my employee keeps commenting on my looks

A reader writes:

How can I best discipline/provide feedback to an employee of mine about his frequent inappropriate comments about my body/attractiveness? I’m worried about inadvertently devolving into “you think I’m hot” territory or drawing even more attention to my body, which makes me very, very uncomfortable.

Some recent comments/actions include:
* “You’re bringing sexy back!” — said because I was wearing a completely office-appropriate wrap dress which he found appealing.
* “You definitely look like you work out a lot.” — said after an innocuous gym-related statement I made.
* Generally staring at my chest/hips/legs while I’m giving him direction or feedback.

I’m completely at a loss about how to give feedback/direction without making myself feel more uncomfortable than I already am about this, or making him feel defensive.

Whoa. Those are indeed completely inappropriate comments to be making at work, let alone to one’s own boss. If he’s comfortable saying this stuff to his boss, I’ve got to wonder what he’s saying to other people, especially if he has power/authority over any of them (including unofficial authority, like junior staff who he doesn’t manage but who might be too intimidated to push back).

In fact, that might help you steel yourself to address it — think about how uncomfortable you are addressing it when you’ve got authority over him, and then imagine how hard it might be for people who don’t. Keeping that framing in the forefront of your mind might make it easier to do.

The easiest way to shut it down is to address it in the moment. For example:

Him: “You’re bringing sexy back!”
You: “I’m sorry, what did you say?” (make him repeat it, which signals he said something odd)
Him: “I said you’re bringing sexy back!”
You: “You know, you have a pattern of making comments like that. It’s not appropriate for work — to say to anyone here, not just me. I don’t want you telling anyone you work with that they look sexy, or commenting on anyone’s body.”

Note that you’re not debating what he intends (or getting into the “you think I’m hot” territory that you’re worried about). You’re just telling him that the comments, no matter what he intends by them, are inappropriate and need to stop. If he didn’t intend anything by them, then great! He still needs to stop.

Now, he might get defensive here; that’s a really common reaction to being called out on this. So be it. Your goal isn’t “find a way to get this to stop without making him defensive” because that’s an unrealistic goal. Your goal is “deliver the message to him that this isn’t okay and needs to stop.”

If he gets defensive and tells you that you’re reading too much into his comments, you can say, “The comments aren’t appropriate at work regardless, so please stop them.”

If he tells you to lighten up or have more of a sense of humor, you can say, “You’re right, I don’t have a sense of humor about this, because I care about ensuring people feel comfortable at work. So yes, please do stop this sort of comment.”

And then carry on matter-of-factly with something work-related, to demonstrate that it’s not up for further debate (which also does him the favor of letting him save face a bit, by moving the conversation to a different topic).

The staring at your chest/hips/legs while you’re talking to him is a little tricker because there aren’t concrete words to react to, but you can call that out too. One way to do it: Act like you must have a bug or a crumb on you that’s drawing his attention and ask about it. Saying “What are you looking at?” in a tone of mild concern while glancing down at your chest as if there might be a terrible stain there can be an effective way of shutting this down. With a guy like this — where the staring is happening against a backdrop of other creepy behavior, which makes it less likely that he’s just bad at eye contact — I’d have no qualms about doing that several times until the message gets through. (You also have the option of being more direct, of course, but realistically it’s awkward to tell someone you manage “stop staring at my breasts” and this lets you convey the same thing without having to spell it out. But if you’re comfortable spelling it out, go for it.)

I’d also make a point of paying more attention to his interactions with other women for a while. If he’s making comments like this, or worse, to other people, you want to know about it so you can shut that down. Pay attention, too, to other signals, like if some women on your team seem reluctant to work with him, or if people make jokes about him being creepy or annoying or aggressive. Those are flags that you’re only seeing part of this and need to dig into to what else might be going on.

The good news here is that you’ve got the authority to stamp this out! So often in these situations, people are stuck working around a creep with more authority than they have, or where political considerations mean they can’t be as direct as they want. You’re his boss — you’ve got all the power here, you can be direct, and you can shut this down.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 430 comments… read them below }

  1. Eillah*

    This may be too fire but….fire this f*cking creep. Unless he lives in a cave, it’s 2019, he knows it’s wrong, he’s doing it anyway.

        1. TootsNYC*

          he may be aiming it at his boss because he’s trying to undermine her authority. So she may be getting it worse, actually.

          But yes, if this is how he tries to dick around with power dynamics, he’s going to use it on other people too.

          And she doesn’t need other people overhearing him speak to her this way.

          1. designbot*

            Or he may be trying to kiss @$$? Tough to tell, but wherever it’s coming from, shut it down.

    1. Antilles*

      Nope, it’s not too far; fire-on-the-spot is fully justified here. This level of open sexual harassment would have gotten someone in trouble even a decade ago; in 2019, after all the publicity of MeToo, it’s almost incomprehensible.

      1. M&Ms Fix Lots of Problems*

        This is what my thought is as well. Stop this completely, including all staring at inappropriate areas on female co-workers. If you can’t do that, please let me know and we can discuss your exit. If you agree to this understand that this is your only and final warning on this topic.

        1. Laurelma_01!*

          Like the final warning. Also give HR a heads up.

          What is the LW & employee’s ages? I had this image of a younger man thinking these comments would be get a pass with someone a bit older than him. Wonder how many women have let this go because they do not want to deal with it, afraid to deal with the consquences if they do state they have a problem with it. He’s gotten by with it. Or think he’s a smooth operator? horses rump? reminds me of men standing on the steps of their faternity yelling it out to the women as they pass.

          1. Michaela Westen*

            It reminds me of a certain type of man who thinks he’s flirting, and thinks it’s appropriate because he’s still pretty young and inexperienced. And was raised in an environment where he was never called out.

            1. Mari M*

              I know that guy! I had his boss shut him down. Because as an admissions rep for a school, you don’t sexually harass the students.

              1. Violet Rose*

                Admissions rep – students – I had to stifle a shriek when I read that. Thank goodness you were able to get his boss to step in!

            1. AL (the other one)*


              Is there any other indication that me might have issues with a younger woman being his boss?

              He’s being really disrespectful…

              I hope that Alison’s advice will be useful for you.

            2. Kendra*

              So, he’s old enough to know better, but young enough that “Don’t sexually harass your coworkers” should have been a workplace norm for him from day one.

              It doesn’t even matter at this point why he’s doing it, whether it’s to undermine you, or is some kind of painfully awkward flirting, or is just how he treats all women; he has no excuse for this kind of behavior, and it needs to stop yesterday.

              If he’s incapable of working with a woman without openly ogling her breasts, he needs to not be in your workplace anymore. He’s already made you wildly uncomfortable; what if he does the same thing to a more vulnerable coworker? Or a customer?

          2. Maria Lopez*

            He is intimidating you with this, on purpose. He knows exactly how disrespectful he is being and you can bet he would NEVER say anything like this to a male boss.
            You can tell him, once, to stop the familiar and disrespectful comments, and spell it out for him, and then talk to HR. He may have to be fired. No loss.

            1. Snickerdoodle*

              Exactly. He’s lucky if he gets one warning. This is a SUPER fireable offense, and he knows it.

            2. OP*

              I’m honestly not really intimidated. I’m just annoyed, and trying to navigate really complicated political waters at my company.

        2. Gazebo Slayer*

          “Understand that this is your only and final warning on the subject.” Best delivered in an icy, utterly deadly tone of disgust.

      2. Rust1783*

        I would also frame the one clear warning as a brief, serious meeting where the boss tells him she has seen a clear pattern of inappropriate behavior that has to stop, and he gets one chance to turn himself around. I don’t know that addressing it in the moment is the best way to communicate this message. It is POSSIBLE that he has not faced real consequences before and this could serve as a genuine learning experience for him.

        1. Zombeyonce*

          Anyone not living under a rock the last 5 years knows this behavior is definitely not okay and leads to people losing their jobs, no matter how powerful they are or how long they’ve been doing it (repercussions don’t always happen but they still get media attention). I don’t agree that this needs to be treated as a learning experience; it needs to be a clear warning with no acceptance of “oh, it was just a compliment, I didn’t realize it bothered anyone” excuses.

          I posted a link to it above, but I recommend this story about men claiming to be “inexperienced” so they don’t have to deal with the consequences of their actions:

          1. Tom*

            I have to admit – social interactions aren`t my strong point.
            Looking people in the eyes for a longer time (anything +20 seconds, really) makes me really nervous – so i tend to focus slightly above the person to appear to have eye contact.
            But – even with this issue with social skills I have – even then – i KNOW this is a) not how you approach any woman, and b) not how you approach those above you in the hierarchy.

            Of course, you could comment ‘you`re looking great today’ – but the tone would make a difference.
            If it makes you feel uncomfortable – because even the more or less generic compliment combined with how/where he looks would be – then it`s either harassment or bordering on harassment – and should be stamped out. Like, now.

            Good luck in dealing with this gem – and do give an update please.

    2. MusicWithRocksInIt*

      This guy is an absolute creep – but the LW should get her ducks in a row. 1st offence is the script Alison provided, 2nd offence is a sit down a super serious discussion about ‘We have discussed this before – this is not appropriate for the office’ and let him know his job is on the line (maybe a PIP if her office requires one for firing) and 3rd offense (to LW or any other woman) and you are out.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I’d compress that if she has the authority to — this is the first conversation and the second is his job is on the line (subject to whatever procedures her company may require, which she should be finding out now).

        1. VictorianCowgirl*

          My question is: he’s already documented a pattern with multiple events with the OP. Can this not be grounds for immediate termination? Why give him the chance to commit another offensive act?

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Most companies won’t fire the first time someone is warned for this unless it’s truly egregious (more than this has been, unfortunately). The OP confirms below that’s the case at her company.

          2. boo bot*

            It sounds like she doesn’t want to fire him right away? And that’s her prerogative, since she’s both the one being harassed and the one with the fire-power.

            But I think that it’s worth actively trying to find out whether she actually IS the only person he’s talking to this way – not just keeping an eye out for whether people make jokes or seem to feel uncomfortable, but asking other employees about his behavior.

            Someone who acts like this may well cut it out when the boss tells him to – but keep on harassing other women who are lower in the power structure. So, I’d be watching out for that.

    3. VictorianCowgirl*

      This letter made me so sad. It’s 2019 and fully grown women are so affected by our culture they/we still feel like they can’t assert their/our rights without saving a man’s ego.

      Gods forbid a man is defensive or embarrassed about his disgusting chauvanistic aggressive sexual behavior!

      I say they/we because I struggle with this as well and do not mean to point a finger at OP.

      I’m just so tired of this.

      1. Michaela Westen*

        I’ve had good results by speaking softly to call them out. There is a specific subculture where men do this and the women in that subculture appear to respond well to it. I don’t.
        I was at a one-day temp job and the sharply dressed man in the room was giving me that look. At the first opportunity he made a comment. I quietly explained that he was being disrespectful and he said he was sorry. Then I said I knew he would do that, I saw it in his eyes. He had no response to that. We didn’t speak again.

        1. Ico*

          Wow, being told that you knew he was going to do it must have been legit withering for him. Maybe even caused some self reflection? Right on!

          1. Michaela Westen*

            I hope so! I think I also said, “I’ve fended off hundreds of guys like you”. That’s one of the points I was trying to make, anyway.
            And I have. In my 20’s I couldn’t go ~anywhere~ without these guys getting in my face.

      2. smoke tree*

        I understand why the LW is uncomfortable–this guy is being really aggressive, and is likely trying to make her uncomfortable. He may even be targeting her in this way because he resents having a female boss. Perhaps it would help the LW to think of these acts as aggressive ones rather than inept flirtation–it’s not really about attraction, it’s a power play.

        1. Michaela Westen*

          It could be but it’s also possible, if he’s from the subculture I’ve seen, that he thinks he’s being friendly or making her feel good. Blech. That never worked for me, but I have seen women respond well to it.
          What happens after the first correction will make clear what it is and how to proceed.

          1. LunaLena*

            Yeah, a lot of guys think “it’s a compliment, she needs to learn to accept compliments gracefully” and/or “I would LOVE it if a woman said that to me,” which morphs into “I’m afraid to be nice to women lest they accuse me of sexual harassment.” They don’t get that, just because they perceive things one way, doesn’t mean it always comes off that way.

            1. Sarah M*

              Grrr. If I hear that response one.more.time. so help me.

              I think the best reply to *that* is to ask if he’d still “love it” if his new cellmate said that to him on the first day of prison. Would he be “flattered” if he were catcalled by all the other inmates as he was walking past them, or would he be concerned for his safety? IME, the real twerps will double down verbally to save face, but it will definitely hit home. Sometimes, that’s all you can do.

            2. Kendra*

              They also don’t seem to understand that what MIGHT be considered a compliment in a bar or on a date (a lot of it can depend on intangibles like their tone of voice and stance) is most definitely NEVER APPROPRIATE in the office. They seem perfectly capable of understanding that it’s not okay to crush beer cans on your forehead during a board meeting, but somehow the transformation of women from “objects to hit on” to “humans I work with” doesn’t ever seem to work out in their tiny brains.

              1. Light37*

                See also, “You wouldn’t mind if Keanu Reeves said X to you!”
                First off, Mr. Reeves probably wouldn’t say it to begin with, especially at work.
                Second, the fact that you might appreciate hearing a certain statement from someone you find attractive in a social setting does not mean that statement now has blanket protection to be uttered under any circumstances by any person.

              2. Seeking Second Childhood*

                That came up in a chat with friends… we all decided on our answers. Mine: “If [unmarried movie star] applies to work here, he’ll be professional or be out on his keister. If he says that at a bar tonight, I’ll flash my wedding ring and say he’s too late I’m taken.”

          2. AKchic*

            It doesn’t matter what his intentions are. He is doing something inappropriate and it needs to stop. Period. Intent doesn’t matter. End result matters. Especially when the whole action is not supposed to be happening in the first place.

    4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      His behavior is vile, egregious, and wholly unacceptable. I would give him one warning, then fire him.

      I’d also encourage OP to do the snap, then eye-to-eye hand gesture, along with a curt “up here” if he persists after being asked what he’s looking at.

      I also favor using Alison’s advice to make him incredibly uncomfortable (I think CA calls this “returning awkward to sender”). Force him to repeat his inappropriate comments and then very frankly name what’s wrong about his comments. For example: “it’s not appropriate to comment on other bodies or attire,” etc., etc.

      I hate when dudes are smarmy this way. He probably thinks he’s charming or smooth (blecch). I find that it unnerves dudes like him to have someone ignore or call out his comments. If he has any decency, he’ll realize he’s out of pocket and start behaving. Otherwise, he’ll be a defensive, resentful asshole, at which point he should be fired.

      1. Kaitlyn*

        Yeah, there’s a certain flavour of “sassy banter” that seems like he might be reaching for. Like, the verbal stuff is gross and he might not know that it’s not scanning the way he wants it to. (That said, the staring is another beast entirely and also needs to be addressed, and I like your curt suggestion.)

        But—sassy, creepy, or controlling—intention is not impact, and he needs to be told, once, that his words and behaviour are noticed, unacceptable, and will lead to his termination if he chooses not to change it.

      2. GreenDoor*

        Well, if his pushback is, “I was just being nice” or “I meant it as a compliment” or some other such BS, you could add very specifically in a pointed tone, “Your intent is irrelevant”. So many of these guys use their “good intent” to get the accuser to feel guilty for assuming bad intent and back off. Intent simply doesn’t matter. It’s inappropriate, period.

      3. JSPA*

        Some people learn their social skills from movies, sit coms, or a line of male relatives who’ve gotten away with this crap for most of the last century. Some of it is also runs into class / cultural differences; what’s tolerated on the construction site and what’s tolerated in white collar jobs has not changed in unison, over the decades. And frankly, it can be just as bad (or worse) in tech jobs (maybe because some of the early founders and top people were not socialized past high school….and not very well, there.)

        Everyone therefore deserves at least one very clear warning that a) this is not OK in a business environment b) there is no level of good intentions that can excuse [that thing they’re saying], and c) it has to stop.

        1. Elizabeth*

          It’s not because techies didn’t all stay in college. It’s because they made an environment where they *can* be that way and they are rewarded rather than punished for it.

          1. EH*

            It’s because they made an environment where they *can* be that way and they are rewarded rather than punished for it.

            YEP. This. It’s a bonding, in-group/out-group thing. I’ve been in tech for over a decade and … yeah. Techies aren’t all misogynists, but there’s a big enough creep population that you can get nests of them at companies that tolerate this behavior.

    5. LokiMonster5000*

      100% fire him. I am sick and tired of dudes like this getting the benefit of the doubt that they’re oblivious and totally unaware of what they’re doing. If you can, fire him now. If you need to, start documenting his harassment of you and continue to do it until there’s a paper trail sufficient enough to ax him. Good riddance.

  2. Lance*

    To add to all this, I hope you have at least halfway decent HR, because this is well within their purview. I think it would be worth at least noting this with them now — whether calling for action or not — and if you notice this sort of behavior from him with anyone else (because I’d be looking), then that’s all the more reason to go to them.

    This guy’s being a creep, and it needs to be shut down hard.

    1. Reba*

      Yeah, I hope the OP has a good way they can document this and set it up so she is ready to fire this person if they don’t stop.

      On the same note, I might add to Alison’s excellent scripts that “treating colleagues respectfully–which means no comments on their body or attractiveness–is a condition you have to meet to work here. Can you do that?” Make it clear that his employment is on the line.

    2. cmcinnyc*

      PLEASE bring this to HR, because if another woman reports him (or already has), they’ve no doubt been brushed off (or will be) unless *more than one* woman (and a supervisor!) reports him. It takes a village, apparently.

      1. M&Ms Fix Lots of Problems*

        Sadly I have to agree. When I was in HS I dealt with this, compounded by the fact I was very, very blonde (naturally – lots of blondes in my family). So I got all the crappy comments compounded by what seemed like every blonde joke this idiot knew. It took all seven women who worked with this guy to get HR to take us seriously.

    3. Mr. Shark*

      Yes. Obviously as the boss she has the authority to fire him, but I think bringing in HR since this is not a performance issue, but definitely a sexual harassment issue, should be a step after the direct conversation. It will make it clear to HR that this is going on, and further issues will be fireable offenses.

      1. Middle School Teacher*

        Does she, though? I’m not being snarky, I’m genuinely asking. We’ve read a lot of letters here from managers who don’t actually have any managerial powers such as firing. But I agree on HR.

      2. Michaela Westen*

        I think tell HR ~before~ the conversation with this guy, so they’ll know what’s up if he goes to them or causes any trouble.

    4. HalloweenCat*

      Go to HR immediately. Depending on the type of work you do and depending on how your HR handles these things, it’s a CYA. If someone else in the company goes to HR before you do with credible complaints about this dude’s behavior (and I think it’s safe to say you aren’t the only one he’s treating this way) and HR finds out you knew about this pattern of behavior and didn’t do/say anything about it, that might put your job on the line as well.

  3. Amber Rose*

    Ugggggh. I feel nauseous just reading about this guy. What a creep.

    To Alison’s wonderful-as-usual advice I would add that if he doesn’t stop, please have some kind of disciplinary plan in place. And write down and record everything, when he says things, what he says, what you said in return. I have a feeling this guy is a problem for other women too and the more evidence you have, the better your odds of just being able to get rid of him.

    I sincerely doubt this guy is just going to magically stop being awful just because you shut down his comments.

    1. Maria Lopez*

      He may stop it if she is forceful enough and whips him back into place every time he says something. But he has to be afraid of her for this to work, and it doesn’t seem like she’s ready to go there yet.
      My philosophy, after 40 years in my very male dominated profession, has been that they are going to call you a bitch anyway, so what the hay?

  4. Pompom*

    Great scripts, but nix the “please” from the script. Be more direct. ie, “The comments aren’t appropriate at work regardless, so stop them.”

    1. Myrin*

      I’m honestly never a fan of that whenever it gets suggested. A “please” alone isn’t going to make any sentence less direct if you’re confident and steely-voiced enough, and it can be especially helpful to add for people who have problems being brusque without a little bit of verbal lubricant (which I’m suspecting is the case for OP).

      1. Psyche*

        It really depends. I think keeping it in for the first time does make it easier to say and for most people won’t “soften” the message to a point that they don’t understand that it isn’t really a request. However, I do think it should be dropped for subsequent times if the behavior continues. Then you need to be crystal clear that this is not a request. There shouldn’t be a second time at all.

        1. Myrin*

          Oh, absolutely! I was indeed speaking about the initial conversation, I should’ve made that more clear.
          (I also really adore Alison’s wording of “I don’t want you to…”, mostly because that exacty kind of phrasing doesn’t exist in my language which I hate because it’s so helpful!)

    2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      I would only include the “please” if you’re the kind of person who can carry off making it icy crystal clear that it is not a request. If that’s within your expressive range, it can be a great intensifier.

      1. Washi*

        Yes, there’s a certain satisfaction in giving a bone-chillingly professional reply. I think it can actually come across as more authoritative, because it communicates that you are not going to stoop to his level of un-professionalism.

        1. Database Developer Dude*

          Had this on the DC Metro. Some idiot put his hands on me demanding to see my Metro card. I told him “Please remove your hand from my arm immediately”. He did so. It works. If you can pull off the tone, OP, do it.

          I was absolutely gobsmacked when my firm ran some anti-sexual harassment training, and the scenario showed a project manager (male) telling an extremely attractive direct report (female) “I bet you’re glad it’s getting warmer, now you can wear sundresses and show off those lovely legs of yours….”

          That made me cringe, because they wouldn’t show it as training unless it ACTUALLY HAPPENED.

          1. Michaela Westen*

            I’ve done “Don’t touch me!” while jerking my arm back. I’m too offended to make a long sentence. :)
            This worked too.

            1. YouGottaThrowtheWholeJobAway*

              I also say Don’t Touch Me when men touch me, but I add an extra word that starts with F between the Don’t and the Touch. That helps convey the message.

            2. Librarian of SHIELD*

              When it’s a stranger on the bus, I generally go with “You do not have my permission to touch me.” Said at a sufficient volume, that’s a phrase that turns heads on public transport.

            3. Snickerdoodle*

              Haha–I said “LET GO!” once to somebody who grabbed my arm because he thought I was slipping and falling. Honest mistake on both sides. Oops. But it was extremely effective, and I remembered it in case I needed it for real. :D

      2. boo bot*

        And if it’s not in your expressive range, and you’re considering acquiring it, it’s really satisfying and I recommend it!

        Also: there are those who, no matter how icily you say it, will seize on the “please” and say something like “well, since you’re asking so nicely…” You can shut that down with an equally icy, “It’s not a request.” So, there’s even a margin for error here, as long as you’re willing to follow it through.

        I think overall this comes down to, which one will make you feel more in command of the situation, which depends for all of us.

    3. M&Ms Fix Lots of Problems*

      I agree – this isn’t a case I don’t feel for the softening please. It just all needs to stop, and stop last year.

    4. Snickerdoodle*

      Yeah, “please” makes it sound like a request, and it’s not. It stops or he’s gone. Period.

  5. Jennifer M*

    The goal can’t be “he doesn’t get defensive or feel bad”. The goal must be “he stops this 100% problematic behavior”. I think Alison’s scripts for the comments are good because they focus on the thing that needs to stop and not on intent because people will argue intent until they are blue in the face. I totally get your discomfort on the staring thing and I hope that Alison’t suggestions for for that as well.

      1. MusicWithRocksInIt*

        He SHOULD feel bad, but he’s not going to. I would put good money on that he will find someone to complain to about this by the end of the day.

        1. M&Ms Fix Lots of Problems*

          Agreed, he won’t be embarrassed at all.

          I mentioned the “dude” I worked with in HS, he was notorious for staring in addition to comments. I eventually one day told him, “I know that the pattern on my shirt is fascinating, but my eyes are actually 12 inches higher. Look there from now on please,” in the iciest tone I could summon. Didn’t embarrass him at all, and also didn’t remotely change where his eyes focused.
          (I was 17, he was late 20’s, double yuck.)

          1. Zillah*

            The extent to which these creeps target teenagers is terrifying – I noticed a significant drop in street harassment as I hit my late teens/early twenties. (Not that it stops when you hit adulthood, of course.)

            1. M&Ms Fix Lots of Problems*

              I think some of them do it on purpose thinking the teens won’t push back (either because they aren’t confident enough to or don’t know how to effectively). I had no trouble telling him what I thought about him, which was that he was a pathetic looser.

              Hey, ten-ish year’s older than me and chasing people my age, yeah probably a creep or looser who can’t get time of day from a woman your own age.

      2. Jedi Squirrel*

        Yes, he should feel bad, and he possibly will, but there is entirely too much speculation here saying that he won’t. Yes, some men don’t feel in the least bit bad about being called out on this, but some do, and it’s possible this man is one of them.

        1. smoke tree*

          I think what people are going on is the egregiousness of his behaviour. If he was just an awkward guy with a crush on his boss, he would probably be mortified to be called out–but he wouldn’t be acting like this. I’m pretty confident he knows what he’s doing, and knows he’s making her uncomfortable.

          1. Parenthetically*

            If I squint just right, some of it reads like an attempt at banter to me, like he’s trying to be chummy and casual (like he was with his last boss or whatever) but doesn’t know how to achieve that with OP, so it ends up being flirtatious and sexual. Not that that excuses it, because frankly I don’t care about his intent — it’s creepy and inappropriate and needs to stop ASAP — but I can read it as “trying to be in charge by making OP uncomfortable with aggressively sexist jokes” or “trying to be the casual, fun employee but missing the mark A LOT.”

        2. Zillah*

          IME, the men who feel bad after being called out (and bad for the impact, not because they got caught) are virtually always the men who genuinely don’t realize that what they’re doing is problematic. The more pervasive, overtly sexual, and/or physical the behavior is, the less likely it is that they’re just ignorant.

          This man’s behavior hits on all three of those things to various extents (I count excessive and obvious staring at someone’s chest as physical). Unfortunately, I think it’s really, really unlikely that he’s going to feel bad for making the OP feel uncomfortable.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      He’s not going to feel bad.

      That this is unacceptable is not obscure information: He knows it’s not acceptable and if he were ever going to feel badly about it, he’d have done it already and wouldn’t still be harassing the OP.

    2. Dr. Pepper*

      He’ll feel bad alright, but not the way we’d all like him to. He’ll be mad he got caught, not contrite over his terrible behavior, because it’s highly unlikely he will think he’s done anything wrong.

      Let him have his Sad Feels and choose not to care. The only thing that matters here is that he stops.

      1. Gazebo Slayer*

        I’d go so far as to tell him “I don’t care about your feelings on this matter” or “Your feelings on this matter are utterly irrelevant” if he starts with the sadfeels routine.

  6. That Girl From Quinn's House*

    My experience with situations like this, where an employee’s disrespectful or out of line behavior is targeted at the boss, is that you need grandboss or HR to sit in on the disciplinary meeting and back you up. Because so many employees will behave out of line to their boss, and then interpret the subsequent disciplinary action for it as proof that they were “right” to be out of line to their boss in the first place, and they double down and it becomes a circular argument. And many of them have zero compunction escalating to others (grandboss, HR) that the disciplinary action is evidence that “Boss is a mean bully!!” and you need to be the first person to notify grandboss/HR as to what’s going on so they can respond correctly when the employee inevitably escalates.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Interesting, I disagree. I think having back-up there signals that the OP doesn’t have the authority she actually has. It’s a stronger move to just deal with it, and hold him accountable to meeting the expectations she’s laying out. Having someone else there says she doesn’t think she has the authority to deal with it, which she does.

      1. Artemesia*

        If there is any hint that he might go above her head or has ties upstream, a heads up to the next level about the problems this guy presents might be CYA in case he does escalate. He won’t escalate on this, but perhaps on something else ‘just between us guys’ — if he is already on record as having a problem with women this might be helpful.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Oh yes, she can and should give her own boss and HR a heads-up about what’s going on. But the message to the employee should be “I am the one with the authority to tell you what is required.”

      2. Anon Librarian*

        But what if he plays the victim or otherwise misrepresents what was said in the meeting? It could be valuable to have someone else present.

        1. Working Hypothesis*

          I would expect that if grandboss is at all good at their job, and has been alerted ahead of time by boss that this guy had said X, Y and Z and boss is about to have a stern talk with him because it needs to stop, then grandboss will respond to jerkface making stuff up about what boss said to him by giving him The Look and telling him in a steely voice that they trust boss’ integrity. Grandboss doesn’t need to be in the room, they just need to have boss’ back if jerkface tries to go around boss to them.

        2. Helena*

          “But what if he plays the victim or otherwise misrepresents what was said in the meeting?”

          Who cares? If gossip gets back to you, a second discussion where you feign surprise that he had difficulty understanding your previous very clear instructions, followed by a PIP “to make sure we are all clear about expectations”. Any more shit, and he’s gone.

            1. fposte*

              Then you deal with it. But as a manager you need to be able to discipline and counsel on your own authority; you really can’t be effective if you need somebody else for that.

              Sometimes when we’re talking on the internet we focus on all the ways a response might not work, and that can obscure the fact that most of the time it *does* work and that it’s not a wise or appropriate use of our energy to make sure we’ve sealed every exit before we take action.

              1. Zillah*

                I agree. There is no perfect, foolproof response, no matter how much we wish there was, and trying to cover for less likely outcomes can sometimes be counterproductive.

                Silly example, but shortly after I moved into my current apartment, my stove stopped working. It was certainly possible that my landlady (who lives downstairs) would refuse to fix it and I’d end up in a months-long battle with her, and I could have planned for that contingency by researching all the legal codes, highlighting the relevant parts of the lease, consulting a lawyer, and then presented her with all of that. However, my experiences with her (and with people in general) made me feel like the more likely outcome would be her calling repairmen to come fix it in a fairly timely fashion, so I just knocked on her door on a Sunday afternoon to tell her about it. She had the repairmen here two hours later.

                If I’d approached it as though the worst case scenario was the most likely, I’d have come off as unnecessarily hostile, and while she would have fixed the stove, I don’t know that she would have bumped it to the top of her priority list or that she would have told me not to worry about it a few months later when the rent check got lost in the mail and it didn’t get it sorted out until it was three weeks late.

                That’s not to say that CYA isn’t a really good idea – the OP should absolutely loop HR and her boss in on what’s going on, and it wouldn’t be a bad thing to immediately write down his response in the meeting and send it to her non-work email (and/or her boss and/or HR). But barring a specific reason to be worried about people believing him over her, undermining her own authority for the sake of “what if he misrepresents the conversation and other people believe him” is probably more likely to do harm than good.

                It’s also worth noting that people who would believe him if he misrepresents the conversation are also probably people who would believe him if he said the OP was overreacting, too, so she’d be in the same position anyway.

                1. fposte*

                  Right, it’s unlikely that this is the one juncture that would have made a key difference if only.

      3. TardyTardis*

        This would depend on much authority the boss actually has to fire people. In old ExJob, people with Certain Last Name usually just got shuffled along to somewhere else if they screwed up at one place.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      My view is that they should be spoken to immediately, so the first warning doesn’t need to be done with others involved. However HR has be looped in for a paper trail and also so HR will escalate it to their own investigation.

      Then in the investigation process, there are multiple people present so you have proper witnesses.

      This has to be sent up the ladder, regardless of how it’s responded to because it’s an HR thing. They have to be involved to save everyone if there’s a lawsuit involved later.

    3. hbc*

      But it doesn’t have to be circular. OP has the power to cut the circle by saying, “You’re fired,” or involve someone later (HR, probably) who can make clear that this is not just about one meanie boss who doesn’t appreciate workplace comments about sexiness.

      Sure, the people up the ladder need to know about it so when he comes crying to them about how he got reprimanded for talking about going to the gym, they don’t give him support. I just would never have them in that meeting, or else it undercuts her authority

  7. Jk*

    This makes my skin crawl. Good advice from Alison. I would make a real point about just how weird and creepy he is being. He needs to feel embarrassed and ashamed of his deviant behavior. He is making you feel that way just for being you.

    Document everything and let someone you trust at work know what is happening in case of retaliation. You never know if he will try it on when you’re alone or working late or something.

    1. VictorianCowgirl*

      Yes OP should look to her safety while she is laying the groundwork for his firing (I am fully against even remotely trying to keep this creep as an employee even if he “improves”).

  8. StaceyIzMe*

    Someone who is staring at you can be told and making personal comments is exhibiting dominant behavior. It’s so, SO not appropriate. In your shoes, I’d be matter of fact and persistent about calling him on it. “No staring.” “You’re here to work, not to issue fashion reviews.” I’d be direct and say that the minimum requirements of professionalism are 1) no staring/ ogling, 2) no direct comments about appearance, 3) no overly personal inquiries. How he reacts? Not your problem. You need to manage him so that he doesn’t intimidate or abuse your other reports or other employees, in my view. He’s already over the line.

    1. Anonybus*

      Yeah, I’ve been wondering if that’s what’s really going on with what seems to be an increase in letters from women describing male employees or subordinates going out of their way to avoid treating them like legitimate authority figures. The mind boggles.

        1. your favorite person*

          Yep. It’s always been this way, it’s just WAY less tolerated- Thank goodness!

          1. Zillah*

            Agreed. I think we’ve also all been conditioned to see a lot of things as okay or at least just the way things are… and now we’ve carved out a little more space to recognize that conditioning and feel like maybe it doesn’t have to be the way things are.

          2. TootsNYC*

            For one thing, the younger crop of female managers isn’t going to put up with this shit anymore.

            I remember a NYTimes (? or WSJ?) story about a guy who behaved badly at the company holiday party, and the older woman executive called the CEO the next day to say, “you should speak to him, but he’s basically a good guy,” and the CEO said, “I’ve had 5 calls already from our younger female execs saying they don’t ever want to work with him. Ever.”

            1. Anonybus*

              Those are excellent points!
              I think maybe it’s a mark of progress that I find this kind of thing so baffling – I was never taught to expect or accept professional disrespect from men. I suspect many of my peers are the same way.

              1. OP*

                You’re lucky that you work for a company that would back you if you chose to outwardly discipline someone doing this to you.

                1. Anonybus*

                  I don’t know if they would, actually – I am not currently supervising anybody, but I have pushed back on this kind of thing with coworkers.

        2. Jules the 3rd*

          I think we’ve also got more women bosses, so more chances of it happening with the gender flavor in the mix.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        It’s always happened, it’s just that women are tired of it being the cost of doing business and are finally pushing back. The Mad Men-era stereotype didn’t come out of nowhere.

        1. Michaela Westen*

          I was a child in the mid-late 60’s and I remember those days. It was like Mad Men and worse.

      2. nonegiven*

        Is it because of the last election? If he gets away with it, they can, too. Just like how the racists seem emboldened.

    2. WorkIsADarkComedy*

      This point is what makes me want to know more background.

      The creepiest creep, even before #metoo, would generally understand that there are certain things you don’t say to your boss, even if you bully other women the same way, because your boss has power over you.

      That this particular creep is talking to his boss like this means either that he is exceptionally clueless about how power works in the workplace, believes he has some kind of protection from higher-ups, or is so angry with the boss (for whatever reason, which might be that she’s female or might be something else) that he’s willing to burn all his bridges by doing the male dominance/harassment thing.

      1. Close Bracket*

        because your boss has power over you.

        Sexual harassment is one way men take power back from female bosses.

          1. Close Bracket*

            I remember a sexual harassment training I went through in 2000-2001 where a trainee said that the video where a male subordinate was inappropriate (mildly, like verbal flirting, not like oogling or touching) to a female boss wasn’t sexual harassment bc it wasn’t a “power over” situation. That is, since the subordinate didn’t have power over the boss, he wasn’t harassing her. I was like, O.o. I don’t remember how the teacher responded.

      2. Zillah*

        The creepiest creep, even before #metoo, would generally understand that there are certain things you don’t say to your boss, even if you bully other women the same way, because your boss has power over you.

        Did they, though? Or were the (fairly rare) female bosses backed into a corner because they knew there would be social or professional consequences for doing so? After all, most female bosses have bosses too, and most of those bosses were (and continue to be) male.

  9. Jungkook*

    ” Act like you must have a bug or a crumb on you that’s drawing his attention and ask about it. Saying “What are you looking at?” in a tone of mild concern while glancing down at your chest as if there might be a terrible stain there can be an effective way of shutting this down.”

    I love this. Fortunately I don’t have any creeps in my office but this could definitely come in handy someday…

    1. M&Ms Fix Lots of Problems*

      I mentioned this elsewhere, but I handled it this way,
      “I get that the pattern on my shirt is fascinating, but my eyes are 12 inches higher. Look up there please.”
      I was 17 and in HS, guy was in his late 20’s and the office creep. Yes, I reported that incident to HR as well (we had been reporting him for a while, all seven female employees). Took a year to get rid of the guy.

  10. Jessen*

    I might cut the last few words from the first line. “I’m sorry, WHAT?” would be a perfectly appropriate response to get across the idea that he’s so far out of line it’s vanished past the horizon.

  11. cheese please*

    I worked in manufacturing for 2 years at a company with plenty of men on the line who crossed the line with comments. There was one employee, whom I did not supervise but interacted with frequently, who would comment on my jeans “nice pants” or my haircut “nice haircut” with such frequency (multiple times a day) it would probably classify as harassment of some sort. I used to just ignore the comments, especially if I was walking by where I would not make eye contact or acknowledge him. After that didn’t work, I went up to him and said “You keep commenting on my hair or my pants. I’ve never seen you compliment Mike (his manager) on his hair or his pants,and especially after one comment I get the point, so I need you to stop”. He got the point and shut up. He was also less helpful to me after that, but at least I didn’t have to worry every time I walked by his area what comment he would yell at me.

    I agree with Allison that it’s ultimately most useful to state that they are inherently inappropriate comments to make at work. If it comes up again, consider writing him an email re-iterating the previous conversation so there is documentation in case you need to get HR involved.

    1. LKW*

      I like this. You pointed out the gender discrepancy, he took the note and realized his “flirting” wasn’t going to get him anywhere so stopped. He also stopped helping but that is because he’s a tool.

      1. cheese please*

        100% a skeevy tool. Some of my female employees knew that if they wore a low-cut shirt he would be more keen the help them or do them a favor. THE WORST. Good riddance to that job

    2. LPUK*

      My answer to ‘Does this mean I can’t even compliment women I work with now?’ is “yes, of course you can compliment women. You can say ‘ Great piece of work’ or ‘ you handled that question really well’ or anything else that you might say to a male colleague – see how easy it is?”

  12. Rusty Shackelford*

    I’m worried about inadvertently devolving into “you think I’m hot” territory

    I think you should easily be able to say “you need to stop talking about the way I look” without that implication. Because he shouldn’t talk about the way you look even if he’s saying “you sure dressed frumpy today.”

    1. Washi*

      Yeah, you don’t have to try to figure out what he thinks or what his intentions were. Focus on the behavior change you need to see – no more comments of any kind on anyone’s appearance.

      1. General Ginger*

        This. It doesn’t matter what he thinks, or why exactly he’s decided to be creepy and gross — he needs to stop talking about people’s appearance/bodies at work, period.

      2. Jessen*

        I think it’s more about cutting off an avenue out. This sort tends to devolve into “I was just paying you a compliment, did you actually think that I thought you were hot?” when confronted. OP would want to make it clear that she does not care about his motivations, he just needs to stop it.

        1. Rusty Shackelford*

          “I was just paying you a compliment; did you actually think I thought you were hot?”

          That would be a really weird response to “you need to stop talking about the way I look,” since nothing about that statement implies the speaker thinks she’s hot. But given that guys can respond weirdly to a woman standing up for herself, I’d go with “I don’t care WHAT you think about my appearance. I don’t care WHY you’re saying it. I’m just telling you that you need to stop talking about it.” And in fact, that would be my response to any other excuse he has, i.e., just trying to be nice, you need to lighten up, you must be awfully conceived, don’t worry you’re not my type, etc. You don’t care, and it needs to stop. Repeat. It cuts off all avenues.

          1. Database Developer Dude*

            Interesting that you bring up the “not my type” excuse. That’s the same excuse the President just used to pseudo-deny the latest sexual assault allegation against him. It fits well in the circumstances… well done!

          2. Lyn*

            “I don’t care WHAT you think about my appearance. I don’t care WHY you’re saying it. I’m just telling you that you need to stop talking about it.”


          3. Jessen*

            While it would be a really weird response, telling your boss that she looks sexy is already a very, very weird thing to say. Misogynists are going to go around saying weird creepy things.

    2. Dr. Pepper*

      Agreed, but I do understand why the OP’s mind is going here. I think if he was saying things like “wow that shirt is ugly” the OP wouldn’t have the same qualms about addressing it, but because he’s saying “positive” things the issue feels murkier when in fact it isn’t. Women are socialized to deflect complements (or “complements”) and practice self deprecation over their appearance or accomplishments. Men who give out these “complements” are not doing it from a place of good will. It’s a power play. It’s a man informing a woman that he approves of her appearance and that he is bestowing worth upon her. Because, ya know, women only have value through the eyes of a man. (There is no eyeroll big enough to express my feelings about this.) Backtracking (“I never said you were that hot, get over yourself”) should the woman display any belief in her own worth or should she inform the man that his statements are unwelcome/inappropriate is part of the power play. I’m guessing that this is the trap the OP is trying to avoid, which is a very real thing in a social context with a peer where you can only do so much to influence people’s behavior. But since she is the boss and can insist that he stop and enforce real consequences if he doesn’t, that nasty little snag doesn’t exist.

      1. Rusty Shackelford*

        Yes, I agree that this is a thing. But it’s not like he’s whistling at her, and then responding to her complaint by saying “You thought I was whistling at YOU? Wow, you must think highly of yourself.” This situation is very objective. He commented on her appearance. There was no need for inference or interpretation on her part. She should be able to say “stop that” without fear that he’s going to be able to backtrack out of it. (Not the part where he looks at her body, because yeah, he can weasel out of that one. And probably will.)

        1. Dr. Pepper*

          Again, I agree. I never said that this was a logical reaction based on cold hard facts. Logically, of course this is no different than any other direct comment on personal appearance, whether it’s “your shirt is ugly” or “that dress is sexy”. It’s just that often our reactions and stumbling blocks aren’t logical and sometimes figuring out where they come from is helpful. The OP clearly felt uncomfortable addressing the issue, and worried about falling into a trap. Well, why? I think the above is the reason. If so, it can be recognized for what it is (socialized response, prior experience, etc) and if/when it comes up again, it’s that much easier to move past.

          1. boo bot*

            I think, though, that it’s worth noting that the distinction here is that the OP can respond to whatever he says by returning to, “I don’t care why, it needs to stop” – it’s not that he won’t SAY some version of, “What, you think I think you’re hot?” because it’s 100% within the realm of possibility that he will.

          2. Rusty Shackelford*

            That’s true. You’re trying to help her figure out the trap, I’m trying to tell her how she can avoid the trap, but we both know the trap exists.

    3. TootsNYC*

      and you say, “I don’t care what you think or why you’re saying these things. They are inappropriate and you need to stop them right now–to anyone. Have I made myself clear?”

      Given that he’s doing this to YOU, his boss, I would (in your shoes) be pulling out all the rhetorical phrases that have the harmonics of authority.

  13. Liz*

    Honestly, Allison’s advice is WAY too mild. This should be reported to HR, there should be no “please” in the conversation to the employee, and it isn’t tricky to figure out how to handle it. This creep should be fired for these comments and in the absence of that, HR needs to get involved ASAP.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Realistically, most companies don’t fire people for this on the first warning. It’s unlikely the OP has the authority to do that even if she wants to.

      1. Working Hypothesis*

        They frankly *should* have authority to fire for this on the first warning. It’s very like the way domestic violence convictions rarely result in prison sentences on the first offense, even when committing the *exact* same physical action against a stranger rather than your partner will result in 1-3 years on the first go. The only reason for the “warning” obligation is that this is something most often done by men to women, and which certain men have grown so used to being free to do without consequences that many people feel uncomfortable “changing the rules” on them without an explicit warning, one on one, to their faces. Even if the rules should never have let them get away with it in the first place.

          1. OP*

            yep. not to mention he’s decently good at his job in a hard-to-hire position and i’d prefer to keep him on if i can, even if I could straight-up fire him.

            1. Michaela Westen*

              OP you know best because you’re there – is he trying to make you uncomfortable/exert dominance over you, or is he a clueless person who wasn’t raised right?
              If he’s clueless, the right thing to do is give a warning before firing. If it turns out he is clueless and changes his behavior, it could turn out well.
              If he’s not clueless, a documented warning can help take this up the chain, as others have mentioned.

              1. OP*

                I would say it’s general cluelessness based on his general demeanor- he really does tend to be deferential and respectful, even kind of bumbling in most situations.

                1. Michaela Westen*

                  So it seems he comes from a subculture or family where he learned the inappropriate behavior and doesn’t understand the way it affects people.
                  When I was younger I had conversations with men who really didn’t understand and were surprised when I explained their “compliments” seemed threatening and/or disrespectful.
                  I live in a big city and see people from this subculture all the time – for the last several years the young men have been wearing their pants very low with underwear sticking up above and I’m sure most of them don’t understand the implied threat in that, either.
                  I think that’s encouraging for you. If you can get across to him this is inappropriate – and maybe even make clear why – he could shape up and be someone you can work with. :)

            2. Zillah*

              You obviously are much better equipped to judge that than any of us, OP, and I absolutely don’t want to suggest otherwise.

              But even if this doesn’t apply to you, it might apply to someone in a similar position, so I do feel like it’s worth pointing out that it’s really common for people to get away with unacceptable behavior because they’re good at the technical aspects of their job, and I think a part of the conversation that often gets missed is that keeping someone like that has a price, too – e.g., higher turnover, lower productivity, and lower morale among the people he works with.

              Again, you’re obviously much better equipped than I am to judge how that plays out in this situation. But I do think it’s really important for people to keep that in mind when they’re confronted with situations like this, especially since the issues that people in positions of authority over toxic people see often barely even scratch the surface. (I experienced this recently with someone I supervised in a community organization I help run before she was removed from a leadership. I’m still shocked by the things we found out once some red flags prompted us to do a little digging.)

          2. Mr. Shark*

            That’s why I’d say that HR should be involved, even though I get your point that the OP/manager should have the meeting one-on-one because it shows they have the power to do so. HR raises the level of seriousness, and even with #metoo, a lot of this is still he-said/she-said, so having HR as a witness will help if it gets to the point that the OP has to fire the guy.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          In the #MeToo era, companies who aren’t willing to take a harder stance on this kind of stuff and being swift to act, is resulting in a lot more court cases being brought and won. So it’s going to take time to get this through the thick skulls out there but it’s on it’s way to being taken more seriously at least.

        2. Observer*

          All true.

          But this is totally irrelevant to the situation. Even had the OP not confirmed it, it’s pretty obvious that firing on the spot is not an option for the OP. What SHOULD be is a nice discussion, but doesn’t do anything for either the OP or anyone else who might be dealing with a similar situation.

      2. Liz*

        But why aren’t you advising her to at least try? What you’ve recommended does not at all capture the severity of the situation. This is her employee – she’s the one best poised (out of all the female employees) to move the needle on this type of nasty behavior that has been tolerated way too long.

          1. Procrastinatin'PastSelf*

            I think some people are being a bit naive on the likely outcome of complaining to companies/organizations about sexual harassment. I worked for a nonprofit which does programs for survivors of gender-based violence, and they handled my and other female co-workers complaints/reports of sexual violence horribly (and this well after #metoo and the Oxfam scandal were in the news). Would I still report what I had reported knowing now the outcome? Yes, but that’s because I could afford to leave that job and I at least caused them frustration by not accepting their terrible responses. I’m sorry, OP, that you have to work with this creep. I do think in many cases there are better companies/organizations than where one is at, but I don’t know for your sector and area. More female co-workers does tend to help (not always, but often) in fighting this. Good luck.

    2. un-pleasing*

      “Please” can be cutting like so: Voice: icy politeness, quick, firm utterance. Face: impassive. Eyes: Dead, direct, unblinking stare, held one beat too long.

      When you say the word, the corners of your mouth upturn slightly at the vowel, which approaches a smile, but isn’t. The ghost of the smile plus the unbending face and stare completely changes the meaning.

      1. Rusty Shackelford*

        Imagine someone in a uniform saying

        Get out of the car.
        Sir, step out of the car please.

        Something about the formal correctness of it says “do not argue with me.” At least to me it does.

      2. VictorianCowgirl*

        Yes, mastering saying Please in a way that conveys “I am saying this word but I know and you know that I don’t need to be saying it” is a great and powerful effect if it can be pulled off.

  14. Administrative Manager*

    The next time he does it, I’d recommend stopping the conversation, asking him to come into your office, closing the door, and then employing Alison’s script, with the additional language of, ‘Behaving appropriately, which includes not ogling your co-workers and not commenting on bodies or clothing, is a non-negotiable condition for your continued employment here. Do you understand that?’

    Too often, women are concerned about softening conversations or managing other people’s emotions. No. Let him feel shame and guilt and discomfort. Let him squirm. Let him reap the natural consequences of behaving like an ass.

    1. Reba*

      Jinx ;) I made a similar script add above.

      Yeah, ITA with your last paragraph. I get the feeling OP feels this is in some way tricky to handle because it is interpersonal or because it is targeting her specifically. “Not making him defensive” indicates either OP is (over?)valuing a harmonious workplace or she already knows this guy behaves badly (she anticipates a tantrum of some kind) but doesn’t feel equipped to tell him to handle his shit professionally.

      It’s not tricky — it’s actually pretty cut and dry unacceptable, and OP should feel empowered to shut it down!

      Good luck OP, please update!

  15. bleh*

    It’s not completely unusual for men to sexually harass up – such behavior provides them with a way to undercut female power and keep a woman supervisor off balance. Ask any female teacher or professor if those with less power (students) are willing to engage in harassment.

    Alison’s advice is spot on. Shut him down with the least emotion you can show. Even if you do show emotion, use the scripts to undercut any “you’re just ___” type of crap. Yes, I’m (angry, upset, whatever) because it is my responsibility to be sure there is a safe and equitable environment for my employees.

    1. mayfly*

      I was thinking exactly this. It’s overtly malicious and intended to weaken and undermine female authority.

    2. Leela*

      I was an assistant teacher who was told explicitly and several times by the school that assistant teachers are not allowed to get involved in discipline in any way. A male student threatened to anally rape me in class. I looked at the teacher waiting for her to do something and she just looked away then went back to class.

      1. Michaela Westen*

        If I’d been a student in that class I would have called the police and the principal.

      2. Gazebo Slayer*


        That is horrifying. I’m possibly even more horrified by the teacher’s refusal to do anything about it than the student’s disgusting threat.

        1. Michaela Westen*

          Yes, I am too!
          I thought the high school I went to was rough! I was loud and pushy and I would have been right up in the face of the principal instantly. Because if he threatens the teaching assistant, he might threaten me or any of us in the class.

    3. Properlike*

      All the young men who feel free to give me “helpful hints” on improving my teaching (who do it as a matter of course to all of their female professors), the ones who really hate being reminded of the rules of the classroom, the ones you have to immediately call out on overt comments about other people (“‘That’s what she said’ is never an appropriate response in a professional environment, thank you.”) The Alpha Male behavior can get really gross in subtle ways, and fortunately I have no issues with shutting it down… but research has shown female instructors routinely get lower evaluation scores from students when they don’t fit into their expected nurturer/mom role.

      1. BethDH*

        That last bit has been a real problem at some institutions where I’ve taught. And we all know it, so it’s definitely a risk many can’t afford to take, especially pre-tenure or contingent instructors. I’ve also seen a pattern where male students who are angry about not doing well in a field they see as “easier” than their major make insulting gender-related comments about the relative worth of the fields (like that of course they *could* be acing the course if the female instructor weren’t so incapable of understanding their higher-level thinking — I got this response after a student submitted what was basically an economics paper for a humanities-based class).

      2. Relly*

        I work in exam prep for math students (SAT/ACT/AP). Most of them are great. A few … Are unconvinced that I actually know how to do math, yes, really, honest. The first time I know how to solve a problem that they don’t, the reaction is disbelief and skepticism.

        It’s rare. But when it happens, it’s almost always teenage boys.

        1. Gazebo Slayer*

          Do you directly point out that this is sexist behavior? Because I feel like the teenage boys need to have that explicitly spelled out.

          One of my high school teachers delivered a blistering speech about sexism to a group of boys who were being disrespectful to her, and it actually shut them up and made some of them really think about how they were perpetuating a larger injustice. One of them actually transcribed the speech and presented the printout to her, with a newfound respect. She posted it on the classroom wall.

    4. Maria Lopez*

      If he came back with and “you’re just___”, just say, “why are you talking? I did not say this was a discussion.”
      Just like a male boss would.

  16. Czhorat*

    Yes. ALl of this is SO VERY inappropriate, wrong, gross.

    It needs to be addressed with zero tolerance, it needs to be documented, and he needs to be fired if he won’t stop. If he’s seen treating other women this way (including leering) then he needs to be disciplined immediately.

    To be honest, it sounds flagrant enough that if he was told “go home, don’t come back. Go directly to home. Do not pass go, do not collect $200” I’d be fine with it.

    1. VictorianCowgirl*

      Same here, this isn’t his first offense, he’s already established a pattern with OP.

  17. Heidi*

    Ugh. How is it possible that anyone believes that this is acceptable in the workplace? Or in the world in general? You’d have been totally justified in shutting it down at the first occurrence, and even now I wouldn’t be too concerned about expressing it diplomatically or even rationalizing it to him. “Commenting on someone’s appearance is not professional – knock it off.” And don’t let him try to sell you a sulky “I was just paying you a compliment” counterargument. You don’t say things like that to people you truly respect, and how his comments make other people feel outweighs his intent here. It’s honestly for his own good that he learns this now.

    1. RUKiddingMe*

      “ How is it possible that anyone believes that this is acceptable in the workplace? Or in the world in general?“

      Patriarchy, misogyny, male entitlement.

      1. Heidi*

        And if he’s willing to do this with his boss, he probably will have no compunction about treating subordinates the same or worse.

        1. Margaret*

          That’s the best case scenario. Worst, as other commenters have said, it’s a way to try to undermine her.

          Either way, the answer is clearly tell him directly to knock it off. If he’s totally oblivious he needs the clear direction, and if he’s trying to make her uncomfortable he needs to lose at that game (and have it noted on his file that he’s received one formal warning about not talking to coworkers this way.)

        1. RUKiddingMe*

          It’s not even a subculture. It’s our entire fucked up culture that says this is ok.

          Honestly, I have less than zero tolerance for this crap. First time and he would have been fired on the spot.

          Hard lesson? Oh well. I am so over giving any male the benefit of the doubt or a second chance. They already have all the voices, all the power, all the opportunities, and all the entitlement.

          One (or several) of them lose a job with no warning? I’m ok with that.

            1. RUKiddingMe*

              Well yeah this us true. My business my rules but I’ve totally been where I didn’t have it and believe me I know how hard it is.

              I’m just in no way willing to believe that in 2019…even without #metoo, but especially since it began, that *anyone* doesn’t know that this is not ok.

              He knows. They all know. They have always known which is why they do shit that has plausible deniability or come back with “oh you are do full of yourself to think I want you…” etc. crap.

              Seriously if they are so limited that they can’t understand it by now…**out of the gene pool!

              ** Yeah, I know. To be clear, I don’t really support anything even hinting at actual eugenics.

    2. your favorite person*

      I would be willing to bet he thinks he’s “being nice” or actually sucking up to her! When you don’t understand boundaries, everything is on the table.

    3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Because you can just “Grab them by their _____”. That’s why it’s possible.

    4. LKW*

      I would just love to see an outcome in which you can make a big show of asking him to compliment everyone. I mean, no one should feel left out right? Better yet, make him compliment everyone without referring to their appearance or physical attributes.

      Heck – make everyone compliment everyone – without referring to the physical.

    5. pcake*

      “How is it possible that anyone believes that this is acceptable in the workplace? Or in the world in general?“

      There’s a good chance he doesn’t think it’s acceptable. He’s trying to make his female boss subordinate to him with this behavior, and I can only imagine how he treats the women below him in the hierarchy.

  18. A New CV*

    What a statement about how far we still have to go that it’s 2019 and so much of this question was concerned not to offend or make defensive the jerk who is making seriously, legitimately inappropriate comments to his BOSS. Not to mention how concerned she was that she would seem like she thought she was too hot?? He is obviously in the wrong and that’s it. His potential defensiveness is his own problem to work out. His behaviour needs to stop.

    1. Camellia*

      This. I had to deal with this crap, my daughter has to deal with this crap, and at the rate we are (not) progressing, my seven year old granddaughter will still have to deal with this crap.

      1. A New CV*

        Not to mention, deal with this crap while being concerned about the feelings and reactions of the offender, and whether she will be perceived as too full of herself for noticing that she is being sexually harassed. Ugh.

    2. Jaybeetee*

      I know! “How can I stop this person from offending me on the regular without possibly offending them back?”

      And I don’t mean this as a dig at OP, because I’ve been socialized the same way and I’m still dealing with it – and I work in a setting where sexual harassment this overt would be dealt with *promptly*, not some boys club like she describes where everyone looks the other way. Even then, I’d be wondering how to stop it “without being a b-word.”

      1. Jen in Oregon*

        While I do think we need to not be as concerned about this as we still are, I think we women need to give ourselves a break about the fact that we’re still worried about how to stop offense without being offensive back. In situations like this, it’s probably more than *just* social conditioning–it’s an evolutionary instinct to help us stay alive. Even in 2019, it’s hard to separate with any certainty the 98%* run-of-the-mill misogynists that will act all butt-hurt–and might try to cause you problems at work–for being called out on their assholery from the 2% willing to physically hurt you, if not kill you, for damaging their ego.

        *These percentages were made up.

        1. Michaela Westen*

          Yes, we should always be cautious about that. OP should not put herself in a closed/locked office alone with him, just in case.
          And she shouldn’t stay late by herself unless there’s a locked door between her and him potentially coming back… and watch if he tries to follow or stalk her… and so on.

        2. Zillah*

          While I do think we need to not be as concerned about this as we still are, I think we women need to give ourselves a break about the fact that we’re still worried about how to stop offense without being offensive back. In situations like this, it’s probably more than *just* social conditioning–it’s an evolutionary instinct to help us stay alive.

          This is such an important point.

  19. fun with duct tape*

    Hi, Alison, OT but I wanted to thank you for your solution to so many of the problems caused by unreasonable people: to react as though there must be a misunderstanding, because *of course* they are reasonable. Worked like a charm today on a neighbor who’s been trying to thwart another neighbor with whom he has feuded for the last twenty-one years. I think he just couldn’t bring himself to admit the shameful truth, so he went along with the face-saving lie and behaved like a reasonable person. Fascinating! Thanks so much!

      1. fun with duct tape*

        Sure! I live in what would be considered a condo in the U.S. The presidency of the building’s HOA rotates every year and is currently vested in Feuding Neighbor #1. FN #2 needed FN #1’s permission as president in order to have building security come and answer some questions, but the company that administers the building for us, which would have facilitated the meeting, told her that FN #1 refused to grant that permission. In an e-mail about a number of building-related issues, I mentioned this and said that this was surely a misunderstanding on the part of the administrator, so perhaps FN #1 could clear it up when he talked with them about these other issues? FN #1 wrote back that he had no problem whatsoever with building security coming to talk with FN #2. It was like magic!

    1. Jennifer Thneed*

      Like I like to say, and it started being about children but it applies to everyone: People will generally live up to OR down to your expectations.

  20. yllis*

    I found an astonished, sterm “_What_ did you just say to me?” has worked.

    And he needs to know he’s on thin ice. Does OP have the authority to fire him?

      1. OP*

        Unfortunately my company is decently large and bureaucratic, with a complex firing process. The employee is good otherwise and I haven’t really seen this issue with other colleagues (because they are mostly male..) but I will be talking to other women in the office. I also would not have the support of my boss.

        1. cactus lady*

          Is there a way you can document with HR that you had a conversation with him? Also, can you ask the women who are comfortable with doing so, to email you with their experiences of inappropriateness? I have worked for a number of large bureaucratic companies and documentation goes a long way, even if nothing is overtly done about it. If something happens later then you have your butt covered. Just a thought.

        2. Trek*

          Don’t underestimate the public opinion factor. If word gets out that the company tolerates sexual harassment there will be fall out. I wouldn’t go public yet but I would keep that in mind in 30 days if nothing is done or if the boss acts like its not a big deal.

        3. Observer*

          Document this – and go above your boss. As I said downstream, your “excuse” for your boss is that he’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.

        4. antigone_ks*

          That sucks, OP. Do you have an idea if your boss would be unsupportive because
          A) the dude is a rockstar and the position is hard to find a replacement for, or
          B) your boss doesn’t think sexual harassment is a real problem?

          Because if it’s B, then you might need to think about your own future in that company.

          1. OP*

            Definitely not A. He produces solid work and stays highly billable and the position is decently hard to fill. I am a rockstar- not trying to brag, but I just am. I love my job and I’m great at it.

            1. Elizabeth*

              Hold on to this knowledge. You are more important than he is and his actions have a cost that should not be tolerated

  21. animaniactoo*

    Oh. I like the “What are you looking at?” approach. Because I’ve always gone with “Excuse me, my eyes are up here” – but knowing that some people have problems making eye contact has made that less of an acceptable statement to me. But thinking about how to reframe that – the point isn’t to push where they SHOULD be looking, but rather that they need to stop looking where they are, even if they don’t switch to looking at my face. And the direct question here does exactly that in a manner that calls it out without reasonably leaving open the defense of “I wasn’t looking at that.” – while making it clear that both of you do, in fact, know that’s what he was looking at.

  22. Camellia*

    ” Act like you must have a bug or a crumb on you that’s drawing his attention and ask about it. Saying “What are you looking at?” in a tone of mild concern while glancing down at your chest as if there might be a terrible stain there can be an effective way of shutting this down.”

    I disagree with this approach because I’ve actually had men say “Yeah, it’s right there,” and then touch me like they’re picking whatever-it-is off my body.

    I prefer the good old “My eyes are up here.” stated in a cold manner, blank face, NO smile. Then when they look me in the eye I hold that stare a beat, then relax and continue with the conversation.

    However, as the OP is this person’s manager, they have all the power to stop this without being nice about it or trying to manage the guy’s feeling. Please please please stop this immediately.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Sure, she can do that too. But I’m working from the assumption that she wants to both (a) shut this down and (b) continue to be able to work with the guy. If there’s a way to shut this down (and ensure it’s shut down with others too) and let him save a little bit of face (while still calling out the behavior), I’m fine with that. I do see the argument for the other side (and frankly could argue it the other way too) but I think this is the best outcome with someone she needs to continue to manage. I mean, yes, why shouldn’t he have to deal with embarrassment and tension? But I think he’s going to get that anyway from the more mild approach; it doesn’t have to be ramped up to 10.

      That said, if the more mild approach doesn’t work or there’s any hint he’s continuing it with others, then yes, go in as strongly as possible.

      1. Camellia*

        I see your point. I’ve never had ‘managerial’ power to shut this crap down so had to go with whatever worked.

        1. M&Ms Fix Lots of Problems*

          Camellia, I’ve also always been in your position, not the manager, so had to figure out what worked best. The only time nothing ever worked I was 17, and the guy in question was eventually fired by HR for his constant creepy behavior to all the female employees.

      2. Czhorat*

        It needs to be made VERY clear that leering and ogling are unacceptable. One hundred percent. Staring at a woman’s chest at work should be treated as seriously as if he’d said “nice rack” or similar.

        And if he does that with his boss I’ll bet lunch money for the next week that he does it with other women as well.

    2. rando*

      I have had that happen as well, specifically when I was a teenager speaking to an adult man. I stopped trying it after it didn’t work however-many-times and so I don’t know if it specifically is that dynamic which makes them feel able to do this.

      1. Alli525*

        I’m a woman but fortunately have never had this happen to me. I’d like to think I’d instinctively react by karate-chopping their hand away from me (I once bit a girl who decided that putting me in a headlock would be fun), but yeah, stunned silence is the more likely reaction. Although I’m preparing my karate chop for when I’m (eventually, someday. hopefully) pregnant and everyone feels entitled to touch me.

    3. StaceyIzMe*

      I know. It’s a unnecessary and counterproductive subterfuge to resort to looking for a stain or a crumb, in my view. Why is this needed? It’d be one thing if it was a one-off with an otherwise reasonable employee. Here, however, we have someone who is apparently comfortable with flagrant overstepping with his boss. So- no, he shouldn’t get any benefit of the doubt and can be told to stop stares, personal remarks and other boundary violations without any precursor (because, really? just stop…). And the LW is worrying about how she’ll be perceived? (As if she’s looking for personal compliments and attention? No. That’s just gross.)

      1. BethDH*

        I don’t see how its counterproductive, though it may not work and she might have to try more direct interventions.

        I know that I personally would be much more capable of using Allison’s wording, and that the more tempered wording I could pull off with steely professionalism. The explicit callout would leave me sounding quavery and like I was asking him not to do it instead of telling him. If you can do it that way, good! I hope eventually I will too. In the meantime, though, I think this approach is more realistic for many of us, and that any way we can challenge it is worthwhile even when it’s not perfect.

        The goal is to get him to stop and not do it again to her or others, not to inflict maximum embarrassment (much as he deserves it).

    4. animaniactoo*

      I think there’s a key difference here – in that Alison is advising acting is if, not explicitly giving them the excuse. The actual question is “What are you looking at?” That’s leaving them to fill in what they’re doing, and it makes it clear that you’re not necessarily going to give them the cover of the stain/bug/whatever. Just that they’re staring somewhere they shouldn’t and they need to stop.

      Also, anybody who is just “friendly picking something off my body” gets their hands smacked off. You do not touch me. You tell me it is there and I can take care of it myself. If it’s in an unreachable spot, I may give permission to touch me. That is far different than simply reaching out and assuming permission exists. Having the alternate – logical – method of handling it pointed out has always resulted in a back-down for me, because it removes their cover for “innocently” touching. I’ve never had a repeat after the first incident.

    5. Lora*

      “I disagree with this approach because I’ve actually had men say “Yeah, it’s right there,” and then touch me like they’re picking whatever-it-is off my body.”

      Yeah, the “do I have something on me” only provides the extra-gross dudes an excuse to try to paw at your chest. Agree w/ the “hey, I’m up here, those don’t talk” even if it’s chilly and sharp. If he’s uncouth enough to stare like an uncivilized pig, he’s going to need at least one sharp, chilly rebuke, probably more than one.

      1. BethDH*

        I think OP is probably creeped out enough by this guy that she’s keeping out of arm’s reach, which would make it hard for him to do this without giving her time to deflect. That result would only work if he’s close enough that he can actually pretend to get something before she can look down.

    6. JSPA*

      Ohhhh, yeah.

      I think you can use that if you’re on the other side of a desk, and out of touch range. Not otherwise. But I would not even muddy the water that far–“she asked me to tell her what was on her chest” isn’t something you want to have to work around, if and when it’s firing time.

  23. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

    I’m seconding the potential for this guy to me a landmine. He’s acting this way to his boss, which is just mind boggling. LW you need to shut this down because if he thinks it is OK to push the envelope with a boss this way, jut imagine the behavior with a peer or subordinate.

      1. Margaret*

        Exactly. When someone is behaving so egregiously terribly, whether or not they like being told they’re being terrible is really not your circus, not your monkeys. OP, you need to manage setting clear expectations, you do not need to manage whether or not he likes what those expectations are or feels threatened by your clarity.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*


      When people don’t think of other people’s feelings and act like this, their feelings are irrelevant.

  24. Veryanon*

    OMG this guy is a total creeper. Jesus. “You’re bringing sexy back”?!?!?!?! Who says this at work? He sounds like an HR nightmare. Shut this down yesterday.

    1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

      I’d be half tempted to say, “Sexy was fired in 1952 and is never coming back. Care to join?” Which is why it is probably for the best that I am not a manager

  25. Aphrodite*

    I like Alison’s advice except for the “please” and “thank you” parts. It seems to me that this needs to be a hard shut-down and I’d recommend leaving those two softening (and more women-oriented) words out of it altogether. He needs to know this is inappropriate and has to stop immediately, no smiles, no joking, no softening. Just stop now!

    And you might want to talk with the other women in your group, and maybe other groups, about him and tell them that if he makes them uncomfortable in any way, by words, stares, etc. that they should let you know immediately, that you will have their backs and will see to it that it is stopped cold.

    1. RUKiddingMe*

      Yup. No “please.” That makes it a request. And no “thank you” because that makes it a favor.

      1. Czhorat*

        “Please” and “thank you” from a manager are often just dressing up a command in a polite wrapper; it’s fine to give chance to save face and is the kind of social lubrication that keeps hierarchical situations tolerable.

        It is NOT a request – if he keeps at it, then she can keep escalating until he’s out the door.

        1. RUKiddingMe*

          I get that. I do. I stand by my statement though. His saving face for such gross comments is irrelevant IMO.

          Under normal circumstances I am very much a “please/thank you” kind of person even when it’s not an option.

          People like this however abdicate the right to that because 1) so gross and 2) I refuse to let them even think it might be a request/favor. No grey area…at all.

      2. Arts Akimbo*

        “Please” does not necessarily make something a request. You can command quite effectively with it. So long as you use the appropriate tone of voice, it shouldn’t sound like softening language at all.

        One of my old bosses never, ever said please to the employees. When I explained to her how this came across as incredibly rude in the Southeastern United States, she was absolutely mortified. She intended no offense, but in her country (or her particular slice of it) “please” was considered a begging word, rather than merely the polite social tic it is down here. She was a perfectly nice person who had lived here for a couple of decades and just never picked up on that cultural difference– people had just been quietly resenting her behind her back and never told her. :-/

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I mean, I say “please” no matter how not-optional something is. An icy “please” can convey a clear “this isn’t optional” and even “I am giving a courtesy it is clear you do not deserve; try to earn it.” But it’s fine to leave it out too.

      1. Rusty Shackelford*

        An icy “please” can be very chilling, and can indeed imply just the opposite. It’s like “sir.” There is a way to call someone “sir” that makes it very clear you have no respect for them at all. (Or, as Homer Simpson said, “Just once I’d like someone to call me sir without adding you’re making a scene.”)

      2. Clisby*

        I agree. When I tell my son “Please clean your room” that is not a request, and he knows it.

    3. It's mce*

      I agree. Allison gives great advice but I feel that a woman or anyone in this situation should not have to say please in these responses. They should not have to be polite to someone who is not being polite to them.

      1. Observer*

        What SHOULD be is not relevant here, though. What IS relevant is what will get the OP the results she needs.

      2. Zillah*

        I agree with you about what should be, but I also think that it’s important to acknowledge (as Jen in Oregon pointed out above) that wanting to be polite to a man who isn’t being polite to you doesn’t just come out of nowhere – it’s something adaptive that we do because sometimes it’s more likely to get our desired result.

        That doesn’t mean that we should just shrug it off as something that will never change, of course – we shouldn’t! – but I do think it’s worth keeping in mind during conversations like this, especially since I think that we can sometimes end up inadvertently shaming women who feel uncomfortable or unsafe discarding that impulse completely.

        1. RUKiddingMe*

          I don’t think its only about getting better results. Women are socialized to be nice and to be polite…even with guys like this (and worse!) and we really need to collectively, consciously —not— do that. It’s something that’s been programmed into us and we need to un-program ourselves.

          1. RUKiddingMe*

            Oh and to be clear I’m not dictating hiw any other woman handles her iwn situations. This is me and how I do it. And it’s taken decades to undo the brainwashing…and I still occasionally slip because, socialization.

            I am only saying that I think that women as a group need to stop asking for what we are entitled to as human brings and demand it. At work and everywhere else.

            Yes, I am radical and militant. Why do you ask? :-)

    4. Oranges*

      Depends on where you live too. It’s unheard of not to say please in my part of the world. Doing so would cost you a lot of political/social capital. Midwest? Yeah….

  26. Bostonian*

    I think it’s particularly important to note Alison’s advice of keeping your eyes/ears open to what is going on with his relationships with other women, especially after you tell him to stop with the comments. There’s a possibility that he will start making comments to someone else (if he isn’t already) because LW has told him to stop. (Even if you’re clear that he can’t make these comments to ANYONE, the fact that you’re the one taking him to task for it may mean he just redirects to someone else when you’re not around.)

    1. Working Hypothesis*

      I would be very, very surprised if he weren’t already making similar comments if not worse to other people. Even if he’s specifically targeting the boss (for all the reasons people have already discussed about undercutting female authority or simply because he’s latched onto her for whatever reason), people who are this kind of asshole don’t usually bother to shut it down when they’re not targeting somebody specific. It just kind of falls out of their mouth.

    2. Aquawoman*

      I wonder if there is a trustworthy lieutenant around for her. One of my staff tends to know things and let me know if there is a situation needing attention. A quasi-directional question without naming names can help, like “do you think women in this department feel respected by their male colleagues?” Or, if someone has witnessed this happening, she can be less cagey about it and just ask if he has made comments like that to others.

  27. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

    OP, if your company has a formal anti-sexual harassment training program in place, this is the time to sign him up for a refresher…each and every time he makes a comment or checks out your ass. Him: “Hey boss, you’re bringing sexy back.” You: “Fergus, those type of comments are inappropriate for the work place. I’m going to assign you to watch the training video.” …later…Him: “Hey boss, that dress looks really nice.” You: “Fergus, those type of comments are inappropriate for the work place. You must not have been paying attention, so I’m going to assign you to watch the training video again…” He might be watching those ridiculous videos ’til his eyes fall out and it’ll annoy the crap out of him.

  28. CommanderBanana*

    I always wonder about managers that are hesitant about managing subordinates doing something obviously not-okay.

    1. Lepidoptera*

      In this case, it’s hard to find the right balance between needing to continue to have a professional workplace relationship with a subordinate and figuring out how to craft a professional response which will be heeded to comments that make you want to crawl out of your own skin.

      It’s difficult to balance things skinless, so you sometimes need to turn to others for advice/help.

    2. Close Bracket*

      She’s not hesitant, she just doesn’t know how. Becoming a manager doesn’t automatically make you good at dealing with being sexually harassed.

      1. Antilles*

        Especially since in most fields/companies, training for new managers (if any even exists) is focused primarily on simple day-to-day stuff like managing budgets, hiring procedures, etc. The amount of time devoted to the actual mechanics of managing subordinates and addressing issues is minimal if not zero.

      1. LurkNoMore*

        It never fails does it??? You’d think we’d be used to being blamed for this unwanted attention but it still surprises me every time….

      2. Leela*

        I’m so sorry you had to deal with not only sexual harassment but then assumed blame on top of it!

      3. Kat in VA*

        You’re not to blame – it was a shitty comment for sure. (I know you know that, I just wanted to reinforce it.)

        It sucks enough already to have someone be inappropriately sexual toward you at work; whether they’re a superior (power imbalance) or a subordinate (power imbalance the other way) doesn’t make it any easier or harder. It’s hard shutting this shit down even with a peer, with whom you can at least reasonably say, “You did NOT just say that to me, you SCHMUCK, how DARE YOU.”

        The fact we have to shut this shit down at ALL in this, the year of 2019, is absolutely ridiculous. All of the advice from AAM and others in the same vein are great. Personally, I want you to nail him with the icy hammer of righteous indignation until he squirms in fear, but that’s just me.

      4. OhBehave*

        Ugh! I hated reading that comment. As if everyone in EVERY situation has the exact right words to say. Sorry you have to deal with this issue.
        I know we would all love an update. My guess is that he will be surprised by this.

      5. CommanderBanana*

        I’m not blaming you, FFS. Your subordinate’s behavior is clearly out of line!

        1. tired anon*

          And she’s trying to *figure out* how to manage it, while being harassed. I suspect your comment did not come off to most readers (including me) how you intended.

          1. Liz T*

            And the “FFS” indicates an unwillingness to accept you might ever say the wrong thing.

        2. Observer*

          So why are you snarking at the OP for not doing her job?

          Especially since she’s mentioned that her boss won’t support her!

          She KNOWS she needs to shut it down. She not hesitant about it. She IS hesitant to mishandle this because she KNOWS that there are a lot of potential landmines here. Like the people who are going to tell her that he’s “just paying her a compliment” etc.

          1. RUKiddingMe*

            Or tell her she’s asking for it. How was she dressed? What did she say to *make* him do that? Does she have boobs…well there ya go…her fault.

        3. Anonymous 5*

          And so…since it’s apparently supposed to be so easy for managers to shut down sexual harassment, why is the problem still so widespread?

      6. RUKiddingMe*

        Yeah I didn’t like that either. It doesn’t even take into account at all how women are socialized from birth to see this as just part if existing while being female.

    3. Leela*

      I’m wondering what her workplace is like, and how many eye-rolls and severed connections she’s going to have to face if she becomes “that girl” (because they will be thinking of her as a girl, and not a woman, if they act like this) to her male coworkers and managers who historically may or may not have a great track record of backing women in situations like this. There’s managing subordinates and there’s managing subordinates with unfair expectations placed on you because of your sex and managing subordinates while finding yourself in different situations in the first place because of your sex.

      I’ve worked in HR, recruiting and company admin for years. Even knock-out, well-seasoned managers struggle with difficult and insubordinate employees and it’s not always a matter of “why didn’t you manage them better?” Often it’s a matter of the company not empowering you to manage in the way you know is best, and having to deal with lots of red tape (as Alison calls out above, believing the employee deserves firing doesn’t necessarily mean the manager is actually allowed to fire them). Some people are just ridiculously resistant to being managed.

    4. Rusty Shackelford*

      Maybe because it’s only recently been declared not-okay. Maybe because he’s doing something that, for years, has been mislabeled as a compliment. Maybe because both this manager and her subordinate have been subtly and not-so-subtly taught that it’s his right to say and do exactly what he’s doing. Maybe because they’ve both been taught that it would be rude and inappropriate for her to deflect this generous compliment, let alone complain about it. Just a thought.

    5. ImJustHereForThePoetry*

      Obviously, this all the OPs fault. She just can’t take a compliment! She is making a big deal over nothing!

      But seriously, sexual harassers try to make others feel uncomfortable and upset. It is very hard in the moment to come up with an appropriate response. Harassers know this and use it to their advantage.

    6. That Girl From Quinn's House*

      In my experience, it is because their boss doesn’t back them up. It’s very easy to write up a poor employee, and have your boss throw it away because it’s “mean” or “unsupportive.” And it’s very easy to write up a top performer for a one-time error, only to have your boss terminate them “to set an example to the others that even little mistakes are unacceptable.” And it’s very easy for an unsupportive boss to turn on the manager, for not stopping it, ex: “You should have known Fergus was the lazy type to call in with a 104 fever and vomiting, I’ll have to micromanage you to make sure you’re hiring team players.”

    7. BethDH*

      In addition to the particular social issues that make this one tough for many women and the narrow line they often walk in the workplace, I think there’s the added problem that happens with a lot of these kinds of issues.

      The first time, you’re flabbergasted and startled, so you don’t think of a response right away. Or perhaps you think you even misheard or misjudged because it’s so over the line (most women, unfortunately, are plenty used to hearing this kind of thing, but in the workplace and from a subordinate is much more of a surprise). Sometimes these one-liners can take a minute or two to sink in, so you don’t realize until after you’ve shut your door or passed them in the hall what they actually said.

      Then after it’s happened a few times, it feels weird that you didn’t say something the first time, and you’re trying to figure out whether to address it in the moment or whether to have a separate conversation about it.

      And while we would hope that sexual harassment would never be blamed on the victim, we all know that’s not how it works much of the time. I can absolutely see certain workplaces being like “well, if you had shut it down the first time . . .” or “if you gave off enough authoritative vibes, he would have known . . .”

    8. smoke tree*

      People like this guy tend to have a pretty good sense for when they’re in an environment that will permit their bad behaviour. Based on the LW’s comments on the thread, it sounds like she works in an environment that encourages sexism to thrive, which makes it challenging to address.

      Also, being sexually harassed really sucks! It’s meant to feel bad, and it does. It helps to be in a position of authority (although that authority is compromised if not backed up by the rest of the company) but it’s funny how the targets of harassment are held to such a higher standard than the perpetrators.

    9. RUKiddingMe*

      Yeah it’s really easy to overcome 10,000 years of patriarchy, misogyny, and docial conditioning. How dare she not be perfect at it!

  29. oona*

    My coworkers and I were just sexually harassed at work, so my response may be a bit emotional, but I think it’s time to fire this person. The guy who did this to us was new and worked at our company less than a month, but he had a major negative impact on our team, huge dives in morale and productivity, and half the team almost quit purely out of fear. The only reason that didn’t happen is management fired him almost immediately after we came forward. It’s still affecting all of us and the company. A training position recently opened on my team and none of us will apply for it though we are all qualified. The previous trainer had to spend hours alone in a room with our harasser, and the thought of doing that makes me feel physically ill. I think all workplaces need to be more prepared to shut this shit down immediately.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Have you suggested doing team training instead of one on one? Since nobody feels safe being away with an individual person again given the trauma you’ve experienced? Would that be a better setup or do you think everyone is still too scarred?

      If everyone is too scared to step up, even if they can do it in a team, then the management needs to take ownership of it and do the training themselves. And anything they need from individuals, should be gathered out in the open.

      When this happens, it’s when procedures have to change to protect the staff. It wasn’t a good idea to have one person in charge of training a new person anyways, in my experience.

      1. oona*

        Training at my company is being revamped for a variety of reasons, though this is definitely one of them. As far as I know the team trainer was not harassed. She had some authority, and this guy had the wherewithal to not harass anyone with any actual power, unlike the dude in this letter. But it also shows he was very aware that what he was doing was a fireable offense.

    2. OhBehave*

      The harasser is gone, correct? Unless there’s another jerk to take his place you should be fine now. But bring your concerns up to mgmt. Maybe they can train two at a time.

      1. That Girl From Quinn's House*

        Rule of Three is used in childcare, it’s often applicable at work except for the most confidential of situations.

  30. Jam Today*


    He gets one warning, if he does it again he’s gone. Done and dusted. Keep a cardboard box handy, because I guarantee he won’t control his behavior.

  31. Lumen*

    Watch him very carefully around other employees for a while, especially women. And if you see anything untoward, or if he doesn’t catch the hint with you, you might consider privately and specifically asking other women if he has made inappropriate comments or stared at them. They might need it signaled that you’re aware of the problem before they feel comfortable telling you. But I wouldn’t jump right to that.

    1. Clisby*

      Or OP could privately ask other women how they’re treated/perceived in the workplace. This guy might not be the only problem.

  32. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    This is like a snapshot of sexual harassment. He needs to be spoken with immediately and put on notice that the next time it happens, he’s going to be terminated. He also needs some training or re-training if you’ve already provided it. These things are almost word for word things that our harassment training course told us are harassment.

    Once you tell him to stop, the next step is to follow through with suspension or termination. Otherwise you’re risking a lot by not reporting it and stopping it, much more than just the embarrassment and discomfort you personally feel right now.

    If he’s doing this to others who are below him or he has any authority over, then they investigate and find out it’s been done to you and you didn’t report it, you will be on the line as well. This inst’ to scare you, it’s to say that you have a personal responsibility as a supervisor to eliminate known harassment issues to anyone.

    1. Kat in VA*


      It’s unreal in that I want to ask JerkDude, “Do you not, like…watch TV? Read the news? Speak to fellow men who are *not* troglodytes and notice they they, themselves, do not speak to women like this? What year do you think it is? Why on earth would you think that is appropriate in this day and age with the avalanche of articles, training, videos, and what-have-you on what constitutes sexual harassment? Are you for real?”

      1. Observer*

        Oh, a lot of these guys DO speak to men who are not troglodytes – but the trogs consider them “wimps”.

      2. BethDH*

        I get exactly what you mean. It’s almost cartoonish, like having his eyes bug out of his head on springs. It seems like some of the most obvious sexual harassment doesn’t get taken seriously because of this, because some people (not saying you!) end up not believing it because of that. It’s like the harassment version of putting on a a mask and walking into a bank to rob it.

  33. Anonymeece*

    Great advice – especially like the “Is there something on me?” script, because I never know how to handle those “He didn’t technically say anything inappropriate, it’s just the behavior and vibe in general that’s creepy” – but I would also add DOCUMENT ALL THIS. Write down what he said with dates. Document that you told him to stop.

    It might also be prudent to review sexual harassment policy with everyone and what the consequences are. In this case, a direct conversation with him is needed, but you might also find other women who feel empowered afterward to also tell you that he’s been doing it to them too.

  34. Leela*

    This is outright sexual harassment. Get rid of him immediately; it’s not your responsibility or anyone else’s on staff to endure sexual harassment until you’ve said “what are you looking at?” enough times that he might actually stop.

  35. AKchic*

    Follow Alison’s scripts, but don’t say “please”. Please is a request. This isn’t a request. This is a “do it or you’re out the door”.
    Document everything that has happened already. Make sure you’ve sent it to yourself (personal email) as a way to keep track.
    If you have an HR office, alert them too, just in case. For these things, you can never have enough Cover Your Arse. Trust me on this. Some of these weasels will try to turn this around. Or you may find out that you weren’t the only one and he was only getting more bold because you and others didn’t shut him down quickly or hard enough (or, he is the type that enjoys being shut down… there’s that subset too).

    Strengthen that spine and shut him down hard. I would even go so far as to talk to all of the managers (male and female) to see if any of them have also seen any of the behavior to find out whether it’s a targeted issue or a general one (targeted could mean you could potentially have some other issues down the road, general is easier to for everyone to get him out).
    Good luck.

  36. Ms. Guacamole*

    So my experience with this behavior is being a fairly young high school teacher dealing with boundary-pushing teenaged-boys. This guy sounds like he’s behaving exactly like these teenaged boys so I’ll share my strategies (minus calling parents—I don’t think that would be appropriate in your situation although maybe a little hilarious).

    When I get an inappropriate comment I generally raise my eyebrows in what my students have taken to calling my “Mary Poppins look” and saying “Excuse me?” The very bold ones will repeat their comment verbatim, the less bold ones will say a milder version and the shyer ones will just mumble something.

    If it’s a shy one who mumbles something incoherent I will just say, “hmmm” and walk away (these comments are always made when I’m circulating the classroom so walking away is a pretty normal thing to do). In the other instances I say calmly but firmly, “That is very inappropriate. I need you to not say anything like that to me again.” I am generally not confrontational with my students and will have disciplinary conversations like that in the hallway. But in these situations I feel it’s important for other students, both male and female, to see and hear that interaction.

    If it continues then I have to call home but of course that doesn’t apply to an employee.

    If I catch students staring at my body, I usually cock my head to the side and maybe lean over a little if I have to to catch their attention onto my face. And smile. That’s usually enough to get them to see that I notice where they’re looking and they should stop but, again, I don’t know if that would work with another adult.

    1. OhBehave*

      This is great. You’re also showing the girls in the class how they should be treated!

    2. Lumen*

      I’ve done that with adults and can confirm, it does sometimes work. As does the Mary Poppins Look.

    3. Jedi Squirrel*

      I need you to not say anything like that to me again.

      Really should be “You need to not say anything like that to other people again.” This isn’t just about his relationship with you now, but his relationship toward others in general in the future.

      1. Ms. Guacamole*

        I get what you’re saying, but the number of people who tell me, as a teacher, how to do my job is seriously exhausting. It’s very irritating.

        In that moment, it’s absolutely how the student is treating me, specifically, and he needs to know that. He needs to know that some women will push back, especially women in positions of authority. When male students do that to female students they are doing it specifically because that woman is in a position of authority. Just because I gave one snippet of how I handle an awkward interaction of a student being inappropriate does not mean I don’t address the wider issue of how this student treats other people. So I’m going to stick with my script.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          I think your script is good because the female students who hear it can then use it verbatim when he/another little jerk does it to them.

          1. Ms. Guacamole*

            Thank you. I really try to model strong behavior for the girls in my class. It’s a whole revelation for them when I explain why I go by Ms even though I’m married.

            1. JediSquirrel*

              Former teacher here (male) and I see your point. As a male teacher, I would want to generalize his behavior, because it wouldn’t be directed at me. As you are female and dealing with this, I completely see your point.

              And if said student doesn’t get it and I have a good relationship with him, feel free to let me know. I’ll be happy to discuss the issue with him. A lot of this is learned in the home, and a lot of teaching is really “unteaching” these bad behaviors.

              1. Ms. Guacamole*

                Somehow I just knew you were a man.

                I know you’re trying to be helpful but you’re not telling me anything I don’t know and don’t already do as a teacher, I’m not asking for advice, and it’s coming across as mansplaining. My comment was literally just meant to help the OP shut down some gross behavior from a male subordinate by giving an example of what I say in similar situations. I really don’t need to be told how to do my job or where students learn bad behavior.

  37. M*

    My husband had the same problem but it’s with his female boss. She touches him inappropriately (caresses his arm/ hand and she touched his butt a few times) she also made comments about his looks and her sex life. He has asked her to stop and she hasn’t but he is worried about talking with HR because they have been known to sweep this stuff under the rug or tell the person of the complaints against them. He is worried about being unfairly treated if he complains as it isn’t confidential. He has told a few people but no one cares, I think mostly because he is a man. It is horrible. She even showed up to our home a few times and tried to become BFFs with me. Luckily his boss is leaving but he has changed drastically and is in pain because of her harassment.

    I would see how your department deals with it and tell HR or at least keep a record of it. Or confront him in front of other people. You don’t want him using it against you or god forbid making complaints about you.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      This breaks my heart. Men are subjected to harassment like this more frequently than most will acknowledge. It’s a very real issue in our society today.

      The thing is, if HR sweeps his issues under the rug, that’s when a lawyer really can be your best ally here. You can sue for harassment and they have the burden of proof of how they handled it. The “oh he’s a man and he likes it” defense won’t cut it.

      The thing with taking it to a lawsuit level is you have to speak up and try to get someone to take other actions first. Then it’s on them to fix it or have real EEOC consequences.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Agreed–if the company fails to do anything about it, they’re still running afoul of the law regardless of who the victim is.

    2. M&Ms Fix Lots of Problems*

      I feel sorry as well. It’s the problem that nobody wants to address. In the moment can your husband tell her that he has a larger personal space bubble and he knows that she will respect that request (as if she is a reasonable person who will respect a reasonable request)?

    3. Clorinda*

      She touched his butt????!!!!????
      I’m so sorry his HR didn’t take this seriously.

    4. Emi.*

      That’s terrible! He can complain the EEOC, eh? Which sadly may not help but just to make sure he’s aware he has options between HR and hiring his own lawyer.

    5. Observer*

      OMG! That’s just gross and horrible.

      Your husband should document this and consider talking to the EEOC. On of the things that they are going to ask about is why he is not going to HR, so he should have examples of when HR mishandled these types of complaints.

  38. BookishMiss*

    OP, please know you’re not alone. This is my life right now with a trainee, and I am finding that completely flat replies of “that’s inappropriate” and the like, plus a brief awkward pause before returning to work topics, is working wonders. I’ve also reported it up the chain to set the example for his fellow trainees that this is Not Okay and they can definitely report this crap.
    Works in non-work settings, too. Captain Awkward calls it returning awkward to sender, and it’s perfect.

  39. JoAnna*

    Ew. Definitely sexual harassment. He needs a stern talking-to at the very least – like a “ stop this nonsense immediately or you will be fired” discussion.

  40. Why isn't it Friday?*

    When that happens, sometimes I’ll snap my fingers by my face and say in an authoritative, angry voice “eyes up here.” It jolts them a bit and stops the creepy staring.

  41. OP*

    It’s me, OP! I’m famous! (Just kidding)

    I appreciate most of the comments here- I want to add some context here:
    -This is a newer, solid employee. He doesn’t have any reports under him, and is in a fairly junior role.
    -There are very few women in my office- especially younger women. He works closely with me and a few male colleagues and i’m pretty observant and in tune with others in my office- i haven’t seen anything in his interactions with them that concerns me.
    -I am a very direct person and manager generally and readily give feedback, have difficult conversations, etc.–this one just has me completely lost as I’ve never experienced it before with a subordinate.
    -My company is a very male-centric firm with a history of misogyny that i myself have experienced. a few examples- i talked to my boss about this and his response was to laugh and shake his head. my employee isn’t the only one who has made inappropriate comments about my attractiveness- higher level people have done so too. HR is unhelpful on sexual harassment matters and takes the approach of “we know that man, he would never do such a thing, how dare you even insinuate such tawdry gossip” and i would never go to them on this.
    -i have frequently weighed my options at this company- as in, i love my job, but do i want to change this chauvinistic company from within as one of very few female managers, or go somewhere else, where this behavior might still be a problem…

    in terms of action items, i will be talking to other women in my office regarding their interactions with this employee and bringing this topic up with my new intel during my quarterly review with him, conveniently scheduled for next week, AND using Alison’s awesome scripts.

    Thanks all for your attention to my letter, especially Alison.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Oh they laugh and shake their heads and brush it off as “he would never”.

      You need to document the hell out of this and bring a lawsuit.

      Otherwise you’re going to be spinning your wheels if you think anything else will ever change them. They aren’t reasonable or respectful, they don’t care about you, you’re just a woman who is easily replaced by someone who won’t have concerns like these.

    2. Jaybeetee*

      Christ, how are there still companies out there that act this casual about Actual Harassment? One dude goes too far they’ll have a lawsuit on their hands, but it’s more important to not let political correctness run amok? The little lady is just hysterical?

      Most people in the workforce today were born post-second wave feminism – the oldest fossils may have been born in the 40s and 50s, but even they would have been joining the workplace alongside women. Women in the workplace have been a fact of life for literally generations now. How does this attitude even still *exist*?

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Because the wrong men are in charge, the ones who enjoy this power. That’s what it’s about.

    3. The Supreme Troll*

      OP, I’m sorry that you have to deal with this nonsense; wishing you the best of luck here. Your employee’s denseness is beyond imagination.

    4. Close Bracket*

      my employee isn’t the only one who has made inappropriate comments about my attractiveness- higher level people have done so too.

      Oh, shit. It’s going to be hard to shut down your direct report when higher ups are modeling the behavior. How do you handle the higher level people?

          1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

            Laugh it off most likely and feel absolutely disgusting inside, that’s what I see as the most common response for people in this exact situation.

          2. Mallory*

            Mostly what Becky Lynch (The Man) said above- if I’m feeling extra that day I might put on an annoyed face and just say “gross.” I fear retaliation for the reasons I discuss above.

    5. Jessen*

      Well that’s a mess. I’m going to back up the idea of recording everything you can about this whole company. Possibly mention the idea casually to any other women too. Because this sounds like the sort of place where you could very well face retaliation for trying to discipline him. And you want as much documentation as you can of both what he’s doing, and that your bosses were aware and refused to back you.

    6. Czhorat*

      I’m sorry.

      I’ll say that I wish you the best in fighting the good fight; it’s a difficult path you’ve chosen, and not necessarily the most rewarding. Don’t let them get you down, and don’t be down on yourself if you do feel that, someday, you need to leave for the sake of your own sanity

      1. Myrin*

        What a wise answer, Czhorat. I concur heartily, OP, and sending you all my best thoughts and wishes!

    7. Lora*

      Ugh. Been there. Okay. You may not ever be able to change the situation, you may well be stuck with it until you leave the company, but you can try being full metal b1tch at them and “my eyes are up here, pal,” “NOT APPROPRIATE, STOP NOW” sort of thing. It’s unlikely to help when it’s also coming from the top, though.

      Isn’t it a mystery why some companies just don’t seem to be very diverse???

    8. Properlike*

      I see a couple of places where you say that “he’s a solid employee” and “he’s good at his job.”

      May I point out: He’s NOT either of those things because he lacks the very basic, very important skill of not sexually harrassing his colleagues. Let’s call it a “soft skill.” You wouldn’t call him a “solid employee” if he were constantly showing up late, tripping customers, or stealing $5 from petty cash every week.

      My apologies if you’re channeling the company party line for why this guy won’t get penalized, but this guy doesn’t need to be inept in order for it to be justified that he be fired for cause.

    9. Observer*

      Document your head off. Both his behavior, and your prior experiences. Explain that this is a lawsuit waiting to happen.

      If that doesn’t work, then you’re NOT going to be able to change anything. Start looking for a new job – you sound like you have marketable skills. When you accept a new job, report to the EEOC. This way you won’t have to deal with the retaliation (and threats of blacklisting.)

    10. Oranges*

      Knowing when to quit is important! The fight is good but you can’t do it alone. You probably will get to the point of “stop doing CPR on a person who’s been dead three hours” (this is how I try to frame things to avoid the sunk-cost fallacy).

      Think of it this way, your awesome work is helping this company. Are there other companies/competitors that don’t have the “ugh” atmosphere? Your awesome work could totally help them instead!

      Also poaching good people from the ugh company..? I know it’s evil but… I kinda want them to fail…

      1. Heidi*

        I tend to agree. If the OP’s boss won’t back her up AND HR won’t back her up AND her subordinates can harass her without being fired…well, that doesn’t bode well for change from within. I’m all for fighting the good fight, but it’s hard to imagine that women can ever really be on equal footing in such an environment.

    11. npoworker*

      :/ I’m so sorry this is happening to you and that you don’t have support in your company. When I worked at a job where I was facing sexual harassment (from superiors) where HR was known to not handle complaints because this particular team made most of the money for the firm, my approach was persistence. It was exhausting but after so many “you need to stops” or simply “stops” (or even “I doubt your wife/girlfriend would like to hear you saying that to me”—I’m not sure if that could apply to your situation) paired with a cool & business-only attitude when interacting during work, it eventually stopped.

      Best of luck <3 power to you

    12. AKchic*

      All of this needs to be documented. STAT.

      I think that he is having all of this modeled to him by the upper management, and he is comfortable saying it because the whole culture is okay with it. You aren’t going to have any help with the upper staffers, and disciplining him won’t do anything because when you do, he’s going to go around you.

      Keep documenting. Document what HR has said to you before about other managers. What other managers have said about and to you. Find out about your female coworkers. This is a lawsuit waiting to happen, and you will want to be on the right side of it.

    13. Lemmy Caution*

      I am seriously at loss with words. If the HR or ”upstairs” is not paying attention, then there is a big problem… not only now but when the day comes that someone will raise a ”sexual harrasment” case the company will think IRS audits are fun.

    14. JSPA*

      OK, then if you’re on your own:

      Meet with him in a room where you sit behind a large desk. No chair for him; he stands. Wear a top he can’t look down. Don’t stare him in the ‘nads, but let him feel exposed, for a change.

      If he says he doesn’t know where to look, tell him that if he can’t keep his eyes on someone’s face, to look over their shoulder, or look at the ceiling. Make him practice with you, if he claims it’s difficult.

      If he says he has to look at you because you’re so hot, and if the rest of the firm does not back you up on dealing with this, you’re looking at lawsuit material. We talk a lot about what it takes to make a hostile environment, and how something has to be persistent, pervasive, and not dealt with by the powers-that-be, after they’re notified of the problem. Well…this sure sounds like it could head firmly in that direction. Document.

    15. DKMA*

      Hi, one thing you may want to consider as you approach this is presuming positive intent from him. I’ve found it can be pretty powerful when dealing with poor behavior (hell, there’s even a small chance it’s even true).

      I think Alison’s scripts are good, but in addition to the in the moment you could try a “I’m sure you mean well, but it is never appropriate to comment on a coworkers physical appearance, and I’m going to expect you to stop.”

      This does a few things.
      First, it creates a polite fiction that allows you to continue with minimal disruption which sounds like is one of your goals.
      Second, it gives you an opportunity to read his response to a less confrontational approach to give you a better sense of what future to prepare for. There is a big difference between a whiny “but I was trying to be nice” vs fumbling awkwardness vs a clear “I’m sorry, I intended it as a compliment but it won’t happen again”.
      Third, it stakes the moral high ground for any follow-up. You start from a point of assuming positive intent than document and prove if he demonstrates he doesn’t have that intent.

      It doesn’t require that you even believe it’s true, I’ve found it useful even when I know and am right it’s not true. I’ve also had people surprise me by reciprocating and massively outperforming my expectations.

      Now, I’m a generic white dude so I don’t have this particular issue, and if your radar is twinging with creep vibes and you are ready to pull the plug go for it, but it sounds like you don’t have that option.

  42. Polymer Phil*

    OP – you need to be talking to your HR department and not AAM. If he doesn’t straighten out and you need to fire him, you’ll need documentation of specific incidents, disciplinary actions taken, etc.

    1. Polymer Phil*

      OP’s post appeared while I was typing mine. Since HR doesn’t seem to be much help, be sure to document everything on your own – any specific comments or incidents you remember up to this point, your quarterly review with him next week where you requested that he stop the behavior, any future incidents with very specific dates/times/info, etc.

  43. LGC*

    How can I best discipline/provide feedback to an employee of mine about his frequent inappropriate comments about my body/attractiveness?

    My personal preference would be with a pink slip and an explanation that it’s 2019, bro. But I don’t know, maybe I’m just extremely grouchy.

    But anyway – actually, I kind of get this. Not the entire gross dynamic of the power play he’s likely engaging in (since I’m a guy), but I’ve had employees make comments/”compliments” I’ve been…less than comfortable with. (Not that pervasive, though!) I think part of it is that people are not that knowledgeable and think that sexual harassment is just male boss to female employee. (And not, as in this case, male employee to female boss.) So he probably thinks that it’s more okay to say to you because you technically have power over him.

  44. Jaid*

    If your company already had training concerning sexual harassment, I’d just say something like:
    “This company provides training on sexual harassment. It appears you need a refresher course, as your comments and actions are inappropriate for the workplace. And if you’re doing them to me, your superior, I am concerned about how you treat your co-workers. You will be expected to take the refresher course at such and such a time, and this will go into your personnel file.”

  45. Anon for this*

    What happens if the guy just stares at you from a distance/not easily within speaking distance? I had one guy do this just to creep me out/get a reaction. He would then look at his buddies as if to say, “What’s her deal?” when he was the one causing problems. He was a creep that hit on every young woman in that place and dated a few of them. I saw through him and avoided him- he would continue to make comments out loud around me, but wouldn’t direct them at me, so I just ignored him. How these jerks get away with it, I’ll never know….

    1. also anon*

      My college roommate used to stare back…slowly, meaningfully taste the celery stick from her drink or the carrot from her salad, eyes on him…then chomp the end off, ferociously.

      It’s a better move in a bar or school cafeteria than at work, but do what you have to.

  46. Serin*

    *I’m worried about inadvertently devolving into “you think I’m hot” territory*

    It helps to reframe it in your mind: It’s not appropriate for him to express ANY thoughts about your body or your attractiveness in ANY way.

    It’s not appropriate for him to express his opinion that you’re hot; it’s not appropriate for him to express his opinion that you’re ugly; it’s not appropriate for him to express his opinion that you could be hotter if you’d dress up a bit. There is no scenario where his opinion about your looks is an appropriate topic of conversation at work.

    (Parents deal with a similar thing when teaching their kids what kind of talk is appropriate in public. We don’t say loudly that that person is tall, short, dark, light, ugly, pretty, hairy, bald, young, or old. We do not comment on other people’s looks, period.)

  47. OG Karyn*

    I know you can’t do this, OP, so I would follow the advice Alison gave, but when I was in college, I was working on the campaign of a now long-term Senator who was running for his first election at the time. I met him once, and he was definitely a starer. I don’t even know if he realized he was doing it, but it was definitely A Thing. So at one point during a meeting when I saw his gaze heading downward, I said quietly, “Sir, my eyes aren’t pink.”

    He never did it again. :D

  48. Observer*

    Please document his behavior *AND* your attempts to shut it down. Also, if you EVER hear him make a comment like that, jump right in. And if he says “She doesn’t mind” Your response is “It’s still inappropriate.” DO NOT allow any discussion of this. If his victim says “Oh, it’s ok! I don’t mind! Really!” you STILL respond “It’s still inappropriate and unacceptable in the workplace.”

    Also, if your explicitly telling him that this needs to stop doesn’t help, start the process of firing him. If you need to convince the higher up because “He SOOO stellar!” point out that he is a lawsuit waiting to happen.

  49. A Nony Mouse*

    I don’t think you can just up and fire an employee for inappropriate behavior unless it’s more egregious than this. You have to allow for the fact he might not realize what a creep he is being (no matter how unlikely).

    Luckily, the conversation, while maybe uncomfortable, can be fairly straightforward: there is really only one correct response to having your boss tell you that your acts are unprofessional and inappropriate and are making her uncomfortable. Anything other than a mortified apology is inadequate and THEN you can fire him.

    1. Observer*

      Sure you can fire someone for this kind of behavior. And, actually, no you do NOT need to allow for the possibility that he “doesn’t realize” that he’s being inappropriate. But even if you wanted to do that, ALL you need is ONE conversation where you clearly spell out that IT. IS. NEVER. ACCEPTABLE to make such comments!

  50. Fiddlesticks*

    “You’re bringing sexy back!”

    Can anyone even imagine a female employee saying this to her own male boss??

    This is so gross. And yes, if I were this creep’s boss, I’d seriously consider firing him. It’s 2019 and there’s just no excuse for these kinds of comments and behavior.

    1. Iris Eyes*

      I’m pretty sure the only time “sexy” should be uttered in an office is if you are talking about a car.

  51. Candid Candidate*

    If the acting like there’s a stain or bug on your shirt routine doesn’t work, I would try a simple, direct, “Eyes up here, Bob” if you catch him staring at your body inappropriately while you’re talking to him. This is universal code for “I see you staring at my boobs and you need to cut it the f**k out.” Men know exactly what women mean when we say that. And if he’s like “What do you mean?” you can address it directly by saying, “I’m not sure if you realize you’re doing it, but I frequently sense that you’re looking at my body instead of making eye contact while we’re meeting, and just like the inappropriate comments we discussed, the staring isn’t respectful and won’t be tolerated by me or anyone else.”

    1. AKchic*

      Oh, he knows he’s doing it. I wouldn’t even give him the benefit of doubt. But… I’m also not the type to give wiggle room. “We both know what you’re doing, so knock it off. Keep your eyes up and comments appropriate.”

    2. JSPA*

      nobody has linked the video for “forhead tittaes” yet? At risk of duplication, will do so below.

  52. Database Developer Dude*

    I wonder how effective it might be if OP carried around a spray bottle, and sprayed water in the harasser’s face every time he did that……..


  53. Interplanet Janet*

    See, my first reaction (aside from EWW, because yes, EWW for sure) is that this is some sort of attempt to kiss up. That sort of over the top flattery subordinates sometimes do (probably because it sometimes works) with bosses.

    Not that it changes the response at all, and if anything, it makes the behavior even MORE obnoxious, just an observation.

  54. Former Employee*

    While this company sounds like it’s still living in the dark ages (never mind pre #MeToo, but pre sexual harassment training), not every company is like that.

    After the “this is inappropriate” talk, if he continues his BS, since the higher ups and HR don’t seem to care, the OP might consider reminding him that other companies are not necessarily so nonchalant about this sort of thing. As his boss, she is the one that a future employer is likely to contact for an assessment. If he wants to be able to be hired at any number of other companies in this field, he might want to keep that in mind.

    Given that he is still in his early 30’s, the idea that he could be risking future employment opportunities by his current, ridiculous behavior might make him rethink his “strategy”.

  55. TootsNYC*

    Letter Writer, I want to introduce you to a wonderful sentence.
    It’s perfect for delivering after someone has tried to argue back in such a situation.

    You: I don’t want you making comments on anyone’s’ body. That’s completely inappropriate.
    Him: But I’m just being nice.
    or: You’re too sensitive.
    You: Nevertheless.

    Note that it is the whole sentence. It’s not an introductory phrase. The inflection at the end is down, not up. Delivery is firm.
    It is also the whole PARAGRAPH.

    And that’s the end of the conversation. You are now done talking.

  56. Lemmy Caution*

    I admit I am from the ”Mad Men” era when mainframes roamed the earth and you could smoke in the office… but this…

    Why is this even a letter I wondered at first… That is a textbook ”sexual harrasment” case in the making that needs to be nipped in the bud before it escalates. It has already gotten to a level you would have any half-awake HR slam the book on him. And as someone above stated, it is not the OP but everyone else in the workplace that is concerned as well. It is totally inappropriate and I am at a loss how can this person have even the idea in his head this would be even remotely permissible? Nevermind being creepy and totally ungentlemanly. And the OP not daring to address this issue I am starting to wonder what the company is like otherwise.

    OK, so things are run slightly differently in different countries, but I was just visualising one of my old teams and a new colleague saying something like that to our bosslady… Well, knowing my team and the boss… we would have been making quick bets on how fast the ambulance would come and could all the bits be sewn back.

    Seriously, I thought I was a fossil with outdated attitudes, but now I am just having a moment of blank staring.

      1. Lemmy Caution*

        Well, actually no it doesn’t help me understand. Except why you are having a hard time, but the whole situation is just… ununderstandable, if that is a word.

      2. Observer*

        He can correct me if I’m wrong but I think he means that although he gets the MECHANICS of the situation, he totally can’t wrap his head around the fact that such an organization exists.

        1. Lemmy Caution*

          Yeah, I am just floored by the ”company culture” being like this in 2019. I work for a huge multinational and we need to be on the money, just to start with avoiding innocent cultural misccommunications let alone inappropriate conduct. I need to take a management level awareness test every year on sexual harrassment along with moneylaundering and IT security… Well, so you read of stuff in the news and dismiss it as some pc hysterics gone mad… I guess I need to readjust my scanners. This has been an eye-opener.

          Now I wonder whether the CEO/owners are aware of this, as it is a situation just waiting for the day that someone will raise a ”sexual harrasment” lawsuit. And then the company will think IRS audits are fun.

          1. OP*

            They certainly are! Also it’s an employee owned company, so the owners are…the people doing this stuff.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Seriously. I’ve been in situations where things may have happened like this and my response would have been “are you f*cking kidding me right now? Why would you think that’s an okay thing to say?” and then watch them either cower or try to back peddle. If he’s not held to high standards because of the management and HR lax outlooks, how is it going to be an issue if you stand up and just shoot the MF’er down like that?

      At least now I’m within a truly civilized organization where I can go ahead and take the high road and act like the professional my mom is so proud of. Instead of just going full hillbilly on someone when they decide boundaries are just for decoration.

  57. Not the Chauvinist*

    And if a “she” did this? I know it’s inappropriate, but is it less?

    And if a “he” did it to a male boss?

    The fact that this might be taken lighter if this was a MM FF thing makes…ugh.

    1. Close Bracket*

      > The fact that this might be taken lighter if this was a MM FF thing makes…ugh.

      Where are you getting that from?

      1. Not the Chauvinist*

        I am asking if you think this would be ANY different if a man was doing it to a man or a woman was doing it to a woman.

        Would it be harsher if it was a man? Not as harsh if it was a woman?

        They should ALL be addressed this way, but the fact that it might be more or less based on gender (without even knowing what they are doing) is my issue.

  58. Ruthless Bunny*

    I stole this from a Thin Man movie, but I’m older and calling creepers out on the long, pointed glances was just not a thing when I was younger. When a guy would stare at my rack, I’d just say, “The earrings are higher up.”

    These days I’d just say, “stop staring at my boobs.”

  59. LPUK*

    I had this happen to me with an employee many years ago – I too was a relatively young manager and the employee was around my age. He asked if he could say something to me in private; as there was a lot of job-insecurity and fear of redundancy in the company at the time, I said sure and brought him to my office and closed the door. I was expecting to need to reassure him about his job – I was NOT expecting for him to say ” I have an enormous crush on you and can’t think straight when you are close by”! My first reaction ( after rushing to open the door and make an excuse for my PA to come in) was to dismiss it with a somewhat hysterical laugh and get him out as quickly as possible, after first making it clear that it was extremely unwelcome and I never wanted to hear it again. But it made me very self-conscious in every interaction with him afterwards and even when I just crossed the office in front of him. Unfortunately that wasn’t the end of it – he said something again a couple of months later and this time, I laid out that his behaviour was unacceptable; that I had booked him an appointment with HR to discuss the meaning and consequences of sexual harassment, and that if I ever heard anything from him again, I would absolutely treat it as sexual harassment. That stopped it. Unfortunately, I never got as far of thinking that if he was prepared to say that to me, what might he be saying to his female colleagues (also members of my team)

    1. Iris Eyes*

      It sounds like both of you were too young to handle that well.

      Workplace crushes happen, knowing someone has a crush on you is AWKWARD when you don’t reciprocate. But it is not sexual harassment.

      1. LPUK*

        Wow. Dismissive much? Just to clarify 1. when I say relatively young – I mean just under 30, the workplace was a formal office and I was already a senior manager in the marketing dept, so its really not an ‘oh you kids’ moment. 2. Yes workplace crushes happen – I had a very attractive CEO at one point and if you think I would ever approach him, stone cold sober, in the middle of the office, in the middle of the working day, without any signs of interest or previous flirting to tell him I had a crush on him, then you’re delusional 3. I Could write off the first time he mentioned this – in fact my first reaction was hysterical and uneasy laughter, but he persisted once I had clearly told him it was unwelcome 4. As his boss this put me in a very awkward position – not comfortable in holding confidential meetings with him, impacting on my ability to have performance management conversations ( because yes, his work was barely satisfactory and his attitude to team members derogatory). Thank goodness my HR was not as dismissive as you and took this seriously, giving me advice on how to handle this awkwardness and him advice about behavioural expectations in the workplace

        1. Iris Eyes*

          Here’s how it sounds from where I sit.

          One of your employees had an emotional reaction to you that he was trying to control but couldn’t, he presumably wanted your help in solving the source of the conflict. No different than if your perfume reminded him of a dead grandma, or the way you pronounced certain words was the same as someone who abused him resulting in an illogical stress reaction. Instead of making the workplace a more emotionally safe place you made it less safe. You freaked out on him from what you describe, you chose to overreact by becoming panicked and paranoid rather than treating him as an adult who came to his boss with a problem about his work environment. You decided that this was sexual harassment because the emotion was love or lust or whatever.

          Now, maybe there was additional context. Maybe he watched you every time you moved in his vicinity (probably didn’t help his work product.) IDK I wasn’t there.

          This is a place where people come to learn how to better interact in the work place, so I’m challenging you to see if there might have been something you could have done better.

          1. Close Bracket*

            If only you were worried about the emotional safety of LPUK while alone in her office with someone professing love or about the problems in LPUK’s work environment from having her direct reports declare their feelings. You are looking at this wrong. Having a crush is not sexual harassment. Declaring your feelings a second time when it was made clear the first time that such declarations are unwelcome is sexual harassment.

            > You decided that this was sexual harassment because the emotion was love or lust or whatever.

            Well, yes. That’s how sexual harassment works. Unwelcome expressions of love or lust fit the bill.

  60. animaniactoo*

    OP, this is an outside chance, but think it through and see if you think it would be possible to carry it off. Mostly I’m thinking this based on the fact that you are a rockstar at your firm, and by comparison a lot more valuable than this guy is – and possibly even some of the entrenched misogyny.

    So, for taking it up with those above you and the “Ha ha, he would never” and things like that: “Are you doubting my ability to hear, understand, analyze, and interpret what is being said to me correctly?” Super calm. And then they’ll fumble around. And you get to say calmly “So, you’re saying that I have a bias that is means I am reading this situation incorrectly. That I am not capable of setting aside my bias to make sure that I have heard the comments and seen the staring and assessed it correctly. Is that what you are saying?” and then you get to turn it around on them. “Is it possible that you have a bias that is coming in to play here? Because all the “Me Too” stuff? This is what it’s about. A woman speaks up about a situation that she has been through several times in her life – well enough to identify it for what it is. She has strong analytical abilities. And her concerns are dismissed because it is a situation that feels normal and fine for a man who is not the target of it, when the same types of comments are not being made to or about the men in the company.”

    I think the key to this is being super calm about it – and NOT expecting a result this time. Because it’s more about planting that seed. And then being able to go back later and say “And this?” “That?” – sometimes even with just a look, a raised eyebrow, to call attention to the super-inappropriate thing that just happened that they are witness to and not recognizing as happening.

  61. ProperDose*

    Wow, this letter and advice is so timely for me. Around once a month, I need to ask my VP for help on a reporting software. Each time I’ve walked into his office, he does the *looks at my face, looks down at my chest, looks at my hips*. I’ve accepted it for months, but I’ve finally made a comment to HR about it, just to have on the record. He is a nasty person. Even made a comment to someone that of her twin children, her daughter doesn’t need to go to a fancy school like her son. You might be able to guess the rabbit hole of patriarchal crap this guy would support.

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