my employee has a crush on me

A reader writes:

I am a female manager at a small, mostly male company, and directly manage several people (all male). One of the six has worked for me for multiple years. Since he began his employment, I always felt he had a “crush” on me and kept my distance (as much as I could as his manager).

His crush has gotten increasingly more obsessive over the past year: constantly staring at me, using absurd reasons to contact me through email/messenger/texts, whether at work or evening/weekends, and getting extremely emotional/upset if I do not frequently talk with him or provide feedback for his every task. He never says anything inappropriate or makes any advances but is making me increasingly more uncomfortable.

My tendency to avoid the employee combined with my obvious annoyance with his increasingly absurd reasons to interact with me is reflecting poorly on my management skills — to the extent that my manager is questioning my abilities to manage.

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 83 comments… read them below }

      1. Tow Mater*

        It is not the manager’s job to manage the employee’s emotions. It is to manage the employee’s performance.

        Don’t fall into the trap of women having to manage t/change their behaviors to do the emotional work of men or to spare a man’s feelings.

        Men are not fragile, and his feelings (whether love or hate) should have no place in how he does his job, so don’t avoid, don’t make exceptions or accommodate his weird behaviors- this is a performance problem.

        1. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

          THIS! Regardless of gender. Of course everyone has feelings, but keeping it professional helps redirect the focus off of the feelings and make it a matter of performance, and definitely helps everyone save face.

        2. ToS*

          Exactly! At a minimum, the direct report is not being socially and interpersonally savvy. The manager might use the same strategies to coach a direct report that is on the autism spectrum *if* it might be germane to any request for accommodation. In most situations the goal is to improve professional behavior to meet expectations

        3. SAS*

          Lol @ men are not fragile. I love Alison’s advice and hope the LW could undertake it exactly as is but I would suggest doing so only after preparing a safety plan for the worst case scenarios of his behaviour escalating to stalking her outside of work or verbally or physically abusing her or other women at the workplace.

          Letting a guy down gently about a “crush” or inappropriate behaviours can be extremely unpredictable.

          1. allathian*

            Yes, if she acknowledges the crush. But it shouldn’t be as much of an issue if she only addresses his behaviors. The point is that the behaviors need to be addressed to manage him effectively.

            1. Caliente*

              Even if she doesn’t acknowledge the crush, I think she should be prepared. This isn’t about crush management, its that someone is behaving in very inappropriate ways. So who knows what else they’ll do?
              I’ve always been of the opinion that when someone behaves weirdly about things – its work, I’m here to work, you’re being super weird and inappropriate – things can easily escalate and it pretty much has nothing to do with the “object” its all in the “perps” mind. It’s also an indication of…something…that the behavior is so juvenile, too.
              “Off” behavior from men is a HUGE red flag for me, as it is usually just the start of something.

  1. Seeking Second Childhood*

    Boy I would be interested in a follow-up, because I could see this going in some very drastically different directions.

  2. Gaia*

    He sounds exhausting and creepy. Sorry, OP. I agree with Alison, treat this as you would anything else, leave the “crush” out of it. He can crush on you all he wants, but he doesn’t get to act like this.

  3. I'm just here for the cats*

    I totally agree with Alison’s advice. one thing I would like to know is if he stares at other people too and if it’s specific areas. For example, does his desk look right into your office. I could totally see someone spacing out or trying to think and just staring I to space. Now if you walk out of his general vuew and he follows you or moves his head to keep starring, then there is a problem.

    1. Chompers*

      That doesn’t explain away the incessant need to contact OP. Trying to come up with excuses for behavior like this is not a great look, most especially when it’s one issue in a long list of issues.

      1. Observer*

        Thanks for saying this. It’s exhausting to have to always deal with “Are you SURE?” if there is not a totally and completely ironclad piece of evidence for EVERY SINGLE item on a list of problematic behaviors.

        1. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs*

          Yes. And it’s really problematic for every outside observer to set themselves up as the arbiter of what should be acceptable or not for the person actually living the situation. “Well, if he just does X it’s ok, but if he does Y, then *that’s* not okay.” Beyond taking letter writers at their word, we need to take women at their word when they say a situation or a person is making them feel uncomfortable or unsafe.

          1. I'm just here for the cats*

            I was not condoning his behavior AT ALL. I was just pointing out that his staring might be a legit thing where he just spaces out or something. I was just stating that I’d find it interesting if he was turning his head when she walks and stares or if it’s more in her general area because he’s just faced her way.
            I’ve been on the OPs side before, and I think she needs to address this.

            1. Observer*

              So stop “pointing out” things that have no bearing on the situation. The pattern is strong enough that this speculation is totally unhelpful, to be put it mildly.

        2. Aquawoman*

          OK, so if he’s staring into space, then when she mentions the staring, he’ll realize that his staring into space is making another person uncomfortable and adjust it. His motivation isn’t really relevant.

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yes, thank you!

        A reminder from the commenting rules: “When a letter-writer reports a situation is giving them bad vibes, particularly in regard to safety, harassment, or discrimination, believe that person. Don’t search for ways to explain away the behavior or pressure them to ignore their instincts because you personally haven’t had the same experiences.”

        1. I'm just here for the cats*

          I’m sorry if what I said made it sound like I was questioning the OP or that I didn’t believe her. I was just wondering if he was staring at her and if she walked away if he turned his head and kept staring at her or if he was just staring in her general direction. I mentioned in another comment reply that I know people who do stare and space out for various legit reasons. I didn’t mean any disrespect.

          1. Dungeon Master of Public Administration*

            What everyone is trying to express to you is that your impulse to find another explanation for his behavior is part of a larger pattern of people not believing women when they share their experiences with harassment. Regardless of your intentions, you’re perpetuating a harmful culture of undermining the credibility of victims who come forward with their stories. Instead of defending why you said what you said, acknowledge that you have some learning and growth to do in this area.

      3. Littorally*

        Right. It’s a real pain when people seize on one item out of a list of several and act as though explaining away that single thing eliminates the whole situation. Sure, if it were ONLY the staring, that might mean something… but combined with everything else, the staring really isn’t an innocent “spaced out” kind of thing.

      4. I'm just here for the cats*

        I wasn’t comming up with an excuse or excuse for every single thing he does. I was simply stating a fact that maybe she should pay attention and see if he does the staring at other people or at different times. I know people who legit will just stare while they think. One person is a very visual thinker and so he kinda just stares when he is doing something complicated. I also have friends who have adhd type of stuff and they just legit stare at you and it is unnerving.
        I am in no way making an excuse for his behavior. But I just wanted to mention that this one thing might not be related to everything else. The OP should bring it up.

        1. Older Than Dirt*

          I’m going to take a wild guess that you have never actually been in a situation like this before. If you are interested in learning more about why we should trust people’s feelings about being creeped out by another’s behavior, I recommend “The Gift of Fear”, a book by Gavin de Becker.

          1. I'm just here for the cats*

            I actually have been in this situation. It wasn’t an employee but a 30 year old man and I was 15 year old girl! I just had a thought that maybe this ONE thing may be something else.

            1. Nic*

              If that one thing were the only thing going on, then I might agree with you that there could be other reasons, but since it isn’t, I think you cannot afford to divorce the staring from the other behaviour. It isn’t “he’s a great employee apart from the staring”; it’s the whole shebang of “he is persistent in staring, contacting me outside of work hours and subjects, and displaying emotional dependence on getting my attention”.

        2. Avasarala*

          they just legit stare at you and it is unnerving.
          So… we’re right back where we started with “this behavior is unnerving and not OK.”

          Does it matter if the reason for the behavior is unrelated to the reasons for his other behaviors? Especially if the result is one big ball of unnerving behavior?

    2. MechanicalPencil*

      You can also be self-aware enough to know “gee Susan probably thinks I’m staring at her because I’m spacing out in her general direction”.

    3. JSPA*

      Rules lawyering one aspect of the problem that could, in some other, totally different circumstance, have an innocent explanation, is 100% unhelpful when the point is how all the parts work together.

      “maybe he was unzipping because he was getting desperate on his way to the bathroom” only makes sense a step or two from the bathroom, when someone reasonably thinks they’re alone in the office, and they’re rushing; it’s not relevant to 99.99% of situations where people unzip in front of someone else.

      Same here.

      If you’re weird about and around and to someone in a dozen ways, you don’t get benefit of the doubt for “this is the default way my eyes point when I think.” You’ve already signaled that you’re hyper-aware of them, so it beggars belief that you don’t even notice you’re staring in their general direction all. The. Dang. Time.

  4. Wing-N-Wing*

    Depending on the relationship between OP and OP’s manager, it might make sense to loop the manager in as well: “Hey, I’m not asking you to do anything but just wanted to give you a heads-up. I’ve realized that I sorta dropped the ball on problematic behaviors by [employee], and I realize I was trying too hard to tease out the pattern. We recently had a conversation where I told him … (fill in a summary of some of Alison’s points), etc.” Thoughts?

    1. Littorally*

      Oh yeah, especially since they’ve noted it’s already impacting that relationship. Ideally the OP would have gone to their manager for advice as soon as the creepy behavior started getting to them, but better late than never.

      1. Lilian*

        I don’t think they should have gone to their manager as soon as they noticed these problems, they are not peers but OP has authority over this person so this is something they should have been able to handle themselves. Now that OPs manager is suspecting incompetence of course they can keep their manager in the loop.

    2. kt*

      I agree overall but would rephrase a bit: “Hey, I’m not asking you to do anything but just wanted to give you a heads-up. I’ve realized that I need to change direction on how I deal with problematic behaviors by [employee]. I’d been trying to tease out the pattern, but now feel it would be more productive to focus on the behaviors (fill in)…”

      There’s not really a gain to saying that you dropped the ball. It’s a hard situations; you dealt with it one way; it’s not working so you’re trying something else.

  5. Littorally*

    Alison’s advice on this is so good. There’s a lot of power in simply declining to address what you think is the deep reason for the behavior — it frees you from a lot of spinning your wheels trying to predict and preempt a reaction that may or may not happen. It doesn’t matter why he’s acting like this, only that he stops.

  6. Observer*

    OP, another good reason to stop thinking about the reason is that you need to feel free to escalate (up to and including firing) if needed. If a “crush” is invoked, you can be sure that someone is going to get into the “are you SURE?”, “What makes you think you’re so attractive?” and / or “You’re only reacting to this because he’s a guy and wouldn’t stop a woman.” routines. Or they will want to know why you don’t have more empathy for the poor guy’s unrequited romance.

    The essential problem is not his crush but his behavior. Stick to that and don’t let anyone / anything side track to the “reasons”. And don’t let anyone make it YOUR problem. It’s HIS problem.

    1. Batgirl*

      This is so true, when in fact if it was an awkwardly staring, professionally needy female, who wasn’t giving off a crush vibe, OP would probably be more inclined to highlight the problematic behaviours.

      1. Vicky Austin*

        If a woman behaved to me the way OP’s employee was behaving, I’d think she was lesbian or bisexual. And if I were a man and another man was acting that way, I’d think he was gay or bi.

    2. MayLou*

      Yes, addressing the behaviour is the key to this and the motivations are basically irrelevant. He might be trying to use black magic against you. He might be attempting to read your mind so he can become an impressively efficient employee who knows what to do before he is told. He might be memorizing your features so he can sculpt a life-size statue as a surprise gift for Bosses Day. None of those would be good reasons to perform the same behaviours. I can’t think of a single explanation that would.

    3. designbot*

      Yep. TBH I was questioning the crush reading this myself. Some employees are just needy. They have a relationship to authority figures that includes more approval-seeking behavior than most workplaces can support, and I could see how in opposite sex interactions that might be read this way, but it might not be the motivator at all.
      HOWEVER, I also want to believe OP’s instincts, and that’s got me twisted on this letter a bit. But I think both can be true—LW could be correct, but the correct action is just to address the neediness without imparting motivation onto it unless and until one has been clearly expressed.

    4. Vicky Austin*

      “Or they will want to know why you don’t have more empathy for the poor guy’s unrequited romance.”

      Oh, yes, the whole “just give him a chance!” thing. (eyeroll)

  7. AnotherAnon*

    While I agree with Allison’s advice on the whole, I want to point out that his possessiveness of her could fall out of the realm of performance issues and into stalking if it does not de-escalate . His possessiveness is a red flag that OP needs to monitor. I had a very similar situation unfold in which a colleague’s crushy behavior that went on for years (and which most of my other coworkers sniggered at as a simple annoying crush) escalated fast when he was terminated for other performance related issues and was set on finding ways to continue to be able to interact with me. If his persistent presence makes you uncomfortable, you have every reason to feel that way and report it as sexual harassment. Take care of yourself OP and remember that you do not owe anyone politeness. It has been almost 3 years and I have never had a year pass by where he has not decided to pop into my life. And just a resource, I found listening to Stuff You Should Know’s podcast on stalking really helped me frame what I was feeling, because it was not, and often is not, what people traditionally define as stalking as seen in the media.

    1. WorkIsADarkComedy*

      This is a very useful perspective. And it suggests that the OP might wish to do some of the things that are advised when you have a stalker, such as don’t respond at all to the evening and weekend texts (except for one, during-work conversation where you instruct the employee not to do this), make sure you’ve blocked the employee on all social media, and realize that the awkwardness is entirely due to the employee’s behavior. Don’t decide against an appropriate response because you are worried about him feeling bad. He is the one who is responsible for him feeling bad, not you.

      For more tips on this, read Captain Awkward.

    2. irritable vowel*

      I agree that it’s perhaps not wise to completely disregard the crush aspect as Alison advises, since it could definitely turn into something dangerous and the OP should remain aware enough of it that she can watch for potential red flags.

      1. Urban Fervor*

        Alison isn’t advising OP to *disregard* the crush aspect, she’s advising that OP not bring up the crush aspect when addressing the employee’s behavior.

      2. Observer*

        No, the “crush” aspect is not what is problematic. What is problematic is the potential for stalker behavior. Again, the issue is the BEHAVIOR. And that’s what the OP should focus on, both in terms of the work, and in terms of safety.

        It doesn’t matter if he’s being this way because he has a crush on her, because he wants his boss to keep reassuring him, or for a totally different reason. @WorkIsADarkComedy has some good advice on how to respond. And none of that depends on his having a crush – they all respond to his out of line behavior.

        I do believe that he has a crush. But crushes are not inherently a terrible issue. Making these kinds of demands on someone IS a problem, regardless of the reason. So focus on that and act accordingly.

        1. Vicky Austin*

          Exactly. Crushes on someone you can’t have (i.e., your teacher, your boss, your friends’ partner, someone married, etc) are harmless as long as you keep them in your head.

    3. Keymaster of Gozer*

      I’m going to look up that podcast ASAP. There’s a guy I worked with 9 years and 2 companies ago who had a crush on me and to this day will keep trying to get hold of me (ringing firms, trying to friend me on Battlenet, saying I have a book of his he wants back?). It’s never more often than 4 times a year but it’s pretty scary.

      1. winter*

        Ugh, this is so scary. I had pretty good success in the past with blocking all avenues of contact (that I am aware of) and NEVER responding/reacting (except with a new block). Of course it depends on the person you are dealing with, but it seems to work pretty well. In my case I think it took about 5 years until I didn’t hear anything anymore.

        Good luck!

  8. LPUK*

    I had a situation where one of my employees had a crush on me. The thing was he actually told me that – asked for a private meeting and then came out with ‘ I have an incredible crush on you and can’t think straight when you’re around me!’ I was flummoxed and embarrassed, and did find it difficult to know how to handle his ensuing performance issues and eventually had to loop HR in. It was a small office and he sat outside my office door, so I had to walk past him every time I went anywhere, which made me very self- conscious. Do not recommend!

    1. Leah K.*

      I had a similar situation, except the employee who had a crush on me had enough common sense to keep it to himself while he was reporting to me. He left the company to take a position elsewhere, and decided that was a perfect opportunity to confess his feelings. Thankfully, he did it via text, so I was able to shut it down with a single response, and I never had to deal with him face to face. That left such a bad taste in my mouth since both of us were married. Definitely do not recommend.

  9. Temp anon*

    I hope we get an update at some point also.

    I have been on both sides of this, though not at work. When I was in college I was the obsessed creep (I’m very embarrassed to think of it even now, more than 30 years later) and it was hard to break those behaviors. Later I had people following ME around etc and likewise it was a really difficult situation, to say the least.

    1. Vicky Austin*

      I have a neurological disability that impairs my ability to perceive some social cues (especially subtle ones) and I, too, am embarrassed now that I look back and realize how inappropriate I may have been in high school, college, etc. when I was flirting with a guy who didn’t reciprocate my feelings. Because of my inability to pick up subtle hints, it wasn’t until the guy came right out and told me that he didn’t like me that way/he had a girlfriend/he was gay that I got the message.

  10. CM*

    While Alison’s advice is good if there is no alternative to managing this person — which sounds like it might be the case in this small company — this situation really sucks for the OP whose report is basically creating a hostile work environment for her even if a court wouldn’t say so. I think the best solution would be for the OP’s manager to move the employee to another group, or to support OP in other ways such as having a series of disciplinary meeting with the employees where OP’s manager is also present. I hope it worked for the OP to focus on this employee’s performance, but I could so easily see this situation escalating and it sounds like the OP is being blamed.

    1. Ashley*

      If it is a small company moving them may not be an option. Plus it lets this come across as a way to not be managed by someone and as a woman in a male industry you don’t need to give some men a reason to not be managed by a woman. The LW should face this head on and address individual behaviors. If the guy becomes a full blown creeper and begins expressing their undying feelings then it becomes another issue. (Though the staring would probably have me putting the guy in the creeper category already.)

  11. agnes*

    Always good advice to address the behavior that you find problematic . The motive really doesn’t matter.

  12. Batgirl*

    OP, you may not be the only woman getting subjected to this treatment, but you’re the one with the power to address his off behaviour.
    Let’s say he moves on from you and imprints on someone else; you won’t get as clear a shot at shutting it down as you do now. You may not even see it.
    I have to say that even when I was looking for dates and the guy showing these behaviours was otherwise cool, it always struck me as unbelievably sexist and creepy. He’s the guy who is not going after anyone who isn’t trapped in an interaction with him, preferably somewhere she hss to be professional, and if you try to disengage you get all the boo hooing as though you were his mother and have left him without any dinner. No.
    He doesn’t get to stare and pout at work, regardless of the reasons.

    1. juliebulie*

      if you try to disengage you get all the boo hooing as though you were his mother and have left him without any dinner

      Oh, my. How true that is. I think you just shined a light on something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

      1. Batgirl*

        For me it was when Captain Awkward compared a certain kind of guy to this ghost child from Dr Who who sucked up souls. It went door to door asking if you were it’s mother. Pro tip; don’t say yes.

  13. Florp*

    I would also just say, write down every time you see an example of this behavior and how you addressed it, so that you have a factual record of your attempt to manage it that you can refer to for your own manager or HR. It helps to be able to talk in an objective and unambiguous way about his performance and your reactions dispassionately and without using the word crush. “He spent Wednesday the 5th staring at me instead of working even though I asked him repeatedly what he needed to get back on track,” works better than, “he stares at me and it’s creepy.”

  14. Employment Lawyer*

    Fire him, after consulting counsel first.

    Most obviously, you simply don’t have to work with someone who is pervasively exhibiting canduct you dislike. “Having a crush on you and refusing to drop it” or “being a creeper generally” is not a protected class. Quick to fire, slow to hire: It’s been a while and it’s time to let him go.

    Less obviously: Because he’s a subordinate you may have more risk than it seems if he comes out openly and THEN gets fired. Yes, you think he’s a creeper; yes, he can still say the reverse. Firing first is also safer w/r/t this issue.

    1. Employment Lawyer*

      If you *want* to work with him, you certainly can try to stop him (still, talk to a lawyer any time you have this sort of sex-related or harassment-related issue at work.) But unless you have a contract then you probably don’t *have to* work w/ him.

    2. That Girl From Quinn's House*

      I agree, but many companies have performance management steps that they have to go through, verbal and written warnings, counseling, PIPs, etc., that sometimes require the signoff of your boss as well as HR.

      Especially in light of the fact that LW’s boss now thinks she is not a competent manager, there is zero chance she’d be able to get the requisite buy-in from her boss on this without coming clean about the extent of the problem.

      1. DArcy*

        And that’s exactly why LW needs to be very explicit in looping her boss in about this employee undermining and harassing her.

  15. Kiki*

    I agree with Alison’s advice for how to treat the employee going forward, but I think I would bring up concerns more candidly to your manager. Especially since it seems like your manager is growing concerned about your ability to manage, I think bringing up that your employee seems obsessed with you, perhaps for romantic reasons, is more than fair. I wouldn’t call it a crush because that term trivializes what’s happening. Maybe your management of this employee hasn’t been stellar-thus far, but I think if your manager is worth anything at all, they’ll be able to recognize that this is a difficult situation to manage someone in.

    1. un-pleased*

      I think you and other commenters have hit on something important, in that to the extent LW can, she should not allow “crush” to become a word frequently used by anyone in this situation. It does seem more obsessive than that, and it can indeed be difficult to manage performance when people assign the “crush” label to any behavior in a work setting. If someone uses that term, correct them without repeating the word and call it something more serious like a performance or behavioral problem. That means definitely not even using that term when you think about it to yourself. Your success here can be built on how you contribute to the language used to talk about it.

    2. Keymaster of Gozer*

      You make a good point. ‘Crush’ sounds…kinda like something a teenager would say about another person and sounds almost ‘aww sweet’. Whereas ‘obsession’ is adult and scary.

  16. another scientist*

    While I was reading the letter, I immediately KNEW that ‘pretend it’s not a crush and manage the odd behavior’ would be Alison’s response. Whenever I correctly predict a piece of advice (on the basis of reading AAM for years of course), I feel like I level up professionally! Your logical approach to all this is incredible!

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