employee’s spouse emailed about his bonus, I don’t want to do a project with my needy coworker, and more

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. An employee’s spouse emailed about his holiday bonus

My husband just asked me for advice on an issue he encountered today. He is a small business owner who employs around 50 employees. This morning, he received an email from the spouse of one of them. It’s quite lengthy – around 500 words (yes, I actually checked, LOL). In it she expounds on what a committed and loyal employee her husband is. She mentions that our holiday party is coming up and she knows we are making decisions regarding bonuses. She doesn’t come out and mention “bonuses,” rather she uses the word “recognition.” At the end of the email, she requests that we keep the email a secret from her husband.

I am of the opinion that her husband should know that she is doing something like this – it’s so wildly inappropriate that he deserves an opportunity to tell her to knock it off. My husband just thinks we should delete and pretend we never saw it. What do you think? Another issue is the holiday party – which spouses usually attend. If she thinks this is okay, I have to wonder if she will bring it up to my husband. Oh, and for context, we don’t do large bonuses. It’s just not a thing in this industry for workers in his position. They are very well compensated on an hourly basis, which she would know because he has worked for us for several years.

I’d sure as hell want to know if my spouse had sent an email like that. And her request not to tell him makes it particularly icky.

If I were your husband, I’d forward the email to the employee with a note saying, “I received this email from Jane and don’t plan to respond but didn’t feel comfortable not letting you know about it. Maybe you could let her know we don’t talk to spouses about this kind of thing?”

Or, with someone I didn’t know well, I might say that in person instead (since I’d want them to see my face and hear my tone and know that our relationship was fine) and then forward it on afterwards.

2. I don’t want to work on another project with my needy coworker

I worked with a colleague who was very needy on a project for about a year. When I say needy, I mean she had no respect for either professional or personal boundaries. She would call me before I would even get to work and then after her kids went to bed to discuss this project. She would also call me on days I had off even after I specifically told her that I needed time off to decompress and not think about work. It got to the point where I would just turn off my cell phone when I got off work to not be bombarded by the constant text messages that she would send at all hours. She and I also worked on another project at this same time where I did about 80% of the work, and she would call and text me that she didn’t even start on her half and was freaking out about this presentation. I told her that my part was completed and she needed to make time to get her part done as she volunteered to take this on, and she ended up doing her part. In an hour-long presentation, my half was about 50 minutes due to her not being prepared and she only presented for 10 minutes. The presentation was well received and we both got equal credit for this and she wants me to do another project with her next year.

I really don’t want to work with her again on a project and can’t take the constant calls and text messages, and when I’ve set limits they were blatantly ignored. I’ve already told her that I may not have the time to take on an additional project next year as my responsibilities have increased and I will be in a new role in 2019. She has already emailed my boss and copied me that she can’t wait to work with me again in 2019 on an additional project after I’ve already said no. Any guidance would be appreciated.

Are these projects optional for you or are they a requirement of your job? If you’re senior enough to say no or if the project is optional enough that you can decline, talk to your boss and say something like, “I saw Jane copied you on a message about working on X together next year so I wanted to give you some context. I’ve told Jane that I won’t be able to work with her on it, and I’m hoping to stick to that. We’ve worked together previously and I found her very difficult to partner with — she called me at home early in the morning and late at night and on days off, even after I asked her not to, texted me at all hours, and did very little of the actual work. So my plan is to focus on A, B, and C and let her know I’m not available for X, but I wanted to fill you in since it sounds like she might approach you about it as well.”

And then just be firm with Jane: “I’m not going to be able to work on X with you so you should make other plans.” And then stick to that.

But if the project isn’t optional and your boss tells you that you need to do it, then I’d try being very blunt with Jane: “When we worked together last year, you called and texted me quite a bit outside of work hours. The only way I can work on this with you is if we decide from the outset that we won’t have calls or texts outside of work hours.” (And then if it happens anyway, block her number and let her know you’ve done that and why. Assuming this isn’t a project where your employer would expect you to be available 24/7, you’re allowed to do that.) You could also say, “I’d want to be really clear about the scope of work that I’ll take on and what you’ll be responsible for. Last time I ended up doing most of the presentation myself and I don’t want that to happen again. How do we ensure it doesn’t?” (And then if it happens anyway, keep your boss in the loop so that she’s clear on your contributions and doesn’t give you less credit than you deserve.)

3. I’m being harassed by a coworker I don’t want to report

I have a question about how to bring up sexual harassment at work. It’s a bit more complicated than most situations, because we’re both gay women who are closeted at work. It started out with coming out to each other when we were working alone together for the first time. We had a laugh and bonded over being in two minorities at work: women in a heavily male-dominated blue collar job, and being gay on top of that. We had fun, all was well.

But then it escalated badly. She started talking in detail about her sex life, about how much she likes younger women (context: she’s 55, I’m 25), how many significantly younger sexual partners she’s had, and — well, VERY crude comments, gestures, and “jokes” about lesbian sex and female bodies that I’m not comfortable repeating. She also suggested that I come over to her place some time so we could “cook dinner and stuff.” It all made me incredibly uncomfortable. I don’t think she intended to make me uncomfortable, and she’s got juuust enough plausible deniability to make me doubt whether I’m imagining things, but it honestly did feel vaguely predatory, and was definitely beyond inappropriate workplace behavior regardless of her intent toward me personally. If it had been a man, I would have immediately told him to stop, and reported him to both our manager and HR without second thought.

The crux of the issue: She is not out at work, and made it very clear that she told me her orientation in strict confidence. I can’t ask any of my coworkers that I’m closer to for any kind of advice, because it would out her no matter how discreet I tried to be. Same thing with talking to our manager: it would out her no matter what. And, not gonna lie – I really don’t want to report a lesbian for sexual harassment of a young woman, because our field is already very misogynistic and homophobic as a rule. So my only option is to talk to directly to her, and her alone. I have to continue working one-on-one with her, so our working relationship has to be preserved, and she’s shown no indication of toning down her sex talk no matter how much my only reactions are an awkward laugh/hum and silence or a subject change. Do you have any advice for this very, very awkward and sensitive discussion I’m going to have to have with her?

The thing that really sucks about these situations is that people should pick up on the fact that your awkward laugh/silence/subject changes mean you don’t welcome their comments … but a lot of them will use the lack of a clear “stop” as license to continue. In some cases that might be genuine social obliviousness, but in many others, it’s not.

In any case, since you haven’t yet directly told her it’s unwelcome, there’s a decent chance that doing that will get the outcome you want. So try saying this: “Hey, you’re making me really uncomfortable with that kind of talk. Would you stop doing that around me?” Or, “I’m really not comfortable having this kind of conversation with a colleague. Could you stop?” And if that doesn’t work, then this: “Hey, I’ve asked you to stop this and you’re continuing. If you were a man, I’d be reporting this as sexual harassment. I really, really don’t want to be in that kind of position here, so could you make this easier on both of us and cut it out?”

If she continues after that point, she’ll be pretty much forcing your hand in terms of reporting it — but you’ll have very clearly warned her and given her a chance to stop it.

4. Bringing alcohol to a gift exchange that kids take part in

My boss hosts an annual holiday party at his home which includes a white elephant gift exchange (everyone brings a gift, people take turns choosing one to open or “stealing” an already opened gift from a previous participant). This is completely optional and the maximum budget per gift is very low, or you can bring something random you no longer want from your house. My boss’ kids (preschoolers) have been allowed to participate each year which is fine and the kids are well behaved.

My question is whether it’s okay to bring an alcohol-related item as my white elephant gift given that kids participate? For reference, alcohol seems to be very common in my field and even keeping it at work isn’t unheard of. I brought alcohol gift last year and it was the most stolen item by far so I know it was a popular gift. Luckily the kids didn’t choose it to open so it wasn’t a problem. I purposefully chose a more adult, less kid-attracting wrapping paper, but I also want to be sensitive to adults that don’t drink. My team is rather small and I’ve seen everyone drink, however significant others I can’t be sure about. If I write “21+” on the gift tag, do you think that would mitigate any concerns, both regarding my boss’s preschoolers getting liquor for a gift, and a non-drinker getting it?

It sounds fine to me! But you never know what people are going to be weird about, so if you want to be sure, you could run it by your boss and confirm that, particularly since it’s his kids.

Read an update to this letter here.

5. Can I bring my best friend as my plus-one to our company party?

I’ve been invited to my company’s annual holiday party and the invitation included a plus-one. I’m easily the youngest on my work team; this is my first full-time job after finishing college (and my first corporate holiday party). Everyone else on my team is married, so it’s likely everyone else’s plus-one will be their spouse. However, I’m single and like the idea of bringing someone with me, just to have someone I know well and am comfortable talking to with me at a minimum! My best friend/former roommate will be in town that weekend to visit me regardless, and I trust her completely to reflect well on me at a work function. My question is, is it weird to bring her with me if we’re just friends and not partners? I don’t know whether I’m completely over-thinking this and stressing out about it needlessly.

This is one of those things that varies by office. In some offices, it’s fine to bring a plus-one who isn’t a significant other … and in other offices, it’ll come across strangely. Do you have a coworker with excellent judgment who you trust to tell you the truth? If so, you could run it by that person and see what they think. But if you don’t get a confident answer from anyone, I would err on the side of not doing it, especially because you’re the youngest there. If it does turn out that your office is one of the ones where it would be seen as weird, it risking making you read as more young than you are, and that’s not helpful when you want people to take you seriously.

{ 671 comments… read them below }

  1. Engineer Girl*

    #5 – I’d just introduce your friend as “an old roommate that happened to be in town”.

    For many an old existing, long standing relationship that just happened to be in town during your party is a good excuse. People understand that your time together is short so of course you’re not going to leave them at home!

    1. epi*

      I agree, I think this will be ok in more offices than usual specifically because the OP’s friend is visiting from out of town. They’re your guest so the choice is really between bringing them as your plus one, or not attending.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      She should still ask.

      Thankfully we make it clear only significant others are allowed but I’ve seen too many offices where there’s no spoken rule but as Alison mentions, things can get weird.

      1. OP #5*

        I wrote a longer update further down, but according to a trusted coworker (on the planning committee) I asked, the unspoken rule is in fact that guest = spouse. Apparently things *have* gotten weird in the past with colleagues who took “you and a guest” at face value. I ended up attending alone (friend graciously adjusted her schedule slightly) but am considering suggesting on the inevitable party feedback survey that the invite language be more specific in the future to avoid that very weirdness/too easy of a faux pas.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          Just saw it!

          Sadly the workforce is full of judgemental dillweeds. I know exactly the weird talk and side eyes.

          Let me just say I’m one of those people who hears it all one way or another. Even the rumors about me over the years. The jaws dropped when I first started dating a man. Long standing rumors I didn’t like men because I didn’t date until very late compared to the general population. Bringing a bff would have upped their chatter.

          1. valentine*

            This is weird because it makes singles stand out needlessly and people who are strict about spouses-only are also going to bang on about why you’ve not got a spouse “yet” or why are you hiding them from us and on and on.

        2. Sam.*

          Once you’re more established in the office, you could suggest they rethink the +1 policy entirely. I’ve been at work parties where I was one of the only people without a spouse and it’s really the opposite of fun, especially if you’re an introvert. Having someone else in my corner would’ve made a big difference.

          1. Washi*

            As a married introvert, my #1 preference is actually for spouses not to be invited at all. Mingling is easier when it’s just my coworkers who I already know, plus then I don’t feel responsible for making sure my husband is having a decent time. And I agree that also in a mostly-married office, it can highlight who is single a little too much, which is a weird dynamic to bring to work.

            All this to say that OP, I don’t blame you for being confused, and I think next year you could definitely encourage whoever does the invites to be a little more clear about what +1 means.

            1. Jules Verne*

              On the flip side of this, I am also an introvert, but I have some interest in meeting my coworkers’ spouses. I’ve been at my company almost five years, many people have gotten married or engaged, and I’ve never met their SOs because our work functions never include plus-ones. I want to be able to introduce my wife to them as well (we’re lesbians btw). Is that weird that I want to meet people’s significant others?

              1. Blue*

                I don’t think it’s that weird. If you’re friendly with a coworker and have heard plenty about their partner, it can be nice to put a name with a face!

              2. Lehigh*

                No, I don’t think it’s weird. I think this is probably why some offices do it. The hope is that coworkers will be somewhat close, and will enjoy getting to meet the people their work friends talk about so much.

              3. else*

                No, that’s not weird! I like the people I work with; ergo, I’ll probably like their spouses. Luckily it’s always worked out that way when I have met them. :) Besides; you hear about these folks fairly frequently and often even ask after them as a matter of courtesy to your colleague, so it’s great to have a face to go with a name.

            2. Sam.*

              Oh, that would be my preference, as well. But if they insist on having spouses, the non-married people shouldn’t be left feeling like they’re at the kids’ table!

              1. Xarcady*

                I agree. I never took a date to one company’s holiday party because the gossips in the company would have had a field day. But that left me without a partner every year.

                And it also meant that I’d sit down at a table with friends who were all partnered, meaning there’d be one empty chair. And then another co-worker would come along and want to sit at that table, but there wouldn’t be room for their spouse. Four years in a row I was asked to move to another table so someone else could sit at the table I was already sitting at.

                If I didn’t move, people commented on it for days–I had been rude, why didn’t I move when John clearly wanted to sit there (um, so did I and I was there first). If I did move, I ended up at the last table with empty seats and a ragtag collection of people I did not know.

                Coupled with most people tending to talk to their spouse/SO most of the time, I found the holiday parties to be a big pain.

                Now, I could have brought a date. But that would have meant months of the gossip crew asking me when I was getting engaged, had I seen my boyfriend recently, when was he going to pop the question, and all sorts of advice on how to “catch a man.” Not something I wanted to deal with at work.

                Where I work now, the holiday party is a couple of hours in the middle of the work day, no guests of any kind. Much, much less hassle all around.

                1. Sam.*

                  Wow. That is unbelievably rude. The only time something kind of like that happened to me (and it fortunately wasn’t at an office event), someone jumped up and moved with me. If they hadn’t, I probably would’ve “gone to the bathroom” and never returned, to be honest. I was so angry, I wouldn’t have been able to make polite small talk with virtual strangers.

                2. Parenthetically*

                  Four years in a row I was asked to move to another table so someone else could sit at the table I was already sitting at.

                  This is an egregious etiquette violation, man.

                3. Glitsy Gus*

                  Your co-workers are a-holes on many levels.
                  1. Just because you bring a date to ONE event doesn’t mean you’re getting frikken married. I mean, an off hand “Fergus seems nice, it was good to meet him.” is fine, but good lord why do they even care enough to ask about that person more than a week or so after the party? That is so nosey!

                  2. Do NOT ask a person already established at a non-assigned seating situation to move. Just don’t. Pull up a ninth chair or sit somewhere else.

            3. TootsNYC*

              “plus then I don’t feel responsible for making sure my husband is having a decent time. ”

              I once wrote a wedding etiquette column, and this was one of the conclusions I came to–that when people bring a plus-one (as opposed to a spouse or longtime partner/sweetheart, who might already have relationships with many of the people at the event, and who isn’t technically a “plus one” because they should be a named invitee), they end up with a “hosting” responsibility to THEIR guest. And that makes it harder for them to participate in the event.
              Of course, technically that “plus one” SHOULD be recognizing the responsibility to participate in the event, and be outgoing enough to make their own fun (introverts do this differently than extroverts, so don’t @ me) so that they aren’t a burden to their “host” (a responsibility that ALL guests have toward their hosts at ALL social events).

              When it’s work, our spouses are more like a “plus one” in that they seldom have pre-existing relationships with our colleagues. And so we have to “host” them. (But they have that same responsibility to particpate in the party.)

              Doesn’t mean it’s bad–just that this is a common dynamic.

              1. Jennifer Juniper*

                Also, the poor spouse would be pressured to try to fit into an office culture that they quite possibly would not fit into!

            4. Gymmie*

              I think for me it depends on what kind of event it is. We used to have really fancy dinners and dancing at the nicest hotel in the city. A lot of people stayed the night. Def better with a plus one, but that’s what it was, a plus one. It sucks if you are the only one without a SO otherwise. Over the years I had a variety of boyfriends as dates, one year my sister, and one year my best friend!

        3. Boredatwork*

          Yeh it’s really annoying to not just specify that guest = significant other. I’ve seen far too many people assume the other way, and it not go well.

        4. Artemesia*

          Smart move on your part to ask. But I would think that an out of town guest would be the exception to a rule like this for a single person. It is a bit odd to bring a friend to a work event, but not in the case of an out of town visitor who can be introduced as ‘Carrie, my old college roommate who is visiting from Boseman’ which instantly is a conversation starter.

        5. Clisby Williams*

          I don’t think it’s weird that people would take “you and a guest” at face value – I think it’s weird that a company would word it that way if they don’t mean it. If they mean “you and a spouse” that’s what they should put on the invitation.

          1. Où est la bibliothèque?*

            I think it’s such a norm for many work cultures that only a spouse/partner will be a +1 that it doesn’t occur to people that newer people would be confused.

            I would see “guest” on an invitation and assume that it meant “spouse or long-term relationship.” The message in theory is actually inclusive as far as welcoming a non-married significant other–but it would be weird to bring a friend. But I’m on the older side and I’ve been in my field for a while.

            1. Amber T*

              Ditto. My office holiday party was for “you and a guest,” but our culture makes it pretty clear it’s you + partner. My boyfriend (not super long term so far) came with me and it was a lot of introductions of “oh is this your boyfriend?” Last year someone brought someone for basically a second date, and he got a lot of questions from that, especially since it seemed to fizzle out shortly afterwards.

              1. else*

                Wedding dates are the same. It’s unusual for formal weddings to bring someone you aren’t actually dating unless they also have a friendship with the to-be-marrieds and you just go together. Of course, I may be biased – one of my brother’s groomsman was planning to bring someone he’d just started seeing, but she ended up stuck in the drunk tank instead that evening. Much amusement and teasing in his direction from all of his friends, and a lot of it was about his bad judgement in bringing someone he’d just met.

                1. Kelsi*

                  That may be a regional or cultural thing. I often attend weddings (formal and otherwise) with a friend as my plus-one and have never gotten any weirdness about it.

                  Like, I don’t think I would take someone I had just met, because I couldn’t vouch for them as far as “will they make a scene/be disrespectful if they get drunk,” but I definitely would and do take friends who are not necessarily close to the couple if it’s a group where I wouldn’t enjoy being there alone.

                2. Totally Minnie*

                  I hate this about weddings. I’m unmarried and have had very few long term relationships. This means I almost always get invited to weddings without a plus one, leaving me awkward and alone for a significant portion of the event. No one to sit with during the ceremony, no one to talk to at dinner, no one to dance with at the reception. It’s lonely and demoralizing, and people who aren’t in a long term relationship deserve a chance at not being miserable.

            2. Glitsy Gus*

              I’ve always brought a close friend. I’m 41 and have never been in a significant, long term relationship that would fit the “Significant Other” mold. There’s usually a couple other folks in that boat, and bringing a good friend usually isn’t a big deal. Why am I stuck alone at the misfit table with nobody I know just because I haven’t gotten married (because you totally end up stuck at the misfit table if you’re one of the few singletons)?

        6. Eleven*

          I agree on the invitation language being crucial. My old office was exactly the same way (meaning, guests were only really invited/welcomed to our one big event of the year if they were a spouse or a significant other) – however, we at least *attempted* to communicate that via the invite by specifically writing the spouse’s/significant’s name on the invitation (or “and guest” if we were sure that they were married/in a relationship but just couldn’t find the name in time). It was a bit more work for the planners (me) to track all of that info down but it did help minimize awkwardness and set expectations for the guests.

            1. Eleven*

              Many offices/companies do it this way, for various reasons. Our CEO’s main goal with these events was team-building and he personally believed that if people were bringing friends/siblings/casual acquaintances that these guests wouldn’t be invested in the event/the company/meeting people in the same way that a spouse or partner would be, and thus the employee would spend the evening doing their own thing or entertaining their guest rather than bonding. I’m not saying that I agree, but this was his logic. There were also some instances years back of some very young employees bringing friends to take advantage of the open bar, and basically just using it as a free night out and missing the spirit of the event (not to say that older people don’t sometimes go overboard too, but for many of the perpetrators it may have been the first professional event that they had ever attended and they were more interested in partying than team building). The management decided it was just easier to limit the events and give them a more exclusive feel rather than an open door policy.

              I know that lots of places have successful events without the guest restriction, but it’s not unheard of.

              1. Glitsy Gus*

                My main thing for this, personally at least, is I have pretty bad social anxiety, I am also single. If this is your company’s policy, well, I’m just not going to go since events like this are really not fun for me at all if I don’t have a “safe person.” I do kind of get your boss’s perspective, but at the same time, it can make single people feel really singled out (heh, no pun intended) and, often, they just don’t participate, which if you’re looking for team building, kind of misses that goal.

        7. Stephanie*

          This is super surprising to me! I’ve been single for a long time so when I see plus-one for work events I usually bring my sister, which I appreciate because it’s horrible to see all these couples and to have no one, really increases feelings of loneliness. Other coworkers have also brought a close friend. I would be super pissed off if only spouses were allowed instead of letting me bring someone I’m close to. I 100% agree it should be someone you can trust and not someone you just met though.

          1. Parenthetically*

            I’m really surprised by this too! I’ve been a plus one to many a wedding in my time, and I wouldn’t think a thing about being a plus one to a friend’s work party! How strange and awkward (and a bit unfair?) to allow established couples to come but not a single person and their ________ (friend/brother/mom/niece/whatever).

          2. Isotopes*

            My office is the same way – your “guest” can be whoever you want. I’ve brought my sister before. Other people have invited former coworkers who have left. There have been friends. I attended a Christmas party with a friend last weekend and it was excellent! But it’s the kind of thing I think you need a feel for, first. I do agree though that wording should be specific if the “plus one” is actually only meant to mean “spouse.”

          3. GreyjoyGardens*

            Same here! I’ve brought friends to company events and no-one has batted an eye. I do work in a casual industry in a liberal part of the country where being unmarried or in a same-sex relationship is common. I bet it’s really different in more formal industries and/or more conservative areas.

          4. TardyTardis*

            I hear you–I brought my son to the company party one year (husband out of town and turning down free food would get me thrown out of my family) and it wasn’t a big deal at all.

        8. TootsNYC*

          Smart of you to ask!

          And smart of you to identify trusted coworkers that you can reach out to for stuff like that.

        9. GreyjoyGardens*

          That’s a great idea! “Guess culture” doesn’t really work in most workplaces. It’s much better to be candid and not assume that people “just know.” Somebody originally from a workplace where it *was* OK to bring a non-spouse or SO as a plus one might assume it’s OK where you are, too.

    3. TootsNYC*

      I think the fact that your friend is here from out of town makes this even easier. It would be kind of rude to go to a company party and leave your visiting friend at home–bringing her along will make perfect sense in this situation.

    4. Nunya*

      I don’t have a partner , and I’ve always taken my best friend to my office party. I’m at a new company this year, and I did briefly wonder if people might think I was gay, but then I thought “who cares?”

    5. MCMonkeyBean*

      Yeah, I think bringing an out of town guest sounds very reasonable. And I think if there were like official invitations with actually explicit plus-ones she should be able to bring whoever she wants.

  2. Lacroix*

    #1 – I may be miles off base, but my first thought about this e-mail was that the writer may have thought that her husband might be receiving bonuses and using them for his own secret purposes without telling her. (As a family lawyer, I’ve dealt with this issue a number of times.) I still agree with Allison’s advice (your first duty is to the privacy of your employee) but it may be something to consider.

    1. Bagpuss*

      But even if that is the case, it isn’t the employers business, and would not be appropriate for them to share any information with the spouse.

    2. Magenta Sky*

      That was my thought, too. She may just be fishing for a bigger bonus, but she may be thinking he’s hiding income from her. And she may be right. And he may have good reason to do so.

      In any event, she made it the employer’s business, because it’s certainly her husband’s business, and he’s the employee.

      1. EPLawyer*

        It’s not the employer’s business to help her gather information against her husband if that is the case. If she suspects he is hiding money, that is on her, not the employer. If they are splitting up, there are ways through the legal process to get this information. The guaranteed one way to make a divorce even messier is to involve third parties in your business and expect them to pick sides.

        Besides this is pure speculation. Nothing in the letter shows she suspects this. It’s more “my honey works his butt off for you, you better be appropriately appreciative ($$$$) at bonus time.”

        1. Troutwaxer*

          Now that I think a little more about this, it gets even more complicated. A friend of mine worked for a company where the management was VERY conservative and he felt he could not tell them that he was getting a divorce. To make matters worse, his parents also didn’t think he should get a divorce (they were wrong) and fed him lots of very bad tape. The end result was an attempt at suicide, which left everyone feeling much worse. Between the suicide attempt and the divorce, he did end up being fired…

          So my question would be this: is everything OK in the employees life? Is he on good terms with his spouse? Are they in fact still living together? Etc.

          Everything is probably what it appears to be on the surface, but it might be worth looking under the surface, just in case.

          1. Beatrice*

            That’s pretty far into left field, just based on what’s in the letter. Even if something is going on under the surface, it’s not the employer’s business, and the best way they can help the employee is to stay out of it.

      2. Clorinda*

        I just assumed the wife stayed up late with the TV on; just after she fell asleep, the station began a marathon of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and it trickled into her subconscious. If I were her spouse, I’d put her on Christmas lockdown: don’t let her decorate, don’t let her cook, just put her in a comfy chair and let her eat cookies till she’s over it.

        1. MsChanandlerBong*

          She should have ended the email with, “P.S. We are not interested in a Jelly of the Month Club membership.”

    3. PB*

      I suppose it’s possible, but there isn’t really any indication of that, and it doesn’t change the advice, regardless.

      1. Observer*

        It’s hard to tell – if the wife should know that he’s well paid, this is a bit of an odd letter to get.

        On the other hand, people CAN be quite odd. And the existence of this letter is odd enough that it could go either way.

        I do agree, though, that the advice stays the same. Let the employee know, and then delete the email.

    4. Où est la bibliothèque?*

      500 words praising the guy seems like a lot for someone who just wants to know if he’s getting a bonus.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        Yeah, this smells like there might be some other money shenanigans, real or imagined by her, going on in this marriage.

        But that’s still not the business’ problem and the OP can still tell her they don’t discuss that with spouses.

  3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

    OP#3, this sounds incredibly difficult, and I can’t imagine what it’s like to be in your position. I think it’s probably better if people who are cis-het, like me, let the LGBTQ members of the commentariat lead.

    I just wanted to let you know that if you ever do have to escalate your complaint (which I hope doesn’t happen—hopefully asserting your boundaries will get her to back off), you can do it without outing your coworker. Sexual harassment includes treating people differently on the basis of their gender, and it can include sharing graphic stories. For example, if a cis-het-male coworker talks gratuitously about sex in the workplace with other men but not in front of women, that can still be a form of sexual harassment. Because you mentioned your industry is misogynistic and homophobic, there will probably always be speculation anytime someone reports a colleague people who identifies with the same gender. But if you’re pushed into reporting, you can still do it in a way that aligns with your personal values.

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      As an LGBT person, this was actually going to be my advice (though PCBH worded it much better than I could have). I live and work in a fairly liberal city though and haven’t had to fear being out at work, so I’ll definitely defer to folks who have that experience.

    2. WS*

      I’m a lesbian, and I had a sort-of similar problem (in terms of the harassment) after coming out at a part-time job. All the straight women seemed to think it was a cue to tell me all about their sex lives and what I, the only lesbian, would do differently. I was also younger than anyone else there, so it was really upsetting. I talked to my manager eventually, and she must have said something because one day it completely stopped. So I do think it would be possible to ask for the harassment to stop without outing your co-worker, if you phrase it in terms of “she keeps telling me about her sex life in great detail”. People may speculate, but odds are they’re speculating anyway.

      1. Mommy MD*

        It’s amazing that people don’t know not to talk about their sex lives at work. It’s common sense 101.

        1. irene adler*

          Really. Why do they think folks are interested in hearing about it? I’m sure one can find other, more interesting, topics to talk about.

        2. Alli525*

          I STILL sometimes feel like crawling under my desk when I remember this conversation between my boss and I (we’re very close but STILL) that took place 2 years ago:
          Boss: What are your plans for tonight [before your out-of-town-boyfriend arrives tomorrow]?
          Me: Oh I need to get my eyebrows waxed and clean my apartment a little more.
          Boss: Your eyebrows look fine to me!
          Me: Yeah but you don’t get as close to my face as he does!

          And that’s MILD. How do people not die of shame when they make sexually-charged comments in the office??

          1. Lore*

            I once found myself trapped in a conversation among myself (straight woman), my boss (straight man), and his boss (gay man) about trends in romance novels that ended up being up pivoting to being about explicit gay and threesome sex scenes. (Loosely relevant to work because we publish books in that category but still!) And none of us could figure out how to get back on the rails without calling more attention to how horrifying the conversation was. It lasted a good two or three minutes and we’ve pretended it never happened ever since.

            1. I edit everything*

              Ha! I was a managing editor for a romance publisher for a while, and I think my boss (cis-het woman) and I had the very same conversation, including what her gay friends think of mm sex scenes written for straight women.

              1. else*

                I think that’s actually kind of funny, and relevant to context. I mean, if you’re publishing that, and part of your target audience is put off by something the other part likes… Still, how mortifying to have to talk about it out loud!

          2. Jadelyn*

            I…honestly wouldn’t read that as even mildly inappropriate? If you’d been talking about getting areas below the belt waxed before your SO arrives, that would’ve been inappropriate, but eyebrows? Super mundane, and even the comment about getting close to one’s face doesn’t read as over or even close to the line, at least not to me.

            1. Myrin*

              Yeah, I honestly don’t see anything sexually charged about commenting on someone’s eyebrows looking fine unless it was said in a particularly lascivious and leering way! That’s totally something I’d say to any random friend or relative.

            2. TootsNYC*

              but I think that was her point–that she found even that reference to nonsexual intimacy to be mortifying, and she thinks it’s a little inappropriate, and how much worse it would be if be it were more sexual or explicity.

              I can see her point–it is suddenly bringing romantic, physical intimacy into a work conversation.

        3. Dust Bunny*

          Seriously! Who does this? Aaugh! I know my immediate coworkers’ [that is, in my department] marital statuses and that’s it. And I don’t need to know that, I just happen to because partners sometimes come up in ordinary conversations.

          1. JustaTech*

            I’ve had some very frank conversations about birth control at work, but somehow that’s very, very different than actually talking about your sex life in a who does what to whom where kind of way. I would pass out of mortification in that kind of conversation!

            1. Dust Bunny*

              Oh, I’ve had stuff come up in certain contexts, but we’re not talking “whips and chains” kinds of stuff. It was always a lot more clinical/professional. I used to work with a lot of women of childbearing age and there was some ob/gyn talk going around, but it wasn’t lascivious. Nor was it relentless! More like advice on what to ask your doctor for a particular concern, that kind of thing.

            2. LW #3*

              Oh yeah, practical doctor stuff is sooo different from actual sex talk. I don’t mind talking about health or even relationships with coworkers I’m a bit closer to, but yiiiiikes I do NOT want to hear even non-creepy jokes about my coworkers’ sex lives. It was awful.

        4. Iris Eyes*

          Some of them really really don’t know.

          I will say that same gender sexual harassment is something that happens. I think in this case it is significantly more harrassy since there is the implication of something actually happening whereas when I was dealing with it there wasn’t as much of that risk. She was my manager at the time and in general seemed kinda clueless about what was/wasn’t appropriate in a work context. Religion, abortion, her side business in boudoir photography and those were just the ones that really stood out.

          1. Michaela Westen*

            ” there is the implication of something actually happening”
            To me, that’s what makes it seem threatening. The times I’ve been harassed (by men) it was:
            If I let his talk slide, will he think I want to do something? Then what do I do?

        5. Jennifer Juniper*

          I’m guessing it’s a power play to dominate/intimidate others. If not, it’s a sign of extreme immaturity/stupidity. Either sort of person is worth avoiding.

            1. Not So NewReader*

              I think it’s an attempt to telegraph availability and interest. To make it clearer, I am thinking if a man said that to OP. We’d jump on that in a heart beat.

              I think that if a person does not mean anything in an ambiguous way then that person works to speak in an unambiguous manner. I had a boss who went out of his way to make sure there was no hidden message in his words AND to make sure that his words could not be twisted in some manner. He spoke very clearly and worked at that every day. It was impressive to watch.
              One day a customer hit on him. Later I started to discuss that with him, because he handled the situation VERY WELL. When I opened the topic he turned beet red in embarrassment. I had to stop and say, “no problems here, no problems, this is a good conversation.” He calmed down. I cut to my point that I was impressed and if anyone caused a problem over what transpired I would be happy to sign a statement on his behalf. He was pleased and checked in with his boss on the whole matter.
              Point being if she did not mean anything by it then she would not have said it.

            2. LW #3*

              Oh god, yes, it was absolutely the worst and creepiest part to me! A 55-year-old person telling a 20-something person (of the gender they’re interested in) that they like to pick up 20-somethings? I don’t care if it’s for their “energy and excitement about life” or whatever, it’s still SO UNCOMFORTABLE AND CREEPY. I’m pretty sure NSFW talk isn’t allowed here so I can’t even repeat the things she said, but there were references to what she likes to do to “pretty little femmes” (a category that I absolutely fit into). I honestly wanted to just jump out of the car. (Yes, I was stuck alone in a car with her while she ways saying this stuff. God help me.)

              1. Former Employee*

                Oh my goodness! I actually astral projected myself into that car for a moment and could feel what that would be like. Emotional torture comes to mind.

                Having been in similar enough situations (I almost said positions – ugh!) when I was much younger, you have my sympathies.

                I still have no idea how to deal with someone who has no personal boundaries. Luckily, I have long since aged out of having to figure it out.

                Best of luck to you.

              2. Miss Pantalones en Fuego*

                That’s pretty much straight up coming on to you and really not appropriate at all! I hope you are able to put a stop to it soon.

        6. else*

          Definitely! There are very very few jobs where talking about the details of sex is acceptable, and even fewer where the details of your specific activities/tastes are welcome.

      2. Phoenix Programmer*

        This is a very good point and I wish I could bold the hetero women sexually harrassing you part.

        Turning in someone of the same sex for sexual harrasment is not outing them as gay or even mean they are gay. In OPs case, follow Alison’s advice and if that doesn’t work then when you talk to the boss you down play it as – I think since we are the only women she thinks this shop talk is ok but I have asked her to stop and it has continued.

        1. Rusty Shackelford*

          This. “Jane talks to me about sex a lot” doesn’t have to translate to “Jane, who is gay, talks about sex a lot to me, probably because I am also gay.”

        2. kbeers0su*

          Just here to support these comments- I handle sexual harassment complaints and they can happen by anyone to anyone regardless of either person’s identity. So you have plenty of room to take it forward. But I also recommend following Alison’s advice and making it very clear that you’re not into the conversation. Most people who think they’ve made it clear that they’re uncomfortable haven’t actually said no. And as someone who handles these complaints that’s going to make a stronger case from the HR end of things- if you’ve made it clear that it’s unwanted and it then continues to happen.

      3. Dr. Pepper*

        Ew, really? That is super gross and inappropriate. But I’m not surprised. Some folks will use any opening, no matter how flimsy and weird, to talk about their sex lives.

        I like your phrasing of the problem should reporting be on the table. It’s something that can happen (and does happen) across genders and sexualities.

      4. Not Rebee*

        It is really amazing what people will find suddenly acceptable to do to/with/near you when they discover you’re gay. I think this applies to gay men as well, but can’t speak for that since I’m a lesbian (cis-female).

        1. LW #3*

          Yeah, it’s completely bananas. The worst is when straight men start going all bro-y on you and get offended when you don’t want to join in on objectifying and shaming other women, and thinking that just because I’m attracted to women I feel the need to share details about my sex life with them. Urgh.

      5. LW #3*

        Oh man, what is up with thinking that things like that are okay? Both in the orientation and workplace sense. I’m glad you got it dealt with!

    3. Need to be anonymous*

      Ah, I’m on the rainbow spectrum myself, and still groan when I remember being assaulted in a restaurant bathroom by a drunk gay lady I vaguely knew in my twenties… and how she laughed it off later, repeated her actions, blew up when I publicly confronted her etc. (And yes, I won. ;-) )
      It just shows any human being can be a predator, not only your standard dude.

      I think Alison’s advice is good, maybe formulate the warnings even clearer:
      Step 1: “I’m not intereseted, let’s stay professional here.” (as in preserving the working relationship)
      Step 2 (if she continues): “I need to tell you very clearly I don’t want this, and this is becoming sexual harassment.”
      Step 3: “This is my last warning. I know you don’t want to be outed at work, so don’t force me to report you for sexual harassment. Stop Right Now.”
      Step 4: Report her.
      Vary as needed, but make it very clear *she* is forcing your hand and bringing it upon herself.

      The thing is, it’s all nice and fine to protect a minority member in a potentially hateful environment.
      This lady however is *exploiting* that! She knows perfectly well you are under pressure to maintain secrecy to protect her and yourself! It is unpleasantly close to classic predator threats: “If you tell on us, I’ll get into trouble / I will hurt your Mom / you will be put in a home / nobody will believe you / you will be the one to get fired etc.”
      No predator has right to be protected once they have crossed that line. Lesbians included.

      That being said, is there a way to get away from her? Transfer to a different group?

      1. TootsNYC*

        The thing is, it’s all nice and fine to protect a minority member in a potentially hateful environment.
        This lady however is *exploiting* that! She knows perfectly well you are under pressure to maintain secrecy to protect her and yourself!

        And I think you can be very explcit about this–don’t worry about plausible deniability. Go on the attack a bit; get mad. If she says, “Oh, I didn’t mean that,” say, “That’s bullshit. It’s the same thing people like Harvey Weinstein say, and I’m not having it. You are acting just like the asshole men who prey on women–do you want to be one of that kind of people?”

        Stop telling yourself “maybe she didn’t mean it.” Tell her, “I don’t want to hear about this anymore.”

        1. Gymmie*

          Oh yes def. As a person who is getting out of an emotionally abusive relationship, one of the techniques is to make you feel guilty and bad about somehow disrupting the other person’s life. But this isn’t your fault. Especially if you are clear and ask several times.

        2. LW #3*

          Thank you. You’re right, of course — it’s just hard to accept that it’s something that needs to be done.

      2. LW #3*

        Thank you! And yeah, I am sadly aware that she’s basically forcing me to either “break her trust” (which she made a huuuge deal of when coming out) or let her harass me. And it doesn’t even matter whether she’s actively hitting on me or just talking about inappropriate things, it’s still preventing me from protecting my own feeling of safety of work.

        It’s unfortunately not able to transfer. We are a general property maintenance team and a gardening team sharing the same warehouse and office spaces, and gardening (my team) transfers to maintenance (hers) for the snowy months, so we’re technically not even in the same field even though we have to work together until spring and share common spaces always. The only way to change the practical things is for one of us to transfer to a whole other city, or quit the company altogether. Sigh.

      3. LW #3*

        I tried to reply to this before but I might have accidentally not posted it? Oops.

        But yeah, it doesn’t even matter whether she’s doing it consciously / on purpose / etc, she’s still forcing me to either “break her trust” (which she made a HUGE deal of when coming out) or accept everything she’s doing and saying. It sucks. There unfortunately is no way for either of us to switch teams without moving to a different city, literally the only way to get away would be for one of us to resign or get fired.

    4. Mystery Bookworm*

      I actually worked somewhere where a heterosexual woman was let go in part for harassing other women. She wasn’t hitting on them, but would tell graphic sex stories and even (gross!) shared unsolicited nude photos of her male partner to the other women in the office. This was all done under the ‘guise’ of girl talk, and she wasn’t responding to reminders to leave this stuff out of the workplace.

      She was let go after a few weeks.

      1. Sweet Fancy Pancakes*

        My sister once worked in an office where a couple of women should have been fired for sexual harrassment- it was a woman and her daughter-in-law, who would have graphic conversations about sex (the daughter-in-law was talking about the other woman’s son!), despite being asked by my sister and a couple of other women in the office to stop. When my sister and these other women declined invitations to a sex-toy party, they started finding pornographic images in their desk drawers, taped to their computer monitors, etc. I kept telling her to go to HR, but she was planning to quit anyway- and did, after a couple of months. It still makes me mad that these two got away with it for so long and probably got away with it for longer after my sister quit.

      2. LW #3*

        YIKES, what the hell. I already hate the entire concept of “girl talk” meaning emotions and sex, but using it as an excuse to get others to be unwilling participants in whatever exhibitionist streak made her do that? Gross.

    5. Washi*

      I agree with this. And concerns about outing the coworker aside, I think in reporting you would want to focus on the behavior more than the orientation anyway.

      Alison has good language asking the coworker to cut it out, but I wonder if it’s worth giving a really explicit warning if that doesn’t work? “I’ve asked you several times to stop making these kinds of sexual remarks to me. If this doesn’t stop, my next step will be to report your comments to my manager.”

      1. Artemesia*

        I agree. I would never want to report this in the OP’s situation for all the reasons she gives so I would be extremely blunt about reporting if she doesn’t stop. I have trouble imagining someone continuing if they got the ‘If this happens again I WILL report it as sexual harassment which I don’t want to have to do.’ Perhaps I lack imagination.

        1. valentine*

          The coworker has been bold enough to keep doubling down and call OP3’s bluff. She can say OP3 is a woman scorned or otherwise claim their actions cancel out.

      2. Van Wilder*

        I empathize with not wanting to out her but if she continues her behavior after you’ve asked her to stop… Keep in mind that she’s using your shared secret to limit your options for reporting her. It seems intentional and predatory to me. But I hope I’m wrong and that Alison’s script gets her to cut it out.

        1. Dust Bunny*

          That’s exactly what I was thinking. Maaaaaybe she’s sort of lost track of her boundaries because she’s relieved to find somebody in her line of work, in which she has to spend so much of her life, who shares this . . . but maybe she’s abusing the fact that you (plural. Y’all) can’t be open about this.

          The OP knows the situation better than any of us, obviously, but this feels over the line to me. The comments about liking younger women (as though age alone made the OP a good prospect for some kind of intimate relationship), the invitations to her home for “stuff”, the uptick in sex talk. None of that is necessary in a work environment, and if this were an older man my HR department would be on it like white on rice. (Although, my workplace doesn’t have the cultural limitations that the OP’s does, so they’d be on it in this instance, as well.)

          1. TootsNYC*

            The OP should trust her first instincts, which are that this is predatory, and will hopefully stop talking herself out of them.

        2. else*

          Yeah, that’s EXACTLY it. Also, it’s highly likely that others do know that she’s gay, or assume that she is. She has a lot more to lose if she is found out to be a harassing perv than if it’s just confirmed that something they probably already assume is true. She’s relying on your sympathy/solidarity to mask her bad behavior. She doesn’t deserve leeway for being a creep any more than anyone else does. Having experienced harm or discrimination (IF she did) does not give a person the right to inflict it on others.

        3. LW #3*

          You’re right. I’m thankfully in a better position than her re: being outed (she seems to be absolutely 100% closeted at work while I’m doing it mostly out of personal convenience, I’ve told my work partner and would never lie if asked; I’ve been in the company longer, I seem to be generally more liked within our teams, etc), so honestly? If she tries to pull ANY kind of mutually assured destruction card, she’s the one who’d be worse off. I don’t actually give a damn if I’m outed, I just want to avoid the hassle of dealing with middle-aged straight white construction worker men finding out their young and pretty coworker is a lesbian on top if everything.

    6. Hannah*

      This 100%, but I will also add that it isn’t the OP’s responsibility to protect a coworker who is harassing her. If she doesn’t stop after explicitly asking her to do so (which of course should be the first step), and it ends up that the OP has to out her in order to report the behavior, that is this woman’s fault, not the OP’s. Because while the OP could do her best to stick to this language, it would also be easy to lose control of the situation (get asked questions you didn’t expect from HR, etc.) and the woman’s sexual orientation might be outed.

      If that happens, OP, know that it wasn’t your fault. This woman is harassing you and you need to do what you need to do to feel safe and comfortable at work. Protect yourself first.

      1. Jasnah*

        This is exactly what I came to say. OP, this sucks, and your first job is to protect yourself. You don’t need to throw yourself on a sword and die for the female/lesbian cause. You deserve to be safe from harassment as much as anyone else, and part of fighting for equality is the right to be treated as an individual @$$hole, not an automatic @$$hole due to your gender/orientation/status/etc.

    7. Jules the 3rd*

      OP#3: Good luck. Be prepared to have the conversation several times, though hopefully with less frequency or duration over time. You may end up kinda training your coworker about your tolerance. Start with Alison’s scripts (and practice them at home before, with a friend or a mirror), and add to the repertoire: ‘That, right there! That’s the kind of thing that makes me uncomfortable, please stop.’

      Her responses will tell you if this is predatory or just awkward bonding attempt. If she rules-lawyers you, it’s predatory, and you will need to be Very Firm verbally – pull back on all communication except work related. If she’s apologetic and seems to just slip up sometimes, then after a verbal ‘stop’, pointed stares often work to remind them.

      Not that I’ve been in either situation. nope nuh-unh, not me…

      1. MusicWithRocksInIt*

        I agree. Her response to be given a very firm “No – Stop” will 1000% tell you how intentional this all is. If she can’t respect your “No” once you spell it out for her then it is time to report it. If she takes it well, and slips sometimes then you can firmly remind her. If she makes a big fuss and keeps pushing and testing your boundaries, then she cannot accept that no means no and she doesn’t deserve your protection.

      2. Lily B*

        In my experience, people who are careful about plausible deniability when creepin (instead of just straightforwardly asking you out like an adult) tend to act all hurt and clueless when you call them on it.

        “I wasn’t hitting on you! I just wanted to compliment you on your outfit today, sheesh!”
        “Way to be presumptuous! Can’t a person just be nice?”
        “Wow, I thought we were friends! This is how I talk to my friends!”
        Etc. etc.

        It can be helpful to frame it as, “I’m sure you don’t mean to come across this way, but…” when calling out the creepy behavior using one of Alison’s scripts. Sort of pre-empts the defensive conversation about their intentions — since it’s the behavior that matters here.

        1. LW #3*

          Yes, this exactly. I’m SO SCARED of her flipping out if I call her out, and like… spreading rumors that I’m full of myself or something. Thanks for the advice!

          1. valentine*

            If she does this, you can double down and agree with her.
            Her: But friends!
            You: We’re only ever going to be colleagues, so, no sex talk. It’ll be great to be on the same page.
            Her: *spreads rumors*
            Men: There she is, God’s gift.
            You: The one and only.

            You’re extremely kindhearted, so this won’t hurt your reputation. You’re probably quick to help colleagues and to show you care when they’re ill or troubled. People know who you are and, if they want to mess with you, you have room to push back without erasing your good works.

    8. Red 5*

      That’s a very good point, there was a case I was following last year that was brought against a female CEO from a female employee where both were cis-het but it was still being considered as sexual harassment because of the nature of the interactions. The allegations against the CEO were more egregious than graphic discussions (though that was in there) but it still brought the idea to people’s attention that you don’t have to be sexually attracted to a person to create a hostile work environment.

    9. JSPA*

      There’s nothing intrinsically cis-het about giving a clear, unambiguous “no.”

      It’s actually even easier if you can say, “I appreciate having you here, and that’s why I didn’t speak up when I should have. I want to keep my personal life and my work life separate. I like that we validate each other. I like that we support each other. But I don’t want to hear about sex, or bodies, or romantic preferences. I have no interest in an outside-of-work relationship. When I’m silent, that’s not shyness, that’s discomfort. The silence isn’t working, so I’m speaking up. We need to get our conversation back on a professional footing–and that needs to happen right now. Are we hearing each other?”

      This may be news to her, and will also skewer her grand seduction plans. Give her a little space to stew quietly (so long as it’s quiet, and not directed at you). But if she instead ramps it up, you can bring out the big guns:

      “This is veering into harassment. I can’t report you for harassment without outing you. No matter how you visualized “us,” it’s not the reality. The reality is, you need to stop. Right now.”

      For, “you can’t do this because outing / sisterhood”

      “give me some credit. The fact that this is creating a hostile environment for me is something I intend to report without outing either of us, if it doesn’t stop.” [Remember: someone does not need to want to have sex with you, or you with them, for them to create a hostile environment by sexualizing comments. She could be talking about sex with her boyfriends, and wanting to compare coochie experiences, if you were both cis het.]

      Do be clear, however:

      “I never thought of myself as someone who’d risk outing a coworker, but I also never thought that a fellow LGBT WOC coworker would make me this uncomfortable.” and, “if reporting you for harassment outs you, and if that outs me, then that’s what’s going to happen. But we should both take a big step back.”

      For, “but I can’t break the pattern”

      “Sister, I know we both know how to watch what we say. We do it every day, all day. I know you can do this. I know we can do this.”

      For, “just showing a younger woman the ropes”

      “For real? I am secure in my identity, I love myself, and I love the ones I love. That’s nothing to do with you, and nothing to do with listening to unwanted sexual talk at work.”

      For, “but Passion”

      “Let me stop you there.” “I don’t want to know about it.” “Telling me this is part of the problem, not an excuse.”

      For, “I was just shooting the breeze”

      “Good, then it’ll be easy for you to stop.”

      For, “don’t be so sensitive”

      “Unwanted sex and body talk at work is harassment. I’m telling you it’s unwanted. My level of sensitivity is irrelevant, and I don’t want to hear about that, either.”

      For, “but I care about you as a friend and a person”

      “OK, let’s talk about [subject that ought to be safe]”

      For, “I’m sorry, I had no idea!”
      “I’m sorry I didn’t say something sooner. I was so thrilled to have someone who’d have my back, that I didn’t want to jinx that, and by the time I realized how uncomfortable I was getting, it was hard to find the words.”

      If even the sex-free safe subjects keep coming back to sex–if talking about pets, past jobs, parents, favorite foods all seems to end up with a random comment about a sexy coworker or relative, foods as aphrodisiacs, etc, you have a choice to make. Say, “That’s uncalled for here / that makes me wince” each time, grit your teeth, and see how you feel about that level of detente. Or decide that, yeah, she won’t shut it down (whether it’s can’t or won’t really doesn’t make much difference at this point) and that you need to start the process of reporting her.

      1. TootsNYC*

        I like this. I especially like this:
        I also never thought that a fellow LGBT WOC coworker would make me this uncomfortable.”

        LGBT+ folks get the wrong end of the power dynamic all the time. Use that to your advantage now–point out that this is a betrayal of the solidarity that you both have leaned on all your lives.

      2. Clorinda*

        This seems like an awful lot of work and considerable investment of emotional labor on the part of OP, when all the co-worker has to do is cut it out with the sex talk, and speak to OP as she speaks to everyone else.

        1. Karyn*

          These are meant as comebacks to possible responses Coworker might make. LW might try the broken record technique: “I didn’t mean it like that!” “Nevertheless, I need the sexual comments to stop.”

          “This is how I’ve always talked with my queer compatriots!” “Nevertheless, I need the sexual comments to stop.”

      3. kbeers0su*

        This is an amazing list of responses to the whole scope of ways people try to deflect, explain away, and apologize for their bad behavior. Thanks!

      4. LW #3*

        Those are all great possible responses, especially for the one for if she genuinely didn’t realize and is sorry, thank you so much. It’s really important that I keep our working relationship as good as possible since our team is only a dozen people.

    10. Jennifer Juniper*

      I’m bi, so I have standing to speak.
      OP’s harasser is acting just like a straight male harasser. The OP may wish to tell her harasser this. It that doesn’t get through, time to report!

      1. LW #3*

        Yeah. The irony of it is that earlier in the day we were talking about how a male coworker is giving a lot of unwanted attention to one of our female coworkers and how gross it is.

    11. restingbutchface*

      “I think it’s probably better if people who are cis-het, like me, let the LGBTQ members of the commentariat lead.”

      I have never actually seen a comment like this on the internet. Princess, you’re my hero.

      1. Forrest*

        I wouldn’t be so quick to praise her – she kind of disregarded that by giving a paragraph of advice.

    12. LW #3*

      Thanks for the advice! Doing it as a general “she is making me uncomfortable with sex talk” as opposed to “she’s lowkey hitting on me and it’s creepy” never actually occurred to me.

  4. Enter_the_Dragonfly*

    OP 4, allow me to share my own personal office/public gift-giving rules – they’ve stood me in good stead so far and I hope they help you too!
    1. Nothing illegal or that could be seen as encouraging illegal behavior, even as a joke (e.g. a bong in states where pot’s illegal, or those mints that are supposed to ‘fool’ breathalyzes). You’d think that was obvious, but I’ve been amazed at some if the things that show up!
    2. No alcohol designed to be digested, even chocolate liqueurs. As you say, you just never know what’s happening in someone’s family, even taking the kids out of consideration.
    3. Nothing that’s designed to be smoked, although a thrift-shop novelty pipe rack can be fun.
    4. No nuts. In a small office like yours, this is probably the easiest one to get around. Since there’s no stigma attached to a nut alergy, you can literally just call out, “Hey, does anybody here have a nut alergy, or live with someone who does?” The answer could well be “No.”
    5. Nothing sexual unless you are VERY sure of your office culture! And frankly, probably not even then for a white elephant/ Yankee swap kind if event.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I don’t want to derail on the broader topic of what is/isn’t an appropriate gift — let’s stay focused on the OP’s question.

      Alcohol is a very common office gift though.

    2. UnabashedVixen*

      I am not in favour of gifting alcohol unless you know the recipient drinks. 1 in 5 adults doesn’t drink – that’s a big chance to take.

      1. Party pooper*

        4 in 5 adults don’t like fruitcake, either. But that doesn’t stop people from re-gifting it.

        1. Seeking Second Childhood*

          (Ironically, the key to tasty fruitcake is to soak it in amaretto. So if done right it comes under the category of alcoholic gifts.)

            1. Temperance*

              Yes. The only person who I know that ate it was my chain smoking grandmother. Because she couldn’t taste it.

        2. Troutwaxer*

          I regifted a fruitcake and got it back several years later – then regifted it again. Nobody eats those things!

          1. irene adler*

            Are you actually supposed to eat them? Or is that part of the joke – no one likes them but everybody gives them?
            Granted I have very little experience with fruit cakes.
            Not one who participates much in holiday celebrations.

            1. Cacwgrl*

              LOL my grandma does. She loves them! She really likes a specific brand/type from somewhere in the south I think and my mom isn’t able to find it anymore. I’m not sure if she’s not using the google properly, or its not around but thanks for the reminder to check on that this year!

              1. Alex the Alchemist*

                Are you referring to Claxton fruit cakes? That’s what my nana always loved.

                I admit that I’m one of the rare few who enjoys fruitcakes, but mostly because of the candied fruit bits in it (I would pick those and the raisins out as a kid and just eat those).

                1. MysteryFan*

                  Oohhh.. also the fruitcakes made by Collins Street Bakery in Corsicana TX.. they are truly delicious.. Lots of pecans of course!

                2. Aitch Arr*

                  Every year, my mom’s cousin – who lives in TX – sends us a box with 4 mini-fruitcakes from Collins Street Bakery. The apple cinnamon and apricot one gets eaten pretty quickly. The other 2 (regular and pineapple) are donated to a local bake sale.

            2. Parenthetically*

              I’ve had delicious fruitcake, boozy and nutty and full of the nicest kinds of dried fruits (like apricots and cherries) and citrus peel and all kinds of lovely things. Most bought fruitcake, in the US at least, is of the unnaturally-neon-colored candied fruit, sickening amounts of sugar, inexplicably booze-free, playdough-textured variety. It is foul.

              1. Miss Pantalones en Fuego*

                In my home town they have an annual fruit cake throwing competition. I never imagined fruit cake as being something one would like to eat until I came to the UK. The stuff you get here is actually enjoyable, even without huge amounts of alcohol.

          2. Qosanchia*

            While I was growing up, and honestly for many years on either side of that, my mother’s aunt sent out tinned fruitcakes as Christmas gifts to just about everyone. While I’m sure most people rolled their eyes and forgot about it, I always loved them. A fairly important bonding ritual for me and my mother growing up was sharing a cup of tea and a small slice of the fruitcake, since it’s dense, strong stuff, but it was a wonderful thing that I did, and still do, genuinely enjoy.
            Once, in the 6th grade, I brought it in as my contribution to a class holiday potluck, and my teacher, thinking it was some kind of a joke, chewed me out over it, and my mom had to get involved to shout her down. I was probably in tears over it. I don’t remember that happening at all, and have to rely on my mother’s retelling of the event.

            They do last long enough to make good re-gifts though. Stuff lasts for decades. Dense enough to make good doorstops, too.

      2. Magenta Sky*

        While that is entirely true, I’ve never been to a gift exchange where there hasn’t been trading (and wheeling and dealing) after it was done.

        One in five doesn’t drink, which means the other four do, so it’s very likely *someone* will want it. (And the letter writer notes that last year the alcohol was the most stolen gift.)

        No experience with work gift exchanges, but I go to two parties a year with one, attended by dozens of people each, including children. I’d guess between 1/5th and 1/4th of the presents in a typical year are booze of some sort, and yeah, sometimes, kids pick a package with it. Since they are under their parents’ supervision, and being raised correctly, they don’t *want* it anyway, and . . . trades get made. I’ve seen kids pick obvious alcohol on purpose to have something to trade for what they already want but can’t steal.

        But it all depends on the people. I’ve known groups where it would be a very, very bad idea.

        1. stump*

          Yeah, I don’t drink (and actually can’t drink now with my current meds) and have never had a problem at swaps. If I end up with an alcohol gift, there are always several people out there that want it and it’s never been an issue of I’ve said, “Hey, who wants to take this booze off my hands?” I’ve even gotten booze gifts in swaps as a minor (beer bread mix + beer once) and it wasn’t a big deal to swap with somebody else.

          This’ll be different if you’re doing a gift exchange where the majority of people wouldn’t be able to drink (off the top of my head, a sober living facility, various religious groups, etc.), but that’s a “know your audience” issue.

          1. Red 5*

            Yup, I had a period of time where I couldn’t drink because of medication, and ended up with some sort of alcohol at a swap at one Christmas party, and just put it in my bag to take to the next Christmas party as a hostess gift/for the other attendees at the party. Worked like a charm and saved me some money.

            That said, I 100% agree that it’s a “know your audience” kind of thing. I generally avoid swaps now like the plague, but I would absolutely bring a bottle of wine to one at my office but would never bring one to an event with my family. I would be cautious about bringing something with certain allergens to my office because I know a couple co-workers with food allergies, but nobody in my family has any so that would be open season.

            In a case like an office swap where kids will be there, I’d probably err on the side of caution just because I don’t really drink much. But when I’ve seen swaps where there were people of different age groups, there’s always one or two things the kids are going for and one or two things the adults are going for and they rarely overlap.

            And when they do overlap or when you get a vindictive jerk adult, well, that’s specifically why I don’t do swaps anymore.

            1. Justme, the OG*

              I have definitely regifted wine. I don’t drink, but if I did the wine I got would not be a kind that I would drink, so I passed it on to someone who loved it.

        2. Jennifer Juniper*

          In a very conservative/religious group, I would absolutely not bring alcohol, as it would be seen as a sign of dissolution, particularly since I’m a woman. If there are children at the swap, I wouldn’t bring alcohol under any circumstances, because I’m afraid some parent will get weird at me.

        3. Sled dog mama*

          I recently attended a bridal shower (I know not the same thing but I felt like I was acquainted with people there about the same as my coworkers) my then 3 year old was the only child invited (she was the flower girl). For the party games each time someone won they picked a prize out of a basket of goodies. When my daughter won she picked animal crackers and some gummy things she loved that I thought were totally gross. When I won she trotted over and without any prompt picked a (small) bottle of wine and brought it to me.
          I think as long as it’s ok with the parents (harder to tell when there’s more than one set involved) and there are gifts that are more attractive to kids than the booze it should be a perfectly acceptable gift in a white elephant swap. If you’re office culture doesn’t include the swapping part as normal then I would hesitate, everyone should end up with a gift they like and I wouldn’t want a non-drinker to get stuck with booze and office culture not allow them to gracefully trade with someone.

      3. pleaset*

        I disagree about alcohol.

        I don’t drink and never have. But wine, in a bottle, is very very common and I understand why – enough people do drink that it’s likely to be liked. And if it’s not, it’s easy to re-gift. Super easy.

        Oh, I see Magenta Sky says it quite well about alcohol.

      4. CheeryO*

        If it were a 1:1 Secret Santa gift, I’d agree, but alcohol is always popular in white elephant exchanges. If someone doesn’t want it, they can just avoid the heavy packages or swap afterward if they end up stuck with alcohol.

        1. Psyche*

          Yeah, the rules are a little different for white elephant I think. So long as you avoid anything that could make a recipient uncomfortable to have at all (for example the bong or something sexual) and make sure it is something that the majority would enjoy, it should be fine. Odds are it will be stolen anyway.

          1. Parenthetically*

            Totally agree. A bottle of wine or whiskey will always be popular at a white elephant. But unless you know the person well, it’s not a good move for a direct gift/Secret Santa.

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        Not with anyone I know! And nothing exciting & new when I went and asked Uncle Google. I saw many more options for industrial racks designed to store plumbing-style pipes.

      2. Falling Diphthong*

        Yeah, I don’t know what this is.

        Would not steal in white elephant exchange.

        (I’d be fine with alcohol to trade, or keep on a shelf for when drinkers are visiting, or regift later to someone who drinks–in a lot of contexts, seems like a fine gift choice.)

    3. Mommy MD*

      Good advice Dragonfly. I’m voting no on alcohol when kids are involved in the exchange. I think it’s relevant.

      1. Phoenix Programmer*

        Personally I find it really pearl clutchy. Many families like to expose their children to alcohol to model good drinking behavior. Especially in the US where they become legal in college and thus are independent when they first drink. In other countries the stigma of children drinking or seeing alcohol is even less an issue. I mean Japan has unmonitored alcoholic vending machines and special non alcoholic children’s beer.

        1. Psyche*

          Let the kids go first. If they open something they can’t have, the adults will steal it from them. It isn’t like seeing a bottle of wine is something new.

      2. AnnonAnn*

        I don’t get how a gift exchange with both adults AND preschoolers would possibly work! I can’t think there exist many gift ideas that would be appropriate for/appreciated by both groups.

        However, I have seen older children/younger adults (not of legal drinking age) be parts of such things and their parents were more than happy to claim any alcohol their offspring received as their own!

        1. MusicWithRocksInIt*

          It’s a game. If kids see you playing a game they want to take part – even if they have no idea what is going on. It’s not that you need to include stuff the kids will be crazy for – the kids just want to play because it’s a game. I’ve been a part of several very painful games of trivial pursuit with small children because they wanted to play – but didn’t know any answers. You go along with it and their parents will probably do something with the presents they get.

        2. Witchery*

          In our family exchanges, there are mostly adults and 2 kids. We make sure that there are at least 2 kid gifts. It’s fun when the adults get them and the kids can steal. So while the grownups are all passing around beers and gift cards, the kiddos get a nerf game or a fun card game like uno (age dependent, I’d go younger for preschoolers). Maybe two people could volunteer to bring kid gifts? (this would work especially well if they are toys the kids could play with the rest of the party to keep entertained)

            1. Witchery*

              I was merely responding to AnnonAnn’s comment “I don’t get how a gift exchange with both adults AND preschoolers would possibly work!” My opinions on whether or not kids belong at a work party are irrelevant, but I’m a grinch (technically a witch), I hate work parties anyways and would never expect to have fun at one, regardless of if the boss’s little yucky snot monsters are present….

              1. AnnonAnn*

                I don’t dislike kids (or work parties, actually!), but having to scale everything to include tiny children seems SUPER annoying. If it’s a family/friend thing (or even an event where everyone brought their kids), sure, there’s probably a mix of families/kids/adults/whatever – make it work! But a work party of 30 adults and just two children – pass! Send them to bed or to grandma’s house! I don’t want to drink mocktails and give/receive toys (they aren’t even old enough for good toys yet!) because the boss can’t spring for a sitter.

          1. Joielle*

            We do a similar thing in our family, but the kid gifts are clearly labeled with the kids’ names and when it’s their turn they get those gifts and nobody can steal from them/they can’t steal from anybody. We roll dice to determine when people get to pick gifts, and they really just want to roll the dice. It works pretty well.

      3. Parenthetically*

        It’s not like the kids are going to end up with that bottle of bourbon, for crying out loud. I think it’s smart to ask, but when everyone in the office likes something, why not bring it? I agree with Phoenix that it seems pretty pearl-clutchy to feel like it’s important to prevent kids from even looking at a bottle of booze.

        1. Miss Pantalones en Fuego*

          For real. Three year old junior might pick the bottle of Jack Daniels and have a fun time ripping the paper off but it’s not like he’s actually going to fill up his sippy cup with Jack and coke.

          I’ve had preschool age kids at adult parties and they are usually more interested in playing with the discarded wrapping paper than anything else. If alcohol has been a gift at these parties in the past, and the kids were present but accounted for by the parents (eg there were kid gifts in the mix) then I don’t think the OP should worry about it too much.

          1. Ego Chamber*

            Seriously. No responsible parent would give Coke to a preschooler, he’ll drink that Jack straight or he won’t be drinking at all!

  5. Artemesia*

    The Email from the wife absolutely needs to be forwarded to the employee spouse and something should be done to reassure him; he needs to know that his wife is undermining his job but also that his boss is supportive of him. And for heaven’s sake no bonus – or if bonuses are being given out, the same as his peers are getting.
    It is horrifying to think he would not be told of something so damaging to his work.

    1. Neptune*

      Agreed! He absolutely ought to know about this.

      OP, I wonder if it might also be time for your husband to refresh this employee – or even the team as a whole – on the reasons for the no-large-bonuses situation? Of course the wife might well have decided to do this off her own bat, but it’s so wildly inappropriate that I wonder if it was spurred by the husband complaining at home about the bonuses/his pay/his recognition (in the actual sense) in the office/other issues. (Of course, even if that’s the case he should be bringing those concerns to his boss himself.)

      1. epi*

        Eh, I wouldn’t. This guy is entitled to feel however he wants and say whatever he wants about his pay to his wife. And anyway she’s the only one who has behaved inappropriately. I find it more likely that she’s the one who doesn’t understand the industry, or apparently anything about how people are supposed to behave at work.

        The reason there aren’t bonuses is because they’re just not common in the OP’s industry. It would be pretty weird for an otherwise good employee to not realize that. And the explanation– we don’t need to pay it to retain you, so we don’t– is totally reasonable but hardly inspiring. It’s unlikely to smooth things over if someone is actually angry due to their own sense of entitlement.

      2. Observer*

        That’s really not fair. The wife is being incredibly inappropriate here, and the OP (and her husband) have no reason to believe that the husband is at fault here. Acting as though EMPLOYEE doesn’t understand the norms of his profession because WIFE acted like an idiot is a perfect way to make him feel like he’s going to be treated differently because of this. And, really, why should the boss treat him differently.

    2. MLB*

      Before forwarding the email though, boss needs to speak with worker. This is something that needs to be handled in person, regardless of the type of relationship OP’s husband has with this lady’s husband.

      1. Miss Pantalones en Fuego*

        I’m not sure I would forward the actual message, but I would have a quiet chat with the employee in question and let him know that it happened and was not appropriate.

  6. Felicia*

    To OP 1 – I would respond to the wife and respectfully let her know that it is inappropriate. Then add that you are not comfortable with keeping it a secret from him, and that you will give her a month to tell him herself. After that, you owe him the professional courtesy of letting him know (and if she does tell him before then, he should check in with you to apologize on her behalf). Giving her the chance to come clean first allows her to navigate this particular issue in their marriage herself, and waiting a month puts the issue of bonuses in the rear view, so you can address the substance of the problem without having to address the subject of her letter. Also make it clear that she should have no further communication with you (unless it is an emergency regarding her husband, of course) – you don’t want your responding to lead to a big back and forth.

      1. AcademiaNut*

        It’s also giving a level of control to the wife that isn’t appropriate. For that matter, you don’t actually know that this was his wife, or that they’re on good terms. And if you get her to tell him, then she gets to control the story, so you have no idea if he has an accurate idea of what happened.

        So talk to your employee directly, now, and let him be in charge of working out his relationship issues.

        1. TootsNYC*

          yes, I do not ever allow someone to impose confidentiality on me like that. Only my best friends get to say, “Don’t tell anyone” and have me honor it.

          of course I don’t blab about everything anyone tells me, but I don’t accept that sort of “contract” when imposed without my agreement.

      2. MusicWithRocksInIt*

        Yes – engaging the wife in any way will just increase the drama. If you give her some kind of deadline you are coming across as trying to be the wife’s boss. Step back and hand it off to the husband to deal with. Not your monkeys – not your circus.

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      This response feels really patronizing to me, especially since it would be coming from OP’s husband.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*


      If he replies, cc her husband and keep it short and sweet. “We do not discuss employee matters with anyone but the employee themselves.”

      The email reeks of “I pestered Johnny to ask his boss for a raise/bonus and he refuses! I’m gonna do it for him then”

      1. Traffic_Spiral*

        This is a good option. It keeps you out of it and lets her know that you’ve told her husband so she doesn’t get blindsided by him knowing about it – I’d call that a good middle ground.

      2. Wintermute*

        It might be “I pestered Johnny!” it might also be “I think my soon-to-be-ex husband has been hiding money from me, or spending it on an affair”. If the genders were reversed I think the commentariat as a whole would be all over the potential of abuse or manipulation, which I think is quite remote no matter the genders involved but still could be a potential, extremely unlikely, issue, here.

        As a result, it’s safest not to engage and to protect the employee’s privacy, let them know what happened and stay out of their relationship dynamics.

        1. Yorick*

          I don’t think this is the case, since she’s trying to argue for a big bonus rather than get information on what his bonus was.

        2. Observer*

          The potential for abuse or manipulation is pretty much the same in either direction.

          Regardless of the genders, this letter was inappropriate, and the OP would have gotten the advice not to engage.

        3. Avid reader infrequent commenter*

          This is the second time I’ve seen this brought up, and I don’t see how it’s relevant to the question asked by the OP. Do we really need to derail and analyze why the wife would have sent this message? The speculation just seems like an exercise in getting imaginations going rather than brainstorming appropriate advice for OP.

          1. Wintermute*

            My point was more in the vein of “there’s a LOT of ways this could be in reality, but it doesn’t matter– don’t engage with it and don’t involve yourself deeper”. A lot of people could read this situation different ways, ultimately that’s not relevant to the solution, so I think we agree on that.

        4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I dunno; my sensitivity for that stuff is pretty high, and I think “he’s hiding money” is an extremely speculative interpretation for what’s happening here.

          1. JessaB*

            Besides if he’s hiding money the proper response is for the law firm representing the wife to subpoena pay records from the company in a proper, legal manner. Not for the wife to send such an email. But I agree with Your Highness, I doubt it has to do with hiding money, especially when she’s asking for more.

            Now possibly trying to increase a settlement I might buy. I think she just has no clue about industry or professional norms. I don’t even think she’s trying to be shady. She could have asked husband and not believed him when he said no.

        5. Decima Dewey*

          If the wife thinks her husband has been hiding money from her, she needs to confront him. And get a lawyer involved. It’s none of the employer’s business.

      3. MuseumChick*

        I like this approach. Short, sweet, to the point, and communicates exactly what it needs to communicate.

      4. sunshyne84*

        That’s what I thought as well. I do think he needs to tell his employee though, but not wait until the party because that would probably blindside him and cause drama.

      5. Observer*

        I like this option.

        I would let he husband know in person, then respond this way with a cc to him.

        She needs to hear that you are NOT going to engage with her AND that you are not going to honor her requests. On the other hand, you want to limit your engagement with her to the bare minimum. This does it.

      6. Parenthetically*

        I think this is exactly the right tone. I’d say it’d be a good plan to give him a heads up first so he’s not blindsided by a CC in his inbox… from my boss… TO MY WIFE WTF

    3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Oh, no, I disagree! OP’s goal here has to be to extricate themselves from the conversation with their report’s spouse. If OP starts serving ultimatums, etc., they’re only going to get sucked deeper into this weird web, and it also creates a strange dynamic where OP would be treating the spouse like an errant child. It just ups the drama and the stakes and puts OP in the middle of all that drama.

      I agree with Artemesia that it has to be forwarded to the employee, but OP should do their best to step completely out of it from there… including declining to respond to the spouse.

      1. WonderingHowIGotIntoThis*

        Just to put my devil’s advocate hat on for a moment, I think a generous interpretation of this advice is that it’s what OP’s *husband* could do, not OP herself.
        To be honest, that’s how I’m interpreting most of the advice for OP1 here – “let your husband know his options/possible actions are X, Y, and/or Z” and then go back to doing whatever is OP1’s normal role in the household. Or, better yet, just give him the link to this site and let him take the actions as he sees fit – OP has done her supporting role and can extricate herself accordingly!

    4. Bagpuss*

      I don’t think it the role of the employer to seek to manage his employee’s relationship with their spouse.

      The appropriate way to deal with it is to let the employee know, and to be clear that you won’t, as his employer, be responding, as it would of course be totally inappropriate and unprofessional for you to be discussing his employment with a third party or for a third party to seek to discuss it with you.

      What he says to his wife, and whether or not it is an issue in their marriage, is absolutely none of the employers business.

    5. MLB*

      I 100% disagree. This isn’t the type of situation where you give the wife a chance to tell her husband what she did. She crossed the line, and OP’s husband needs to address it with her husband, not with his wife. She deserves no courtesy in this situation.

    6. Artemesia*

      Telling the person who is inappropriate to share this first is an appropriate approach if your MIL approaches you inappropriately or your best friend’s husband is cheating on her and you know it. i.e. it is appropriate in a personal relationship. But it is IMHO not appropriate in this case. The boss has no relationship with the wife and should not be engaging with her about her behavior; the boss has a relationship with the employee and her duty is to him and to let him know the situation. (the only exception I would make is if you have good reason to think the employee is a violent person; I realize that one cannot always know that, but in some cases it is pretty obvious.)

    7. Lizzz*

      It would be very strange and inappropriate for a boss to do anything in the interest of “allowing” an employee’s spouse navigate to their marriage. The employee’s marriage is not the OP’s business at all. It would also be really weird for the OP to respond privately to the employee’s wife, especially while choosing not to talk to the employee about it for a month.

      Alison’s advice is spot on. The employee should be told immediately.

  7. Enter_the_Dragonfly*

    OP 3, I completely understand why you feel hesitant to report lesbian harassment in an already misogynistic work culture, but what this woman is doing IS NOT OK.
    If you really, really want to avoid reporting this as far as possible and Allison’s scripts don’t work, you can add that while you don’t want to out her at work, you will have no choice but to tell HR if her behavior doesn’t change. There are a few caveats to this though. Firstly, while she might be so socially blind she doesn’t know how uncomfortable she’s making you, and simply telling her will be enough to make it stop, this is NOT the case with most serial sexual harassers (how many times has she talked to you like this?!). So be prepared for it not to work.
    Secondly, if you do choose to warn her before reporting her, make sure that you’ve been keeping a diary of what’s been going on and, preferably, write some emails to non-work friends or family members talking about this, make sure there’s a record! If she has a heads-up, she could pre-emptively strike and make things very unpleasant for you. I’m not saying she’s definitely this terrible person who will do that, but without knowing the details I’d say you at least have to plan for the possibility, especially since she’s in a position of power compared to you.
    I really hope this gets better for you, it’s a terrible situation to be in.

  8. Greg NY*

    #1: The biggest problem here isn’t, IMO, a spouse trying to put in a word on their behalf, although it’s certainly not appropriate. Instead, it’s that such word from a spouse is not only biased, but without the full knowledge of the employee’s work product that a colleague, client, customer, or manager has. The spouse may know that the employee is a dedicated worker, but they don’t necessarily know the other intricacies of the work product. The fact that bonuses wouldn’t be given even to standout employees speaks to that. It’s the same line of reasoning that a friend shouldn’t be an employment reference.

    1. Anononon*

      I find it really interesting that this is your take away. Essentially you’re saying that if bias wasn’t a factor, this would be better. But, it’s completely a duh point that the wife is biased. I don’t see how that fact changes anything or the advice.

    2. hbc*

      Well, yeah, if I had a friend who was telling me that she was going to email her husband’s boss, the bias would be my arguing point. “Do you really know how he compares to others at work? Do you think that they should be making financial decisions based on whose family members think they’re good employees based on what they see at home? Would you pay the plumber more if his wife called to say how much he deserves it?”

      But that’s because my friend is so far away from understanding office norms that I probably couldn’t convince her that she has no business contacting his boss.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        Good delineation.

        There are times for this argument, but it’s when “Well that would be wildly inappropriate and make you seem like a psycho” has bounced right off the gumption.

    3. MK*

      Eh, I disagree. Even if this was from an unbiased party, it is not appropriate for a third party to insert themselves into the employer-employee relationship (barring people whose function it is to do so, like a union rep). I would find this inappropriate even from a client; it’s ok to tell the employer what a good job the employee is doing, assuming you are realy in a position to judge that, but telling them to give a bonus, or even hinting that there should be “recognition”? Really overstepping.

    4. Où est la bibliothèque?*

      I think the content/message of the email being possibly off-base is way less of a concern than the email itself being incredibly inappropriate.

    5. AvonLady Barksdale*

      I disagree with this. Bias doesn’t even enter as a problem, because the email itself, on its face, is the problem. A spouse should not be emailing a spouse’s boss about work matters, period. (I would say that a spouse should not email a boss at all, but there are some possible exceptions. A spouse’s work performance and compensation are not on that list of exceptions.) So it’s not that there’s bias and the spouse doesn’t know the work product, it’s that the spouse has a skewed idea that it’s ok to insert herself into her husband’s work life.

      Basically, my point is that the content of the email makes very little difference here. This is inappropriate, full-stop.

    6. OP Wife #1*

      It’s funny you bring that up. In discussing this more in depth with my husband, he told me that this employee is actually one of the best in the company. He and his right hand person had just recently been contemplating doing a little more than the usual (relatively small) end of the year bonus for him and one other employee to show their appreciation for his hard work in a really tough year. Her sending this email complicates that.

      1. Drew*

        I think the way I’d handle that is to have the face-to-face meeting and be explicit: “Your wife’s email that has us in a real bind. You know that money for bonuses is tight this year. We’ve been talking about giving you a larger bonus than average because you’ve been working so hard. You should be aware that your wife’s letter nearly cost you that increase. We’ve decided that wouldn’t be fair to you, but we want to be very clear that spouses’ concerns cannot be a part of our compensation decisions, which are obviously between us as your employer and you as our valued employee.”

        1. Detective Amy Santiago*

          Hmm, this feels like too much up front.

          I’d have the face to face meeting about the email and see how he reacts. If he is immediately embarrassed and apologetic, then that would make me think he had nothing to do with the email and I’d probably still do the bigger bonus and explain that it was something they were thinking about already.

          But if his reaction leads you to believe that he might have been even tacitly approving of the email, then I wouldn’t still do the bonus.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I like this approach. He shouldn’t be punished for his wife’s inappropriate behavior, but he should still be put on notice about it.

          1. Parenthetically*

            I really disagree. “We almost punished you but then decided not to”? Ick. This guy’s wife is a piece of work, but she’s not an employee and her weirdness shouldn’t impact whether or not he gets a bonus.

        3. MusicWithRocksInIt*

          I like this too. You are letting him know you are not blaming him for her behavior – and it might be helpful to him to get her to stop if he can let her know that her actions almost had the reverse reaction than she wanted.

        4. TootsNYC*

          I agree w/ Drew, but I would also first reply very tersely to the wife’s email: “All employment issues are between the Company as the employer and Husband as the employee. Outside interference, even from spouses, is not welcome. Please do not contact us again.”

          And then in talking with Husband, I might not say “almost cost you that,” because I wouldn’t want this valued “above and beyond” employee to think we’d be that petty. We’re giving him a bonus because we want to keep him!

          But instead say something a tiny bit softer: “briefly made us wonder if it was going to be a mistake to go ahead with your bonus, because we don’t want to encourage this sort of outside interference. I hope you can make it clear to her that this bonus was in the works long before her letter, and that communications like that are not appropriate.”

          The other thing I might worry is this: Was he complaining a bit at home about not feeling appreciated for all his extra work? Is that why she thought she’d advocate for him? That would worry me; I’d want him to feel that we saw his extra work and valued him.

          Or was he saying at home that he thought he -would- be getting a bigger bonus than normal, or that he hoped for one, because he knew that he was appreciated–that would be good.

          So I’d want to send the message that he was appreciated, but his wife was stepping in where she shouldn’t. And that though I wanted it to not occur again, I did regard it as extraneous to the “do we appreciate Joe? how can we show him?” question.

          1. Armchair Expert*

            “The other thing I might worry is this: Was he complaining a bit at home about not feeling appreciated for all his extra work? Is that why she thought she’d advocate for him? That would worry me; I’d want him to feel that we saw his extra work and valued him”.

            This is a really, really good point. I can see someone naive absolutely doing this. It’s very easy to get caught up in being your spouse’s champion – cf:, all those letters from spouses complaining about their poor, hard-done-by partner’s long hours, and couldn’t the boss just ease off a little – and forget it’s not your place.

      2. Artemesia*

        I would NOT give a larger bonus this year because that will absolutely encourage this behavior in the future and undermine the husband’s ability to deal with it with the wife. Bummer, that.

        1. Rusty Shackelford*

          I agree that you don’t want to look like you’re rewarding the wife’s behavior, but since you also want to reward the husband’s behavior… man, this is hard. I’d go ahead and give him the bonus you were planning, but I’d let him know about her email, and tell him that it almost derailed this bonus that you had PREVIOUSLY decided to give him, and ask him to make sure she doesn’t do it again.

          1. Troutwaxer*

            Maybe there’s another way to reward the employee at this time? Something like “employee of the month” or “employee of the year” or perhaps a certificate of appreciation? Maybe more time off during the next year? Something that rewards the employee without affirming the spouse’s behavior?

            1. JustaTech*

              See, this is what I was wondering if the wife was angling for, some kind of “employee of the year”. At least, that’s what I think when I hear “recognition”, but the OP’s made it clear the whole thing is about bonuses, so I guess not.
              What a mess!

      3. WellRed*

        Does it have to complicate it, though? Presumably, the wife (nor the husband) knew what the bonus was going to be regardless of her email.

        1. Rusty Shackelford*

          But it sounds like the bonus is a typical amount, and it was possibly going to be larger this year. So if it *is* larger, the wife is going to think her email worked.

      4. FaintlyMacabre*

        Could your husband set aside the extra bonus money and give it as a suprise, say in June? So time passes and it doesn’t seem to reward wife’s bad behaviour, but doesn’t penalize the two great employees?

        1. TootsNYC*

          or in January?

          The thing is, the bonus is intended to make a great employee feel really good about working for you. You don’t want to mess that up being petty or playing manipulative games.

          One of the problems here is that the wife is playing manipulative games. A boss shouldn’t want to do that as well.

          Better by far to treat him like the valued employee he is–which would involve telling him about the email, and warning him that it made this reward awkward for you, and that you want him to know that.

          1. FaintlyMacabre*

            I agree that the boss shouldn’t play games, but it sounds like an end of the year bonus in this workplace is routine. If I were on the receiving end, a slightly bigger bonus would be nice and appreciated but might not send the message “wow, they really do value me” which an extra bonus at a different time of year might. And frankly, getting a bigger bonus with a side helping of “btw, your wife really made this awkward and uncomfortable” would take some of the joy out of it for me. I think setting it aside for a later date would help everybody.

      5. Parenthetically*

        Why does it complicate it? If he deserves it, he deserves it. He really can’t be punished for his wife’s lack of boundaries.

        Step one is talk to John. “John, fyi, your wife sent me this email. Obviously end-of-year bonuses are calculated based on your work through the year and not outside factors, but I wanted to let you know that she’d said something to me about it.”

        Step two is email Jan. “Hi Jan, I absolutely cannot ever discuss employee compensation with anyone but employees. Thanks for understanding.”

        Step three is give John exactly the bonus you’d been planning to, because he’s a good worker and valuable to the company.

    7. SheLooksFamiliar*

      Greg, you’re making a distinction that makes no difference. The wife’s behavior is inappropriate without any qualifications, but her obvious bias is part of the problem.

    8. Parenthetically*

      No, I think the biggest problem here is that the wife thought it was in any way going to benefit her husband to send his boss a 500-word (!!!) email insisting that he’s worthy of a bonus. It’s bizarre, and wildly inappropriate, regardless of how factual her knowledge of her husband’s work product is.

  9. beth*

    OP3: I feel you on not wanting to out your coworker, and also on the tension of trying to protect yourself while also navigating a homophobic culture. Given that you don’t want to pull in HR right now, I think Allison is right that your best bet here for a next step is to clearly tell your coworker to cut it out.

    There are a couple ways you could do this. You could sit down and have a talk where you tell her these behaviors are unacceptable and need to stop. You could do the same in an email if writing it out is easier than saying it. You could skip having a focused conversation and instead call her out every time she does something–I’m thinking statements like “I prefer to keep work and home very separate, please stop asking me to do things outside work” and “It makes me uncomfortable to hear about my coworkers’ sex lives, let’s stick to office-appropriate topics” and “That’s really crude and I don’t want to see/hear anything like it again, please stop.” You could say “I could be reading too much into things, but I’m getting the impression you’re hitting on me, and I’m not interested. Please back off.”

    I know these probably all sound awkward and potentially conflict-ridden, and I understand your concern about maintaining a working relationship. But you aren’t the one introducing the problem here–she is. All you’re doing is pushing it in the open so she has to deal with the consequences of her behavior, instead of shouldering the whole burden yourself. If she weren’t harassing you, there would be no problem–so don’t feel like you’re the one ruining things by bringing it up.

    I also think it would be wise to keep a written record of her behavior and what you’ve done to try and put a stop to it. Hopefully she’ll listen when you tell her to stop it, but just in case end up needing to escalate to HR, I want you to have evidence that this is an ongoing problem.

    1. Troutwaxer*

      Agreed. Give yourself a little time to build up a record of discomfort with this. Emails, conversations, etc. which people will remember and which will allow you a record.

    2. another Hero*

      Definitely don’t assume anything you send by email is private, though. Treat it like it could be, essentially, overheard out of context.

      1. beth*

        This is good to point out, and it goes double for anything sent over work email, where the company may be able to access it. I should have called that out in the first place.

        I think it’s unlikely that LW’s coworker will show it to others. She’s also closeted at work (so probably won’t out herself to show it to coworkers), and this kind of thing wouldn’t go over well in the LGBT+ communities I’ve been involved in (which makes me think she wouldn’t benefit from sharing it socially–though there’s always the possibility that LW’s local community has a different culture than mine, of course). But it’s good to keep the possibility in mind.

        On the flip side, of course, having a written, time-stamped record of LW telling her coworker to cut it out would be pretty solid evidence if this does escalate to a point where LW decides to report it.

        1. Marthooh*

          An email sent to or from work is accessible to management, though, whether or not the coworker shows it around.

          If the OP decides to keep a record, it should be a private, hand-written record of, e.g., inappropriate stories told by the coworker, invitations issued, etc., along with dates and times. I hope the OP can just have one frank and possibly awkward talk and leave it at that.

        2. epi*

          I think the concern is not that the coworker would share the email, but that work email is not private. Their boss or someone in IT could see it. The OP wants to control whether and how she reports this, so writing it down in a format she doesn’t control isn’t a good choice. Email is great for showing that you wrote something when you say you did, but it would also put the OP and her coworker at risk in a way she clearly doesn’t want.

          1. Observer*

            Well, the op could use her personal email for this – especially, for case where she’s emailing someone else to memorialize what she’s doing. Eg She’s asked a friend if she can send her emails saying “I asked coworker to cut it out when she started talking about X at lunch today”. This way, it’s NOT on the office servers, but there’s a record of what she’s been doing to stop it, and an outside person who is aware of the problem and her discomfort.

            1. Camellia*

              NO! Don’t give your personal email address to someone who is behaving like this!

              Instead, you can do the same thing in the email that others have mentioned – this person is saying inappropriate things to you, and not this gay person is saying inappropriate things to you as a gay person.

              1. Observer*

                Oh, of course – all of this is about Person X, not about “Gay person X”. And it’s totally sensible to couch all of it in terms of this behavior being inappropriate at work for ANYONE with no reference to the orientation of either party.

                There are two things that I could see the OP doing. One is to create a separate email to use to send “stop it” emails to the coworker. This way, it’s not on the company’s servers, but boundary crossing CW doesn’t have access to OP’s email. Because, yes, she’s likely to use a real email address against the OP.

                The place to use personal email is in memorializing your interactions with a friend who you trust. So, you might email Trusted Friend “This is to record the fact that BC CW started on NSFW conversation again and I explicitly asked her to cut it out.”

    3. Traffic_Spiral*

      Yeah, I’d treat it the same as I would a straight person oversharing. Maybe one conversation about “I’d like to keep our relationship a little more professional and not talk about sex things,” and then just respond to any further comments with things like “ookay, TMI,” “hey, inappropriate workplace conversation (ala Pam from Archer)” or “c’mon, no sex talk in the office,” and then refuse to continue the conversation.

      Don’t let her get away with whining about it either (she probably will).

      Her: “Well you seemed fine with it before.”
      You: “Well I’m telling you now I’d like you to stop.”
      Her: “Now I feel like a creep.”
      You: “No, but if you don’t cut it out after I’ve asked, it will be a little creepy.”
      Her: “What are you, a homophobe?”
      You: “I’d say the same if [guy her age in the office] talked about women like that.”
      Her: “But it’s different because we’re both women/gay/lesbians.”
      You: “Maybe for someone else, but this is me, and I’m asking you to stop talking about that stuff to me.”
      Her: “I’m so hurt, I thought we had a bond, whine, whine, whine.”
      You: “[Name] don’t make it weird – just stop.”

      1. Jules the 3rd*

        +1 to this!!! These are exactly the kind of scripts / conversations I meant above. Good channeling of Captain Awkward there, TS.

        1. Traffic_Spiral*

          … people are capable of having thoughts that don’t come from one specific internet columnist, but… thanks? I guess?

      2. Washi*

        This is great. Don’t get drawn into arguments about “whys” – why it makes you uncomfortable, or why you didn’t say something before. These are her attempts to put the attention back on you instead of her behavior. Just focus on what you don’t like (sexual comments) and what you would like going forward (stop making sexual comments.)

      3. Dr. Pepper*

        Yes, definitely this. Keep your voice calm and your expression neutral, and remain firm. Don’t match her tone or energy level if she gets emotional in any way. It is a natural human instinct to do this, so be ready for it. Have fresh conversation topics to trot out and be ready to be friendly with her when she is talking about anything you would like to talk about.

        Remember, she is creating the problem, not you. Don’t allow her to draw you into an argument or make you feel guilty for any reason.

      4. Jules Verne*

        I am a lesbian and I endorse this! Also PCBH’s comment above. Focus on the sex talk — that’s the main issue, so the conversation should focus on “sex talk makes me uncomfortable no matter who it’s coming from.”

        I’m really glad that I’ve never encountered this in my professional or personal life, so good luck OP #3!

      5. Oranges*


        Really you just want the behavior to STOP.

        If it’s in good faith she’ll back off and things might be awkward for a bit but that’s okay.

        If it’s in bad faith she’ll double down and then. Welp, you’ve got a can of worms on your hands. It’s gonna suck and suck hard but personally I wouldn’t feel bad about doing whatever it takes to make it stoooooop.

      6. TootsNYC*

        Her: “But it’s different because we’re both women/gay/lesbians.”

        “Actually, the fact that we’re both [frequently oppressed group] is exactly why this is so wrong of you. You must stop.”

    4. snowglobe*

      Yes – the key point being that it is the *coworker* that is bringing awkwardness into the conversation – and by ignoring that the LW is clearly not responding or participating. The LW has no reason at all to feel that they are making things awkward by addressing the comments.

    5. TootsNYC*

      also feel free to be casual and conversational.

      “That’s gross. I don’t want to hear that kind of shit.”

      “Look–I’m just going to say it. This is icky, and I don’t want to hear this stuff from you. I thought you were an ally and a friend, and you’re coming across like a predator. Knock it off.”

      1. Belle8bete*

        I don’t suggest using words like “gross or icky” because that opens up the conversation to “sex isn’t gross” and it’s not worth it.

        It’s not about a judgement—you don’t want to talk about sex at work. That’s all.
        “Hey I don’t like talking about sex and that kind of thing at work. I’m private about this stuff and would rather focus on (insert work topic). Done.

        1. Jasnah*

          I don’t see how that opens it up to criticism any more than anything else. They’re not discussing can the act of sex be considered gross, they’re saying talking about this with a coworker is gross, and the way this coworker is harassing OP is gross.
          “That’s gross, I don’t want to hear about that from you.”
          “Sex isn’t gross, how dare you something something”
          “Yes hearing about this from you is gross, so please don’t talk to me about it.”

    6. LW #3*

      Honestly, there probably isn’t a way at all to say anything without the whole thing being horribly awkward, but f*** it, I’m just shoving her the awkwardness back at her from the situation she created. Thank you so much.

  10. beth*

    #4: Your boss has to be aware, just by virtue of common sense, that his kids might end up getting something that isn’t kid-friendly. I don’t even just mean alcohol–most office white elephant gifts would be pretty boring for a preschooler, and plenty are fragile or have small pieces or are otherwise unsafe for very young kids.

    I think your approach of using less kid-attracting wrapping paper is very thoughtful, and a great compromise here. But in general, I think your only responsibility for white elephant exchanges is to bring something that you think a good chunk of the group would be neutral-to-happy about getting–not to get something that every single attendee would love to have. The point is the fun of the opening/stealing activity, not the gift you go home with in the end.

    1. Amberlyn*

      I would suggest steering away from alcoholic chocolates or sweets, however, out of kindness to the kids and their parents. Some children would be very disappointed to think they had won a box of chocolates and then be told they couldn’t keep them.

      1. Greg NY*

        What then would be considered OK for both kids and adults? Honestly, many things that adults would like might not be considered appropriate for kids (although chocolates would be a judgment call), and most things kids would like, adults wouldn’t. I think you almost have to treat the kids like adults in this kind of gift exchange and let the kids’ parents work out an arrangement with the kid if they don’t like the gift their kid received. That would probably have to be done anyway with any gift their kid received (that they, as a parent, felt was against the values they were trying to instill in their child. For example, a tween receiving a DVD of an R rated movie at their birthday or for the holidays.

        1. Amberlyn*

          To clarify, I’m not saying to avoid alcohol in general, only boozy sweets specifically. I personally think it’s best to keep those out of the equation, because they look child-friendly at first glance. An actual bottle of wine isn’t going to be as interesting to young children, typically.

          1. Traffic_Spiral*

            Yeah – no parent wants to have to explain to their kid why they can’t have the lovely snacks that they got as a Christmas present because “well, sweetie, these are grown-up candies.” I mean, it’s gonna be a hilarious story in 10 years, but during the party, probably a major meltdown over the fact that the adults are hogging the delicious Christmas snacks.

            1. Blitzen*

              Kids participating in a white elephant would be over meltdown age, wouldn’t they? And also this narrative “no one wants to explain X to their kids…” really frustrates me. Explaining things to kids is the role of a parent, and helping parents avoid awkward explanations to their kids seems outside the purview of a friend/colleague.

              1. Traffic_Spiral*

                It really depends on the subject and the age of the child – and here you’re not just creating an awkward explaining moment but depriving the kid of candy. I mean, you do you, but personally while I’d be fine bringing scotch, bringing the “special, not-for-kids, you-can’t-have-them” candy would seem like a dick move.

                … could be funny though.

              2. Rusty Shackelford*

                And also this narrative “no one wants to explain X to their kids…” really frustrates me. Explaining things to kids is the role of a parent,

                Okay, so how about “no one wants to be forced to explain X to their kids at what is supposed to be a fun party.” Because yeah, I think getting a box of chocolates, and finding out you aren’t allowed to keep them, would be a real uncomfortable situation for not only the child, but everyone else.

              3. Iris Eyes*

                Well, I’ve seen people who have been out of school entirely for years throw a fit related to a gift exchange so I’m not sure what age your are thinking is over the age of meltdown in this context.

            2. boop the first*

              Hmm okay maybe my family has bad judgement but you know how they got me disinterested in boozy chocolates? They gave me one.

              They’re not delicious to children.

              1. General Ginger*

                My grandparents gave me the occasional boozy chocolate covered cherry when I was a kid, though not to discourage me, but as a perfectly normal thing that was accepted in our culture with adult supervision (same with sips of wine). I thought they were really good! I was actually very disappointed in the chocolate covered cherries I had later as an adult, because the ones commonly found in the US are not boozy candy, just sticky sugary candied cherry in syrup.

              2. JSPA*

                I loved them as a kid. Still do. (We had a strict consumption limit, so never got buzzed as a result.) Rarely drink, and not to excess, so it does not seem to have hurt me any. We had good stuff, though; a lot of booze chocolate is not very good.

        2. beth*

          I think Amberlyn’s point is fair. Chocolate is tempting for little kids in a way that most targeted-at-adults things are not–I definitely remember sneaking one behind my parents’ backs and being surprised by the alcoholic filling when I was a kid. I don’t think LW is required to avoid these, but since they clearly want to be considerate about the kids’ participation, it’s worth keeping this in mind.

        3. Artemesia*

          I remember a white elephant where one gift was a bathtub submarine; it was the most popular gift especially with parents of young kids (it was an adult exchange). Seeding the exchange with a few toys and not stealing them from the kids is the way to deal with this. There will be adults who if they get one of the extra toys will love it if only to bring home to their child. (beats a bar of scented soap, a coffee mug, an unpleasant smelling perfumed candle or lots of the dross that infests a white elephant exchange) The hosts should actually probably make their own gifts kid toys so they are sure there will be some appropriate gifts for the kids. And yeah, no alcoholic chocolates this time around. But bottles of wine are fine.

          1. Birch*

            Agreed, and cool toys are a great idea! There’s so much arguing about what kind of gifts are good for what kinds of people, but then you end up with these generic cheap things that people are going to dislike anyway (see: anything scented, coffee mugs, cheap candy). Are we really going into office gift swaps expecting to end up with something we really like? IMO anonymous gift swaps should focus on the niceness of the gift itself rather than if it suits any possible recipient since you can’t possibly know who will get it–that way it can be appropriately regifted to somebody who will really enjoy it. I would MUCH rather get something nice that’s perfect for a friend of mine and save 20 dollars than a joke gift or cheap candy that I’m not going to eat and would feel bad giving to someone else.

          2. TootsNYC*

            Listen, if there were a little Lego kit in there, I’d be stealing it! Or, I’d be trying to swap my bottle of booze for it.

            I was once in the Times Square Toys R Us and ran into a Lego representative who was checking out the displays, etc. I was wandering around trying to find a small Lego kit (they had just discontinued the Pods line) for a work gift exchange.

            I told him I thought Lego was missing a big sales opportunity by not putting small kits in places like Walgreens or other gift outlets, especially at Christmastime, because I thought they’d be really popular as gifts for both kids AND grownups. And that an ad or two would help build that market.
            He was very intrigued, but I didn’t see it happen, so maybe he was B.S.-ing me, or corporate didn’t end up agreeing.

      2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        The parents can swap it out for child friendly chocolates.

        You don’t let a preschooler just keep a box of chocolates anyways. You regulate when they get a piece. I think we’re underestimating how parenting works in most situations!

        1. Dragoning*

          Ehh, when I was that age, if I was given candy, I was given free reign to eat it whenever I wanted. It was my candy.

          1. Blueberry*

            Same. I was free to gourge myself on my Halloween candy that evening if I so desired, but I was not allowed to whine about a stomachache later.

        1. hermit crab*

          Plus the taste is not really kid-friendly! My grandpa would let me try his favorite cherry cordials when I was little and I always, always regretted it.

          Anyway, I don’t think OP should overthink the gift situation.

        2. Detective Amy Santiago*

          Yes, but you still have to be 21 to buy them and I certainly wouldn’t allow my children to eat them.

          1. Falling Diphthong*

            And the child is probably going to loathe the taste. Like getting a box of chocolates that turn out to be all coconut.

        3. JSPA*

          Nope. Some can only be sold in liquor stores, and they’re a thin shell over strong booze. For a 35 lb preschooler, it doesn’t take much.

          And there’s no such thing as “standard candy rules.” You can share what was normal in your family, but that’s not some sort of universal “should.” In fact, the jury is really still out on what patterns of access to sweets are most likely to set kids up for healthy bodies and healthy choices in life.

          1. Jennifer Juniper*

            Not to mention a vindictive parent could sue you/get you in legal trouble for providing alcohol to a minor…and then there’s the possible reputation you could get as a child corrupter….

    2. Nico M*

      Make sure the alcohol is something child-palate friendly , eg Baileys. ;)

      It won’t matter because Its going to look like a bottle wrapped up. If there’s any choice in what to grab surely several of the adults are going to be elbowing each other out of the way to get the precious booze.

      And if a kid does end up with a bottle I’m sure several kind adults will be offering to swap it for their present or even a nice shiny note to spend at the toy shop.

      1. Blueberry*

        You’re supposed to do tricky wrapping so people don’t know it’s booze right away! I’ve packed a bottle of booze in a large box full of bubble wrap so that it doesn’t roll around and give itself away.

  11. grinch*

    OP #4 I personally wouldn’t bring alcohol gifts to an event where a child might receive it. I don’t think it’s appropriate at all. I think your employer should state that the gifts should be family friendly. I can’t imagine any where I have worked that had a gift exchange to be ok with potentially giving children alcohol. It’s illegal, for a start. I I accept I might be a a pearl clutcher in this regard though. I have been reading AMA for years and this is my first time commenting as I feel so strongly about this issue.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I would assume that the kids aren’t going to end up with a gift of alcohol — it’ll be swapped for something else. (The 21+ label will help with that, but that would happen even without the label.)

      1. Murphy*

        Yeah, I would assume that the next adult participating in the white elephant would “steal” the alcohol from the children (assuming it wasn’t immediately exchanged for something else),

        1. TootsNYC*

          Or mom will explain, and trade something with the kid, even if it’s after the party.

          That’s what I’d do.

          When my kids get gift cards they can’t use (or that they need to convert into cash so they can put it in their savings account), I buy it from them. I’d say, “I’ll buy you a bag of Snickers and trade you for the wine.”

    2. beth*

      But it’s not really a family exchange–it’s an office exchange where one participant has brought his kids along in the past. If this were an exchange that was openly targeted at families and kids, it might be inappropriate to include alcohol (though this still depends on the group), but that’s not what the primary audience here is. OP likely doesn’t even know for sure if their boss’ kids will be there this year; they have been in the past, but that doesn’t mean they’ll always come, and it doesn’t sound like their boss has requested the event be kid-friendly.

      1. Falling Diphthong*


        Having met some children, I can believe the white elephant exchange would be the one aspect of the grown-up party that really pinged for one of them and they wanted to take part for a couple of years. In the right office, it’s a mild variation of holiday celebratingness no one has to worry about.

        The kid doesn’t want a book on retirement investing, either.

    3. Lissa*

      I don’t think the possibility of somebody bringing their children to a party means that all gifts need to be family friendly, when it’s a largely adult oriented event. I think if alcohol is fine for a normal work event it should be fine here too. Anything that would be *really* not OK for kids shouldn’t be at a work event anyway, but I don’t really see the problem of this – it’s not giving children alcohol in the sense most people mean, as in nobody is expecting the kid to drink it. If the boss has an issue with it the *boss* should be the one to say “for all ages” or “no alcohol” etc, not put it on the workers to figure that out, especially since cultural standards vary so much.

      1. Colette*

        Particularly since it sounds like there has been alcohol in the past and the boss hasn’t specified that it shouldn’t be brought this year. If the boss wanted to, she could have made that request – but obviously it’s not an issue.

    4. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      If my kids picked the booze gift, I would exchange it.

      Like how you go through a Halloween bag or snatch up the cash people give a 5 year old for a birthday gift.

      The boss should speak up about rules if it’s a concern. It’s not on anyone else to make rules for his company party.

        1. CM*

          Relax, I don’t think this commenter is stealing from a kid… most 5-year olds would immediately lose the cash.

        2. Dankar*

          A lot of parents collect the cash given to their children and help them spend it or save it down the line. My nephew would have burnt all of his birthday cash on mobile games, given half the chance. Instead, his mom collected it from the cards and gave him some to use immediately and held onto the rest until he wanted to buy something cooler and pricier. Preschoolers don’t need $50 upfront!

        3. The Gollux (Not a Mere Device)*

          Like what my nephew’s mother did: if he was given cash it went into a special pocket in her purse. That was his money/to be spent on things he wanted, but not all at once. Sometimes that meant buying one candy bar at a time instead of eight at once, and sometimes it meant pointing out that if he saved this bit and added his likely Christmas money he could get a toy he wanted.

        4. TootsNYC*

          My ILs’ family gives kids cash in an envelope at holidays. For almost all of them, the intent is that it will go into their savings account for when they’re a grownup. So Mom usually puts it away.

          (the family can choose to let the kid spend it if they want, but most of them view it that way)

        5. beth*

          When I was little and got money, my parents set it aside for me in a savings account (technically joint, but because I was little and didn’t know how banks worked yet, functionally they managed it).

          It was probably a good move, because once I was old enough that they started letting me decide where to put it, I ended up with over $100 hidden in miniature decorative teapots around my room. Handling money isn’t instinctive for young children.

    5. Yorick*

      Honestly, the kids shouldn’t participate in this gift exchange that’s for the employees. The parents could bring kid-friendly gifts for their kids to unwrap if they wanted them to feel like they participated.

      1. Bigintodogs*

        THIS! Why are preschool children participating in an adult gift exchange? People might feel like they’ll have to bring something kids will like, which narrows the options quite a bit. I like your idea of the parents just giving the kids separate gifts to unwrap.

      2. Name Required*

        Yeah, double this. These are coworkers, not friends. It’s weird to assume that your coworker wants to hang out with your preschool children. Sure, most people do like kids, and OP not only seems to not mind, but is being considerate of their inclusion … but this gift exchange isn’t for the benefit of the children. If your kids can’t handle seeing other people get gifts that they want (i.e. boozy chocolate) and have a blow-up, please don’t bring them to an event for adults.

      3. Isotopes*

        This is such an obvious thing but I didn’t think of it until you mentioned it. How funny! And yes I agree, since the parents would have to bring the extra number of gifts to account for the kids anyway, why not just bring something specifically for the kids to unwrap?

        1. TootsNYC*

          they probably do. The OP doesn’t feel pressured to bring a kid-specific gift, so it doesn’t seem like this is a problem.

          And, kids who are participating in grownup things might like to get a grownup-style gift; who knows?

          Kids are idiosyncratic that way.

      4. FaintlyMacabre*

        So, at one work Christmas party I went to, there was a child in attendance. We had a white elephant gift exchange and most of the presents were booze. The father of the child, knowing this was a likely occurence, bought a present he knew his kid would like so that the kid could participate. Under the rules of the game, people could “steal” gifts once. It was a nifty toy, and was pretty immediately stolen. By adults who should know better. I was not impressed with my coworkers that day.

    6. Psyche*

      They aren’t serving the alcohol to children. If one accidentally opens the package, there will be a sealed bottle. Either another participant or the parents will take it away. That doesn’t seem illegal.

    7. LQ*

      So what gifts are “family” friendly that aren’t really…kids gifts, because aside from gift cards, you’re only talking kids gifts right?

      Falling Dipthong put it really well, those kids don’t want a book on retirement investing. Or a lot of adult things. Like here’s a set of measuring cups, or a fancy water bottle, or some smelly candles, or a mug with coffee grounds. None of those (really normal swap kinds of gifts) are really kid appropriate either. So you’re saying that all these gifts have to be kids gifts? I mean if you’re going to clutch pearls at alcohol, coffee and potentially burning down the house seem like pearls too.

      I hope the parents intentionally put in kid friendly gifts (or as mentioned, and as I’ve seen done) parents swapping or “buying” the gifts off the kids after it was over.

      1. Amberlyn*

        When I was six I started piano lessons, and the teacher had a box of prizes students could pick from when we mastered a song. That box was full of things like fancy water bottles, knickknacks, scented candles and fancy spoons. We all loved it. Gifts don’t actually have to be geared toward children in order to appeal to them.

      2. TootsNYC*

        You never know what kids might like. If they’re participating in a grownup activity, they might think it’s cool to get a grownup style gift.

        I know lots of kids who have been a bit swagger-y to have their own mug, or their own scented candle. Or a fancy water bottle that’s all theirs.

    8. JSPA*

      I think it’s for the parent to swoop in and say, “not that one” or “trade you.” Nobody is “serving” the kid alcohol. The kid is taking a package, alcohol is revealed but not opened, and then it’s being removed.

      No more problematic than if the kid is unloading the grocery bags, and one of them has a wine bottle.

      1. Parenthetically*

        Haha, yes, I missed that on the first read. FYI, grinch, it is exactly zero percent illegal for a child to open a wrapped bottle of alcoholic beverage.

    9. Parenthetically*

      “to an event where a child might receive it”

      That’s not how this works, though. It isn’t as though everyone chooses a wrapped gift and goes home with that gift. Gifts get swapped and stolen and change hands many times — it’s the nature of the white elephant game. No one is going to let little Susie keep the bottle of bourbon (assuming she’d even want it; a farfetched assumption to begin with), and little Susie is absolutely going to suffer zero damage by opening a gift that turns out to be bourbon.

      1. TootsNYC*

        also, a kid who “takes home” a bottle of alcohol presumably has parents who will deal with that.

  12. WS*

    OP 4: Maybe my country (Australia) is more casual about alcohol, but I remember winning a cask of wine in my dad’s work raffle, when I was 11. Everyone was fine with that, and my parents “bought” it from me afterwards. It’s not uncommon to have alcohol as prizes in local raffles or gift exchanges, even if small kids are involved – the understanding is that their parents are in charge. The exception is teenagers, where they might possibly drink it themselves! I think Alison is correct saying to check with the boss, since it’s his kids specifically.

    1. Ruth (UK)*

      The UK is also way more relaxed about alcohol and kids (and I think alcohol generally). We have a lower age limit for purchasing / public drinking and no age limit for drinking on private property (or I think it might be 4 or 7 or something?). As a kid, I have always been allowed alcoholic Christmas chocolates (but typically only 1) if they were about, or alcoholic mince pies (eg. containing rum) etc.

      I’m sure it varies by location and workplace and social group, but I’m used to an environment were children are allowed to taste alcohol, or teens are allowed to drink shandy etc. If a kid gains something they can’t or shouldn’t have (or wouldn’t want) in such an exchange, the parent can swap it for something else later (eg. “you can’t eat those [boozy] chocolates / drink that wine, but I will get you a box of chocolates that you can have”).

    2. Party Planner*

      Fun story about this – I ran a fundraising raffle at work a while ago (in the UK where these are common). After the end of the event we drew the winning tickets and matched them up with prizes, then organised collection with the individual winners. Imagine my embarrassment at handing over a bottle of Scotch to a woman in hijab.
      (I imagine she will have re-gifted it).

    3. Danger: Gumption Ahead*

      Shoot. I’m in the US and won a bottle of Scotch at my dad’s work fundraiser when I was 12. My parents just took it since they gave me the $ for the raffle in the first place.

    4. General Ginger*

      Yeah, I didn’t grow up in the US and I am very confused about the “kids won’t/can’t eat boozy chocolate” thing. My grandparents allowed me to have the occasional one around holidays, same with sips of holiday wine from their glasses.

      1. AvonLady Barksdale*

        I did grow up in the US and while I hated boozy chocolate as a child (the taste of spirits was too strong/weird for me), I was always allowed a wine spritzer in a little glass, usually prepared by my grandfather. (My mother gave me that glass a few years ago and it is much teenier than I remembered.) If I had won a bottle of wine or liquor, or been given either as a gift, I probably would have just handed it to my mother because I knew it wasn’t really meant for me.

        Basically, I don’t believe that simply having alcohol around children is a bad thing. It’s not the same as giving a baby a beer. This is a work party, and I don’t believe the kids should be participating regardless of whether someone might give a bottle of alcohol as a gift. But hey, if the kid gets it, it’s easy enough to just swap.

        1. Parenthetically*

          “I don’t believe that simply having alcohol around children is a bad thing”

          Yep. That seems to be a big thing here among certain groups, that children need to be “protected” from being exposed to alcohol AT ALL. Whereas I think a much healthier and more sensible plan is to demystify it from the start and expose them to responsible use of alcohol throughout their lives.

        2. Drago Cucina*

          Agreed. Americans have a weird issue with alcohol which, IMO, creates an unhealthy relationship or fixation. Children aren’t traumatized by seeing someone drink a beer, holding a bottle of wine, etc.

        3. General Ginger*

          Yeah, same, I would have just handed a bottle of wine or w/e to a parent. I agree that the kids probably shouldn’t be participating in the first place — but if they do, and get the alcohol? Really not a big deal, just swap it out.

      2. Jennifer Juniper*

        It’s the look of the thing. Alcohol is associated with dissolution, moral license, disease, drunk driving, and promiscuity in some parts of the US (Bible Belt). Not to mention unhealthy lifestyles and a lack of enlightenment in some ultra-progressive holistic circles. With all that stigma, is it any wonder Americans freak out about their children coming in any contact at all with alcohol in any form?

    5. Snow Drift*

      Aussies seem much more casual about alcohol than people in the U.S., but I imagine y’all need to keep it on hand at all times to flush out venomous bites. :p

  13. Yikes*

    OP 3: I’m a lesbian, and used to practice employment law. What your coworker is doing is absolutely sexual harassment, at least in the popular sense that she’s creating an uncomfortable work environment by coming on to you. The fact that she’s left room for any plausible deniability suggests to me that she’s a pro at being manipulative, not that this is in fact some innocent mistake.

    Still, I completely understand and identify with your desire to keep this private. I would probably say something like, “Melissa, I know we talk about a lot of personal stuff, but talking about sex, or anything relating to sex, at work with a coworker makes me extremely uncomfortable. I’m going to have to draw this as a hard boundary in our friendship, because I really don’t like talking about or hearing about sex at work.” From there on out, if she brings it up, I’d just circle back with a simple, “I’ve said I don’t want to talk about sex at work, and that hasn’t changed.” I think Allison’s script of a somewhat veiled threat to report her should be the nuclear option, particularly since it sounds like you aren’t actually willing to report her. Additionally, I’d personally try to use the softer language here first, because if she’s being so gross and manipulative with all this “I loooooooove dating younger women *wink wink*” stuff, she’s probably prone to other types of lousy conduct. Depending on where you live, besides potentially burning you at work, she could also make life really challenging for you in the local gay community. I’ve lived in small communities where someone with a big ego can wield power because no one wants to deal with standing up to them. I don’t mean to assume that because you’re not out at work, that you’re also not out in general, but because of your age and the way you frame this issue I suspect that may be the case, so that’s why I throw in the bit about navigating life in the local LGBT community at large.

    Finally, be kind to yourself. Being closeted professionally is a legitimate and sometimes necessary choice, but it absolutely takes its toll. Self-care is key. Know that you have options, now and down the road, even if it doesn’t always seem that way.

    1. Snickerdoodle*

      Yes, “plausible deniability” really isn’t plausible or deniable, especially when the comments are so obvious. That paper thin veneer is what manipulative people use to pressure you into not saying anything, because you feel like you have nothing to call them out on because they didn’t “technically” do anything wrong. *eyeroll* It also suggests a lot of previous experience with that kind of behavior; they’ve learned what they can get away with and how. This creepy woman is sure to have harassed plenty of other people in very similar ways.

      I am fortunate enough to not work in a crappy environment like the OP’s, and our harassment/discrimination policy makes sure to include innuendo, verbal or nonverbal. It also says that “Conduct that is discriminatory or offensive to a reasonable person is inappropriate in the workplace and violates this policy, even if it does not meet the legal definition of unlawful misconduct.” That was awesome for me to have handy when I complained about a creepy guy on vanpool. He 100% tried to use plausible deniability, keeping the language in his emails strictly professional even though he was emailing me about non-work-related topics without response, visiting me at my cube with paper thin excuses, etc. “Luckily,” he crossed a line by constantly talking about sexual harassment victims in a dismissive, condescending way, which, even without the other stuff, nailed him. I documented and reported everything, and he got kicked off vanpool and told to never contact me again.

      Anyway, I think the OP should check into her company’s harassment policy and prepare to report it, though I’m sure that, based on what she said, they wouldn’t do anything about it. However, a company not dealing appropriately with harassment (inaction, retaliation, etc.) is opening itself up to legal trouble. This sounds like the kind of company that would absolutely fail to act and then retaliate and otherwise make life miserable for the OP, so if I were the OP, I’d probably consider job hunting. A misogynistic, homophobic environment is not where you want to be.

      1. LW #3*

        Those are all really excellent points, thank you! Our company has a pretty solid harassment policy (at least in theory), so I think I’d be fine if I did end up having to report it. The things she said were explicit enough to get her into trouble.

        Unfortunately the misogyny/homophobia is not a company-specific issue, but a field-specific. Here at least, it’s the rule rather than the exception in construction/maintenance-based blue collar fields. It sucks. Hopefully when the baby boomers and older gen x-ers retire, it’ll be better.

          1. LW #3*

            Oh, I didn’t realize that some of them were being moderated, I just assumed it would go straight through since the shorter replies did. Thanks so much!

    2. CM*

      This is great advice. I also think OP#3 needs to get comfortable with being less nice and more assertive. Maybe she could practice with a friend or in front of the mirror at home. When somebody is being creepy, an awkward laugh won’t put them off — it signals to them that you’re not going to say anything and they can keep pushing. It will feel really uncomfortable at first to say out loud, “No, this is not acceptable and I need you to stop,” but it will get easier with practice.

      1. Yikes*

        Practicing is a great idea. The truth is that for some creeps, the awkward laugh and discomfort is part of what they’re looking for. Upsetting the other person in that way is literally a goal. What they are decidedly not looking for is an assertive response setting a clear boundary.

    3. TootsNYC*

      Just want to highlight this, in case it was hidden by the rest of the great advice:

      ?The fact that she’s left room for any plausible deniability suggests to me that she’s a pro at being manipulative, not that this is in fact some innocent mistake.”

    4. LW #3*

      Thank you so much for the excellent advice. The LGBT community thing isn’t an issue because I’m essentially a hermit haha, but I really do need to keep a decent working relationship with her, so these are really solid, non-aggressive options to say.

  14. Amberlyn*

    OP3, sometimes (and I’m not saying this is the case here, necessarily, just raising the possibility) sexual harassers can be very deliberate in using your good nature against you. She may fully realize that your unwillingness to out her without her consent makes you a captive audience. It may be valuable to keep that possibility in mind, in case direct confrontation leads her to more overt attempts at manipulation—things like, “Don’t you realize what will happen to me if you go to HR?” If that should happen, just remember: you have a right to safety, and you deserve to protect yourself from unwanted sexual advances, including verbal ones.

    1. Decima Dewey*

      “Don’t you realize what will happen to me if you go to HR?”

      Answer: “Yes, I do. That’s why you should stop. Immediately.”

  15. OP #5*

    As OP of #5, here’s an update: soon after submitting my question to Alison, I went and spoke to my Exec. Director’s EA, who is one of the main members of the party planning committee, sent out the invite, would know better than anyone, etc. What followed was kind of awkward – when I politely floated the question of bringing my close friend who was visiting regardless, she was visibly uncomfortable when she told me that the party was intended to celebrate the company and that it was a courtesy that spouses are invited. She said that while people have brought non-spouses before, (obviously negative) “comments” have been made. At the end of the conversation, she said that ultimately it was a question for my manager, but her answer was pretty clear: the unspoken rule in our office culture is that “guest” really means “spouse.”

    Here’s the thing: the invitation specifically says “you and a guest” are invited. Although I’m one of the youngest in my office, I am generally pretty sensitive to social dynamics/can read a room well, but I wouldn’t have known unless I asked! It’s kind of upsetting to me that the invite is consistently that vague, and that other coworkers who have taken it at face value have then been subject to negative “comments” from other colleagues, in what is normally a pretty nice, open work environment. The wording and reliance on an unspoken rule makes it way too easy to commit a faux pas, in my opinion. (FWIW, I ran this by my mom, who’s fairly high up in HR in her own company – thus a good secondary sounding board for work questions after AAM – and she said she thought it was really unfair I was discouraged from bringing a guest just because I’m single, but even more so that people who take the invite at face value are then essentially put down for it. She actually got fairly mad that that’s the culture where I work, which was initially a surprising reaction to me but validated the disappointment/less enthusiasm re: attending/vague feelings of hurt I was experiencing).

    So here’s what I’d like some feedback on: there are two parts to this, in my view. The first is that the invite language makes it easy for those who are unmarried/younger to mess this up, and the second is that frankly it’s BS that you have to go alone unless you’re partnered. Idealistically, my romantic status is no one’s business, least of all professional colleagues, but I know that as an overall cultural aspect to this workplace, I don’t really have the capital to address the latter. However, I know that the EA will most likely send out a request for feedback on the party, and I’m considering sending her a polite email thanking her for being candid with me when I went to her with the question, but that if possible, the wording on the invitation could be tweaked in the future to make it clearer for everyone? The inconsistency between saying “guest” when they really mean “spouse” makes the right thing to do unclear; I otherwise wouldn’t have known, and apparently some of my colleagues haven’t thought to ask, drawing criticism.

    The party was this past Friday, and it was nice enough, but predictably a little awkward to go alone. I ended up chatting mostly with a team member’s lovely wife, and stuck fairly close to my immediate team. Ironically, I know for sure that my best friend would have acted better/more respectfully than several spouses that colleagues did bring!!

    Thanks so much for your answer, Alison, and thanks to the awesome commenting community here for any feedback/thoughts you have for me :)

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      You’ll run into a lot of unspoken rules over the course of your career. It’s due to people being too scared of putting things in writing. It’s chicken shht behavior but that’s the dance that you’ll see countless times.

      I say this as someone also in HR. I don’t dance and all invites say “significant others”, we also say that when announcing the pre-planning so everyone who wants to come can start preparing.

      You’ll scorch the toosh of that EA if you give feedback as well. I’ll not pleased with her response being so veiled, at that point you just cut the crap and tell the person straight out the story. You don’t act like it’s distasteful to have a newer employee do the right thing and ask. Argh.

      1. OP #5*

        Yeah, I’m going to thank her for being candid with me when I asked, and then essentially be like “please be as candid on the actual invite thanks!!”

        1. OP #5*

          She needlessly made it an awkward interaction by just how uncomfortable she clearly was to have to tell it to me straight, which IMO indicates she knows she’s somewhat in the wrong.

          1. Wintermute*

            To be completely hyperbolic, if I had to explain a lot of other workplace norms it might be awkward too, I wouldn’t be “in the wrong” for explaining them, just that it’s a tough conversation to have with a co-worker and I might be wondering if things I thought were made clear were more ambiguous than I thought.

            Don’t worry though you’re not alone. at a job long ago we tried to have this conversation with one co-worker several times, and my boss was really trying to be a mentor to this guy…and he still brought some random guy he owed a night out–THAT was awkward.

            If you’re otherwise doing a good job and are just working out workplace culture norms, these things will happen and no one will make a big deal of them as you navigate your way through. We’ve all made faux pas before, and you were smart enough to check yourself before you even got to faux pas level, which I’d say reflects well on your professionalism as a whole and probably is noticed.

            1. Falling Diphthong*

              Yes. There are lots of contexts where people didn’t think they had to explain what unwritten rules are in place around, say, “When Julia asks if she can help, you should only say yes if ___.” That they are unwritten and people feel awkward delineating them does NOT mean that those people feel awkward about the rule existing and realize that it must be wrong.

              An interesting twist that’s come up here before is the young person noticing just enough of the office norms to intuit a broad rule, and then applying it to themselves in the wrong context. e.g. “If Joe can sit at his desk and read while he waits for his ride, then when I finish up at 5 I can call my friend on speaker and launch into a large project involving glue guns.”

              1. valentine*

                But explaining rules to younger/newer people is part of the job. And if guest=spouse, then you don’t just have to be partnered, you have to be married. Does your marriage have to be legally recognized by the country you’re in or have involved a Christian church? What other unspoken nonsense is involved here? It’s not illegal to have a spouses-only rule, so why keep it unspoken and be needlessly awkward about it? “Guest means spouse.” There. Done. Of course, I’d also want to explain why I’m not allowed to use the word spouse on the invite, because I hate doing stupid things when there are better options.

          2. Kathleen_A*

            Alison’s right (as usual :-) ) that it’s incredibly common for company parties to be limited to employees only or employees+spouse. It’s also pretty common for spouses and significant others (fiancees/fiances, serious boy/girlfriends) to be invited. It’s considerably less common for the employees to be allowed to bring any plus one they choose.

            So I also rather doubt that the HR person felt she was in the wrong. I mean, it’s not wrong for the company to limit its guest list so long as it does so fairly and uniformly, so why should she? But the invitation should be clear, and it absolutely shouldn’t be a big deal for a new employee to ask for clarification.

            1. Psyche*

              I would agree that the policy itself is not uncommon and not wrong, but I do think that they need to be more clear on the invitation. It is also common for people to be allowed to bring any guest they want, so they do need to specify if they mean significant others only. Furthermore, when asked directly if they can bring a friend, it is unnecessarily awkward to dance around the answer. It would have been very simple to say “Unfortunately, this event is for employees and significant others only.” or even “I probably wouldn’t bring a friend. Someone did a few years ago and there were a lot of negative comments.”

              1. Kathleen_A*

                Well, I very much agree. I thought I made that clear in my original post, so my apologies if that wasn’t so.

              2. Artemesia*

                Our workplace always made the invitation for employees and their SOs. I think an out of town guest would have been welcomed but the norm was SOs. This workplace needs to word the invitation that way: SO covers all the variations — married couples, those seriously dating or engaged, gay or straight etc.

              3. CmdrShepard4ever*

                My partners company allows them to bring a plus one, but it explicitly says “Please limit this to a significant other or close family.” In the past people have brought parents, siblings, and kids. I interpret close family as meaning immediate family, but I can see someone taking it to mean a family member that you are really close with bribing a cousin or aunt/uncle that a person is particularly close with. I personally would not care if this happened, but I can defiantly see other people at the company making “comments” about so and so bring a cousin.

              4. GreyjoyGardens*

                I agree. “Ask” is superior to “Guess” at work; the norms are different across industries, regions, and individual companies. If the policy is “spouses or SO’s only” then you really need to say so. Allowing people to make what is a faux pas for your company, only to be scolded and gossiped about later, is passive-aggressive and cruel.

                I’ve worked in companies where it was the norm to be allowed to bring a friend or family member other than a SO. But obviously it’s not the norm everywhere. And where I, personally, draw the line is situations like the lady in a previous letter who used the office as free day care AND she brought her entire extended family to a company party where they proceeded to raid the food and liquor. *That* is pretty obviously out of line.

    2. Sarah*

      Missed this before my comment below. I would assume “guest” is used because “spouse” only applies to those who are married, while IME long-term/live-in significant others are also included in the courtesy.

      But I totally agree that going to a work party single suuuuuckkksss.

      1. Asenath*

        We switched from “spouse” to “guest” some years back specifically to clarify who we meant – and we meant everyone, spouse, partner, sibling, parent, visiting (or local) friend, etc. Mostly it works well, although for one event we sometimes have people turning up with extras – usually visiting relatives. I think once someone came with three “a guest”, but they were all welcomed anyway. On of my least favourite jobs is coming up with a good estimate of who will be attending when many people don’t RSVP and others bring along a spouse and two or three adult children and/or in-laws.

        1. Amberlyn*

          This seems to be an unpopular opinion here, but I think that’s a wonderful change. I have family members who have been single all their lives and who have fallen into close but non-romantic partnerships with siblings or roommates. They’ve expressed to me in the past that they feel more than a little marginalized that the people they share their lives with are less welcome simply because it isn’t a romantic relationship—but that’s still the person supporting them.

          1. Becky*

            I agree with you! I’m single and, frankly, at this point unlikely to get into a serious relationship at this point. On a number of company event invitations they specified married individuals could bring their family and singles could bring one guest–didn’t have to be a significant other. I have brought a close friend to the company party at a water park and a different friend’s teenage daughter to an aquarium the company was given exclusive access to prior to opening. One of my single co-workers regularly brings his nephew to the holiday party.

        2. GreyjoyGardens*

          As long as it wasn’t like the lady in a previous letter – the one who also used the office as free after-school child care – who brought her entire, and very hungry, extended family with her to an office party, where they proceeded to devour everything in sight.

          One guest? Great. Two? Can be acceptable. A whole locust-like entourage who treat the office party like a free buffet? NO WAY.

      2. Alexis Rose*

        When I did invites that were intended for spouse-like guests, I used the language “Spouses and partners welcome” to also include those who weren’t “married” per se. However, if someone had brought a close friend with them as a plus one, I don’t think I would have batted an eye as long as they RSVPed so I could ensure there was enough food!!!

        1. Jules Verne*

          I think “spouses and partners” or “significant others” strikes a good middle ground. There’s a way to be less ambiguous and imo companies should make a good faith effort to not be ambiguous.

      3. Jules the 3rd*

        Hunh. I can’t imagine my spouse having anything like a decent time at a work party (our fields are VERY different), and wouldn’t actually take him if there were any room for him to not go. I’d have more fun on my own.

      4. Falling Diphthong*

        It strikes me as analogous to wedding invitations, but while the advice there if you mean “established monogamous social partner” is “find out people’s names and send them an invite,” that’s a much weirder question to be directing at your employees. A lot of people don’t like to talk about their separation or divorce at work.

      5. Kathleen_A*

        Personally – and I absolutely realize this is personal preference – I don’t find that going to a work party on my own suuuuuckkkssss. :-) I’ve been married, like, forEVER, but I never bring my husband to such things even when he’s invited because there are few things more boring than a party consisting primarily of one’s spouse’s coworkers. So he’d spend a lot of the time being bored, and I would feel as though it was my responsibility to make sure he’s entertained. Coming alone sounds, and is, so much better, IMO.

        My current workplace always makes the Christmas party employees only, but when they do have employee+spouse/significant other events, I don’t bring him to those either. I’d rather just go, mingle a bit, enjoy whatever free food/beverages/entertainment is offered, and then leave.

        1. Totally Minnie*

          I think that’s different. You have the option of bringing a guest to the office party if you want to. In the OP’s situation, her coworkers got to invite a guest to the office party and she wasn’t allowed to, simply because she’s not married. And that’s not in any way fair or okay. I think either every employee should have the option of a plus one, or the party should be employees only.

          1. Kathleen_A*

            That sounds fair, but that wasn’t really the point I was trying to make. I was merely providing a counterpoint to Sarah’s position that “going to a work party single suuuuuckkksss.” For me, it does not – in fact, I much prefer going to such parties without my spouse – but I freely concede that YMMV.

    3. Amberlyn*

      I would absolutely offer that feedback, ideally with phrasing that makes it sound like a helpful suggestion rather than a complaint (“I seem to recall you mentioning some concerns with people bringing guests other than their spouses. Maybe using more specific wording on the invitation will help! For example, ‘You and your spouse are invited…’”)

      A moment of speculation: is it possible the reason for the vague wording is that it allows the company to treat single people a bit unfairly while maintaining deniability?

      1. Myrin*

        I’m not quite getting your last sentence – do you mean the company actively wants to be mean to single people and, with those ambiguous invitations, has finally found a way to do it?

        1. Amberlyn*

          More that they recognize it isn’t fair to single people that they allow spouses and not friends or dates, and the wording makes it possible for them to claim that everybody is technically welcome to bring a guest—only their behavior makes it clear that that isn’t the case.

          1. OP #5*

            This is what I’ve been thinking as well; wording it that way gives them a fair amount of plausible deniability, and the “rule” remains unspoken. /Sigh.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I really don’t think that’s the case, and you’re reading more into this than you should be. It’s more likely that they’re just assuming everyone understands the rule, and then they felt awkward having to tell you no.

              1. JamieS*

                You’re probably right but that’s a ridiculous assumption and saying someone can bring any guest when you mean “spouse or significant partner only” is misleading even if it’s a common practice and misleading people and then holding it against them when they don’t read your mind is flat out wrong.

            2. TL -*

              I don’t think so – it’s quite normal to only invite SO’s to work functions. It also relieves some of the social stress off the other guests/coworkers – when it comes to my coworkers, I really only want to know about the stable, permanent people in their lives rather than having to remember a rotating cast list of guests, especially if I’m introduced to them.
              Often with coworkers you know a fair bit about their lives without knowing the intimate or emotionally charged details, so I don’t want to have to try to figure out if this person is important enough that I should ask about them/remember their name/ect when they introduce me to someone. Especially since it can feel really rude to not know the pertinent details for someone you talk to multiple days a week, but it will also feel really rude to ask a coworker!

              1. Myrin*

                I’m totally with you and Alison in this (and before reading comments about it on AAM, I never would’ve thought bringing someone other than your partner to a company event is a thing people did or even wanted to do) but I do feel the need to point out a caveat: since there already seem to have been several misunderstandings by several people in the past about exactly this “guest” wording (followed by negative comments by others), it does seem prudent on the planning committee’s/the EA’s side to actually be more clear in future invitations.

                1. Antilles*

                  It’s definitely a thing that happens.
                  As for whether someone would want to come, that really depends on the type of party. ExJob did a super-formal swanky holiday party with high-end catering, waiters in tuxedos, an open bar and formal dancing; it was nice and fun enough that my best friend was happy to go as my ‘date’. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s company parties which are more like ‘dinner at a restaurant’, in which case, even spouses are often like “um, do I really need to go? can I skip?”

              2. Falling Diphthong*

                I really only want to know about the stable, permanent people in their lives rather than having to remember a rotating cast list of guests.

                This is a good way to think of it.

                I am all in favor of the “plus any one person you’d like to bring for company, if you think they’d be fun for us to meet and talk to” invite–for a lot of groups it can work out great–but you don’t get to impose that standard on other people’s budgets or social goodwill.

                1. PhyllisB*

                  Before my adult son got a serious girlfriend, I was his “date” to several parties and weddings. (Not work events.) The difference is, these were all people I was well-acquainted with, and usually they would say “Why don’t you bring your mom?” He knows that I am happy circulating without trailing him around, and he could be secure in the knowledge that I would not embarrass him telling stories about his childhood.

              3. Anonana*

                Given that friends are often a part of people’s lives far longer than spouses and SOs, they certainly can be “the stable, permanent people in their lives”. I’ve known several people who average two years per SOs, who are accepted as +1s in social and business situations, but long term friends, roommates, or relatives aren’t.

            3. JB (not in Houston)*

              I agree with Alison that you are reading too much into this. It is highly, highly unlikely that they intentionally are using this wording so they can have “plausible deniability.” This scenario–invitation says “guest,” but it’s only for spouses or long-time partners–that is so very very common for work functions, for the reason Alison explained in another comment.

              You are building this up into something bigger than it is, despite it being explained to you here how common this is. Why? What purpose does that serve? Sure, be disappointed you didn’t get to bring a friend, feel how you want about single people being treated differently, but don’t make this into some grand conspiracy when it isn’t, because all that will do is make you feel resentment toward your employers based on something you’ve made up in your head. And that’s going to make you feel more negatively toward your work, or at least toward some people at your work, and you’re the only person that’s going to hurt by that.

              You may think the wording is unclear (and beth and smithy both make good points about why this wording still gets used sometimes even though for younger/newer employees it could be unclear), and we can debate whether they should allow unmarried/unpartnered employees to bring anyone they want, but those are separate issues.

          2. Falling Diphthong*

            It’s really, really, really common for things like weddings to try to come up with wording that indicates “we want to entertain you, a member of this group of friends/employees/knitters, and your established social partner where those exist, but not some random you scared up to be your date or designated driver–this isn’t a free nightclub.”

            1. Blueberry*

              I dunno, if you’re willing to pay for a significant other’s meal, why are you not willing to pay for a rando’s meal if that person was invited by your friend? At my wedding, every single person got a plus-one. We had two people bring randos. I didn’t mind at all. The friends who brought the randos were pleased to have the randos there, so that in turn made me happy. They turn up in a couple of photos and I couldn’t tell you their names now, but I honestly just don’t care. We ended up moving 500 miles away a few months after the wedding, so I don’t even talk to half the people in the pictures now anyway.

              1. Falling Diphthong*

                a) People have budgets, and expanding them to include people expected to be in your circle for a long time doesn’t mean there’s some higher calling to go all the way. “Doesn’t EVERYONE deserve to come to Box Corp’s holiday luncheon? Not just employees, not just their spouses, not just their roommates, but EVERYONE in the area who likes shrimp puffs?”
                b) People similarly have socializing budgets, and want to expend effort (not just financial) on people within some line, not all people who would like to have shrimp puffs.

                Sure, it would engender good will, but so would lots of things we don’t do because they are too expensive, too awkward, etc.

                Or: If it’s your wedding, what you propose is great. If it’s your friend’s wedding, telling them “Well I think you should give everyone a plus one–what if I want to invite my spouse AND someone from my office? You need to be flexible” would be out of line.

                1. Blueberry*

                  I still don’t understand. I’m not saying a guest gets to invite everyone they want, but if you issue a blanket “plus one” to all your employees, you ought to be prepared to pay for all your employees and a plus one. Issuing a plus one and then getting your knickers in a twist because someone wants to bring their friend instead of a life partner just seems gross to me. “Only your significant other is important enough for us to spend money on. Oh, you’re asexual and may never have a significant other? Too bad. You don’t get to share this with anyone like the romantically-entangled do.”

              2. TootsNYC*

                here’s another reason to ask to limit it to people you are in a relationship with:

                When you are married or in an established relationship, your partner is highly likely to have a similar sort of relationship with other guests as you.

                But when the Named Guest’s plus-one is someone relatively new, or a rando, then the Named Guest has a hosting duty to the Plus-One, which cuts into how much they can participate in the socializing at the event. Add to this that few people get much training or experience in being a considerate guest (and don’t socialize well with people they don’t know), and you can end up with a little mini social event happening with the two of them, instead of them being part of the single, larger social event.

                Of course a Plus-One with good manners will not allow this to happen, but I’ve seen a major drop in the idea that a guest owes it to a host to become part of the event.

          3. Marthooh*

            “…it isn’t fair to single people that they allow spouses and not friends or dates…”

            It isn’t fair for the company to withhold an extra invitation to the office party? I know some people think this way, and it always baffles me. Why is this considered an injustice? Why is the invitation so precious? Why would the company want to pretend that everyone’s welcome, but actually snub the singletons? It’s an office party, not the senior prom!

            1. Dust Bunny*

              On the other hand, if they’re willing to host a spouse or partner, why can’t they host a couple of extra friends? Presumably the company allows for spouses or partners so the employees who have them will find the event more enjoyable . . . so why don’t the single people merit that? If it’s not senior prom, then *nobody* needs a date, anyway, so why not make it employees-only?

              It’s a party. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s often more fun with a friend.

              1. ket*

                Sometimes and some places, guests are not invited for the purpose of fun — some places, that is not the intent at all. The intent instead is to scope out the spouse or partner to 1) judge the character and presentation of the employee/spouse pair, 2) see if the spouse will be a good host at parties or a good partner at those awkward ‘social’ occasions that sometimes happen with new business partners, 3) see if the spouse is well-connected and could bring those connections to the business. Sure, some places the office party is about appreciating the employees, but some places it’s a political battlefield in which spouses are weapons in a way that extra friends are not. Will Jane and Karen represent the company well if Karen accompanies Jane to the New York annual meeting? Will Talithia and Earl be gracious hosts for the fundraiser next April? Oh, Jee-hyun is married to an investment banker…. maybe he knows so-and-so….

            2. Name Required*

              Yeah, I don’t get this. Nobody you work with is invested in meeting your out-of-town friend, but they are probably invested in meeting your SO (spouse or otherwise).

              OP, you say ” I am generally pretty sensitive to social dynamics/can read a room well.” Eh, based on this thread, I would disagree with your self-assessment. It’s not an injustice to single people that your coworkers don’t want to party with a rando they haven’t heard of at their work party. It’s not odd that a company would limit their expenses by only inviting SOs to a work party; to feel slighted when an friend isn’t entitled to work benefits is beyond bizarre to me.

              1. Blueberry*

                Why does anyone have to meet the out-of-town friend anyway, beyond, “This is my friend Belinda from out-of-town?” I’d shake Belinda’s hand and then move on to whatever else was happening. It’s not like I sit down and have in-depth conversations with the spouses my coworkers bring. You chat pleasantly with these people for an evening and that’s it.

              2. OP #5*

                Eh, I don’t know if that’s entirely fair of you to say. I’m a young professional and still getting a handle on unspoken workplace norms, especially moving into a corporate position from higher ed – unsure how someone is meant to learn *unspoken* rules that are different than previous experiences unless someone, you know, tells them.

                This has been a learning experience for me, and mostly I’m just glad I asked before doing anything further!

                1. Falling Diphthong*

                  Most unspoken rules are learnt by observation. Or by asking someone who will be honest and blunt.

                  It’s not that different from having some friends who will precisely delineate for you which variations on “Gosh I’m afraid I can’t” mean “Ask again next month” and which mean “And I will never be not too busy.” And some friends who don’t get why anyone would need to ask when it’s obvious, and some friends who are just really uncomfortable explaining social lubricant for fear it won’t work if you diagram it.

                  “Be polite and observe” is pretty standard advice for people starting new jobs, because this office culture might be different from their last one. Or otherwise moving into what might be a new culture for them. (Spouse’s holiday party, for example.)

                2. Observer*

                  I’m also going to say that the fact that you realized that there might be some unspoken rules here is to your credit. A lot of people take a long time to learn that this is a common thing, and that it’s generally worth checking this stuff out when you are in a new work environment. So, I do think that actually showed a reasonable social sense.

                3. Name Required*

                  You implied that a bias towards single people is influencing the language of the invite (“wording it that way gives them a fair amount of plausible deniability”); that strikes me as a really odd thing to assume regardless of your professional experience. It seems like you’re approaching your assessment of the EA with a negative bias that doesn’t fit the situation at all, imo: “She needlessly made it an awkward interaction by just how uncomfortable she clearly was to have to tell it to me straight, which IMO indicates she knows she’s somewhat in the wrong.”

                  Unspoken rules can be learned by directly asking, some can be learned through critical thinking and inference. I don’t fault you for not “automatically” knowing or needing help figuring that out, but reading into the EA’s behavior so negatively is not what I would expect from someone who boasts that they are sensitive to social norms or reading rooms in some extraordinary way.

                4. Neptune*

                  I do sympathise with your position, OP – I’ve tripped up on many an unspoken work rule in my time. The place where things are coming unstuck here is the way that you seem to be assuming a conscious negative intention on the part of your company even after so many people have commented on how common the “a guest = SO” thing is. The fact that you didn’t realise straightaway is fine – IMO it’s always best to ask the question and it’s something that does vary – but continuing to talk about bias and “plausible deniability” and people being “in the wrong” comes across as kind of resentful in a manner disproportionate to the issue.

          4. Observer*

            That seems way too convoluted. Especially because even from a purely legal pov, it’s hard to make the case that actual legal discrimination is going on here.

            1. Amberlyn*

              For clarity, I wasn’t trying to imply that the company is illegally discriminating, or that there’s some kind of evil conspiracy. I was just saying that they might realize they’re being kind of rude, and want to make it look like they’re not being kind of rude.

              And yes, everyone has made it abundantly clear that I am in the minority in considering this even mildly rude at all. I’m sure that spending most of my adult life as a single person in a highly couple- and family-centric work culture is coloring my opinion. I used to get a little tired of being the only single person in the room.

              1. Observer*

                I don’t disagree that the OP’s workplace is being a bit rude. It’s just that I would be extremely surprised of they were trying to hide it, especially in this way.

    4. beth*

      The concept of spouses being different from any guest is a cultural artifact that’s kind of lingering despite being a little outdated, I think. The ‘mainstream’ idea of marriage used to be (and still is, in some places) a couple made up of a man who worked outside the house and a woman who stayed home as a housewife. In that model, the idea is that couple functions as a single unit; the man can work as hard as he does because his wife is taking care of everything at home, and the woman doesn’t have to work outside the house because her husband provides for her. So for company events designed to show appreciation for employees, wives would also be invited because they support their husbands’ work.

      This model was always unrealistic for lots of families, and it’s considered outdated in many communities nowadays. But some cultural side effects still linger in a lot of places, and I think the assumptions you’re encountering here are maybe in that category. It might not be fair–but cultural assumptions are hard to change, and it might not be something you have the capital to challenge yet as a relatively new employee.

    5. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The point isn’t really “bring someone with you to talk to!” but rather is rooted in the idea that it’s rude to invite someone to an after-hours social event and not include their spouse (or live-in partner). It’s less “we want you to have a companion” and more “we don’t want to rudely leave out the person who shares your home when we’re asking you to attend a social event in the evening.”

      1. Smithy*

        While that may very well be true – for many people weddings will be a situation where they most commonly encounter a “plus one”. And in modern parlance for many single people that often translates into a wedding guest “bringing someone they can talk to” as opposed to not excluding a partner.

        For a workplace if the desire is to not change the language of invitations – then managers of new/younger employees could also be told to indicate to those employees the context as part of larger training and support.

        1. Asenath*

          I would have thought that the purpose of attending a social event is to talk to people other than the one you talk to all the time anyway! I’ve always assumed the “and guest” was to allow the invitee to bring the person they are currently sharing their life with, since socially they are a couple. As a single person, I’ve never particularly wanted to bring along a friend or relative, but I can see that if I had one visiting anyway, it might be better to bring them than leave them at home.

          1. AvonLady Barksdale*

            I agree very much with this; social events, even weddings, should be seen as opportunities to talk to other people. I’ve turned down wedding invitations where I only know the bride or the groom and wouldn’t feel comfortable (especially if they involve travel), but I’ve also gone to many an event without a date and enjoyed spending time with people at my table. A good host ensures that people talk to each other (makes introductions, helps bring people into groups, etc.). I see my partner every day, I am known to walk away from him at parties and leave him to his own devices. :)

            1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

              When I was married, my husband felt uncomfortable at most of my work events. (His was a lunch, so, while spouses were welcome to attend, I was never able to.) At OldJob, he went to the very first holiday party with me, didn’t feel great, and we left early. For the rest of the time I worked there, the only work events he attended were the ones held in our home (I hosted a couple of work get-togethers). I went to holiday parties without him and, tbh, had a great time. It was a relief not having to worry about whether my spouse was being properly entertained in a party center full of people he didn’t know.

              Agree that a visiting friend is a different situation, especially if the friend is visiting me and staying at my home. How am I supposed to leave them at home? Depending on how I enjoyed the friend’s company vs how I enjoyed the work party, and how much my presence was required at the work party, I might’ve skipped the party, to be honest.

              1. Name Required*

                I agree; if it was important for me to spend time with my friend, I would have skipped the work party and planned something where the two of us are spending quality time together. At a work party, you’re half working. You wouldn’t invite a friend to lunch and then spend half of it answering emails on your laptop … or at least you shouldn’t. :-) Idk, I also view work parties as networking and relationship building opportunities, and I’m inclined to think employers mostly do the same. For that, I need to be “on”. My spouse hates these things, so he doesn’t go, but if I had a more gregarious spouse, attending the party together still wouldn’t serve as hang-out time for us.

          2. Artemesia*

            This. I always went to my husband’s events and vice versa but we split up and talked to others on arrival. Having a partner at a dance event is a little different like a wedding, but at an office party, the whole point is socializing widely.

          3. TootsNYC*

            A guest has an obligation to talk to other guests they’ve never met before–that’s part of the contract between host and guest.

            Guests have a responsibility to participate in the party.

            And in fact, at formal dinner parties, generally it’s Not Done to seat spouses next to one another. And if there is more than one table, they should be at separate tables.

            (I once wrote an etiquette column on the math of how many conversations this creates; there’s a dead zone of conversation between spouses, and if you split them up, you get two more convos. PLUS you add a fifth conversation in the car on the way home, since each spouse had a different experience at the party.)

        2. Falling Diphthong*

          At the wedding, it can work out well if Great Aunt Sophie brings along her friend Gladys. But there’s a whole underlying set of assumptions about why you SHOULD invite Great Aunt Sophie even though she won’t know the other guests, that aren’t really in play for an office gathering. If you’re remote and have never met the other humans in your office, this is your chance to do so–you shouldn’t be bringing along your roommate to ensure you aren’t bored having to talk to your boss and coworkers and subordinates.

          Also, the fact that a Gladys-Sophie pairing might come out of it doesn’t mean you can tell people to add 100 people to their party budget, or to their expending-social-energy-on budget, because it meets your abstract notion of fairness. Apply that when you entertain yourself.

          1. doreen*

            And actually , in my experience when Great-Aunt Sophie is invited to bring someone other than a spouse/SO , it’s not so she can have someone to talk to – after all Great-Aunt Sophie most likely knows other members of the family. But she might need transportation to the wedding or she might need to have her home health aide with her.

      2. Oryx*

        Then I think they need to word it that way. My company does “and guest” and explicitly says literally any adult you want to bring. Many family members and friends and roommates have attended.

        1. Adalind*

          I agree! They need to be more clear with the language. I too have brought siblings and roommates to work functions and no one has batted an eye.

    6. AcademiaNut*

      Did she specifically say that “guest” means only a person you are legally married to? If so, then I’d say they definitely need to specify that bringing a non-married SO is not okay. But if she meant that the +1 meant romantic partner but not a friend or roommate, then I’d say that this is a really very normal usage of the +1 invitation in both social and work-social environments.

      If it were a formal social situation, like a wedding, where you would be expected to know the romantic status of your guests, you could specifically address the invitation to John Smith and Jane Doe. At work, tracking your employees relationship status is not appropriate, so the +1 (or “and guest”) is used and then anyone who has a spouse or significant other can bring them along, but if you want your relationship status to be private it can remain so.

      As Alison says below, the +1 is not an opportunity to bring a friend to keep from being bored or lonely, but a courtesy extended to the partner of the employee. In my experience of a lot of years of going to work functions single, it’s only really a problem if you stand out (ie, everyone else has a partner, or you’re the only one who brought one), and/or your workplace is toxically gossipy. And quite honestly, a lot of the spouses would be quite happy to have a quiet night at home instead of making small talk with their partner’s coworkers.

      1. Myrin*

        Since you mention weddings, I’m reminded of a friend of mine who got married this summer. When she talked to me about some of the plans she had more than a year ago, she also mentioned this “everyone will be able to bring anyone they want so they don’t have to feel alone” idea (it ended up being a moot point since they decided on a very small circle so that only a couple of best friends and close family attended in the end).

        And I found that so strange. I honestly can’t even put my finger on why exactly but it seemed a bit… childish? I’m not sure that’s the right word because it sounds a lot meaner than what I want to express but I’m not really sure how to describe it otherwise. I just feel like people should be generally able to go somewhere by themselves for a few hours; that feels entirely normal to me. At the core of it, it’s probably that I simply don’t see why “it’s BS that you have to go alone unless you’re partnered” – I don’t get that at all.

        Now I will admit that I’m a loner by nature and have absolutely no problem doing anything and everything alone; I also get that there are people who are very shy or feel awkward or anxious when they’re alone somewhere. But really, these are not events where you don’t know anyone, so it’s not like you’d be alone amongst strangers. And also, unless everyone else feels the same way and only talks to their +1, there’s going to be a lot of mingling and different groups interacting anyway, and it’s usually not hard or weird to “insert” yourself somewhere.

        1. Lynn Whitehat*

          Sometimes people make it weird. My husband and I bought tickets to a school fundraising gala, and then he unexpectedly had to go out of town. I decided to go anyway, and people made it SUPER awkward. The only subject of conversation anyone would make was about “gosh, you’re here ALONE? But WHY? So just, by yourself, then? Huh. So you do have a husband, but he’s not HERE, is what you’re saying.” Even though we all had the obvious small-talk fodder of our kids going to the same schools. It was an extremely long evening.

          I used to feel like you, but once bitten, twice shy.

          1. Falling Diphthong*

            As a parent, that is: Really Weird. Lots of people have spouses who travel, or who don’t like crowds, or who are at a soccer tournament with another child, and encountering just one parent at a school event, or anything else touching on kids, would be absolutely non-eyebrow-raising–and I’d say most kids here have two involved parents.

            I do recall going to a dance performance by myself once, and the idea seemed to absolutely blow a neighbor’s mind. Did I at least talk to all the people around me at the performance during intermission?!!! Some people are just weird about certain things.

            1. AvonLady Barksdale*

              I *gasp* go to movies alone. I enjoy it. I even prefer it sometimes! I have also *gasp* eaten a meal in a restaurant by myself! By choice!

              I am not brave. I am not particularly special. People are so weird about things sometimes. Being alone is not the most terrible thing in the entire universe. I enjoy my own company and my own thoughts and if you think that’s weird, then I’ll just go hang out somewhere else. With myself.

              1. PhyllisB*

                I hear you!! I have never minded going places alone. When I was single, I would go to movies, restaurants, ect. by myself. My other friends (especially the married ones) would all say, “you went BY YOURSELF??????????” “Yes, I did. So what? Just because I don’t have a romantic partner I’m not supposed to go anywhere?” I never actually said that of course, but I was tempted.
                I have been married many years and still attend a lot of things alone. My husband is not real social, so most of the time he sends me on my way with wishes to have a good time. And I do have a better time not worrying about whether he’s enjoying himself.

            2. Myrin*

              Yeah, I was just thinking that that definitely sounds a bit unusual – I’m not surprised by one or two people bringing that up because people be peoplin’ but literally no one had anything else to talk about? That’s so bizarre, not to mention incredibly frustrating!

            3. Asenath*

              This is something I know intellectually, but I just can’t feel it. I’ve heard enough people say that they won’t or can’t go to an event alone, or travel alone or live alone to know that for many people being alone at events is a very real issue. But I’ve never had the slightest hesitation about doing things alone, starting in my mid-teens when I really wanted to see a movie, none of my friends wanted to, and it occurred to me that there was no reason I couldn’t go alone, so I did. I have to remind myself once in a while that making an obvious suggestion like “go alone” won’t work in some conversations for reasons I don’t fully get. Fortunately, mostly people who know me are used to this quirk, and generally don’t even comment any more on me doing things alone – although the number of comments increased slightly when I got back from my lengthy trip-of-a-lifetime, which I took alone. To Australia and New Zealand, which last I heard weren’t in a war zone or about to explode due to a super-volcano or something. So many people – all women, if that means anything – said either that they would be afraid to travel alone, or wouldn’t have enjoyed touring without a companion to share it with. Maybe it’s the same with weddings and office parties.

              1. PhyllisB*

                Yep I have made trips alone, too. But I have a SIL who used to HATE going anywhere alone. She would even come over and talk me into going to the grocery store with her because she didn’t want to go alone. Thank goodness she got better over the years, and now that she’s married and her husband sometimes travels for work, she has learned that going places alone isn’t the worst thing in the world.

          2. Snow Drift*

            People DO make it weird. I attended several “no ring, no bring” weddings in my twenties, and had to go alone despite having a boyfriend of six years. He didn’t “count” in those relatives’ eyes until after our own wedding.

          3. Artemesia*

            LOL I attended a new parents dinner at a poncy private school our daughter attended for a few years when her public middle school situation became intolerable; my husband was out of town. It was bizarro. I attempted to join in the small talk and cross my heart I was not political, inappropriate etc etc and yet it was as if I did not exist. The men talked. The women sat there and listened. The one woman (me) who attempted to join into the conversation was treated like a social pariah. It reinforced my prejudices about old traditional southern society. I had never in my life experienced any situation quite so sexist and I have been the only woman in a professional setting. I smiled when my daughter 3 years later led 6 of her peers out of this old line society girls academy to the local public science magnet school — All 7 of the girls were national merit finalists and that was the year that the poncy academy had almost no one in the newspaper list of finalists.

        2. AES*

          Don’t disagree on “people should be able to be alone for a few hours” but weddings and the holiday season are two times when it can be particularly tough on a single person to be reminded of their single status. I understand the point about these invitations to work parties being extended to SOs as a courtesy, but it can also really _feel_ like it’s a way to single out (oh see what I did there? totally not on purpose) those who don’t have partners while privileging a partnered culture in the workplace. (I do say this as someone who was single (not by choice) for quite a while and often found it difficult to have to explain that to people in contexts where my former partner would have been expected to attend, but now, while I’m in a relationship again, would far rather attend a work event alone than subject my partner, who’s painfully introverted, to them, so usually attend solo anyway.)

          1. Myrin*

            Hm, I hadn’t considered that. I’m asexual and have basically zero interest in a relationship, so while I can understand intellectually what you’re saying, this kind of thinking or feeling is somewhat incomprehensible to me on an emotional level (I swear I’m not a robot or alien or robo-alien!) – so thanks for pointing that out!

          2. Washi*

            Yeah, I agree with the consensus that it’s super common for an office party invitation to be extended only to SOs and not dates/friends, but I’m with you about the effect it has on single people. I’m the youngest person in my office by 10 years, one of the very few without kids, and the average age is about 25 years older than me. I happen to be married and love doing things alone, but if I were single and at a party where everyone had brought their spouses, I would very much feel like the odd one out. But to me, the solution is not to invite spouses, rather than having everyone bring a random plus one. Even for an after-hours party, I don’t know why my spouse necessarily needs to come. I can socialize with my coworkers once or twice a year without him! We do not need to be together for all of our waking non-work hours!

            1. Asenath*

              Being single is something different people experience differently – I’m single, and almost everyone I know, at work and outside it, is married (or equivalent) except for a tiny fraction who are currently single. I don’t like large social events much, but that’s just my own preference – it has nothing to do with me being single or not, and I don’t particular feel singled out if I do feel obliged to go to a social event in which the vast majority of fellow-guests are paired off.

              On the other hand – I hadn’t thought of this in years, but one of the funniest situations I encountered – in a work-related event, at that – had all the non-couples placed at the same table. I suppose it would have been even more awkward to pair them all off so they could fit in the two-by -two arrangement at other tables!

        3. Humble Schoolmarm*

          My feelings about this depend on the wedding. I’m a mild introvert who loves to chat and meet new people as long as I don’t have to small talk and I get some alone time later, so I’ve had a blast solo when the seating plan has been really thoughtful and I’m with welcoming, friendly extroverts. Other weddings have been really…compartmentalized… for want of a better term. The work friends, the childhood friends, the school friends, the family etc. all stick together and don’t want to mingle. In those weddings, I really want a friend to talk to.

        4. Blueberry*

          I’ve been to weddings where I’ve only known the bride or groom. I am a super-duper introvert who has a hard time talking to strangers. Taking my husband was a godsend because he’s very extroverted and could get conversations going with other people that I then felt comfortable enough to join in.

      2. Falling Diphthong*

        It’s only really a problem if you stand out (ie, everyone else has a partner, or you’re the only one who brought one).

        Good point that feeling-awkward can arise from opposite circumstances.

    7. Smithy*

      As someone who has worked at some more mid-sized offices (around ~40 staff), I’ve encountered the invitation of “plus guest” a lot and it’s alwsys secretly implied serious partners only. In my industry the use of the term “guest” was largely done to be more sensitive of an era when LGBT couples could not marry as well as to acknowledge long term unmarried couples.

      That being said, OP, I think your point is very well taken for younger/new to the workforce people that taking an invitation at face value is completely understandable. As I’ve gotten older, I tend to find that office parties are awful and so even when I have been invited as a friend – I’m usually quick to say thanks but no thanks. However just because I think/know most of my friends office parties suck – doesn’t mean that junior employees should be set up to make a faux pas.

      If the invitation was changed to “you and your partner” – it might read a little strange to some US readers but would be kinder to more junior staff.

      1. GreyjoyGardens*

        I’ve worked at places where it was fine to bring a friend, sibling, etc. to a company party (and I’m no spring chicken) so I think that the wording has to be clear. You can’t just go “psshhh, everyone *knows* without having to be told that “guest” = spouse or SO only” because it’s likely that not everyone does.

    8. No Mas Pantalones*

      This would have been a situation where I asked forgiveness over permission. Just show up with your guest and afterward, if anyone questioned you, note that the invite said “guest” and not “guest who I spend naked-time with.”

      I’ve always brought friends to “and guest” functions. I’m single, I’ll always be single, and I’m not about to mix work and whomever I’m dating at the time. I bring a bestie (same sex) and just let everyone assume she’s my romantic girlfriend. I find it helps me get a read on coworkers as well. Anyone uncomfortable with it–screw ’em.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        “Forgiveness over permission” is dicey when applied to real-life social relationships, and a standard I’d be even more wary of applying to work.

      2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Most of my experience isn’t people being uncomfortable. They’re just being awkward and assuming, it in turn creates another weird atmosphere all around.

        As a younger person, still forging a career and network, it’s best to not put yourself in that weird light for many reasons.

      3. Name Required*

        This could have worked for the right person. The worst case scenario is that everyone thinks you’re dating your friend or that you’re clueless about social norms — both of which can be overcome if it’s important enough for your friend to be there.

    9. Boredatwork*

      Hey OP – my company is having the same growing pains. Where guest – doesn’t mean guest.

      As for how to handle the EA – That’s going to depend on the culture of your office. I’ve had some dreadful experiences with too powerful EA’s, so personally I wouldn’t put my suggestion in a formal survey. I would make it in passing to her, to prevent “stupid” new hires from assuming the same thing you did. That guest meant guest.

      I would frame this as thanking her for letting you know, so you didn’t make the mistake of bringing a friend and suggesting she save the masses from making the same egregious mistake.

    10. Murphy*

      In addition to your interpretation of the word “guest” it rubs me the wrong way that “non-spouses” are seen as a no-no, suggesting that you would have to be married in order for your significant other to be considered “important” enough to be invited.

      1. Artemesia*

        I have never encountered a situation like this where SOs were not treated the same as spouses. The line is between ‘partner’ and casual date or friend, when it is drawn, at least in my experience.

    11. 5 Leaf Clover*

      Some of the wording in your comment (“have to go alone”) makes me think you may need to slightly rethink your expectations about the purpose of a work party. It’s not just to have the maximum amount of fun, it’s to get to know your coworkers better in a non-work setting. Bringing a plus one so you have someone to talk to kind of defeats the purpose. I get that it may seem unfair then to have people bring partners, but getting to know your coworkers’ life partners is part of getting to know them in a way getting to know a friend is not.

    12. Indisch Blau*

      My company used to invite spouse and SO’s to the holiday party. The reason given was that the company wanted to acknowledge and thank the spouses and SO’s for the employees’ absence from home and diminished energy due to overtime, stress and the like.

    13. Could be Anyone*

      I know it’s in the past now, but if you wanted to avoid it altogether rather than go alone (and I do not blame you one bit) you could’ve said your friend is in town visiting that weekend so you can’t leave her alone. And sort of used that to either see if it’s okay to bring her and/or decline the invite if it’s not, all in one fell swoop.

  16. Sarah*

    #5 – I did just that at my first job out of college: brought my best friend. My boss (who was hosting in his home) specifically told me to bring a friend if I didn’t want to bring a date.

    But everyone—EVERYONE—assumed she was actually my romantic partner. Even after the misconception came to light toward the end of the evening and we laughed it off, no one believed we were just friends. I spent a lot of work time thereafter fending off inquiries and strange questions designed to I guess create repoire by getting me to admit some sort of secret life? It was the assumption that WOULD NOT GO AWAY.

    Was that crazy on their parts? Yes. But it did happen, and I’ve never brought that friend (who I wound up rooming with for six years and was maid of honor at my wedding) to another work party, though we were both super single for a decade, because of it.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Argh, this is common in my experience.

      The best are the “well intentioned” “allies” who want you to feel safe to come out of the closet.

      Mine weren’t wrong, I’m bi but never disclosed to anyone but my brother. I also still only had one relationship that sadly was shielded by calling each other best friends. We were 22 and both scared AF of what could happen if the wrong people knew.

      I’ve known rumors to circulate about a couple elderly women roommates. So many whispers. Made crazier due to them being devote Catholics. God have mercy on all these gossiping souls.

    2. Clementine*

      Yes – I have definitely seen this also. Once one person gets it into their head that your guest is a romantic partner, then that will be the way it is for a significant percentage of company employees.

      1. OP #5*

        Yeah, as a semi-out (in that I’m not hiding per se but I don’t explicitly talk about it to anyone at work) queer woman who often presents a bit more masculine of center, one unexpected silver lining of not taking someone with me was that I’ve avoided having to deal with any of those kinds of questions for now! But it’s certainly something I’m always thinking about – considering how it will look to others when I go to various events with another woman in tow, whether we’re together or not!

        1. Urdnot Bakara*

          If it would bother you for people to speculate, maybe if you specifically introduce your friend to your colleagues as your *best* friend, that might ward off some speculation? Odd as it is, I feel like “best friend” clearly indicates friend, while just “friend” leaves it open. Idk, words are weird.

          1. beth*

            Speaking as a queer woman, when you’re even semi-open about queerness and you start talking about your ‘roommate’ or ‘friend’, people still speculate. (On the flip side, other people hear ‘girlfriend’ and assume you mean ‘friend’ rather than ‘partner’.) People are weird, language is weird, speculation/assumptions are either going to happen or they’re not and the wording you choose probably won’t make a big difference there.

    3. Shark Whisperer*

      I actually had the opposite happen. I brought my partner to a work function. We’ve know each other for 20 years and have been together romantically for 8. I never refer to my partner as my “boyfriend” because it doesn’t feel accurate when we’ve been part of each other’s lives for so long. Apparently this is confusing to some people. When I introduced partner to my director as my partner he literally asked “Is he your friend or are you dating?”

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        This must be regional or you have a really dense boss! I refer to my “boyfriend” as my partner because at 35, boyfriend sounds juvenile and not serious. Nobody, not even my hillbilly family is confused!

    4. kc89*

      yeah when I read the question about bringing a friend I immediately thought that people would assume they are dating

      depends on the office of course, at my old job we had big 100+ holiday parties and former employees would try and snag an invite as someones plus one because it was a fun party, so it wasn’t just couples going

    5. Oranges*

      The joys of being out….

      I once brought a friend to Thanksgiving because she didn’t have family nearby. Everyone assumed we were together. Nothing awkward but she got a warmer welcome than she would have otherwise. I just went with the flow since it didn’t harm anyone.

      Le sigh.

    6. spcepickle*

      My roommate came to my office holiday lunch one year (drop in, family friendly potluck), she was baby sitting for a friend. I got many confused looks.
      Why wouldn’t people assume that my platonic friend brought a child that was not related to either of us?

    7. Ginger Sheep*

      The exact same thing happened to me : brought a friend who was exceptionnally in town to a party at a colleague’s house (with her assent), and everyone assumed she was my romantic partner. I was one year out of a very messy divorce, and though everyone was very kind to my friend and myself at the party, I had a very hard time dealing with the rumors afterwards. The “allies” wanting to be “gay friendly” with me were bad enough, but the worse was the “so that’s why he left her with a six-week old baby, I knew all along there was bound to be more to the story” (which I only heard second hand, thank god). So I will never, ever bring someone who is not my actual spouse to a work function again.

  17. restingbutchface*

    OP#3- urgh, toxic bro culture in lesbians is so gross. There is a tendency in gay culture to bond over sexual chat, my opinions on why would fill a book and aren’t really helpful here. Sometimes we can confuse sex positivity with having no manners or consideration for other people’s experiences.

    You’re being very thoughtful here and my cynical brain can’t help but wonder if your coworker knows this. She knows that if you report her, you’re outing yourself too and she’s relying on your (understandable) unwillingness to put yourself in that position.

    I would give her one, sharp warning. I wouldn’t mention reporting her because I’d want her to stop because I said no, not because of the threat of other action.

    “Can you not talk about stuff like that? It’s making me uncomfortable and I don’t like it. Seriously, stop.”

    If she continues, then she’s your standard sexual predator. If she stops, this relationship can be saved, and I hope it can because having gay friends at work is such a big boost. Good luck OP.

    1. learnedthehardway*

      Thank you – all the suggestions to make “soft” rejection comments were really rubbing me the wrong way.
      My experience (on the straight side) with people who are willing to push boundaries is that they will push until and unless you give them a firm “BACK OFF. THIS IS NOT ACCEPTABLE.” message that they cannot ignore, followed by a “THERE WILL BE CONSEQUENCES” message, if they persist in their attentions.

      Also, if the OP does ever need to report the behavior, a typical requirement for alleging workplace sexual harassment is the perpetrator has been informed that their attentions are unwelcome and has been told to desist. Any reasonable person ought to have known their attentions are unwelcome, but my guess is that this woman will claim that she thought they were welcome, because the OP had not said anything about it before now. (Which is BS. She knows what she’s doing. It’s straight up sexual harassment. But these types of people are adept at exploiting any loophole they can find.)

      1. restingbutchface*

        “My experience (on the straight side) with people who are willing to push boundaries is that they will push until”… you fall in love with them! Or at least, in romantic comedies. It’s gross that being uncomfortable or just… not being interested (shock!) is seen as something to be overcome with the guy’s AMAZING LOVE and slick lines. And when women are taught to be coquettish and shy when being chased (eww) that can look a lot like just straight up discomfort.

        I’m using heterosexual gender roles here, but these interactions exist in the gay community too. Sucks.

      2. LW #3*

        Thank you. I know that flat-out telling her to stop would be the best way, I’m just… so so terrified of people getting mad at me, as pathetic as it sounds. I’ll do my best to stand up for myself.

  18. GermanGirl*

    #3 You can also try something like “Thank you for the compliment, but I’m not interested in you in that way, so let’s not talk about this in the future. I’m hoping we can stick to our workplace friendship though.”

    This worked for me – mostly.
    I get a comment that they’d still be interested if I changed my mind about once a year, and occasionally (like every other month or so) I get a comment that sounds innocent enough (like i really like this shirt on you) but tells me they’ve not given up on the idea, … I try and fail to take it as a compliment, so I roll eyes and change the subject.

    But other than that our relationship is back to normal. We’re working well together and we’ve even visited events in our city outside of work together and it wasn’t a problem.

    But I will say that I’ll ask grandboss to put us on different teams if one of us ever gets made team lead – citing personal reasons and hoping grandboss doesn’t pry too much. It’s still a delicate balance and I don’t think the balance will survive having a workplace power dynamic between us.

    1. LW #3*

      Oh man, I’d feel so so so awkward basically telling her that I think she’s hitting on me, because she did give me just enough plausible deniability to be able to get away with it (in theory, at least). I wish things like this weren’t necessary and everyone would just take a gd hint.

      I’m glad your situation is almost normal again, and I hope your coworker stops even the occasional comments.

  19. MyCatsBreathSmellsLikeCatFood*

    #4: In my experience, at those sort of gift exchanges. If someone unwraps a bottle of wine or bourbon or whatnot, the person can usually loudly make a joke about how they don’t want it. This clues in the people who would appreciate it, that there are no hard feelings for it being stolen. Also, in my further experience – if a kid unwraps a boozy gift, that gift is stole almost immediately by someone of legal age, by someone who knows what they’re doing and wants to alleviate the awkwardness.

    1. CmdrShepard4ever*

      I agree I would happily steal the bottle of booze from a child for the greater good of course, or if I was the parent said child I would be glad my kid got the booze because it meant I could trade them a bottle of sugar water (aka soda/pop) for it after the game is done and keep the booze for myself.

  20. Wintermute*

    #1– Oh dear… I would want to know if my significant other was sending messages like this! I really like the suggestion of doing this in person and making sure you’re clear this doesn’t affect how you think of the employee. I would address it head on and be up front about the fact you’re not going to hold it against him, and if you think some guidance is warranted you might parenthetically add “that’s not true of every workplace though!” Sometimes people that were raised without being acculturated to office work norms just don’t understand these things, we’ve seen the reverse (the employee or spouse writing in about their partner contacting their boss or contacting their partner’s boss) and either of them might just not realize it’s just Not Done.

    #2– Whether or not this project is optional, you’re crossing into the realm a good manager would want to know what Jane is up to! This has gone past

    #3– Going to HR would be premature in this case anyway, before you take the advice given. A clear, unequivocal statement that your co-worker’s actions are not welcome is a necessary step here, and going to HR before that would be premature anyway, even if you have no intention of ever taking that step. I would start from the perspective that this is a misunderstanding, some people just don’t get hints!

    Approach it just like you would with ANYONE, male, female or other: name the behavior in the moment, tell them you don’t want to discuss it, and don’t hedge it with any language that would indicate that “oh I wouldn’t mind myself, but…” with the implication that you would if it wasn’t a risk of being outed, you would but you don’t want to be overheard, you don’t mind but you worry your boss might, or something like that. Own your statement. Don’t blame yourself, but a useful hedge that doesn’t soften the message is just “I was just always taught you never talk about sex lives at work” or “I don’t discuss intimate details at work”. Once you’ve set a boundary, if she tries to test or push it, then it’s time to consider what else you can do, but the first step is setting a boundary.

    If the boundary gets pushed then I really like the escalation script given “I’m giving you slack I would not give other people, out of solidarity, don’t abuse that” is a powerful statement.

    1. LW #3*

      I don’t actually agree that going to HR would be premature. A coworker asked me to come for what was basically an 8-hour car ride, and then, with me physically unable to leave, proceeded to talk about her own sex life and ask about mine (both in graphic detail), telling me how much she likes girls my age, and asking me to come over to her place. Even if I misread her hitting on me, what she did was so inappropriate that it would absolutely be okay to go immediately to HR.

      Thanks for the comment though, I’ll tell her to quit if she tries it again.

  21. pleaset*

    I found it a little ironic that OP1’s case is about boundaries with spouses, and the OP’s spouse showed them the full text of the email.

    1. EPLawyer*

      Ehh, OP1’s husband owns the company, presumably from OP saying “WE” don’t give large bonuses she has some hand in running the company. Or at least an interest in it. Plus, I can see a spouse asking THEIR spouse how THEY would feel in handling this email just to get a read on what the receiver of the email should do.

    2. Alexis Rose*

      I talk about this kind of thing with my husband all the time. He works in a different industry with a very different culture, so its sometimes helpful to get his take and vice versa. He is my best friend, confidant, and I trust him more than anyone else, so getting his opinion is really valuable to me if I am stuck. There have definitely been times that I’ve been in a situation of “I really don’t even know where to start trying to handle this” and ask for his advice. I know my parents did the same thing, my dad actually proof-read and offered feedback on response emails my mum sent when she was dealing with things at work. I don’t think its boundary crossing for them to discuss this. (caveat: ONLY if OP does not work in the same office. If OP is also an employee of the same business, THEN this becomes problematic, in my opinion.=.)

      1. Falling Diphthong*


        Spouses talking to each other about work is common. And very, very different from my emailing my husband’s coworkers to tell them my refreshing take on the situation he was talking about at breakfast.

        1. Washi*

          Exactly. It would be weird if the owner’s wife replied, but it’s not weird for her to have read the email.

        2. TootsNYC*

          Right! This email was probably prompted by the normal conversations between husband and wife at home. Those are appropriate conversations, because it’s inside one boundary.

          Taking those conversations across that boundary is what’s wrong.

      2. AvonLady Barksdale*

        Agreed. My partner and I are in very different career situations. I tell him about work stuff all the time, but more often, he asks my advice. He’s never worked in a corporate setting so he has a tough time navigating things like networking and office politics with some of the more corporate people he’s encountered. This sounds pretty normal to me.

        Also, I can totally see a spouse saying, “This weird work thing came up, I wonder what all those people on Ask A Manager would say about it.”

    3. Murphy*

      Eh, I’ve read/shown my husband emails when I’ve wanted his opinion (nothing confidential, obviously) and I think that’s pretty normal.

    4. Marthooh*

      On the one hand, OP’s husband is sharing and asking advice about his work; on the other, the wife is poking her nose in where the employee clearly wouldn’t want her to. It’s not equivalent.

    5. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Just about every spouse asks the other for advice or an ear to vent about work. She didn’t in turn go talk to the employee or jump in at all.

      We all ask work related questions on a blog and discuss work with strangers.

      Only if she jumped in to interfere would this be a boundary issue.

  22. AdAgencyChick*

    #2, ermagerd. This person sounds exhausting. Fingers crossed that your boss doesn’t make you work with her again!

  23. Rebecca*

    #2 – “The presentation was well received and we both got equal credit for this and she wants me to do another project with her next year.” You both got equal credit, while you did most of the work and your coworker procrastinated and basically dumped more work on you. No wonder she wants to “work” with you again! If you are compelled to work on another project with her, I’d make a list of tasks, sit down with your manager and the coworker, be very clear about who is going to do what, and stick to it. When she doesn’t do her part, or it’s late, it’s her responsibility, and she can explain to your manager why she didn’t complete her part of the project.

    I have a little bit of experience with this. I was tasked with training a new hire, and part of her job was to help me with my work load. She had time during the day for personal phone calls, texting, managing her rental property, selling things online, that type of thing, and work was a distant second. I ended up picking up the slack, and when something didn’t get done, and our manager talked to her, she deflected by saying that she wasn’t clear that task A was her responsibility, that I hadn’t explained it correctly, etc. More than once our manager reprimanded me for things not getting done. That’s when I pulled out the list idea, and we had a group meeting, and assigned responsibility to every single item. When she didn’t do her tasks, manager talked to her, not me, and it became apparent she wasn’t working out. She eventually quit.

    I truly dislike working on team projects for this very reason. Good luck with this, OP. Loop in your manager, turn off your phone, and do your part.

    1. Former Retail Manager*

      That is a fantastic idea and I second the hatred of group projects. I specifically chose a career in which only I am responsible for my work and there is no need to “collaborate” or otherwise work with anyone else. It was draining enough to be required to do it in school and it rarely worked out well for all parties.

    2. It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's SuperAnon*

      In addition to a list of tasks and due dates, I highly recommend documenting all meetings with minutes, including attendees, and sending it out to manager and any other stakeholders. It can be a pain to do this, but it’s additional proof that you are trying to push the project forward and that team member is hindering you.

      I did something similar to this for my senior project in college, working on a team of 3. Graduation was contingent on finishing the project and having an adequate presentation at the end. 1 team member “Bob” in all honesty should not have made it that far in the program, but teams were set and we couldn’t just drop him. My competent team member and I went to our advisor to ask for advice after months of missed meetings and terrible technical contributions, and having his attendance record and email communication helped us jump from “have you tried to work with Bob?” to “Bob is clearly not contributing, I will intervene”.

  24. Mommy MD*

    Don’t ask coworker with the nasty sex talk to stop, TELL her to stop. “Stop with all the sex talk around me. It makes me extremely uncomfortable “. Don’t go silent or chuckle. She’s obnoxious and clearly coming on to you.

    1. WellRed*

      Yes. There are other commenters suggesting thanking her for the compliment (!) or other ways to softpedal this but the coworker is being wildly inappropriate.

      1. Jennifer Juniper*

        I’m sorry, OP, that others are actually telling you to thank her for the compliment! That would actually encourage the harasser.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      And in a male dominated world, it’s okay to be blunt if not harsh. Stop trying to soften things towards a manipulative abuser!! What’s she going to do, go out herself and tell them you told her to “knock it the fk off”? Take control, don’t protect a victimizer.

  25. WorldsOkayestAssistant*

    Re: AAM’s answer to Question #2, I’m interested in the response about being “senior enough to say no” in the OP’s situation. Are some people in fact senior enough to say no? And will I ever get there? I’m in a position in which I never feel I can say no, even when I know I’m doing things outside of the job description. (I’m an assistant.) I’ve tried setting boundaries but I always get the feeling that I’m being insubordinate if I do because of the hierarchies at work.

    Did “senior enough to say no” catch anyone else’s attention in AAM’s response and does anyone have any advice on how to achieve that? Someone once told me, “People value what they pay for and you teach others how to treat you.” After years of underachieving at work, I feel like maybe I’ve taught people the wrong things in this regard, which is doubly shaming.

    1. Asenath*

      Well – I’ve been in current job long enough that if something lands in my lap, I can sometimes go to the originator and say politely “I think the procedure for this is ….”, and start up the ladder to bring the issue to someone more senior if there is a disagreement. Other times, well, my position is fairly low on the ladder, so if the job comes from high enough up, I just do it (grumbling inwardly sometimes). So, in my experience, whether I can say “no” does depend on seniority and power – I have enough seniority/power to say “no” (and make it stick) to some requests, but not to others.

    2. LQ*

      I think a lot of it is about how you say no. I don’t quite feel senior enough to say No. But I feel like I can (and have) push back on things. Some of those were when I was newer. I was given a project which I hated with every fiber of my being, plus it was a huge time suck. I also knew someone else really wanted to do it, so I proposed to my boss that this task be given to a different person. Boss had thought that he was giving me a cherry task that I’d love, he was happy to transfer it over to the other person. But it took about 3 months of drowning in that project to get up the courage to say it.

      Sometimes it helps to know what the boss’s priorities are, I’ve been lucky that I’ve been ancillary to enough conversations that I can get a pretty good idea of when folks might be doing something that they haven’t gotten official sanction for. So I’ve pushed back with coworkers by pushing things to their bosses. I’ve pushed back with people above me in the hierarchy by telling them they had to go through my director. I’ve pushed back on people by talking through the problem and sort of helping them come around to …well this isn’t really a LQ needs to fix it problem, it’s a I need to actually manage my folks problem.

      I always think of it as are we doing best for the people we serve (public service) and frame it that way. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten totally smacked down for insubordination (they keep giving me promotions and more work so…).

      The key for me has always been having at least an inkling of what my boss (and his boss, and his boss) value and want to get done. Learn those values/priorities. I don’t push back on those things (for the most part…) but on the things I know they aren’t going to care about? Yeah. I’m going to push back, and I can push that back into the askers hands and tell them that they have to make that agreement with my boss (or his boss, or his boss depending on where the lines are). And sometimes just saying that people know is both me saying, “Nope, not going to do this.” and also “And you know Jim’s not going to be happy with you coming to me and asking so, you know, just knock it off.” (not aloud, but unspoken)

    3. EPLawyer*

      You can always use Alison’s suggestion of “yes, but I also have A, B,C, D to do, how would you like me to prioritize?”

      No matter how low in a hierarchy you are, you can always say no if taking on more work means you have to work late, come in early, skip lunch and still be behind.

      If in doubt, ask your manager what you can safely say no to and what you can’t. A reasonable manager will tell you that you are NOT required to just take everything handed to you because of your position.

      1. WorldsOkayestAssistant*

        This is good advice. Thank you. I ask my manager about which priorities to prioritize now and then. Usually she confirms that my instincts are right about what’s most important, which is encouraging.

        I’m trying to be more effective and less of a people pleaser, but it’s hard. Also I work in academia, and some of the askers are entitled snobs. Everybody’s problem is The Most Important Problem.

        I was recently given new responsibilities though related to finances, so I must be doing something right and I guess they trust me, which is great! With the new responsibilities come new opportunities to set some boundaries, which I realize more and more is my job to do, going back to that idea of teaching people how to treat us.

    4. AdAgencyChick*

      “Senior enough to say no” is always relative to who’s asking.

      It’s very common in my industry for account executives to need to prepare internal or client slide presentations or even emails, and they feel insecure about how well they’ve stated their points in writing, so they try to get a copywriter to help them write it. If it’s a junior or mid-level account person, I usually will say, “No, I can’t help you with that,” because I do not want to create an expectation that I’ll help them every time they want to send a freaking email to a client. I am, in this case, “senior enough to say no.”

      But if my boss asks me to work on some special project (note: I’m pretty autonomous in my work for my main client, and she would normally be making special requests of me if it’s to help out another team or to do something for the agency that isn’t client-related), I am NEVER senior enough to say no, since after all it’s my boss who’s asking. Doesn’t mean I can’t say no, but I’d better have a damn good reason. All of the following have to be true: 1) I have a lot of client-related work on my plate; 2) I can’t delegate it easily to someone else on my team to make room for her project; 3) there’s someone else on another team at my level of seniority who’s less overloaded than I am, whom she would then turn to next.

    5. It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's SuperAnon*

      I don’t consider myself “senior” in my team or role, but I do know my workload and work history better than anyone, and I have a decent reputation for getting work done on time. I’ve also volunteered for so many different teams over the years that even if people have not worked directly with me, they know who I am. I think that was the best thing I could have done when I first started working, though looking back I’m lucky I didn’t get painted with the “gumption” brush at times!

      We have drop-in tasks that I’ve done a hundred times before, and while yes I *could* do it again, there’s a benefit to giving it to a newer team member to tackle instead. There are also other tasks that are good for technical development, but my manager and I have discussed my career plans and those tasks don’t lend themselves to my development. In those cases, I tend to give those meatier tasks to those newer team members as well, because they need that technical development much more than I do. It offloads me to do other work, it improves the new employee’s experiences, AND I also get the added bonus of being seen as a thoughtful mentor. I’ve done that with a number of tasks this year, so that I’m freed up to work more of the strategy side while mentoring them rather than being wholly responsible for the task. So I can say “Actually, I’m swamped with X, why don’t we give this task to Anne?” fairly easily, because we really do have too much work to go around. It’s also not me saying “no”, it’s offering another person to work it with my oversight.

      If it is an optional or extracurricular task, then it’s much easier to say no. Again, not the same but I’ve stepped down from projects I’ve previously been involved in because I just do not have enough time and energy to devote to them, or I really don’t want to do it anymore. I would do this well in advance to give the rest of the team time to reassign work or find a replacement for me. In some instances, I’ve been very blunt and said “I’m really not interested in doing this again, it was a good experience at the time but I’m done.”

    6. beth*

      I don’t know anyone in a role where they can look at a project that their manager has assigned to them and go “No thanks, I don’t want to.” I’m sure those roles exist–surely the average CEO can decide which projects to spend their time on and which to delegate–but they’re not most people’s jobs.

      But a lot of roles can be flexed a little bit. I’ve never been all that high up anywhere, but I have been in roles where I could go to my manager and say “You just sent D my way, can we talk about it for a minute? I’ve got A, B, and C on my plate already, and I won’t have time to do all of those and D by their current deadlines. What should I prioritize?” Sometimes that conversation leads to me keeping all of them and the deadlines being adjusted. Other times it leads to D being moved to someone else if others have more bandwidth than me.

      And when it comes to projects where your peer is trying to pull you in…there’s often a lot more room for pushback when it’s not your manager telling you to do it, I think.

    7. Stuff*

      I worked at a company where they would just keep assigning work as long as you said yes. You had to learn boundaries pretty quickly or you would burn out. I made it a thing to talk to new people when they started looking a bit panicky to talk with their boss. It was a weird company culture but everyone was treated as an adult who knew how much work they could/would take on. I liked that aspect. I agree with going to the boss and explaining how much time each task is taking and how you should prioritize them and if the bottom priorities can be dropped or reassigned.

  26. Alfonzo Mango*

    Does anyone else think #1 is funny because it’s about a spouse asking a spouse to ask about someone else’s spouse asking on their behalf? lol

    1. FancyNancy*

      OPs husband is the owner of the small business and OP uses a lot of us/we language throughout the question so I assume that they are involved in the management of the company as well to some degree. I don’t think that’s inappropriate for them to discuss.

    2. 5 Leaf Clover*

      No – they’re totally different. It’s normal to talk to one’s own spouse about what happens at work. It’s not normal to talk to one’s spouse’s boss behind their back.

    3. Falling Diphthong*

      It’s really, really common for spouses to discuss work with each other. Including things like “Have you ever seen this on a resume?” and “Here is a weird email from Joe’s spouse. How the heck am I supposed to respond to this weirdness?”

      What’s weird here is for the spouse to contact work and weigh in with their thoughts about the work.

      I tell my husband “X is reasonable, Y is delayed again, I need to work on Z this weekend.” That’s normal. What would be weird is him finding the emails of my bosses or coworkers and sending them his thoughts on the projects. Same with my emailing his staff to share my feelings about their work, as filtered through my spouse’s recollection of the day’s anecdotes over dinner.

    4. a1*

      Yes. While the contexts are different, on the surface, in both cases, you have Spouse A contacting someone else about Spouse B’s work. Of course, contacting Spouse B’s manager is over-stepping vs writing into an advice columns (which is not overstepping), but I can see th parallel.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        I think the context makes all the difference. It’s normal to talk to your spouse at home about things that happened at work, and at work to talk about things happening with your family at home. It’s not normal for your spouse to go around you and directly email your coworkers with opinions about what they ought to do, or for your coworkers to go around you and directly email your family with opinions about what they should do.

  27. LGC*

    Ooh, LW3. I just want to say – you owe your coworker NOTHING. And I think it’s pretty clear what you should do.

    With all due respect, your issue isn’t that your coworker is a lesbian, which – I’m really sorry that your workplace (and industry) is so unsupportive of LGBT people. That’s an injustice and while I’m not surprised it’s still an issue, I think it’s wrong that you’re (and hell, even she’s) still dealing with this in 2018. Your main issue is that she’s using that climate of fear (either consciously or not) to make unwanted advances on you and make you feel uncomfortable.

    You said that if this were a man, you’d feel no hesitation in asking him to stop and escalating this to HR. I think that would be the ideal course of action…

    …but are YOU out at work? Because that’s the huge downside risk I can see (especially if you take this to HR). You focus on her being closeted, but you don’t say anything about yourself. I would say you should make yourself familiar with your state laws (although I am most definitely NOT a lawyer, but I’m gay as hell if it counts for anything) – I think firing you for making a harassment complaint is against the law everywhere in the US, but I don’t know for sure. (And that’s assuming you’re in the US.)

    1. LW #3*

      Thank you. I know I shouldn’t treat her with kid gloves, I just really hate giving the gross misogynistic and homophobic men anything to start commenting on.

      I’m mostly closeted at work — my primary work partner knows and now this gross harasser knows. It’s not out of fear of not getting equal and fair treatment from the company/superiors, it’s just that my coworkers are very stereotypical male construction+maintenance workers, and I want to avoid the hassle of having to tell a bunch of middle aged straight white men where to shove when they’d start acting…well, like you’d imagine, if they found out that their hot young blonde new-ish coworker is a lesbian on top of it all. This is a culture where misogyny, homophobia, and especially racism are completely casual and accepted as bro-y joking and “being realistic”. It sucks. I’m closeted for the first time since I was 14 years old, and that’s also… surprisingly unpleasant, regardless of how annoying it’s been before to be “the lesbian one”. I’m not in the US, but I’m in a country where the law is thankfully absolutely on my side, even if my coworkers don’t agree with it, but I just. I’m so tired of it all and don’t want to cause a fuss.

    2. LW #3*

      Thank you. I know I shouldn’t treat her with kid gloves, I just really hate giving the gross misogynistic and homophobic men anything to start commenting on.

      I’m mostly closeted at work — my primary work partner knows and now this gross harasser knows. It’s not out of fear of not getting equal and fair treatment from the company/superiors, I just want to avoid the hassle, since my coworkers are mostly super gross men. This is a culture where misogyny, homophobia, and especially racism are completely casual and accepted as bro-y joking and “being realistic”. It sucks. I’m closeted for the first time since I was 14 years old, and that’s also… surprisingly unpleasant, regardless of how annoying it’s been before to be “the lesbian one”. I’m not in the US, but I’m in a country where the law is thankfully absolutely on my side, even if my coworkers don’t agree with it, but I just. I’m so tired of it all and don’t want to cause a fuss.

    3. LW #3*

      (Some of my comments didn’t post so I replied again and then they’re all showing up at once. Sorry if there are like ten different variations of my reply suddenly showing up.)

  28. Delta Delta*

    #1 – If I were the employer, I think my first step would be to call the employee in to my office, show him the email, and ask him if it seems like something that came from his wife. It sounds weird enough that the employee ought to know what’s in the email before even getting to the point of figuring out whether to address it. Employee will likely be mortified. Embarrassing the employee is obviously not the point, and I’d want to make sure the topic is brought up so that the employee doesn’t feel attacked. He may not know his wife did this, and could feel really embarrassed or afraid that his job is in jeopardy because of this email.

    If it were me, after talking to him (and depending on what he says) I’d then ignore the email and not respond to the wife, or if a response was at all called for, a brief response saying, “I cannot discuss employment issues with anyone other than the employee” would be enough.

  29. Jenn*

    #3: She lost any protection against being outed when she started sexually harassing you. I would have one very blunt conversation with her and let her know that if the crude comments and come-ons continue, you’ll be forced to out her when you report her for sexual harassment. I’m so sorry this is happening; it’s so unfair that you thought you found an ally and a friend but instead found a predator.

    1. LW #3*

      Thank you. Thinking I made a friend and an ally and then her basically trapping me into a car for 8 hours and sexually harassing me? Not a fun day. I’ll do my best to be straight with her (pun absolutely intended) about what I am and am not comfortable with at work.

  30. Labradoodle Daddy*

    OP1- If I were this person’s spouse, I’d want to know. What an icky thing to do!

    Also– already planning my “sucky holiday bonus” thread for this Friday. Oy.

  31. Roscoe*

    #3 You are very kind, but I definitely think you should handle this the exact same way you would handle it if it was a 55 year old male doing this to you. So if you would talk to him first, and give him a “this is my only warning” talk, then do that with her. If you would just go straight to HR, then that is what you should do. I’ll be honest, as a straight man, it kind of annoys me when people make these “exceptions”. Like at my last job, I would never talk about my sex life, especially to a woman. A couple of the gay guys though, just were VERY open about theirs all the time to anyone who would listen (or just anyone who happened to be around). I feel like there was a weird double standard there that I just didn’t like. Inappropriate is inappropriate. Period.

      1. Nonbinary for this.*

        And also, Alison, have you considered making the “if you have zero frame of reference here, and may say clueless things as a result, maybe step back and let commenters who do have experience and insight speak?” a general rule? It would cut down on casual insensitivity like this.

        1. Karen from Finance*

          Have you tried telling Roscoe WHY this is wrong instead of being all snarky? And before you tell me it’s not your job to educate people, it’s not your job to insult them either, but we’re all here to learn, so say something constructive or step aside please.

          So, for example:

          Roscoe, the reason why this is being treated differently here is because reporting would mean outing a fellow lesbian, which is a big no-no. And even if OP were willing to do that, which is not really a cool thing to do, there’s a chance that she could end up being outed herself in the process, which she probably doesn’t want to risk (if she wanted to be out, she’d be out). It’s not that OP thinks the standard is different for gay people, clearly she doesn’t as she’s writing in… it’s that there’s a higher degree of complexity in HOW to handle this in this case given the circumstances.

      2. Roscoe*

        Yes really. I’m black. If a black woman wrote in and said “we are the only 2 black people in the department, but this man is making me uncomfortable”, my advice would still be to do the same as you would with a white person.

        I didn’t say she SHOULD go to HR. I said her response shouldn’t be different. If the behavior is inappropriate, then its inappropriate.

        So based on your comment, I guess you think if a person of color writes in, then only people of color can respond. If a woman writes in, only a woman can respond. If an LGBT person writes in, only they can respond, etc

        1. Labradoodle Daddy*

          But you can’t hide the fact that you’re black. You can hide the fact that you’re LGBT. That’s a *big* difference right there.

        2. deets*

          The point is that OP doesn’t want to out herself or her coworker. Since you’re straight I get why you might not empathize with the implications of being outed, but that also means you should defer to those who are not straight when they tell you it changes the situation.

        3. Nonbinary for this.*

          this letter was written by a woman who has a very reasonable concern about discrimination at her workplace, which she knows is sexist and homophobic and whose sexism and homophobia inhibit her ability to speak openly about her identity, never mind her sexuality. That concern is preventing her from reporting sexual harassment – and although she didn’t focus on it, she could also face homophobic and sexist repercussions herself. She’s facing a set of problems you don’t have. And for some reason, you decided to bring all of this back around to you, and your gay coworkers who get some kind of exemption from workplace norms about frank discussion of sex – at least as far as you could see. I think that was, at best, unnecessary. Given the actual topic, and given the current legal and social climate for LGBTQ people, and given the myriad ways in which LGBTQ identity and sexuality are policed, I think it was also really insensitive.

          So maybe, as a cishet man, you could not go off-topic into a discussion of the at best very context-limited exemption your gay coworkers may or may not have had, in your workplace where gay people apparently are not penalized for being out? Maybe you could not make it about you? And things you have experienced that could not be more different or less germane?

          See also another commenter’s point above about how LGBTQ people are sometimes pressured to engage in sexual discussions by boundary-violating cishet coworkers. Hypervisibility isn’t the same as safety.

          1. DFW*

            “As a cishet man” Cishet doesn’t even make sense as a word. Not only that, try looking at the content of what is being written and respond to that instead of throwing a “As a xxxx”. That is not an argument.

        4. ElspethGC*

          There is a *big* difference between being black and being closeted and queer. The former is generally noticeable to your coworkers and bosses. The latter is not. You’re telling OP to out her coworker in a homophobic workplace. You say “as a straight man, it kind of annoys me when people make these ‘exceptions'” but you don’t seem to understand that those exceptions are there for a reason. Outing someone without their consent is dangerous. People are *murdered* because they were outed.

          There’s a difference between saying “If an LGBTQ person writes in, only LGBTQ people can respond” and “If an LGBTQ person writes with a specifically queer-related question, LGBTQ people are best-suited to answer it and straight cis people should listen to them.” Equally, if a PoC writes in about racism or working in a racist environment, other PoC will be best-suited to answer that, and white people should recognise that and not dominate the conversation.

          This needs to be treated differently to a situation where it’s a straight man doing it to a straight woman because the situation *is* different, and outing someone without their consent is almost always morally indefensible.

          1. Roscoe*

            As I posted below, I was never suggesting outing the co-worker, or herself. She can go to HR to complain that a co-worker keeps talking about her sex life to me without going into specifics on who she is having sex with

            1. Iris Eyes*

              Genuine curiosity here, you say that your coworkers discussing their sex lives where you can overhear made you uncomfortable. Did you take any action?

              I totally get where you are coming from, people who are clamoring for equal treatment should get it, if its wrong to talk about sex its wrong to talk about sex. It seems just but unfortunately justice is rarely simple.

              I think the possibility of blow-back/revenge of the coworker outing the OP against her wishes is probably the bigger issue. OP can’t control that. Yes, she can certainly frame her complaint in such a way that it wouldn’t out the coworker (although lets be honest there are plenty of people, particularly people who work in industries that tend to be as described, who would just poo-poo this away or genuinely not believe that women can sexually assault other women UNLESS they are gay and probably wouldn’t see it as “serious” even then.) BUT once the inquiry starts who knows what could happen.

              1. Roscoe*

                So I never really said it made me “uncomfortable”, I said I feel like if I wanted to do the same (I didn’t) that it would be seen as different. At this place, I could’ve easily seen someone going to HR about me doing that, whereas they just let the other slide for whatever reason. In general though, I’m not the type of person to go to HR about that (not judging people if they do though).

                And I still don’t see why its not simple. There is ALWAYS the opportunity for blowback or revenge, no matter the gender or orientations involved. This just seems like a situation where someone would rather not get another minority person in trouble because they are minorities, not because they don’t think they are behaving wrong. Hell, OP even says “If it had been a man, I would have immediately told him to stop, and reported him to both our manager and HR without second thought.” I’m just not a fan of holding people to different standards.

                1. Neptune*

                  “This just seems like a situation where someone would rather not get another minority person in trouble because they are minorities”

                  I think you’re oversimplifying here. As various people have pointed out, the issue – which the OP is obviously aware of – is that outing someone can have very serious consequences for their lives both at and outside of work, going all the way up to physical violence. You can believe that somebody is behaving wrongly while also thinking that they do not deserve that. You’re also ignoring the potential element of self-preservation – the OP says they are *both* closeted, and she may be trying to avoid being outed herself.

          2. Oranges*

            It’s the cost of our ability to closet ourselves really.

            PoC usually can’t pass for white* and while our being able to “pass” as hetro does come with benefits (actually being able to work in homophobic areas) it also comes with costs if we choose to be in the closet (because food is kinda… important).

            I am comfortable in calling this a privillage that our “otherness” can be hidden. It gives us the ability to work/survive in places we couldn’t. But when that hiding becomes an issue (because our society suuuucks) then it’s tricky to navigate.

            *And when they can that opens a whole OTHER can of worms.

        5. Jenny*

          The difference here is that the harasser has damaging info on the OP (her sexual orientation, when she is not out at work) that she can disclose to people in retaliation if the OP reports her. That’s not the case in any of your examples.

      3. rldk*

        As a queer person, I agree entirely with Roscoe and I have no idea where your dismissive response is coming from. This issue is queer-specific only because OP wants a script that will help her avoid outing her coworker explicitly to HR, but in terms of steps before HR, it *is* identical to any other sort of harassment of the same nature.

    1. Labradoodle Daddy*

      Strong disagree. Those situations aren’t exactly comparable, and outing someone is a *really* big deal. I feel so much for OP in this situation because it really doesn’t feel like there’s a cut and dry solution here.

    2. AvonLady Barksdale*

      There is a special circumstance that shouldn’t be ignored here– neither of these women is out. It’s unfair for the LW to out this woman with her complaint without taking the steps Alison laid out. It could be more than uncomfortable, it could actually be dangerous, either physically, emotionally, or by putting her livelihood in jeopardy.

      You’re right that inappropriate is inappropriate, but not all situations can be handled in the same way.

      1. Roscoe*

        But, as other people commented, couldn’t OP still go to HR and simply say “Jane keeps making explicit comments about her personal sex life to me”. That isn’t outing her or the other person, but its still dealing with the inappropriate behavior.

        1. AvonLady Barksdale*

          I would still tread very carefully. I think the OP has to start with the very, VERY direct conversation.

          I don’t want to sound like I’m defending harassment or harassers, because absolutely not. In any situation, a firm response should be the first response. It’s more difficult here because of the potential outing.

        2. Casey*

          I think the success of that strategy would depend a lot on how much detail HR asks/is allowed to ask for. I’m not in HR so I’m genuinely unsure of what the rules around this are! But it seems to me that if the OP goes to HR and says “Jane keeps making explicit comments and it’s making me uncomfortable” and HR says “what kind of comments?” or asks for examples*, she will either have to give those details and thus risk outing Jane, lie or evade the question. (And evading the question carries the risk of drawing *more* attention to her reluctance to answer.) Can HR departments ask for detail in these situations, or can complaints be kept vague?

      2. Troutwaxer*

        Not to mention that the social consequences in the local Lesbian community of outing someone else might be really, really awful. (Though the older person in this situation might be a well-known “missing stair” – or not – possibly a pillar in the local community for that matter.) Community norms are really important here, and could be a significant complicating factor.

      3. learnedthehardway*

        Honestly, if the woman is using her and the OP’s closeted-ness to exploit and harass her coworker, then I think that all bets are off. The OP should consider what is best for herself – which may entail her own confidentiality, and may entail thinking about her relationship with the overall LBGTQ community, but ultimately, she should be acting in her own interests, nobody else’s, given that the other person is perfectly willing to violate her boundaries. No doubt the fact that the OP wants to remain in the closet is a factor in the woman’s decision to harass her: she knows that the OP will face a hard decision about reporting her.

        I would say the closest analogy I can think of is if a married man was harassing me at work, that I would not hesitate to shut him down, simply because that might cause him problems in his marriage. He would be the one who violated that bond, not me. This isn’t a perfect analogy, but there are similarities.

        My experience is that sexual harassers will pick people who they think are in a vulnerable position, and from experience, the only way to deal with them is to make it such a negative payoff for them, that they are afraid to try to harass you.

        1. AvonLady Barksdale*

          I think, though, that not hesitating to shut someone down is absolutely correct– and that the shutting down should happen first in this case, not the reporting. If it continues, yes, report, absolutely. But the OP has to take some steps first, such as the ones Alison suggested.

        2. TootsNYC*

          In fact, if there is an LGBTQ+ community, the OP should consider whether she can use that as an asset to deal with this. Are there people in that community who would pressure her harasser on her behalf?
          Can she threaten to “out” her harasser to that community as a predator? That threat might be useful as well.

          My biggest point is: The OP should stop making excuses for this woman, and start trusting that “it feels a lot like a predatory situation” instinct. She is right.

          And then she should start making hard-eyed plans for how to fight back. What tools does she have?

          And sometimes the things you think are vulnerabilities can become sources of strength or pressure or shaming. (“You’re gay and therefore often a target–it’s not cool that you’re turning me into a target.”)

          1. Jennifer Juniper*

            The OP also needs to ignore anyone in the LGBTQ+ community who would encourage her to protect the harasser at her own expense. There are those who would do that.

    3. Yikes*

      First of all, the major issue here is that if OP3 outs her harasser, she will also be outing herself. Being sexually harassed by one person is preferable to the hellfire that will likely rain down if she outs herself in the work environment she has described. So that’s a major difference between what’s happening, and if the offender were a straight man.

      Second, in my experience, straight people will think gay people are talking about sex in the most innocuous contexts. Like, “my boyfriend and I went to Bed Bath and Beyond over the weekend to find a new duvet cover” is somehow salacious. So I am somewhat incredulous that you were surrounded by gay men discussing whether or not they prefer ribbed condoms. But if you were, then you should have taken your own advice and reported it. I’ve done a lot of work surrounding gay men in the workplace, and it would be highly unusual to encounter a situation where they weren’t limited in what they could say about their own lives much more severely than their straight counterparts, basically unless you were employed by a drag bar.

      1. Roscoe*

        Here is the fact, that you can believe or not. I knew which ones were “tops” and which were “bottoms” and all sorts of things about their ACTUAL sex life. So no, its not just them mentioning they had a boyfriend.

        It didn’t bother me enough to go to HR, which is why I didn’t. However, my point was I feel like if I spoke that way about the sexual positions I got into, people would have found it far more objectionable.

    4. Former Retail Manager*

      Straight female here and I know what you mean. While I understand the OP’s concern, I agree that inappropriate is inappropriate, regardless of orientation. Even if both ladies were straight, and one were making these statements to the other, it would still be sexual harassment. If OP were to speak with HR, I don’t see the need for her to mention her orientation or that of her co-worker. She need only say that she has asked the c0-worker to stop discussing topics of a sexual nature that make her uncomfortable and co-worker has refused. She can go into the level of detail she’s comfortable with, or not. There’s some great advice above from an LGBT employment law attorney that takes into account the OP’s desire to maintain confidentiality regarding both parties orientation and issues in the community, at large.

    5. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      The only sexual harassment complaint I’ve seen come down to litigation was a gay man being harassed by straight men. All he did was not hide his orientation from them.

      It cuts all ways.

    6. LW #3*

      I understand that a straight man might not get why forcibly outing a lesbian in a super misogynistic and homophobic culture is *kind of a bad thing*, but: it is. Also — you do realize that “Like at my last job, I would never talk about my sex life, especially to a woman” is you putting on exactly the same gendered double standard that you’re telling me not to act on?

  32. Foreign Octopus*

    OP3 – I feel you here.

    I am not at all one for sex talk. I don’t like it, it makes me horrifically uncomfortable, and I have no idea how to get them to stop. Fortunately, this has never happened to me at work, and only amongst friends who finally noticed how uncomfortable I was because I kept excusing myself to the bar to get drinks whenever they’d start on the topic (not something you can do, but useful in your personal life).

    I would second the advice that you’ve received here. The only way you can (hopefully) achieve the outcome you want without outing your co-worker is by having a frank conversation with her. Tell her that the sex talk is making you uncomfortable and you’d like it to stop: you don’t have to wait for her to start it up again, maybe raise the subject first thing in the morning and say – “Can I talk to you about something that’s bothering me?” – and then leap into it. Unfortunately, this is the only way that’s going to stop.

    As for the rest of your issues, it is difficult because you’re not eager to report her to HR. In this case, it’s just a matter of creating boundaries and making sure she doesn’t cross them.

    However, if it continues and does go on, don’t feel that you’re beholden to her because she’s not out yet. You need to protect yourself, and as it has been stated upthread, if it’s harassment, it’s harassment no matter what gender it comes from. I’m not saying out her as a punishment but there must be a way to protect yourself at the same time.

  33. Nonbinary for this.*

    Or: this letter was written by a woman who has a very reasonable concern about discrimination at her workplace, which she knows is sexist and homophobic. That concern is preventing her from reporting sexual harassment – and although she didn’t focus on it, she could also face homophobic and sexist repercussions. She’s facing a set of problems you don’t have.

    So maybe, as a cishet man, you could not go off-topic into a discussion of the at best very context-limited exemption your gay coworkers may or may not have had, especially since you absolutely did enjoy some level of privilege over them in many related contexts? I don’t think it’s very helpful.

    See also another commenter’s point above about how LGBTQ people are sometimes pressured to engage in sexual discussions by boundary-violating cishet coworkers. Hypervisibility isn’t the same as safety.

  34. sunshyne84*

    #3 I guess your coworker thought she had a friend when you all found out each other was also lesbian. I think you should just say while you are glad you two have found a connection you’d like to keep personal affairs out of your working relationship moving forward and that it makes you uncomfortable. She probably talks that way with her friends outside of work and just thought you’d understand, but hopefully she will understand that you’re not cool with it and you can just be cordial.

    #4 I just find it odd that the boss’ kids are there in the first place.

    1. Adlib*

      Ditto to your response to #4. I’d feel awkward at a party like that with kids around. I wouldn’t really feel able to relax and would be uncomfortable watching my language/topics around them since they are apparently very young kids who absorb a lot more than people think they do. I guess it depends on the culture of that office and that particular family.

    2. Bigintodogs*

      YES. Especially because they’re the only ones there. It seems to me the boss isn’t saying, “Hey, everyone bring your kids.” It’s more like, “Let’s have an adult party but hey my three- and four-year-olds will party with us.” That’s a drag, IMO. I don’t want to make sure my gift is kid friendly because a kid might pick it in an otherwise adult exchange. I’m surprised LW is as cool with it as they seem to be in their letter.

        1. Bigintodogs*

          That is why they’re there, but my point is that they don’t have to participate in the gift exchange, especially seeing as no other employer is bringing their kid(s) to participate in it.

    3. Beaded Librarian*

      It is odd but there were a number of time growing up my mom took me and my sister to department parties when she was in school for her psychology degree. They were usually barbecues and we weren’t ALWAYS the only kids but since the adults all knew us well and we usually more than happy to chat or play with us on whatever gaming system someone had at their house they didn’t seem to have a problem with us. Also we were 10-14 when this happened.

      In retrospect it is weird but the adults didn’t seem to mind thankfully. If I have kids I’ll do my best to not do it unless I know other kids will be there.

  35. Scarlet Magnolias*

    On talking about one’s sex life in the office, I referenced it to shut down a nosy co-worker. After my review with the Library Director, Ms. Nosy pestered me with questions about a raise, how much etc. She kept it up for several days and only stopped when I beamed at her and said that I would SO much rather talk about my sex life than my paycheck.
    Stopped her cold.

  36. Erin*

    #5 – I think it’s fine. I have a female coworker who has brought a woman to the past couple of work events. I have no idea if she’s a partner or a friend, and I try not to speculate.

  37. President Porpoise*

    I’m of the opinion that if someone sexually harasses you, you owe them zero courtesy on how or when you choose to report it. I don’t care if it’s going to interfere with their raise/promotion, whether it will make things hard for them in their marriage, whether they’ll get fired, or whether they’ll be outed.

    This woman is 55. She knows what she’s doing is inappropriate in the workplace. If you choose, you can give her a warning – one warning only – but I don’t think you owe her even that consideration, given her predatory and manipulative behavior.

    Best of luck, OP#3.

    1. LW #3*

      The problem is that I am also in the closet. If I go to HR and tell them exactly what happens, I also out myself. And even if it wouldn’t bother HR, my other coworkers would surely find out through any number of ways, and I’d be outed. Being outed as lesbian in a misogynistic, homophobic culture is something I am going to avoid if at all possible — even if it means not making an official report.

      Thanks for the comment, though! You’re right that she is an adult woman who absolutely must have learned what is and is not appropriate at work. I’m going to tell her to quit if she keeps doing it, and if she doesn’t… well, hopefully it won’t come to that.

  38. Patricia*

    Non-Drinker here – it never bothers me to receive alcohol as holiday gifts or hostess gifts; I just re-gift them to someone who might enjoy them.

    1. Bigintodogs*

      I think their worry was that the boss’ kids will end up opening it, and obviously they’re not of drinking age.

      1. Asenath*

        But if they did, someone who was of age would probably steal it – and if no one wanted it (which I think unlikely since alcohol is often a popular gift) – their parents would take it. I don’t think the children (or anyone, really) is likely to start drinking it right then and there.

      2. TootsNYC*

        I think preschoolers would have a hard time opening a bottle of wine, beer or champagne without a parent noticing. Even vodka often comes with a wrap over the cap.

  39. mcr-red*

    #3 – Back when I was a in my late teens, I had a much older female coworker say incredibly inappropriate and unwelcome things to me, and it took me years after the fact to realize that it was sexual harassment. And had she been a man, I would have reported her in an instant. And I understand that you’re in an even more awkward position. So I’m agreeing with everyone else here – shut her down the next time she does it with a very firm and slightly angry, “I DON’T want to hear any sex stuff.” No matter what excuses or comments come back just repeat that you don’t want to hear any of it. Some people are very open about their sex lives, but are usually understanding and will shut up about it if you tell them to. If it’s predatory, and continues after you’ve said you don’t want to hear about it, then you can esculate to, “I’ve told you to stop it several times now, don’t make me go to HR.” Even if you don’t plan on going to HR, the threat may be enough.

    1. LW #3*

      Thank you. I really hope that she’s just socially clueless and genuinely didn’t pick up on my discomfort (no matter how unbelievable that sounds to me, since I was basically radiating OH GOD PLEASE GO AWAY waves), and will stop when I tell her that I don’t want to hear about my coworkers’ sex lives.

  40. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

    #3: Ohhhh man, BTDT. I still, years in hindsight, don’t know if my creepy coworker was actually flirting with me or was just being deeply bizarre (which she was in many areas, but how far the venn diagram overlapped is still foggy), but I had a female coworker find out I’m a lesbian and immediately start saying things that were very jokey-harassy… you know, the kind of thing that’s a joke if you don’t like it and meant seriously if you do. Adding to the discomfort, she was nearly 20 years older than me and had been in the department for a decade, where I was new to the company and working hard to fit in.

    Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of good advice; I wound up seizing the moment to give her a firm “no” that managed to build off a joke she was already making, and it was a very opportunistic thing. She offered me some black licorice candy (which I love) and then said “Oh, now I can’t kiss you once you’ve eaten it!” and I said something along the lines of “Well, I’ll eat these candies every day!” In the moment I felt incredibly awkward and graceless, but it did put the kibosh on her trying to flirt with me or loan me sexually explicit books.

    I do echo what others have said about having a very serious sit-down conversation with her before you do anything else. She needs to hear in explicit words that this isn’t welcome and you don’t want it to continue — not because I think she’s being genuinely clueless, but because it robs her of plausible deniability. Harassers, whatever their gender or orientation, love to inhabit the foggy place where they’re joking but they aren’t, and where your indirect ‘no’ can be brushed off. Confronting her and saying “stop” clears out that fog.

    In terms of outing… that’s stickier, because as much as I would love to say that the consequences of her behavior (ie, you filing a harassment claim) are her own to bear, the unfortunate truth is that the impact will splash. People who are looking for an excuse to justify homophobic beliefs won’t draw a bright line divide between “Sue is a creep” and “Sue is a lesbian.” But on the other hand, it seems like Sue ought to be very conscious that you would be within your rights to report her for her behavior, and so her remaining closeted in this job is entirely a matter of your good grace. That might be worth pointing out if she gives you pushback on your firm, unequivocal “stop.”

    1. LW #3*

      “the kind of thing that’s a joke if you don’t like it and meant seriously if you do” — YES, this, exactly this was the message I got from her comments about “pretty little 20-something femmes” and the whole thing with her inviting me to her place. It could have been a lesbian telling a fellow lesbian about her relationships, and a coworker innocently trying to make friends.

      I’m definitely going to talk to her before going to HR (and I hope going to HR won’t be needed at all), and I’ve gotten some really good suggestions here on how to say it firmly but without being so rude that it would damage out (very necessary) working relationship. Thanks for the advice!

  41. Observer*

    #3 – It would probably be a good idea for your own peace of mind to run this by others in your network, outside of work. It sounds bad enough that even if she’s really not trying to pressure you or anything like, it really needs to stop – none of what you describe belongs at work regardless of the genders of the people involved. And the age gap bit just makes it all the more gross.

    Having said that, please do NOT protect her because she is female or gay. What she is doing is TOTALLY inappropriate. Period. As you said, if she were male you would have reported her already. Being female and gay doesn’t give her a pass to be a jerk (or worse). For some good framing, look at a lot of the comments that people make about how having a mental health issue doesn’t get you a pass to be a jerk. To be clear I’m not saying that being a woman or gay is a “disability”. I *am* saying that even when someone is in a genuinely disadvantaged position, that still does not give them a pass to be a jerk, and that NEEDS to be called out. On the flip side, you have zero obligation to put yourself in such a difficult situation to accommodate what is really gross behavior.

    Two things to think about that should make you feel a bit more comfortable reporting it if it comes to that. Firstly, is that NOT reporting it perpetuates the stereotype. If it ever comes out, you can be sure that the fact that you protected her – and that IS what you are doing – is going to be a huge part of the narrative. The other thing is that her behavior is not just inappropriate – it’s verging on predatory. I would not be willing to bet against her having done this to other younger women, and I’m sure that if no one stops her this will continue to happen and may even escalate.

    It stinks that you are in an industry that is so hostile. But that’s not a good reason to enable this kind of misbehavior.

    1. TheFacelessOldWomanWhoSecretlyLivesinYour House*

      I just have to ask why the age gap makes it gross? Both people are adults. I think any work/sexual thing is gross or worng but would it be more palatable if both were 30? Why?

      1. President Porpoise*

        There is a flavor of the older woman taking advantage of the younger, with all her talk of her exploits and so forth, which does make it more icky. There is nothing wrong with a significant age gap in a relationship – if both parties are entering the relationship with equal standing with each other. This older woman is playing up her cougar experience. (Is cougar applicable in homosexual context? I don’t know if my terminology is right, sorry.)

        1. Jennifer Juniper*

          The OP is being sexually harassed. Full stop. It is never appropriate to talk about one’s sex life in the office! She can simply report that so-and-so won’t shut up about her sex life and it is making OP uncomfortable.

      2. Roscoe*

        I think hitting on a co-worker isn’t usually a good idea anyway. But when the person hitting on them is old enough to be their parent, it adds another layer of inappropriate to most people. I think people would agree no matter what the genders and orientations are.

      3. Asenath*

        At a guess? Some people think age=power (social, if not necessarily financial), and the older person may be using that power to manipulate the younger person. Or that the older person is wiser and should pick up the social cues that say “not interested sexually” more easily, and is more to blame if they (as in this case) don’t. Or that the older person is infatuated with youth, and so is being manipulated by the younger one. Some people seem to confuse parental and sex partner dynamics, and seem to be looking for a father or mother figure when they date. There are a LOT of possible dynamics in May-December relationships, and people are often aware of a number of them, and so find such relationships unpalatable.

        1. Observer*

          It’s not that a “May – December” relationship is unpalatable per se. But, in this particular context, it’s pretty clear that the OP, who is younger is being made uncomfortable. The age and seniority of the coworker creates a power dynamic that’s just really problematic here.

      4. Oranges*

        It matters only if the older person makes it matter. There are ways of noticing the age difference in a May-December relationship that are okay–frame of reference stuff. People like what they like and many May-December relationships are perfectly healthy.

        This doesn’t seem to be one of those times. This seems to be a “I like younger women because they’re easier to manipulate” times.

        1. Oranges*

          Edit since I didn’t answer your actual question: It would be unpalatable if both were in their 30s. The older one (possibly) leveraging the age differential just adds another layer of “yuck” to the situation.

        2. Observer*

          This doesn’t seem to be one of those times. This seems to be a “I like younger women because they’re easier to manipulate” times.

          Exactly! Thanks for putting it so well!

      5. Lehigh*

        Others have pointed out the power dynamics. It also strikes me that if they were both in their thirties, presumably “I like to date women in their thirties” would not have been a thing the harasser felt she needed to state. Highlighting ways your sexual preferences align with your coworker’s characteristics is super gross.

        Let’s say you have blonde hair. It’s okay to notice that your coworker only seems to date blondes, but if he or she likes to pepper you with sexually explicit talk and one day leans over your desk and goes, “You know, I’m really into blondes,” that’s SO NOT OKAY.

    2. LGC*

      This is…completely on point. (I tried to post something similar but it didn’t go through yet.)

      I don’t know if I’d assume that she’s a predator, though. There’s a lot of ground between the most benign explanation (the older coworker is relieved that she finally works with someone like her and has inappropriate boundaries) and the most malicious (that she is a serial sexual predator, and LW3 is her latest victim). But even assuming the best of the coworker, she is benefitting from the culture of homophobia in the workplace because LW3 is afraid of the fallout from other people finding out.

      That said, I think LW3’s concern might be slightly misplaced. She never says (and nearly 300 comments in, I haven’t seen) if she’s out, and I’m a little worried that she might out herself if she has to escalate. That’s a risk that LW3 has to decide on.

      1. President Porpoise*

        I had written a comment too which hasn’t been posted yet and it’s been a while – do you know if we’re on heavier moderation due to the topics or something? Usually it’s pretty quick, so it seems weird.

        1. LGC*

          In my case, I used a very mild vulgarity twice. Which I didn’t think would trigger moderation…unless it’s set up so that only certain users are unmoderated?

          (Or unless certain other keywords are moderated. To be fair, I think it’s probably for the best for this post to be heavily moderated.

          1. President Porpoise*

            Hm, I don’t think it’s user related in my case, and I can’t see any problematic language, so I’m guessing Alison is moderating more heavily due to the topic. (Which is probably a good idea, considering!)

      2. Observer*

        Is that really a risk here? What CW is doing here is gross regardless of the OP’s orientation. “I don’t want to be propositioned” and “I don’t want to hear the details of CW’s intimate dating life” seem to me to be perfectly valid complaints regardless of the genders and orientations of the people involved.

        Maybe I’m being really naive here, but would any HR or manager really assume that the OP is gay if she complained?

        1. LGC*

          I don’t know if HR would assume from LW3’s report directly, but it could very easily come up if they speak to the coworker about how there are allegations of harassment. That would be my concern, and why I’m more worried about the LW’s level of disclosure. The coworker could easily say – for example – that she and the LW bonded because they were both lesbians (and this would be the truth).

          That said, this might not matter anyway because I don’t think she needs to escalate this right now. But I know in my organization, we allow employees to at least respond to write-ups. (I’ll defer to people who have more experience with sexual harassment cases.)

          1. LGC*

            And I realized that like I do fairly often here, I talked myself into a corner. (This isn’t about anything you said, Observer, it’s me reading over myself.)

            Just to clarify my own stance, I don’t think that LW3 should cover for her coworker’s harassment of her just because LW3 might be outed. To be honest, I don’t think she should cover for her harassment full stop.

      3. LW #3*

        I said in the original question that we’re both closeted at work! And yeah, that’s another big part of why I’m not too excited about the prospect of making this a Whole Huge Thing.

        But yeah, I wouldn’t say she’s a predator, it was just… creepily intense and inappropriate, I guess.

    3. LW #3*

      Thanks for the advice! I do get what you mean about not protecting her — the issue is that I am closeted as well, and after the way she’s behaved I don’t trust her not to out me via office gossip if I report her. It’s not just that it would be damaging to her, it would also potentially damage my own career, which is why I wanted advice on how to try to deal with it one-on-one (without damaging out working relationship too much) before going to HR. I don’t want the reputation of being someone who outs gay people, but I also really really don’t want to be outed myself in a culture where it’s not safe to do so.

      1. Observer*

        You obviously need to know your culture, but I do think that in most reasonable companies you could go to HR about this without making this about being gay. And you don’t have to ever bring up your own orientation.

        If her orientation comes up, please keep in mind that this is NOT about either of you being gay. You have a right to work without having someone keep on hitting on you, and it doesn’t matter if the person hitting on you is a man or a woman, gay, straight or bi. Which is also to say, that if it comes up, it’s not about outing her, even though that’s a side effect of complaining that she’s hitting on you and won’t take no as an answer.

        I want to point something out – you say that you don’t think she’s a predator, and you may be right. But something is SERIOUSLY off here. The fact that you are afraid that she’s going to out you and try to make YOU look bad if take any action to stop her is a huge red flag. This is not someone who is infatuated and just barrelling past boundaries because they are blinded by their feelings. This is someone who is intentional about what they are doing.

        I’m obviously not the right person to tell you how much risk you might be running, but please keep two things in mind as you navigate this. If she gets outed by anything you do, you are NOT NOT NOT responsible for this, or the person who outed her! She is responsible for the issue and it’s HER behavior that lead to her outing. Secondly, this is absolutely someone you can not trust in any form or fashion. Not personally ad not professionally. Please be careful with her.

  42. JD*

    LW5. I mean, you do know people there, you work with them. I think bringing just anyone comes across as a food/booze grab rather than the intent, which is not excluding spouses since it is not during work hours. To me it would be weird. I mean I wouldn’t obsess about it but I’d think it was a bit odd.

  43. TheFacelessOldWomanWhoSecretlyLivesinYour House*

    It’s so difficult being gay, female, and closeted at work. Been there and it was hell, changing pronouns, making up names. OP#3, I wonder if your co worker is so desperate for an ear and/or a friend, she’s oversharing way too much. Also, she may be treating you like lesbian buddy/potential gf and not as co-worker. Do as Alison says–state clear boundaries “Stop the sex talk, I’m not dating you.” Keep pushing to work topics and tell her to stop when she slips.

    1. LW #3*

      Thanks for the advice! The culture in my country is one where queer people are completely protected by both national and workplace laws — homophobia is an issue specifically in the field where we work, and she seems to have a lot of lgbt+ friends, so I don’t think the issue is her being lonely (even though it would make everything so much easier if that’s all it was). I’m always so awkward when I try to set boundaries, but I think you are all right and there really is no other option.

  44. Urdnot Bakara*

    #5 – I actually brought a friend to my holiday party last year because my husband had to work. I was planning on going alone but was actually encouraged to bring a friend by my boss. Other people brought friends, too–my colleague brought his roommate, for example–so it’s definitely a thing that happens. However, like Alison said, it is absolutely dependent on company culture and the structure of the party. Our holiday party takes place on a Saturday, outside of work hours, and is a *party* party, so my friend and I could hang out and do things without it being weird. If your party is more of just a sit-down dinner–less dancing/games/other activities–then it’s more likely to be awkward for you/your friend, IMO.

  45. agnes*

    #1–I would do something different. I would respond to the spouse something like this:

    “Hello XXXX,
    This email is extremely inappropriate to send to me as your husband’s boss. Please don’t communicate with me any further about this matter. Let’s chalk it up to your not understanding the workplace boundary that you crossed. I hope you do now.

  46. Mockingjay*

    #4: I just re-read the post. So the office party is held at the boss’s house, which explains why the preschoolers are there.

    OP #4, do you have a good enough relationship with the boss to suggest that the kids be excluded from the swap? Maybe bring a couple of extra, preschooler-appropriate gifts for them to play with while the “grown-ups” play their own game?

    This is presuming you want to spend your capital this way. (I would probably bring gifts for the little ones anyway; at that age they are thrilled with dollar store coloring books and the like.)

    1. Jennifer Juniper*

      Your suggestion to bring gifts for the little ones is excellent, Mockingjay. It will build political capital and is plain old good manners.

      However, suggesting your boss exclude the kids from the swap? That is telling your boss how to raise their kids. NO. Do not do that – unless you want to spend the party watching the kids.

      1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

        I don’t think it’s telling your boss how to raise their kids; it’s telling your boss how to host their party.

        I don’t think the OP should do that — she’s quite junior, it seems — but I don’t think it would be out of line for someone to suggest that the kids not be included. (“Shawna, I wanted to flag something for you about the party. I’ve noticed that some of our staff is uncomfortable with the kids being included in the gift swap; they’re not sure whether they should be bringing something that’s appropriate for the kids or more focused on their colleagues. What do you think about doing something different for Hunter and Lily during the party this year?”)

  47. Jennifer Juniper*

    OP5: Even if it is OK for you to bring a plus-one who is not your partner, be prepared for people to make certain assumptions if your roommate/best friend is the same gender as you. Or else be prepared to spend the entire evening explaining things to people over and over.

    1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

      Yep. It would be 100% fine to bring a friend to an office party at my job, but my colleagues would absolutely assume that they (whatever their gender) were my partner, unless I went out of my way to announce that they were not.

    2. irene adler*

      Aren’t there usually lots of introductions at work parties when spouses are introduced to the co-workers? Hence, saying, “This is Jane, my best friend who is visiting here from out of town.” is simply the introduction the OP uses – instead of “This is Jane, my spouse” as other co-workers might be saying. And given the circulation that goes on at such parties, this intro will be repeated many times. So there’s really not much left for speculation.

      If one is concerned that the ‘visiting from out of town’ might be a cover, then after the introductions are complete, Jane can move the conversation along by making comment about why she’s in town (“I’m in town to see the teapot painting exposition at the civic center tomorrow afternoon”).

  48. Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way!*

    OP4 – Perhaps instead of bringing real alcohol or a bottle of wine, bring a sparkling cider or sangria that still resembles alcohol but is in fact just fruit juice. There are more and more of these available in the grocery stores in different flavors.

  49. Cat*

    #5 OMG PLEASE DON’T PUT YOUR FRIEND THROUGH THAT. A while back, a good friend at the time invited me to her office Christmas party and it was honestly so awkward. It was not fun at all. The worst. Don’t do it.

  50. Youth*

    OP #4—If you choose to bring alcohol, please do take any measures you can think of to make sure a kid doesn’t end up with it. I brought my ten-year-old brother to a family barbecue hosted by my work. He won a raffle and was so excited…but the prize was an R-rated movie. Cue sad brother.

    Happily, the next year, they started doing separate raffles for kids and for adults.

    1. Iris Eyes*

      I’d definitely say a kid getting alcohol is a lot better than an inappropriate movie. The booze is going to be stolen and they are going to be ok with it (at least that’s been my experience) a movie that looks cool? Considerably less ok with it being taken away.

      1. Youth*

        I guess it depends on the kid. My brother was still more into cartoons at that age, so he was immediately disappointed upon receipt. He could see it wasn’t like the other prizes that were appropriate for everyone, like gift cards and cool tech stuff.

  51. Over the hill*

    I remember the weirdest email of my life.

    The girlfriend of the retiring owner wanted us to acknowledge how difficult the transition out of the company was for him and how we needed to be extra compassionate and gave examples.

    Our eyebrows practically left our faces.

    He is an extremely private guy in the “feelings” department. None of us doubted he would jave been furious and embarrassed so we did what we thought was appropriate and completely ignored it.

    It shouldnt have been sent and we sure as hell werent going to act on it. Just… no. Never send an email on behalf of another fully functioning adult. Hell, if they are incapacitated temporarily, make sure to include them in the chain.

  52. Beth Anne*

    #1 – WOW.. that is super inappropriate! And if you don’t really give bonus’ she’d know that…so idk why she’d expect it to start now.

    #5 – I’m sure it’s fine. My mom isn’t married and she used to bring me as her +1 to her company party all the time. And no one said anything. Although people were even often encouraged to bring their families/kids.

  53. Isobel DeBrujah*

    I’m bi and in a relationship with a woman so people insist that I am a lesbian and treat me as such. I have been in this exact situation and here is what I determined.

    You are keeping silent for two reasons based on what you stated. Reason 1: Fear that you will be outed. Reason 2: Solidarity. Addressing the first reason, that’s probably going to happen. As things escalate she’s going to reach for more and more control. One of the ways to control you is to threaten to out you. It’s coming. In regards to the second reason, there is zero reason to have solidarity with someone who is intent on causing you harm.

    There is no good answer here but the best of many not great answers is simply to go to your superiors and report. Things might go badly for you. But, things as they are right now aren’t going to get better without some outside pressure.

    1. LW #3*

      Thanks for the advice. It… yeah, honestly, it’s probably going to happen at some point, unless I manage to defuse this one-on-one with her without angering her. As unlikely as it is, I hope it’s all just a giant misunderstanding that’ll be fixed simply with me telling her I like being able to talk with the people I work with but really don’t like to hear about my coworkers’ sex lives.

  54. DataGirl*

    #4- some perspective from a sober person- it’s never a good idea to give alcohol as a gift unless you know FOR SURE that the recipient is a drinker, and you can’t say for sure who a white elephant gift will end up with, even if it’s one popular for stealing. Particularly for someone new to sobriety, a gift of alcohol can be very hard to resist and could cause a relapse. Most people are not out at work about their sobriety so it’s unlikely you’d know that they don’t drink. Heck, I’ve been clean 9 years and I still make jokes about mimosa breakfasts and wine after work, just because I don’t want my colleagues to know I am in recovery. There’s still so much stigma and it’s really the last thing a person needs to worry about at the office party.

    1. Jennifer Juniper*

      Thank you for pointing this out. I would never give alcohol as a gift unless it was for a friend! Otherwise I could be responsible for derailing someone’s recovery or facilitating a minor’s drinking.

  55. Anoncorporate*

    I’m sure people have pointed this out already, but you can report this to HR without it being tied to sexuality. A bunch of straight coworkers gossiping about their sex lives at work could also be reasonably reported to HR. Or if a straight couple keeps inviting another coworker to “hang out and stuff” at their house or something. Gay or straight, inappropriate behavior is inappropriate behavior. Sure, HR may suspect it, but honestly you are no obligation to protect your harasser at this point.

  56. Kenneth*


    The coworker in question not being “out” at work shouldn’t govern how you approach this. That does not, either implicitly or explicitly, establish an obligation that you have to keep quiet about what she’s doing to you. Nor should you see it as a “complication”. Otherwise, you’re implying she has license to basically walk all over you with regard to this since both of you know the risks of being “out”.

    You have to let her know that you’re interpreting her actions as harassment. Once you clearly state that, it establishes the guideline that any future attempt to continue what she’s doing could lead to her being reported to HR. I’ve personally had to establish that boundary with gay men who, for want of better words, wouldn’t accept that I’m straight and want nothing to do with them sexually or romantically – unfortunately the “I’m married” boundary doesn’t seem to push off anyone anymore. Sometimes you need to establish the possibility that they’ll lose their job on very unfriendly terms if they continue with their current behavior.

    At the same time, though, be ready to weather a threat from her that she’ll do the same. Basically project what she’s been doing onto you, and filing a report to that effect. If she’s brazen enough to do as you describe at work, she’ll likely also be dishonest enough to protect her standing in response to any potential at reporting. The possibility this could happen should not prevent you from standing your ground, though, and may force your hand. I’m only mentioning that it is a possibility, since it has actually happened to a former colleague.

    Otherwise, recognize that this situation may come down to you vs her. And good luck.

    1. LW #3*

      The problem with reporting it to HR, and the reason I asked advice specifically on how to deal with it one-on-one, is not just that I don’t want to out a fellow lesbian; it’s that I am not out either and it is not safe for my career to change that because of the misogynistic and homophobic culture. If I report — and out — her to management, she will be pissed, and she will out me to my coworkers as retaliation. After all, she’d have nothing to lose at that point. Of course I can’t know that as a fact, but based on how she talked and how little regard she seemed to have for my honestly very obvious lack of comfort, I’m pretty there would be a “mysterious rumor” started. I’m pissed at myself for telling her I’m gay, but I couldn’t have known beforehand how she’d react so I guess it’s no use dwelling on it.

  57. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

    #1 I wonder if the wife was drunk emailing. That’s always my first thought on long, rambling emails, especially if they’re over the top with complimentary language. So if she was feeling especially…loving toward her husband…she may have wanted you to know it without a real thought out ulterior motive. “Recognition” could mean bonus, or it could mean she wants him to be, like, named employee of the year. So I’m siding with the husband/owner on this and just ignore it. There’s no great way to approach an employee and ask if his wife has issues.

    1. Observer*

      The owner shouldn’t ask if the wife has issues. The owner should, however, inform his employee that the wife just did something really inappropriate.

      1. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

        But to me the email wasn’t terribly inappropriate — she didn’t threaten anyone, she actually didn’t demand money or information, she didn’t make any lewd or crude statements. It’s just an oddball email giving a glowing recommendation for her husband. The employee has worked there several years. In such a small business that has an annual party they’ve presumably already met the wife and she’s never exhibited this behavior before or the OP would have said something. I say treat it like an accidental fart in polite society — pretend you didn’t smell it.

        1. JulieCanCan*

          I don’t know – if my spouse sent an email to my employer behind my back and specifically said not to mention it to me, I would be PISSED at my spouse AND I’d absolutely want my employer to tell me about it. (So I could freak out on my spouse, lol.)

          That’s not really something to just sweep under the rug, regardless of subject matter. But it *definitely* shouldn’t be ignored when the wife is hinting about money or “recognition” or bonuses or whatever she’s referring to.

          That wife needs to keep her nose out of her husband’s work business. She’s lucky that his employer sounds laid-back and cool. Some managers/company owners would take her actions seriously in a very negative way.

  58. Sick Civil Servant*

    I moved to the East Coast for a job and a friend ended up going to school in the same city. I talked about hanging out with “Beth” around the water cooler and people just assumed we were a lesbian couple because she moved at the same time I got a job. When I moved a few years later for another job, I never really discussed what I did during the weekends so coworkers assumed I was a lesbian. It wasn’t until a coworker asked me if I liked men (to set me up with a friend) did I realise the fact that I never brought another person with me to holiday parties made me stand out. That was 25 yrs ago. I hope it’s changed!

  59. betty (the other betty)*

    #4: Play it safe and don’t put alcohol in the gift exchange, even if you make sure the kids won’t get it.

    Many people will appreciate alcohol as a gift, or will re-gift it if they won’t drink it. But some people avoid alcohol because they are in recovery for addiction (or are supporting someone who is), or for religious reasons. They might not have made these reasons public, and for them alcohol is a terrible gift.

  60. LadyCop*

    #3 What Alison said is definitely the first place to go. Be explicit that what she’s saying/doing is not okay, and yes, if it continues you really need to report it, whether you want to out her or not. If you reporting legitimate sexual harassment ends up in her being outed that is 100% on her, not you!

    Saying you don’t want to report her because of the nature of your male dominated field makes sense to me, I have worked in fields that comprise of 80%-90% men in my life, but I also have been harassed by women (I am straight for what it’s worth), and you need to look out for yourself. I am actually dealing with a sexual harassment issue at work right now that has affected me and a few of the people who report to me. The whole thing has reminded me that those misogynistic and homophobic men sometimes can only change when their faced with the realization that this kind of stuff happens, and it’s not just the stereotypical old man hitting on the pretty young intern/secretary.

    I wish you the best of luck, you deserve to feel comfortable (and SAFE!) at work.

    1. LW #3*

      Thanks! Yeah, I absolutely will report her if it escalates, but I’m hoping that the world’s most awkward one-on-one conversation will take care of it. I hope your situation resolves itself soon and painlessly!

  61. char*

    #5: I have a story about an interaction like this turning out okay – with the caveat that it totally depends on your coworker.

    I’m a gay man. I had a male coworker who often made sexual jokes and comments around me (e.g. multiple jokes about me eating bananas, telling me lots of details about what turns him on when the thing that turns him on is also something he had previously complimented me for, etc.) I genuinely don’t know whether he was even interested in men or whether he was just making weird jokes – but it didn’t really matter. It was making me uncomfortable, and he wasn’t picking up on any of my hints that these comments were unwelcome.

    So I asked him very specifically to please stop making sexual comments around me. And he did! And it didn’t really strain our work relationship either. But like I said, it really depends on your coworker. This was a coworker who I was otherwise happy to have a professional-but-friendly relationship with, and I continued interacting with him in the same friendly way as before to show that there were no hard feelings as long as he listened to my request. Also, I’m pretty sure that he genuinely didn’t realize he was making me uncomfortable and felt bad about it. I’m not sure whether your coworker will be as reasonable as mine was – but maybe she will! I hope so.

    1. LW #3*

      Oh man, that sounds like the absolute dream outcome! I’m so glad it worked out for you, and I hope my coworker also just was genuinely clueless about how uncomfortable I was and will stop if I ask her to.

  62. Bonnie*

    Wow. I am in shock that a “plus one” means a significant other or otherwise long term relationship partner to so many people. It seems a rather punitive policy to the un-partnered employees. There is no need to make people feel awkward in their work environment for not being in a romantic relationship. People should be free to bring whomever they choose as a plus ones, be it a romantic partner, relative, best friend or other.

    1. JulieCanCan*

      Totally agree – I’m usually the party planner and I always tell people they can bring whoever they want as their guests – why should the +1 only apply to folks in romantic/coupled relationships?

      Additionally, when you’re new it’s nice to have a friend there with you because so much of the conversation at holiday work parties involves “shop talk” which you might not yet be familiar with, and at least with a friend there, BOTH of you are out of the loop!

      I can’t really think of any reason bringing a friend as your guest would be looked down on. I say go for it and have fun! After I got divorced I always brought a friend as my guest to our holiday parties – she knew a few co-workers because our jobs were kind of connected so she always had fun and it became a tradition for her to join me each year. No one blinked an eye.

  63. JulieCanCan*

    OP3, you’re in a really shitty situation because of your coworker – I’m very sorry you’re going through this. I mainly wanted to say that people who sexually harass others, particularly those who do this in a work environment, often are VERY good at blurring the line and also stepping JUST enough over the line to be totally inappropriate, yet just close enough to the line to be able to deny it or to claim innocence if confronted with it.

    I’ve worked with serial harassers (the worst of which was finally fired because someone was brave enough to sue the company over it) and I work in an industry where it’s infamously tolerated and almost normal, as sickening as that sounds. So many people who harass others in that way know exactly how much they can say or do, and will manipulate very meticulously in order to be able to later say they were only joking or use whatever excuse has worked for them in the past. It’s so messed up.

    This woman knows you’re in a position where you promised to keep her sexual orientation a secret, and is using that in a way to cross the line horribly. Please let her know what Alison said in her script, and clarify with her that if it persists, you’ll have no choice but report her immediately. That secret you promised her went out the window as soon as she began her inappropriate behavior and talk with you.

    Predatory behavior is usually learned and tested and developed, and I’d bet you’re not the first person she’s done it with. It has a lot to do with power and often they get off on knowing they can get away with things they shouldn’t.

    Good luck in your talk with her, and please remember that she is *absolutely* in the wrong and you are NOT imagining it or making a big deal out of nothing. It IS a big deal and she shouldn’t be allowed to talk her way out of it. Hold her accountable and be strong and confident, even if it feels scary.

    I’ve seen this happen too many times and I’ve heard too many excuses and “brush-overs” when the harasser is eventually spoken to, and I hate seeing this crap happen to anyone.

    1. LW #3*

      Thank you so much. I’ve decided to take all of your advice and just plain tell her that I don’t want to hear about my coworkers’ sex lives or otherwise discuss sex in general with them.

  64. restingbutchface*

    OP#3 – I was thinking of you last night. Have you checked if you have legal protection if you face workplace discrimination due to sexuality? I’m assuming you’re American and I’m not, but I always forget and am shocked by the at-will employment laws and the fact some states still don’t have workplace protection for LGBT folk.

    1. LW #3*

      I’m not American, but I do live in a country where there are ironclad national anti-discrimination laws. I just want to avoid any kind of hassle, because for the first time in my life I’ve got a well-paying, full-time contract, and I simply can’t afford to take risks in the current economic situation (we’ve got hc downsizing going on, and it wouldn’t be difficult for the company to perfectly legally lay me off for “financial reasons” if I’m more trouble than I’m worth — and there would be trouble if this became a whole Thing).

      In my case this entire thing is an issue — and there’s no nice and non-generalizing way of saying this — on the blue collar level (where I am), specifically the middle aged men that make up the majority of the workers, and it’s an issue across our entire field and most adjacent fields as well. Casual misogyny, less casual homophobia, and blatant racism are a completely normal and everyday occurrence in the field. Hopefully the issue will just disappear when the older generation retires out of the work force.

  65. LW #3 update*

    Thank you to Alison for replying (and for clearing up my newbie confusion about comments not showing up, haha) and everyone else for your kind advice!

    I decided to sort of squish all of your advice together.

    I discreetly went for a one-on-one with our supervisor and told him that I had had a really uncomfortable experience with sexual harassment, without specifying who it was or what gender the person is. I told him I don’t want to make an official complaint because I wanted to give the chance for the person to correct their behavior, but that I wanted him to be aware that something is happening, just in case it doesn’t stop after I tell them to lay off. He took me very seriously, and we decided that he’s going to say a general reminder to everyone at our next team meeting (tomorrow) that some topics don’t belong to the workplace no matter how good friends you are with a coworker.

    I avoided the coworker in question for the past two days just to give me time to cool down and think of what to say without snapping at her, crying, or having a panic attack. I came to the decision that if she ever says anything sex-related or suggestive to me again, I’m going to tell her flat out “I was too confused and embarrassed by the situation to say anything earlier, but I really need to make it clear that even though I’m glad to talk to my coworkers and roll my eyes at the patriarchy with a fellow lesbian, hearing anything any coworker’s sex life crosses a huge boundary and I need it to stop right now”. I’ve been practicing saying it in front of the mirror so maybe I’ll manage to do it without stumbling all over the words! :)

    1. valentine*

      OP3/LW #3, I’m glad step 1 went so well for you. Should you say something that results in outing your coworker and an avalanche hitting her, remember she got the snowball rolling by isolating you in a vehicle she controlled and hitting on you hard, including inviting you to her home for “stuff.”

      You have boxed yourself in as far as options and solutions. (I do that, so I also step back and keep stepping back or imagine someone else in the situation, so that I can get a better perspective.) You’ve limited yourself to scenarios that work for both of you, but she doesn’t have to be happy or ideally situated. She caused the problem; it makes sense for her to do any suffering necessary. If I were in charge, I would be transferring your coworker to another shift/department/city. Is there not another shift, team breakdown, or any way to separate you two physically? You’re going to be paired together because you’re the only women. Can you get out of that?

      Did the car never stop? Yes, it would be awkward to get out and call a cab, colleague, or friend to come get you, but your safety is worth the worst awkwardness. What if she drives again? How will you get out of that? Can you insist on driving? Do you feel safe alone with her?

      You don’t have to say either of you is a lesbian and, if she outs you, you can lie or just let it be seen as a lie. Maybe you were raised to be perfectly honest, at your own expense? What you report, however, may change the response and revelation of how your employer can center you and keep you safe. If they think it’s just talk, they won’t be worried she’ll assault you, so, more being alone, possibly in enclosed spaces she controls. You can say she isolated you in the car, talked about younger partners, and invited you to her home.
      Them: Is she a lesbian? Are you?
      You: Regardless of gender or sexual orientation, I don’t feel safe with her and she needs to stop.

      Your country sounds like a good place for you to be, but does the industry serve you? Is it worth being closeted and steeped in bigotry? Can you chip away at that by suggesting anti-kyricist (in this case, homphobic+sexist+racist) training? (Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza coined the term kyriarchy.) The older generation trained up the current one, so baby boomers dying off isn’t going to disappear the gross culture. Is there anything else you’d like to work in where you can be out and feel safe and free? Can you start or join a queer-friendly or -centered business? You need a community to shore you up and I hope you’ll build a Team You, even if you stay in your current work.

      The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities, edited by Ching-In Chen, Jai Dulani, and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, is about how to tackle situations like yours, where you want to stop a margianalized person harming you without risking kyricist violence.

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