how the comments nest, a position can look like it’s more supported than it actually is if someone reads the full comment thread (which is getting very hard to do, tbh—I significantly struggle to keep up compared to even 6 months ago).

    2. Howdy Do*

      I take it you mean “shouldn’t” be considered assault and I tend to agree, with some caveats. Tickling is such a weird, intimate thing that makes someone feel out of control (it’s a strange human response that even people who hate it still laugh!) and that can be quite unsettling to a lot of people. Without knowing Monica’s mindset or relationship with Rachel, it’s hard to know if it was a bid to embarrass Rachel and exert a certain control over her OR if sh