giving people a heads-up before a coworker is fired, telling your boss he’s unapproachable, and more

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

1. Is it okay to give people a heads-up before a colleague is fired?

I am working with HR to let someone go. The person is directly involved in a number of active cross-functional projects.

Typically terminations in our organization are communicated post-event, but I feel a bit like I will be blindsiding several team members. The termination shouldn’t be a major surprise as this individual has had performance issues, including interpersonal issues.

Would you ever recommend giving select team members — potentially managers and project managers — a heads-up that this event is coming so they can somewhat prepare? I thought about communicating it vaguely, e.g. “change is coming that may affect this project,” but that would just create more confusion and paranoia. Or, do I just sit tight and deal with the teams after the deed is done?

As long as you trust the people you’re talking with to be discreet and not share what you tell them with others, you should be able to give a confidential heads-up to managers and project managers when there’s a real need to know. I’d try to avoid sharing it with peers of the person but sometimes it’s unavoidable, depending on the details of the situation — but keep the number of people you discuss it with to a minimum and on a truly need-to-know basis. And ideally this heads-up would be within days of the firing happening — you don’t want colleagues knowing for weeks when that person doesn’t know themselves. (And really, once you know for sure you’ll be letting someone go, you should do it quickly anyway, not let it drag out.)

2. Telling your boss he’s unapproachable

Due to COVID, our company had to lay off some people, and re-org those remaining. I was on a team that got re-orged; as a result, another teammate and I were split from our really great manager, Tom, and given to a totally new one who is the polar opposite personality-wise, Brad. While Tom was very warm, supportive, and easy to talk with, Brad has an overall demeanor that is best described as very serious/intense bordering on cold. He’s not a malicious person, but he’s not someone you ever feel comfortable around. I’m always relieved when our one-on-ones are over.

I have occasional skip-level meetings with his boss and indicated that I found Brad to be rather unapproachable. Next thing I knew, in my next one-on-one with Brad, he asked me point-blank if I found him unapproachable or difficult to bring issues to (the answers being “yes” and “yes”). I was so uncomfortable and basically stuttered for a bit until he moved on. I’m also irritated that his boss clearly told Brad I’d said this. I never specifically said it should be confidential but I guess I assumed that was common sense to at least anonymize the feedback or something.

I’m struggling with how to approach this. I am usually a fairly forthcoming employee overall, and am comfortable giving more concrete feedback like “When you changed that deadline to X, it made it harder for me to do Y” or whatever. But this feels more personal, like attacking the person instead of the work. How do you give actionable feedback on soft skills? Also, is this even my job to deliver it?

Nah, it’s not your job to tell an unapproachable manager that you find them unapproachable. It’s useful if you can, but it’s also the kind of feedback that his own manager should be delivering, and without pinning it on specific people. So his boss messed this up.

Now that it’s out there, though, it might be useful to revisit it in a future one-on-one and say something like, “You asked me earlier about whether I found you hard to bring issues to. I was caught off-guard when you asked, but having had some time to think it over, I do find it difficult to raise some things with you because ____. I feel awkward giving that feedback, but I also didn’t want to ignore the question since you’d asked about it.” Obviously, temper this advice with what you know of Brad; if you think he’d react badly, skip it. But there can be value in having this kind of open discussion if you’re up for it and don’t think you’ll be penalized in some way. And some managers who fit Brad’s description genuinely don’t know they’re putting people off and can become better managers from hearing it. But again, it’s not your job if you’d rather not take it on.

3. In which I am stumped

I’m a newly-promoted manager (yay!), and AAM has been a great resource for me during the last couple months of learning to manage. Lately, I often find myself thinking up resolutions to various scenarios so I can try to be prepared in unexpected or outlandish situations. I’m interested in your take on how to professionally handle something that’s stumped me.

A few jobs ago, I had a coworker with severe priapism (persistent erections not caused by sexual stimulation). He always carried a doctor’s note with him and was extremely open about his condition; usually whenever we had a new hire, he’d take that person aside and explain that if they ever noticed anything, it wasn’t personal. It was a very small company, and since he was a genuinely nice guy, there was never any trouble there.

But it got me thinking on how to navigate something like that if someone with this condition wanted to keep their health private (as would be their right), and a coworker complained of sexual harassment. What could be done then?

Wow, I have no idea! You’ve stumped me. If I were the employer in this situation, I’d consult with a lawyer. But I’d imagine it’s easier to handle it internally within an office; it would be much harder more difficult if the person had a job that required him to deal with various members of the public on a regular basis.

4. Application systems that won’t accept a cover letter

I know the importance of cover letters from your blog, and also because for me in particular, I have a wide variety of experience and it helps me explain which aspects are aligned with the job I’m applying for. However, I recently applied for a job at a major media organization, and the online application system didn’t seem to have a way to attach a cover letter. There was only space for one file (resume), and I kept thinking throughout the process that there might be a place at the end to attach more documents, but of course, you don’t know that for sure until you’ve completed the entire application process. I even paged back through to see if I missed something – I didn’t.

Is this some kind of new normal? If so, and sometimes you don’t get to submit a cover letter (but you don’t actually know that you won’t be submitting one until you’ve completed the process), how do I explain how my experience aligns with the particular job I’m applying for? I thought about PDFing the cover letter and resume together and attaching that as my file, but the system parses your resume into individual jobs. Also, if you later apply for a different job at the same organization, the cover letter would be wrong since it would be for the first job you applied for.

It’s not really a new normal; there have always been employers who just don’t care about cover letters and don’t set up their systems to invite them.

Sometimes when this happens, you can just include a cover letter in the same PDF as your resume, and that’s the best way to handle it. But when there’s no way to do that, that’s a clear sign that this employer doesn’t want cover letters — and if that’s the case, you’ve just got to work with that. It does mean you won’t be able to explain the things a cover letter would let you elaborate on, but that’s the weird choice those employers are making. (I say weird, but certainly some managers simply don’t care about cover letters. I think that’s a mistake for most jobs, but they’re out there.)

5. Can I tell interviewers I’m leaving my job because of how they’ve handled Covid?

Part of the reason I’m job searching is that my management team is getting very antsy about getting us all back in the office. Our CEO is old school and hated the idea of letting us work from home to begin with.

In the event a hiring manager asks my reason for leaving, is this a bad answer? In general, I try to avoid badmouthing any of my previous employers in response to this question. Is there a good way to answer the question to this effect? I imagine discussion of precautions going into a new job is inevitable, but I’m concerned about framing that conversation coming from this angle.

I wouldn’t get into all the details (like that the CEO is old school or hated remote work — ultimately that stuff isn’t the point) but it’s fine to say something like, “My office is reopening faster than I think is safe for our area, and I’m looking at employers that are taking a different approach to the pandemic.” Of course, that will likely screen out employers that are doing the same thing as your current one — but you presumably want to do that anyway.

{ 589 comments… read them below }

  1. Ask a Manager* Post author

    Hey, y’all. Three things about question #3:

    1. The question is a hypothetical. The letter-writer reports that in the actual situation, it worked out fine.

    2. More importantly, the reason the question is so difficult is that it presents dueling interests (legal and otherwise). A person with a medical condition has a right to be accommodated at work, unless it causes undue hardship for the employer (the bar for which is very high). His dignity and his rights deserve to be protected. It’s also true that working around a man with constant erections would be legitimately disturbing for many others. The issue is how to balance both interests. That’s why I said it was difficult; there’s a ton of nuance here. As a general rule, it’s problematic to expect people to manage their medical conditions in a sub-optimal way just to avoid making coworkers uncomfortable. And yet … this situation is tricky to fit into the paradigms we usually use. That’s why it’s so difficult. I ask that we avoid black and white thinking below.

    3. We can assume that he’s explored obvious solutions like different clothing. I’m going to quote someone who said it well below: “For those that are suggesting different underwear or that he wear constrictive clothing, priapism can cause blood clots and so things that smoosh the erection down can worsen it AND be a danger to the person’s health. It’s NOT a regular erection and, like so many chronic medical conditions, you suggesting solutions off the top is rarely going to solve the issue. Ask anyone with a chronic disease how they feel about spontaneous advice.”

    And someone else: “This guy has been dealing with priapism for decades – guaranteed he knows about all the possible clothing, medical, deep breathing, whatever options are out there. Whatever he’s doing now, he’s doing it because it’s the best option he has. And if he’s not doing some particular thing, it’s almost certainly because it doesn’t work, not because he hasn’t thought of it. I doubt very much that a bunch of random commenters on a business advice blog could come up with something that he hasn’t already researched pretty extensively.”

    I haven’t been available to moderate much today, so I’m posting this here in the hopes people will take it into account in their comments and to explain where I land on some of what’s already been posted below.

  2. Turtles*

    OP2, is it possible that your grandboss told Brad that he’d received feedback that people find him unapproachable and asked him to work on that, without naming you? Maybe he’s asking everyone this to see if he’s widely perceived this way or not?

    1. Elenna*

      Yeah, that’s what I was thinking – LW’s grandboss might have screwed up, but it’s also possible that Grandboss told Brad “hey, one of your reports said you were unapproachable” (or even “sometimes you come off as unapproachable”) and Brad responded to this by asking all of his direct reports, in the hopes of figuring out how to improve.

    2. LDF*

      This was my thought too. Maybe OP has good reason to think she was named (like if Brad said “do you think I’m unapproachable? Jane said you do so I want to confirm”) but otherwise I’d lean towards assuming OP wasn’t named because, as OP herself says, it’s common sense to not name names in a situation like this.

    3. MK*

      And given the reorganization, it would be natural for Brad to assume it must have been one of his new subordinates who gave the feedback. Or maybe the OP has made her displeasure with his personality more obvious than she thinks: people tend to assume that unemotional people aren’t aware of others’ feelings either, but that’s not always the case.

      1. That_guy*

        Also, I have been told that I can be intimidating and intense, but it is never my intent to put people off. If I was Brad, and my report said that I was unapproachable, I would definitely not take it out on him/her. I would let them know that I realize I can appear cold and distant sometimes, but that is just just appearances.
        It could be just that Brad has a flat affect, but it is a personality quirk more than actually being indicative of his behavior.

        1. Project Manager*

          Same here. Also, as someone in this position, “people find you intimidating” is by itself totally unactionable feedback. I’m not doing it deliberately, so I don’t know what to do differently. (I have made some changes to my approach over the years, which I guess have helped as I haven’t gotten that feedback in a while.) Maybe if you, OP, don’t want to admit that you personally find him unapproachable, you could say something like “I was thinking about it, and if people think you’re unapproachable, maybe you could try” and then provide something actionable that he can work on.

          (One of my PM peers told me that my team members feel like Gru talking to the banker in the first Despicable Me movie. Apparently, what I thought of as polite, respectful listening is in and of itself intimidating.)

          1. Barbara in Swampeast*

            This! The OP went from having a warm and fuzzy boss to someone who isn’t. Now the question is, does OP really have a valid criticism with examples that the boss can use to change or is OP just missing their warm and fuzzy boss.

            1. OP2*

              I see where you’re coming from, and I’m sure you’re right that that does play a role here. There is more to it than that though. I left out any anecdotes of this in action in the letter since they felt a bit too specific and personally identifiable if that manager were to see it (I know that’s a long shot/I’m being paranoid)

              1. Observer*

                So, WE don’t need that information, but you do need to give it to your new boss / grandboss, if you have not done so yet.

                Without knowing what it is, I’m wondering if Brad didn’t ask you because your examples pointed to you?

              2. Ace in the Hole*

                You know your manger better than any of us do, so please ignore my comment if it doesn’t fit your situation.

                I work with a manager who is almost universally seen as scary, intimidating, and difficult to approach – for good reasons. He’s extremely blunt and honest to the point of rudeness. If he thinks you’re doing something stupid, he will tell you so in those exact words. Possibly with profanity. He’s also a huge burly guy with a permanent scowl.

                As intimidating and rude as he is, I would absolutely 100% choose him as my supervisor over any other manager here if I got to pick. In spite of his demeanor, he cares deeply about his employees welfare and will fight HARD for them. He gives extremely (albeit uncomfortably) clear feedback, so you always know where you stand and what he wants. And he is very willing to take responsibility for his own mistakes/failures, admit when he was wrong, and champion the achievements of his employees even if it doesn’t make him look good. The very same qualities that make him intimidating to the people he supervises also make him a force to be reckoned with when he’s on your side.

                The only reason I know this is because I’ve worked with him for a long time and have had him both as a supervisor and a peer. Not to say every unapproachable manager is a gem in the rough – some are just jerks. But it might be helpful to think about how his behavior/communication style fits into an overall pattern of management when trying to figure out what approach to take. A blunt-but-good boss will probably respond well to you straight up saying “I find you unapproachable and intimidating, especially when XYZ.” They’ll either fix it or be very straightforward with you that they can’t fix it but don’t mean to make you uncomfortable. A bad-blunt boss… that will not go so well.

            2. serenity*

              I noticed that too. OP says that he’s not someone you ever feel comfortable around but that’s hard to parse in terms of work impact. As far as I can tell.

              If she said “The new boss is unapproachable and I’m finding my input or feedback is not being heard and I no longer feel comfortable giving it” that would be very different but she didn’t say that. “I don’t like my new boss’s personality” is not actionable feedback.

          2. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

            I was told the same but at least had specific behaviors pointed out (e.g. when focused my tone gets very grim, my “intent” expression looks like I am disappointed in the person, sharp tone when interrupted) that were helpful and I was able to address. I never realized how much I scowled when concentrating until I put a mirror on my computer!

            1. MissMeghan*

              Oh my gosh me too! Zoom has actually gotten me to stop frown-talking. I never realized how stern I looked.

            2. OP2*

              This sounds like my manager! I felt really hesitant about the idea of giving feedback on someone’s facial expressions and tone, it seems so personal. But it’s actually really helpful to me to know this is done and maybe won’t be taken as weirdly as I assumed it would (when done delicately, of course). That’s awesome that you were able to adjust that kind of thing, that has to be hard to do I would think.

              1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

                I think you can do it using specific examples like I had. Use Alison’s language to bring it up and then say (using appropriate examples), “For example when I have to interrupt you for something you seem very angry. If you are angry, is there a better way for me to approach you if I need something unscheduled?” In my case, when I heard this, I responded with an, “Oh wow, I am sorry, I’m never angry, I just get really intent on something and have trouble switching focus. Feel free to come in whenever.” And then I worked on changing my response when disengaging to a smile or a wave rather than just looking up.

          3. limotruck*

            Yes, Project Manager. I also got that feedback a few times (as a subordinate, from a specific supervisor who was supposedly relaying it from my peers), and it was always extremely frustrating as 1. there were no specific changes laid out for me to make, so as you said it was completely useless as feedback and 2. There were multiple instances where I resolved conflicts or miscommunications with different peers effectively when they did choose to approach me and at each time received feedback from the coworker that I was “easy to talk to” or generally helped to make the conversation a success. So my conflict resolution skills and reactions to challenges couldn’t really be blamed as the issue. Over time it became clear that the problem was some of my peers were conflict-avoidant and uncomfortable having difficult conversations–which was a them problem, not a me problem.

            I am not saying at all that I think OP is conflict-avoidant, but I do think it makes sense for them to consider whether there are specific things new boss could change that would make OP more comfortable (besides just being more like their old boss) or if OP just needs to adjust to a different personality type.

          4. pleaset cheap rolls*

            “Also, as someone in this position, “people find you intimidating” is by itself totally unactionable feedback. ”

            Totally? If someone told me that I’d think about it and try to compare my behavior to other managers. I’d have eyes open to try to see things through others’ eyes.

            “I’m not doing it deliberately, so I don’t know what to do differently.”

            Really? You can only figure out how to change deliberate behaviors? I think you should try harder.

            Certainly feedback with specific recommendations is easier to act upon, but I hope you could figure out at least something yourself.

            1. Green great dragon*

              I agree – it would be *better* to have more specific feedback, but being aware of the problem is a start, and there’s plenty of advice out there on being more approachable – including behaviours which might counteract an apparent unapproachableness if you can’t change the behaviour itself. For example if you’re perceived as unapproachable you may need to very consciously develop ways to get input that a more approachable-seeming person wouldn’t need.

        2. Nethwen*

          Yeah, I (a woman) have been told that I’m intimidating (by men), usually after I ask questions that make people think. Questions like, “Why should someone chose your specialty over similar professions,” in the context of a career day Q & A featuring, for example, a Sheriff’s deputy, a police officer, and a state police trooper. In cases like that, I figure the problem is with the speaker, not me, but it does make me evaluate my interactions and question my social skills for a long time afterwards.

          I get why the boss was asking (even if I don’t think it was the best choice of action) because the context of what “unapproachable” means can make a difference in how he decides to alter his behavior. There’s a difference between “you’re unapproachable because you never give me 5 seconds to think before I answer your question” and “you’re unapproachable because your forehead wrinkles and your eyes half-close when you’re concentrating on what I’m saying, but it makes me feel like I’m doing something wrong.”

          1. Nicotene*

            Well, and it’s one thing to be unapproachable in other contexts, but if you are a manager and your direct reports find you unapproachable that is a good thing to flag IMO

        3. yala*

          Honestly, I think asking the question itself is kind of intimidating. It feels like one of those “trap” questions. How on earth are you supposed to answer that if the answer is yes? Because if the answer is yes, then you’re already intimidated, which makes it very hard to tell someone something like that.

        4. Suz*

          @That_guy, you sound like someone I used to work for. He seemed pretty intimidating at first but wasn’t after I got to know him. He turned out to be one of the best bosses I ever had.

    4. Mel_05*

      That was my thought as well. I’ve had a boss get feedback about an issue that someone had flagged.
      My boss asked everyone in our department if we had noticed the issue. He didn’t know who flagged it and neither did we.

    5. OP2*

      Yeah, this is possible. The timing made me suspicious, but it could’ve been what you’re suggesting. His way of asking made me feel like I’d done something wrong or displeased him, so I think I jumped to the conclusion that he knew it was me. I’ll ask my coworker if she also got this question

      1. Deanna Troi*

        This happened with my boss. We were giving anonymous feedback on our supervisor. One of my coworkers mentioned something that he does. In our next 1:1, he asked ALL of his direct reports if he does this, and if so, to give him concrete examples. I don’t believe he knew who said it, and I got the impression he was asking because he genuinely wanted to correct it. This may or may not be the case with your boss, but think about viewing it through this lens and see if it makes sense.

      1. MusicWithRocksIn*

        It’s one of the things I find so delightful on this blog. It’s so insightful, but also can be funny and lighthearted at times. Especially right now, it’s good to get an unexpected laugh.

        1. Not Alison*

          I read the comment to my husband and he suggested that it needed another strike-out replacing “handled it” with dealt with it. Hee, hee!

      1. Heidi*

        I found it disapointing…and I think it was a total mistep humour wise. If it was a question about helping an employee suffering from psoriasis, I would hope we would call out a joke about itchniess or dandruff. I’m a long-term reader of several years and humour (albeit light hearted) at the expense of someone suffering a medical condition was enough to make me comment for the first time in years. Do I think that employee is going to read this blog? Probably not. But is there a chance someone else suffering from priapism might? Yup. Left me with a gross feeling Alison, sorry.

        1. PeterHasADog*


          It’s not about gender or sexual innuendo, it’s about using someone’s medical condition as a springboard for a cheap shot. I imagine people suffering with priapism endure a life time of this crap.

          1. pancakes*

            It isn’t, though. It’s just a little joke about erections, not about having a medical condition that causes painful ones. It’s not at anyone’s expense.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        My husband pointed it out shortly after this published and I left it as a hidden treasure in the hopes it would be noticed. (It was not intentional.)

        1. Mookie*

          Don’t know if I’m off course here, but “stump” felt like a wink, as well. Horace wrote of a Priapus sentinel carved from a fig-tree stump whose secret to finally warding off witches from his territory for good was a fart that split him in two.

    1. Funnyisit?*

      It was funny lol. But if it was in regards to a woman in the letter, and the sexual innuendos were flipped, people would be outraged here. So maybe think about giving men the same respect? Would Alison have made the same innuendo about big breasts being a problem?

      1. naw dawg*

        Gender doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Women are the ones who deal with sexism in our society. Men as a whole enjoy substantial privileges including being taken seriously in the workplace without being chronically overly sexualized and objectified. Speculating about how we’d feel if the genders were reversed doesn’t work because men and women are treated differently.

        1. TechWorker*

          No, it doesn’t, but that doesn’t mean it’s always totally fine to joke about men’s medical conditions either. As someone who is big breasted and honestly hates it coming up in conversation in any way let alone innuendo related, even if it’s not THE SAME I admit the comparison gives me pause.

      2. Alexis Rose*

        I really don’t think so, it was a fairly tame play on words. I’m as staunchly feminist as they come, but as part of that I’m extremely sex positive. Yes, sex has no place being discussed in the workplace, but on an advice column when people are trying to navigate all the funny things or weird things or uncomfortable things? Having some levity about normal body stuff is healthy, and in this case it sounds like the gentleman in question was handling his little issue well, all things considered. We aren’t making penis jokes on a question where someone was sexually assaulted, which would be inappropriate.

        Similar jokes about ANY gender I would find tongue in cheek and playful, and not offensive in any way. For instance, if a larger-chested woman wrote in because her office dress code REQUIRED button ups but she couldn’t find one that fit and it was unreasonably expensive to buy one, and she was so busy otherwise that she was annoyed she had to spend so much energy on clothes shopping for a ridiculous dress code, I could see someone quipping “wow seems like you really have your hands full!” or something.

        Additionally, Alison has a stellar track record for being body-postive, body inclusive, sex-positive, that I think a culturally normal giggle about pensises is well within the bounds of “fine”.

        1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

          I flashed on the scene from Down Periscope where Lauren Holly’s clothes had been replaced by ones ~3 sizes smaller while reading Alison’s response. She certainly addressed it at least as well as Kelsey Grammer did. My condolences both to the gentleman and his supervisor.

        2. Jennifer Juniper*

          How can a natural involuntary body function be considered sexual harassment?

          Unless LW3’s hypothetical gentleman is leering, groping, making lewd remarks, requesting sexual favors, or anything else of that nature, he wouldn’t be sexually harassing anyone. The dude could be thinking about his wife, the porno he saw last night, whatever. As long as he’s not saying or doing anything to his coworkers, how can his medical condition be considered harassment?

          And wouldn’t people staring at his crotch be sexual harassment?

            1. Snuck*

              Maybe the persistent nature of an unavoidable erection could lead some people to feel uncomfortable, and then transfer that discomfort to an assumption that leads them to believe it’s personal?

              I doubt very much that a person with this issue would go to the extraordinary length of seeking out to draw attention to it, and carrying medical letters, if they hadn’t had multiple threats like this before. It’s a pretty extreme reaction and the OP doesn’t suggest there’s a hint of waving it about or drawing attention to it, instead mentioning that the bloke is a likeable easy to get along with guy. So it’s not attention seeking, it’s attention avoiding?

          1. Alexis Rose*

            Not sure if you meant to reply to me or another comment, I reread my post and I was talking strictly about the joke business, not about sexual harassment.

            For the record, though, I agree that simply HAVING an erection is not harassment against anyone else and if anyone gave him a hard time about it that would certainly be sexual harassment.

      3. wondering*

        I thought the same thing. If the issue were large, prominent nipples on a woman, the response here would be much different

      1. Database Developer Dude*

        Either I need my 12-year-old-boy card revoked, or I haven’t had enough coffee this morning yet. I didn’t even realize the jokes until the rest of you commented on it. I’m slipping in my old age.

    2. just me*

      That was hilarious. The poor guy, though. Has anyone suggested anything? It’s his right, but I can’t imagine how someone would keep it private as a practical matter.

      1. Sarah*

        You may want to re-read the letter… I think you missed some key pieces. The OP said they used to to work with someone with the condition who was open about it. But it would have been his right to keep it private because it’s a health issue, so the question was how would it hypothetically play out if an employee believed they were being harrassed by said employee’s seemingly inappropriate erections, and that employee with the condition did not wish for his condition to be discussed.

        1. Snuck*

          And back to the main point of the question…

          If this was Australia (where I am), I’d ring a HR consultant or employment lawyer and ask, because there’s a raft of “fit for work” (obviously his medical condition might cause issues in a customer facing role) and sexual harassment type stuff on top of right to privacy.

          The situation is so specific to the individuals involved I’d consider whether to seek advice each time it reared it’s head too. Because while “Bob” and his erection might not have been harassing the first six women, he might have acted differently with woman number seven, and it might be a very slight and unobvious difference, and the permanent erection places a very obvious spin on it all. Poor Bob who has to go through life being treated as a pariah and deviant, even when it’s not his fault.

          Just as “Barry” and his permanent hugely wafting BO, or “Jane” and her vocal ticks has rights, so too does “Bob” and his erection.

          BUT if they interfere with the ability to do the job then it’s sticky. None of those three above might be appropriate to sell cars, but they might be ok to sit down wind in a small office where there’s no contact. A new hire, not familiar with Barry, Jane and Bob might not know this is ‘just who they are’ and might complain or misunderstand.

          I’d err on the side of similar messaging about any of the three “Yes NewHireNicole, Jane/Bob/Barry has an issue, but I’m not at liberty to discuss it. We just ignore it and carry on. If you feel you are being singled out at any time please let me know, but if you take a moment to reflect you’ll realise this issue persists no matter where he is and who he is talking to, so it’s really not about you. That’s all I can say. Thanks for being so understanding. “ and then if they file an actual complaint handball that so fast the ball smashes through a window on the desk of a HR consultant or lawyer.

  3. designbot*

    #3 seems like an excellent candidate for working from home. I sincerely hope that the current situation has relieved his and his colleagues’ need to ever discuss his erection again.

    1. CouldntPickAUsername*

      here’s the thing, it’s a medical condition doctor’s note and all. specifically choosing him to work at home because of that is discrimination.

        1. MK*

          If he asked for it, yes. Not everyone wants to work from home, and designating someone unfit to work in the office because of a medical condition would be problematic.

        2. Shira*

          Seriously? Why is it reasonable? Because his body makes people uncomfortable? This is shades of the woman who was told to wear prosthetics because coworkers complained that her double mastectomy made them uncomfortable.

          1. Mami21*

            There’s a huge difference between ‘you have no breasts and that bothers us’ and a man constantly showing signs of arousal. Yes, I get that it’s not his fault and doctors note and so on. Still not remotely the same thing.

            1. iliketoknit*

              Both are comments on people’s bodies, especially things they have no control over, and more particularly, are sexualization of things that aren’t sexual (in this context anyway). I can imagine maybe the priapism would be distressing to someone with a history of sexual assault or the like? but I have to applaud this guy for being so open about this and not being embarrassed and normalizing something that, frankly, I’d never really thought about. Working with him without that explanation would probably be disturbing, but the explanation would put that to rest.

              1. Rake*

                It is tough when two people’s needs are opposed like this. A sexual assault survivor being triggered by the erection is just as serious as if there were someone in the office with a dog as a service animal and a coworker with a severe dog allergy.

            2. Spicy Tuna*

              He can’t control it. What if someone had uncontrollable gas? Same situation. It’s unpleasant but you can’t police people’s bodies

              1. Llamagoose*

                This is actually something that occurred at my last workplace (someone smelling bad due to a medical condition) and I don’t think it was handled as well as it could have been. But, I’m also stumped as to the particular ways it could have been handled better.

                Maybe a reasonable accommodation could be the workplace pays for odor-blocking products?

                Some people can tune out bad smells the way they can tune out background noise, but not everyone can.

                Yet, at the same time, someone shouldn’t be penalized for smelling bad due to a medical condition. The distracting smell should probably be dealt with as well as possible without limiting the coworker’s work/movement etc

      1. MusicWithRocksIn*

        It’s an interesting line to try to find. There will always be medical conditions that will prevent people from having certain jobs. This guy will never be able to work at Disney World or be a car salesmen. But a small office where everyone knows what’s up? That doesn’t seem to cross into ‘must work from home’ territory. He probably has to be more careful about his behavior than the average dude, because any whiffs of creepy dude will be magnified by his condition and make people much more uncomfortable. But he seems to be handling it with as much grace as he can.

        1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

          I was thinking the same. He’s in a tough spot and handling it well. I can’t imagine bringing up your erection to coworkers is something any good employee wants to do

        2. Nicotene*

          I was wondering if there was any kind of loose pant he might wear that might help – nobody would fault him for being the one guy wearing track shorts or whatever in this circumstance – but yeah point being the office has to make reasonable accommodations here if he asks for them, or work with him to find them. I’m not sure if it’s okay that the “reasonable accommodation” be that everyone has to ignore it, if you have employees potentially feeling sexually harassed. It’s an interesting one.

      2. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        specifically choosing him to work at home because of that is discrimination.

        If it’s just offered to him, I don’t think that’s discrimination. If he declines and it’s forced on him, that’s discrimination. And if lack of his condition is then used to deny others work-from-home, that’s discrimination.

        1. Asenath*

          If working at home is offered to him and no one else, there are going to be problems because whether or not he wants or feels obliged to work at home there are sure to be co-workers who want to work at home and will ask why they didn’t get the chance to do so. So there is no way to make the offer to him alone with ending up with the kind of discrimination you mention in your last sentence.

          1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

            I think we’re in agreement. He can be offered work from home, but only by opening up work from home to everyone in his or similar roles, and he can’t be forced to work from home unless everyone in those roles is likewise forced.

      3. Tired of Covid-and People*

        This medical condition can be treated. A permanent erection on a coworker would be blindingly distracting to me, medical or not. Forty years of working now, and fortunately, I’ve never encountered this issue although I have encountered just about everything else discussed on AAM. No one can be ordered to work at home because of any medical problem, the person with the problem has to want that.

    2. WendyRoo*

      You would think that he could wear special underwear that strapped things down, like a jockstrap or compression underwear? Dunno

      1. Anonymous for this*

        I’m a woman, but a male friend had mentioned doing that to try to “train” himself out of finding his son to be ex wife attractive while they were still stuck on a lease together. The “training” was to associate his attraction to her with pain. So I can’t imagine expecting someone with no control over their erections to do something that would be uncomfortable or painful, just because other people didn’t want to have to avert their gaze.
        Also, post breastfeeding my nipples got stuck in the “out” position, and any kind of padded bra makes me sweaty… which leads to nipples getting thrush ( yeast). I didn’t wear sheer tops, but if one was looking right at them, you could probably tell the headlights were on. Oh, well. They weren’t pointing *at* anyone any more than he is pointing *at* anyone. The polite thing to do is just to avert your gaze.

  4. bunniferous*

    I do not look at crotches of people I am not married to, period. If someone felt the need to share their priapism diagnosis with me right off the bat I would ……not appreciate it. Am I an anomaly? I mean, I am not a prude but I treat inconvenient erections like I would someone else’s loud fart…..embarrassing bodily functions are not acknowledged since we pretend they did not exist. At least here in the South .

    1. TypeFun*

      Right but even in your fart example, what if your new colleague was loudly farting around you all the time and you didn’t know there was another reason for it? Would you start to view them differently? Could you really ignore it forever? I honestly don’t know how his situation wouldn’t result in people thinking they’re being harassed or something without disclosure. This is really tough.

      1. Lora*

        My first thought was actually “Jon Hamm in sweatpants.”

        May the Lord cleanse my mind and bless me with the right spirit.

      2. yala*

        I remember awhile back I had a coworker who had…well, they called them seizures, and maybe they are, but they’re not what I thought of as seizures. It involved banging on things and yelling, often swear words. But when it happened (and I only experienced it once), it was very clear that it wasn’t, like, someone just being angry, it was something not entirely voluntary.

        Early on, when my supervisor was giving me the rundown on the place and introducing me to people, after meeting him, she was like, “Oh, sometimes Sam has seizures–he’ll shout, and maybe hit the desk, but it’s nothing to worry about, and he’s fine.” And that was enough. The one seizure that happened when he was in our department was a year or two later, but when I heard it, I immediately remembered: “Oh yeah, it’s just that thing.” Meanwhile, another coworker had started and had not gotten the same rundown from the same person, and she was terrified. It was a little less comforting to hear in the moment, “No, it’s just a thing, he’s not actually upset.”

        I guess what I’m saying is, since this coworker is SO UNCOMFORTABLY OPEN about it, maybe he could just…give the boss permission to tell new hires for him? Because that would be SO MUCH LESS UNCOMFORTABLE than being taken aside by a dude I just met to be told hey sometimes he’s gonna have erections.

    2. Somebody*

      I would also feel super uncomfortable if someone approached me or pulled me aside to tell me about their erections. Not that I don’t understand why he feels the need to be proactive, but I’d be weirded out by that conversation.

      1. Beth*

        Would it be better or worse, do you think, if the manager, or whoever is sharing the office FYIs, told new hires about this instead of the coworker delivering the news himself? It’s uncomfortable either way (as a rule, I don’t want to know things about my coworkers’ genitals!), but I could see it feeling less awkward from a third party than from the person himself. It would need to be with the coworker’s permission, of course, but a little distance might help it all feel more official and less “Why are you telling me about your dick?”

        1. hbc*

          I would definitely prefer that. I bet there are a bunch of people in that moment of explanation who are like, “Is he serious, or is this just some thin cover to be constantly sexually harassing me?” Having it come from management means that they’re aware of it, and I also don’t have to be looking a dude in the eye at work while he talks about his anatomy.

          1. Another somebody*

            Same! I would be so weirded out if someone at a new job approached me to talk about this, and would prefer it come from HR. Being female in a male-dominated industry, I would wonder if it was hazing/harassment/otherwise malicious.

          2. Kella*

            I can definitely understand preferring this option, but consider the other side of that: Would *you* be comfortable with your manager sharing details about your genitals with every new hire? I could imagine deciding that you’d rather have full control over how discussion of your genitals is handled.

            1. Chris*

              Honestly, I think I would rather pass that conversation on to someone else if I’m already willing to be open about it. Obviously, if it’s something that doesn’t affect anyone else/they won’t notice, then I wouldn’t want that, but if I’m intending to communicate my issue to everyone anyway, I’d much rather someone else having that conversation. I would think this arrangement would only be worse for the manager/HR.

        2. Three Flowers*

          I’d 1000x rather hear it as part of onboarding. If I heard it from the coworker, I’m not sure I’d be able to react to it as anything other than “let me tell you about my dick.”

      2. Dust Bunny*

        I’d be weirded out by the conversation but I’d also be weirded out if I happened to notice the condition on my own, so I think that’s a toss-up. I think I’d be least uncomfortable hearing it from management.

        1. Empress Matilda*

          I would rather hear it ahead of time as well, but I’d rather hear it from him directly than from management. It’s going to be weird either way – would you rather have a weird conversation beforehand so you know what to expect, or have a weird moment where the guy gets an erection while you’re going over the budget numbers?

          Obviously there’s room for some people to choose option A and some to choose option B. But for me personally, I would much rather have the uncomfortable conversation ahead of time. That way I can plan my reaction a bit, and know for sure it’s nothing sexual or inappropriate.

      3. anon manager*

        Doing this with every new hire seems like overkill to me. I think the best path is for this guy to treat all of his coworkers with absolutely scrupulous professionalism (which he should do anyway, but it’s especially important for him that there be no whiff of overfamiliarity/harassment) and talk to his manager/HR about the best way to disclose his condition on a need-to-know basis. If a man at work I rarely interact with directly appears to have something going on his pants area while we’re having a totally boring, normal and respectful conversation about TPS reports, I really doubt I’d jump to the conclusion that it’s about me. If he were my boss, my direct report, or my work lunch buddy, maybe. Having HR or a manager in the room for the conversation seems like a good middle ground.

    3. My Dear Wormwood*

      Tbh, I’d rather know about it than wonder what the hell’s going on if there’s erections in the office that no-one’s talking about. I don’t make a habit of staring at crotches but these things can be very obvious!

      Possibly also my preference for openness is influenced by the number of dicks I see occupationally anyway – “unembarrassed about medical genitals” is a requirement of the job! In dermatology research, whenever you look up a disease you’re not familiar with, if you come across the phrase “can also occur on the mucosa”, you know you’re about to see a penis with something terrible on it.

      1. anone*

        “a penis with something terrible on it” is going to be a useful phrase the next time I need to describe a shitty cis dude.

      2. Ally McBeal*

        When I was in college I was a legal assistant for a lawyer’s small practice (mostly ambulance chasing and medical malpractice). One day he emailed me from a deposition he was in and asked me to look up what Peyronie’s disease was… I was 21 years old and COMPLETELY unprepared for the fact that I was about to look at pictures of penises for work-related purposes. Luckily I had the sense of humor of a 12-year-old boy.

        1. Empress Matilda*

          I once had a colleague who had to do a detailed review of the T&C for Grindr. It was at the confluence of public health and privacy, so it was totally legit for work purposes. But it did require a lot of explaining to management and to IT, why he needed to have Grindr unblocked on his work computer!

          1. Sonson*

            I used to work in a hospital and when IT once updated the firewalls anything with the word sex or sexual etc… got flagged and blocked. Considering we ran a large sexual health department there was a whole department of specialists whose job titles meant all their emails got blocked, let alone access to treatment guidelines for sexual health etc…
            It took a good week for us to finally get IT to understand that they needed to update the firewall again

        2. Quill*

          Better than my first foray into IT, which involved removing a wall of dicks from a virus infected laptop.

        3. NotAnotherManager!*

          I did litigation discovery for years and “work-related porn” was a running joke. Honestly, I was constantly amazed at the amount of pornography that people sent from and downloaded to corporate accounts and devices. I had a review supervisor in my office one bemoaning the fact that, “Just once, I’d like to run a review that doesn’t involve warning unsuspecting reviewers that there may be porn in the documents and having to use the ‘Adult Content’ tag on the coding panel.” We had a workflow to insert placeholders into productions that indicated an email attachment had been removed due to “nonresponsive adult content” – except that time the porn WAS relevant, and we got to talk to the DOJ about how to handle production of it.

          1. pancakes*

            I’ve worked on cases like that. One featured such an extensive assortment of imagery, due to the nature of the case, that all of who worked on the matter gave special consent in advance to encountering it. It was nonetheless common to hear people around the office exclaim surprise, drop their snacks, etc., at the most astonishing bits.

          2. Gazebo Slayer*

            I know you wouldn’t be able to talk about it because of confidentiality, but I am really curious about the litigation-relevant porn.

            1. pancakes*

              There are numerous multinational companies that have occasion to moderate it, and to formulate moderation policies as to how exactly they plan to moderate it, and there are also lots & lots of regulators around the world who sometimes have concerns that it’s not moderated effectively.

          3. Pennalynn Lott*

            I had a co-worker at Global Household Name Software Company who used to watch “soft” porn on his work laptop IN HIS CUBICLE. He would also scroll through pages and pages and pages and pages of naked, big-busted women. Pages.

            He had started his inappropriate viewing with big-busted women in bikinis and, for some reason, management was OK with that? It wasn’t until his cube mates complained about the moaning noises from the porn that he was given a talking-to. I think he had to get “caught” watching porn a couple more times before he was finally fired. Security had to be called to escort him out of the building because of the rage-fit he threw. SO. MUCH. SCREAMING. and cussing.

            This was during The Great Recession and he was interviewed on the local news a week or so later as someone who lost their job because of age discrimination. (He was in his late 50’s, I think). He told the interviewer that he was let go in favor of younger, cheaper workers. THAT video clip got shared around the office to howls of laughter.

            A year or so later, I Googled him when I was telling someone about him and his porn use at work. Turns out, he died of a heart attack a few months after the news interview. I wasn’t surprised.

          4. ro*

            Hey! I did discovery too and of course ran into this kind of stuff, too. However, honestly, as awkward as that is, I strongly prefer it to the gross medical photo genre.

        4. mrs__peel*

          When I was a newly minted law grad, I worked on a document review project for pharmaceutical litigation where we were going through a ton of company emails. This included the entire romantic correspondence between a company VP and a lady he met on a Russian mail order bride website.

          This was an excellent education for all of us in “what not to do on your work computer”, lest you find yourself in a situation where a bunch of 20-somethings are doing dramatic readings aloud from your private love letters. (I always wondered what happened between the two of them. She seemed nice!)

    4. Beth*

      I’m assuming that this coworker gives the preemptive heads-up because he feels (or has learned from experience) that it actually is pretty visually obvious and does make people uncomfortable.

      I know that it might feel weird to be told something about a coworker’s penis, as a rule, but I think this is an exception to that. It would be one thing if the issue at hand was something like erectile dysfunction, which a coworker would likely never be in a position to notice, but for something visually obvious like this I think a quick and businesslike notification is smart. I don’t make a habit of paying attention to other people’s crotches either, but we do see one another’s bodies–and the eye catches on unexpected things (like a prominent bulge in the workplace) in a way that it doesn’t on expected things (an man’s non-bulging crotch). I wouldn’t say anything about it–like you said, we pretend embarrassing bodily functions don’t exist–but especially if it was a frequent occurrence, I might start to feel weird about it if I wasn’t aware of the issue.

      1. Myrin*

        Yeah, I’d approach this differently depending on whether his crotch looks more like “trousers drape kinda unusually on him” or more like “there is a massive triangular tent in this guy’s trousers at any given moment”.
        I’d assume he’d try to not draw any attention to it at all if it were the first case so my conclusion is that we’re dealing more with the latter case here. And if that’s the case I feel like somebody needs to say something about it (and I like your point above, Beth, that it might be better to have a third person do the telling) lest people think this guy is constantly pleasuring himself behind his desk or watching porn or whatever – I’d absolutely say that the benefits of not having your coworkers think you’re a pervert outweigh one awkward/uncomfortable conversation.
        (Nota bene that I have absolutely no shame or feelings of awkwardness around topics like this and have been chosen multiple times to have awkwards conversations because I can apparently basically nullify the awkwardness just through the way I talk. I can see a situation where such a talk would just embarrass everyone around so of course one needs to tread lightly regardless.)

      2. MusicWithRocksIn*

        Anyone who’s ever watch Labyrinth as an adult knows that when there is a bulge sometimes your eyes can’t help landing on it.

        1. Mrs. Psmith*

          This is so very, very, very true. And since I grew up with this movie in constant rotation on video, you don’t even have to be an adult to notice!

        2. Mockingdragon*

          LOL this movie is actually my go-to for explaining my ace tendencies. I LOVED this movie growing up, watched it around 15-16, massive crush on Jareth, and *never saw the bulge* until it was pointed out to me in my 20s. I just wasn’t looking there

      3. Rainy*

        I sort of wonder, if the afflicted person wanted to, if there wouldn’t be some trousers tailoring technique that could minimize those around him from being subjected to…er…unwanted tumescence. A lot of people don’t realize the wonders that a good tailor can work.

        1. Serin*

          Or — surely there’s some specialized kind of underwear situation developed for actors and others who might need to be in close crotch contact with other people in a nonsexual context?

          1. anone*

            Unlikely to be designed for persistently erect tissue and very likely only intended to be worn for a short period of time (a single performance) rather than 9-5, M-F. The folks asking “why can’t he hide it?” are not likely thinking about the physical implications of long-term physical modification like that.

            As a trans person, I’m thinking about physical damage that trans people can incur from binding and hiding body parts we don’t want to show. It’s actually something that requires care and proper equipment/technique (e.g., shouldn’t be done continuously or overly tightly), and it doesn’t generally involve erect tissues that are really not meant to be bent or held in discrete positions over long periods of time.

        2. Beth*

          Tailoring is great, but it’s not a miracle worker. Pants are inherently somewhat fitted in the crotch–not necessarily skin tight, of course, but your average pair of work slacks will follow the general shape of it! I’m trying to imagine a pair of pants that would conceal a constant erection without being notably weird/unprofessional for your average business-casual office, and I’m not coming up with much.

          I’m actually surprised how many people are suggesting this should be somehow hidden with clothes. First off, I’m guessing this coworker has considered that. He’s clearly aware of the potential social impact of his condition and is taking steps to address it, so if hiding it was a reasonable option, I feel like he’d be doing it. But second, there are just real limitations on what a layer or two of fabric can do! Fabric is a flexible material; it shows bulges and sticky-outy-bits, whether the bit in question is a fat roll, a nipple reacting to cold, or an erection. You can make it firmer to some degree (e.g. corsets are structurally enforced enough to actually alter what the body shape looks like, foam bra cups are thick enough to hide prominent nipples), but I can’t think of anything that would make an erection not visible AND be appropriate and all-day-wearable for a high-movement region like the crotch.

      4. katherine*

        It’s funny because I seem to be the only person who took the OP’s wording literally, that is, I imagined the coworker saying something like “Hey, just so you know I have a medical condition I’m dealing with, so if you notice anything weird, that’s why,” without specifying what exactly the “anything weird” is. That way the conversation wouldn’t have the “hello let me tell you about my dick” factor, but once said dick made an appearance it’d be obvious what he had meant. I really can’t think of any other way of addressing it at work.

    5. Turquoisecow*

      I’m in the northeast and I would also like to pretend embarrassing bodily functions don’t exist. If a male coworker approached me (a woman) to talk about his erections, intended or not, I would feel extremely uncomfortable, especially if he was older than me. And if we were close in age or he was younger, I’d assume he was hitting on me.

      I don’t know the best way to approach this. Maybe have someone other than the employee himself explain it? Invest in clothing or be extra careful to hide it? Work remotely 99% of the time? It’s not fair to him that he not be allowed certain opportunities like working in person or the perks of office life, but it’s also not a great idea to talk about his erections with unsuspecting coworkers.

      1. TechWorker*

        Whilst I do agree, this is this guys life and perhaps he has managed to come up with wording that doesn’t creep people out. (Like idk, ‘as its noticeable in the office I tell new hires upfront that I have priapism and they should not be concerned if they spot anything’. Hands them a short info sheet about the condition and walks away).

        1. Anonym*

          Yeah, it sounds like the result is good, which is the best proof of any approach. However he’s phrasing it, it’s working. Kudos to him.

      2. pancakes*

        You’d assume he was hitting on you if he said “I’m sorry to bring this up but I want you to be aware of my medical condition…” but wouldn’t assume anything at all about him constantly having an erection?!

        I don’t understand what sort of men’s clothing you imagine would conceal this, either. An extraordinarily long blazer? Some sort of business tunic? The range of menswear considered appropriate for work is not vast.

        1. Littorally*

          Yep. And I would imagine wearing a dance belt or something similar all day every day would probably cause him further injury.

        2. A*

          Just jumping in to say that, unrelated to these circumstances, I really like the idea of a business tunic and I think this should be a thing

          1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

            I’m going to invoke my adopted Roman heritage. The business tunic must be covered by a formal business toga!

          2. pancakes*

            Ha! A vaguely sci-fi tunic could be cool. In some parts of the world men wear salwar kameez, but that would raise eyebrows in the US.

          3. Seeking Second Childhood*

            I have a sudden wonderment about Tudor era codpieces because fashion does change when someone important has a reason. Like the 18th c fad for artificial beauty marks to cover up smallpox & syphilis scars on noble faces.

          4. Lady Heather*

            @SLBLME, you made me think of kilts which made me think of sporrans and codpieces.

            Thank you for that visual.

        3. LPUK*

          Yup, they can’t even get away with toting a bag everywhere as we women can. Oh the things I’ve hidden behind my handbag – embarrassing food stains, missing buttons, laddered tights… this is why I never subscribe to the small bag theory – I want a bag big enough to hide in for my most embarrassing moments!

            1. Elizabeth West*

              It can also carry all the things you need to fix wardrobe malfunctions. :)

              The Coworker Who Hauls Half Her House to Work Each Day

      3. LPUK*

        Invest in a LOT of large bushy plants in the office so there’s always something to hide behind in a very casual way? Always be carrying a clipboard?

        1. Serin*

          I read “bushy plants” as “bushy pants” and I wondered if you were recommending an M.C. Hammer fashion solution.

          1. Nanc*

            U can’t touch this . . .

            (someone was going to say it–it might as well be my inner 12 year old!)

    6. AcademiaNut*

      One erection, sure.

      But I would be made a lot more uncomfortable by a coworker who regularly had erections around me than by one embarrassing and awkward conversation. I’d be worried that it was sexually motivated, and figuring out either how to report it, or how to avoid being alone with the guy.

      Same with farts – an occasional fart you politely ignore. If I shared an office with someone who had constant flatulence issues, I’d want to change offices to one quieter and less smelly.

    7. nnn*

      That’s what I was thinking – I’d be more inclined to feel that a proactive conversation about a new co-worker’s erections is sexual harassment, and that the actual presence of an erection is an involuntary physiological reaction and I shouldn’t be looking at their crotch anyway.

      Also, if I was looking at their crotch with some regularity and did notice what I believed was an erection every time, I’d probably start thinking it isn’t actually an erection – it’s just how their pants drape or whatever.

      1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

        I’m with you. As far as I’m concerned we are all featureless plastic Barbie and Ken type under our clothing and I don’t want anyone pulling me aside to make sure that not only do I know for a fact that they have parts, but providing me with detailed information about how their parts are working. And frankly, I don’t care if someone has an erection regularly as long as they’re not behaving inappropriately with it – like nnn says, just having one is an involuntary physiological thing. I probably won’t even notice as long as they don’t get up and start shaking it around.

        1. TechWorker*

          I don’t know how noticeable it is in this specific man, but from googling the condition it can last for hours at a time. It’s also not reasonable to expect someone to carefully sit in a certain way/avoid walking around because of their medical condition.

          1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

            I … didn’t say anything about sitting in a certain way or avoid walking around. I literally meant, as long as they aren’t deliberately drawing attention to it, a la “OOPS THERE GOES MY MEDICAL CONDITION AGAIN, LET ME GO AROUND AND STAND NEXT TO EVERYBODY’S CHAIRS WITH MY GONADS AT FACE LEVEL AND SEE WHO FLINCHES FIRST” (to give a hopefully ludicrous example).

            But I think that’s generally the issue, for those of us who are saying we would be uncomfortable with the forewarning — if I am new in an office, and some dude with whom I have no prior experience to know whether he’s a decent dude or not comes up to me and starts a very earnest discussion about his penis and its workings, I have no background to know whether this is legit or the preliminaries to “so this guy is going to behave inappropriately and has just laid the groundwork to try to ensure that I won’t report him because medical condition.” All I know is that some dude in my new workplace has kicked off my new job with a discussion about his penis, when I would have preferred to know exactly NOTHING about the state of any of my coworkers’ genitals, because not my business and not work-appropriate.

            If there is no very earnest discussion, and there is no inappropriate *behavior* to worry about – because simply “existing with an erection” is not inappropriate in and of itself – then I will *definitely* not be reporting him for inappropriate behavior and everyone is fine.

            1. TechWorker*

              Thanks for clarifying. From other comments there kinda are people who think ‘existing with an erection in a public place’ == sexual harassment… but glad to know you’re not one of them :p

              1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

                Admittedly, my viewpoint may be skewed by the fact that I’m really good at not noticing things that are not germane to my immediate task at hand. My housemate once helped me in the kitchen for ten minutes before I noticed that he was wearing a knitted Cthulhu ski mask, and that was neon green, covered his entire head and had several dangling tentacles. So I am definitely in the side of the Venn diagram that’s “People who wouldn’t notice an erection unless it was pointed out to them very specifically.” But as a result, my opinion of whoever points out the erection is damaged, whether that be the owner of same, or a third party (because talk about tacky, super rude to go up to someone and go “OMG DID YOU SEE FERGUS’S RAGING BONER” — leave the man alone, I’m sure he’s not thrilled about it either, geez).

              2. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

                In my home office, I have a life-sized skeleton named Oscar sitting on a crate. After typing my previous comment, I turned around to see that a miniature parasol had fallen off the bookcase and landed in Oscar’s lap … with the handle pointing up and out at a very suggestive angle.


              3. Squab*

                I’m 100% w/RRtAF.

                I’m a tech worker, too. I’ve had coworkers have visible erections around me, and provided they were Not Being Creepy it’s just not something I politely pretend not to notice. I understand it’s not voluntary. I hope the dudes give me the same courtesy if my nipples show occasionally.

                And yo, if I were a young woman still in my twenties and a new coworker pulled me aside to discuss his penis, *even in the driest, most factual medical terms,* I would be flipping the frick out on the inside, wondering what the hell kind of job I just accepted.

                Having had a variety of inappropriate bosses in my 20s, I can still remember the body-feels from knowing that my livelihood (in a terrible economy no less) depends on not rocking the boat. I get that this apparently worked for the guy, but it’s got big potential to make people feel uncomfortable, depending.

            2. EventPlannerGal*

              I think that the issue is that while “existing with an erection” is not inappropriate, there are a lot of things which – while also not inappropriate in and of themselves – BECOME weird when the person doing them also has an erection, to the extent that some kind of explanation is going to be required in order for it to be distinguishable from inappropriate behaviour.

              – My new boss Fergus calls me into his office to go over the monthly reports? Fine! My new boss Fergus calls me into his office to go over the monthly reports and when I go in he is visibly hard? Nope!
              – Fergus leans over my desk while I’m sitting down? Fine! Fergus leans over my desk while I’m sitting down with his erection at face height? Nope!
              – Fergus, the colleague I view in a completely neutral way, says that I should attend Conference X in Y City with him involving an overnight trip? Great! Fergus, That Guy Who Always Seems To Have An Erection, invites me to that same conference? Maybe not!

              Like, as he has presumably been dealing with this for a long time I imagine he is very conscious of how his behaviour could be perceived and probably avoids doing stuff like the crotch-at-face-height-desk-lean! But I think the context is such that I completely get why he wants to provide an explanation ahead of time. I think a lot of people are maybe saying that they would never notice or would just ignore it because we know the backstory for this letter, but if we were in the hypothetical situation OP proposes where he kept that private, I think the reactions would be different.

    8. Allonge*

      I can be totally oblivious around these things. My first thought was pair him with me, I would most likely have no clue it’s happening at all.

      1. Environmental Compliance*

        Yup! I can’t decide if I would rather not have the convo (because there’s a pretty good chance I’d never notice) or have the convo so at least I’m not utterly confused on why there’s obviously a person walking around with an erection all the time and none of my new coworkers seem to notice.

        I think there might be a better? less strange? middle ground if the manager let me know. For some reason it feels less strange – possibly more removed? – if a third party let me know instead of the guy himself seemingly randomly coming up to me to discuss his genitalia.

        1. UKDancer*

          I think I’d rather not have the conversation. I probably wouldn’t notice (as I’m also fairly oblivious and don’t look at my colleagues’ crotches most of the time) unless someone said something.

          I think I’d probably suggest he have something on record with HR / manager in case concerns are raised by someone and try and wear clothing / underwear that will conceal most of the effect.

          I’m not a hugely modest person and don’t have a problem with nudity in appropriate places (medical settings or thermal baths in Germany for example) but I prefer not to think of my colleagues’ bodily functions as much as possible.

      2. LPUK*

        Yup I’d rather deal with an physiological and unremarked erection than with someone who’s always playing pocket billiards- used to work with someone who was known for this company-wide- far more distracting because it was obviously deliberate ( although unintentional in its impact ie he wasn’t doing it AT you, he’d obviously just never learned it was a private behaviour how that happens in a man in his thirties I can’t even.)

      3. Metadata minion*

        Same here! And if I did notice something, I’d probably assume it was either his pants folding oddly. If it were really *that* obvious, unless he were acting creepy/sexual in some other way I would still go “oh dear, Brad has a random erection, how embarrassing; I will politely ignore it just like I am pretending I didn’t hear Sharon fart”.

        I might also be imaging a different office layout than what’s actually going on. I might appreciate notice if he sat in a nearby desk, and was going to be walking by me a lot, because that’s an instance where his crotch really would be around eye level more than it might otherwise be.

    9. Mel_05*

      I do think it’s very possible that if I were this man’s coworker I would never ever notice. And I certainly would be very uncomfortable with that convo. But. It’s also possible that it’s super noticeable and that he’s run into enough problems that he’s figure out the least horrible thing for the majority of people is to pull them aside.

    10. WellRed*

      I’m not even sure I’d notice the problem and being pulled aside by someone I don’t know to hear about this? I don’t need to know, anymore than everyone I come into contact with needs to know about my medical condition.

    11. iliketoknit*

      I would much prefer knowing this ahead of time rather than being weirded out working with the person. And I think people are still talking about “inconvenient erections” as having something to do with sexual arousal, which this condition does not. It’s also possible that the nature of this workplace would make it more obvious than some (if the guy is primarily sitting behind a desk that’s very different than if he’s walking around talking to people. I mean if someone walks into your office when you’re sitting at your desk, the crotch area is pretty hard to miss…).

    12. GothicBee*

      I feel like my initial reaction would be to be weirded out, but also once I got over that, I’d be ultimately appreciative that he mentioned it so that it wasn’t a situation where I just happened to notice it on my own at some point.

      Also, I feel like my own discomfort with the conversation shouldn’t trump his ability to inform people so that they don’t get the wrong idea. I mean this has to be a pretty big no win situation. I’m assuming he doesn’t enjoy needing to have this conversation or inform people of this, but he probably does so because otherwise people will assume the worst of him.

    13. OP#3*

      I see where you’re coming from, and thank you for this perspective. I will say that, in my precious coworker’s case, it was *very* noticeable, and different types of pants didn’t seem to help all that much. It was a difficult situation. Some days, there would be a bulge for up to 4 hours, and since he often needed to go by people’s office for his job, you’d be sitting down and have it at eye level when he entered your office.

      Also, we had no HR in that company and the manager was pretty hands off, so there weren’t a lot of options for warning new hires (males and females). He had good language for it, usually showed his doctor’s note, and never mentioned it again. Personally, I appretiated at the time.

    14. Anonny*

      I feel that most people have gotten an inconvienient arousal a few times in their life (probably their teen years, although if you have a vagina it’s less obvious.) Some people may have gotten it at work. My view is, as long as you don’t make it someone else’s problem, it’s not anyone else’s problem.

      My advice to the guy is basically to be on his best behaviour wrt sexual harassment etc. I mean, people should be anyway, but in this case it’s also a CYA. If someone complains about him having an awkward boner, then it’s more plausible that it’s not a problem if he’s an otherwise courteous and respectful bloke. I’d also suggest wearing clothing that will hide an erection easier, if he’s uncomfortable about it. Looser cuts, thicker and darker clothing, and if the dress code allows it, untucked shirts and jumpers.

      For the boss: if there are any harassment complaints, determine if they’re caused by behaviour (either deliberate or accidental) or just because of his unfortunate condition. If it’s just ‘this dude has a boner in the office a lot’ then first, boners happen, second, please try to ignore his crotch unless he performs actions that make it unignorable. This will be easier to do if, as mentioned above, the dude is an otherwise courteous and respectful chap. If he acts like an unfixed teenage boy dog then he’s got less plausible deniability, but you’ve probably got a whole different problem there anyway.

    15. Chinook*

      You are not alone. I don’t notice these types of things either and often why others do. It just doesn’t cross my mind (and I don’t judge those that do notice).

  5. Jessica Fletcher*

    #3 – Please don’t have the guy tell the employee personally. I would be uncomfortable, to say the least, if my brand new coworker took me aside to tell me about his penis. Even being a genuine medical condition. I would assume he was making it up and harassing me.

    If it happens frequently enough that other employees need to be warned, the supervisor or HR should be involved.

      1. Julia*

        It is. But I agree with Jessica that if some guy at a new job would take me, a woman, aside, to tell me about his erections, I’d be concerned because I don’t know the guy and I don’t know that he truly has a medical condition. So then I’d wonder if anyone else knows about it and can I ask someone or would I come across as weird if I went to a coworker or my new boss and asked, “hey, so Fergus told me he gets random erections but to ignore them since they’re caused by a medical condition – is that true?”

        1. Observer*

          That’s why he had a medical note.

          The OP notes that there was no HR, otherwise, I would definitely say HR should deal with it.

      2. Anon for penis talk*

        Yes, and I have literally never noticed an erection in an adult male at work, ever. I am sure they are having them but I have never noticed. If a coworker told me that in my first week or so, I’d assume it was foreshadowing further behavior I would consider harassing.

        I’m from the northeast and live in the south and like someone else said, consider us all to be genderless Ken and barbie dolls at work.

        If the condition is noticeable even to ppl like me who have never noticed an erection at work, or in any location or person when I was not about to engage with said erection, then a manager should be the one to tell me.

        I mean, y’all are saying this is a medical condition but the conditioning is strong in me and I am having a hard time seeing this as anything other than enjoyable to him as harassing others. Does he tell the men or just the women is going through my head.

        1. pancakes*

          It doesn’t seem to have occurred to you that you haven’t noticed erections at work because the men you work with don’t have a medical condition that causes inopportune erections.

          I’m not sure what you mean by conditioning. Refusing to believe a medical condition does in fact exist seems like fairly straightforward willful ignorance to me. You could use WebMD, the Mayo Clinic, or any one of a number of other resources to verify that it is indeed a thing that exists in the world. I don’t understand wanting to guess rather rather than verify.

          Maybe I’m in the minority here, but I would almost certainly notice if a male coworker routinely had erections, unless I only ever saw him seated at a desk, and I’d . . . want to know what was up with that.

          1. ThatGirl*

            Right? Like not that I go around staring at crotches but I feel like the reason s/he hasn’t noticed any erections is because they’re just not happening.

          2. Another Anon*

            I mean, as a person without a penis, I don’t have any direct experience of this… But it seems statistically improbable that anyone who works around people who have penises hasn’t been around an inopportune erection fairly frequently? The internet tells me erections happen maybe a dozen times a day and not necessarily in response to arousal. On the extremely rare occasion that I’ve noticed, it’s always been a case where my eyes are wandering while I think – absolutely a me problem and not a them problem, the same as it would be for prominent nipples or cleavage.

            I’m assuming the unfortunate gentleman in the letter has worked out some wording that clarifies matters, but it does seem like the talk would be more disturbing than the actual symptoms to me as a coworker. I’m having trouble seeing the harassment potential in even significantly noticeable erections if his behavior is professional, but there’s a lot of potential for that conversation to go horribly wrong. Imagine if a coworker took you aside and said “I’m breastfeeding my infant, so you may sometimes notice that my breasts are huge and painfully firm, and they may sometimes leak. This isn’t anything sexual.” That would be way weirder than just carrying on, right?

            It’s absolutely worth his manager knowing about the condition in case someone does get the wrong idea (or if he needs other accommodations for a really painful condition), though.

            1. Observer*

              Have you read what the OP says? In most cases, the erections last for a few minutes at a time, but this guy’s could last for HOURS. And they seem to be quite noticeable. That changes a lot.

              1. Another Anon*

                I’m not sure it changes the fundamentals, though? Erections happen; the presence of an erection is not in itself harassment. But drawing attention to one’s erection *might* be harassment. Clearly this guy doesn’t intend it as such and presumably he’s worked out phrasing, but I think either having a manager mention it as matter-of-fact or letting it go without comment would be the better course.

          3. Anon for penis talk*

            I have not noticed them at work or in the wild (post HS) is because I am not noticing them. I said I am sure they are having them. I just asked a coworker – she notices erections in the wild all the time here at work (staff and the public).

            I am not denying the medical condition, I am saying that my own conditioning from both the NE society I grew up in and the southern one I am in now, tell me that this is not something to discuss at work. I am saying that my own experience has taught me to never notice and to assume anyone talking to me about their penis at work is telling me to make me uncomfortable. There is no need to tell me, I won’t notice.

            If a coworker told me anything about their penis, I would be in the manager’s office as fast as I could to tell them this inappropriate thing happened. And if a medical condition requires discussing it, the manager should do it.

            I see there are plenty of others who also would not want to be told by the coworker. I am not unsympathetic to the condition, I just don’t want to be told by the coworker.

            1. pancakes*

              I don’t think anyone is suggesting this area of the body is generally a suitable topic of conversation at work. It’s perfectly understandable many people would prefer to be told by HR or someone in management rather than the guy himself, and depending on the circumstances that may be the best way to handle it.

        2. Lady Meyneth*

          I think you’re flirting with ableism here. It’s a medical condition and, from a quick google seach, could cause hours long erections. Most of us don’t notice the odd erection at work because either they’re not there, or subside quickly enough a guy can just stay put behind his desk for 15 minutes longer and be fine when he gets up. No so with this person. Also, since OP says he’s ” a genuinely nice guy”, I assume he gives a heads up to both male and female new hires.

          1. Anonny*

            I do suspect the poor chap is more aware of them than his coworkers will ever be, even taking his condition into account. Kinda like having a giant zit on your face, and you’re like, oh god everyone can see the giant zit, and most people don’t even notice, or care enough to remember once they’re not looking at your face.

            And now I’ve gotten past my teenage awkward socially anxious years and stopped staring at the floor during social interactions, I don’t even look at people’s crotches unless they’re deliberately drawing attention to them, like wearing a giant carrot-shaped codpiece or something.

            1. Kella*

              OP said in a comment above that the erections were very obvious and that because of his job, he would regularly be greeting a person who was sitting down while he was standing up, putting the bulge right in their face from the very beginning. Rather ha-er… difficult to ignore.

        3. comityoferrors*

          “I am sure they are having them…” Probably not! Random erections are a thing in puberty, but not a widespread phenomenon for adults. This is why it’s an issue – it’s outside the norm. Most people would be concerned if they saw their coworker with an erection, or saw them with an erection multiple times, because it’s not a common thing that we’ve learned to politely ignore like flatulence.

          I’m trying to think of a way to say this gently, but struggling with it. Your comment about “conditioning” is really gross. Like pancakes said, you can just google this. It’s not like, a vaguely-defined idea. It’s a medical condition with a name that was mentioned multiple times (priapism, by the way, if you forgot.) Trust me, I understand the concern about sexual harassment and have experienced plenty of that myself as a woman. But it benefits no one to belittle an actual medical condition and imply that having a medical condition is, in itself, harassment. In fact, it undermines the concept of harassment.

          1. anon for penis talk*

            By conditioning, I meant my own conditioning by the NE society I grew up in and the southern society I am in now. I am conditioned to not notice (as I said above, my coworker notices them in the wild at work) and to assume that anyone talking to me about their penis at work is doing that to make me uncomfortable. I know the man has a real medical condition, I just cannot get past my own feelings about not wanting to have a coworker talk to me about his penis at work. The manager can do that.

      3. EPLawyer*

        He’s entitled to reasonable accomodation. He is not entitled to make people uncomfortable. I agree that if I just started a job and some guy I have literally just met started talking to me about his penis, I would be freaked out and wondering what place I was working at. I don’t KNOW it’s a medical condition, I just know some guy is telling me about his penis and saying it’s a medical condition.

        Look at it this way – do all people with a reasonable accomodation tell new hires about their condition “just so they know?” Hi I’m Jane, I get every third afternoon off so I can get dialysis. Yeah, I don’t need to know Jane’s medical condition either.

        1. MHA*

          He carries around a doctor’s note for it at all times, though. I imagine part of the conversation is showing people the doctor’s note (and, if the guy is smart, mentioning ‘Feel free to verify with [supervisor] if you need to,’). If you would still disbelieve the guy after that, then I feel like that’s on you.

        2. Not On A Break*

          Jane’s dialysis wouldn’t potentially cause her to face a sexual harassment allegation. Can you really not tell the difference between the two?

        3. Joielle*

          You wouldn’t need to know about Jane’s dialysis, no (just her time off, if it affected you). But if it was, say, a medical condition that made Jane smell like sulphur all the time, or have distracting physical tics, or periodic seizures – yeah, I’d mention those to a new hire. I think it’s just polite to preemptively tell new hires about things in the workplace that are unusual, so they don’t have to wonder whether to bring it up.

        4. Empress Matilda*

          Of course he’s not entitled to make people uncomfortable. But at the same time, I think it’s fair to say that the situation is going to be uncomfortable one way or another, no matter what. If the choice is (a) one uncomfortable conversation and we never speak of it again, or (b) uncomfortably watching this guy walk around the office with an erection and wondering why nobody ever talks about it – I would take option (a) every time.

          But at the end of the day, I don’t think it matters what you or I or anybody else thinks. There’s only one person in this scenario who gets to decide, and that’s the person with the medical condition. He’s the one who has to live with it, so he’s the one who gets to decide whether and how to disclose. He doesn’t know ahead of time if any one person would prefer option (a) or option (b), so he’s chosen the one that he thinks will be least uncomfortable for the most people. Probably based on years of experience with this particular conversation – I think we can trust that he’s doing the best he can!

        5. JustaTech*

          It depends on the condition. I had a coworker who had a severe head injury. It impacted some of her behaviors and the length of her work day, so she was very upfront about it when she started. I don’t know that she told everyone in the building (she also had a pretty visible limp and held one arm oddly, so even seeing her in the hall you would know that something was different), but if you worked with her even occasionally she would tell you about the head injury and then might remind you that, say, she needed things written down and couldn’t rely on just spoken directions.

          Generally if people have conditions, small or large, that impact how they work with others, or how others might view them, they’re usually pretty open about it. I have a coworker who has really severe dry eyes, and on bad days she has to stop a couple of times to put hot packs on her eyes or she won’t be able to see to drive home. If I didn’t know *why* she was putting eye packs on, I might think that she was taking a nap or doing a beauty treatment, which would impact my opinion of her.

          In this case why it needs to be explained is that the coworker is not having these erections *at* people. Because that would be a problem.

        6. Beth*

          You know it’s a medical condition because 1) he’s telling you, that’s the whole point of this conversation, and 2) he carries a doctor’s note. He’s telling you about this specific medical condition because it’s highly visible in a way that probably has led to some assumptions and made people uncomfortable before.

          You’re acting like it’s unusual to know about the part of people’s medical conditions that touches on work, when in fact it’s really not. Your Jane who gets dialysis probably wouldn’t tell everyone what treatment she’s getting, but she probably would mention or have on her calendar that she’s routinely out of the office on Wednesday afternoons for medical reasons. It’s normal to share information to the extent that it affects your job–and explaining that frequent erections aren’t anything personal or salacious, that it’s a medical condition, is reasonably part of ensuring smooth relationships with coworkers, which is job-relevant.

      4. Emi*

        But from the warn-ee’s perspective, there’s no way to know whether this person actually has said medical condition or is lying about it as an excuse for being a pervert.

          1. Emi*

            Doctor’s notes can be forged. It’s just not reasonable to expect new hires to take a stranger at his word when that stranger is offering them unsolicited information about his private parts. That’s a weird and unusual enough situation to throw a red flag for a lot of people. It sounds like it tended to work out for him but it could very easily not, without anyone acting badly.

            1. GothicBee*

              OP did clarify above that there was no HR and management was very hands off, so it sounds like this particular dude was making the best of a bad situation. Plus I think when you notice the medical condition which lasted for hours (per the OP’s comment), you’d probably come to realize he definitely wasn’t lying. I’m not sure what the alternative solution for him in this situation would have been.

            2. Beth*

              Wait, your first thought on a coworker taking you aside and saying “I know this is awkward, I’m sorry to bring it up, but I need to let you know that I have this medical condition which means that I often have sustained erections. Management is aware, and I also have a doctor’s note documenting it if you’d like to see. It’s nothing personal and doesn’t affect my work, but I know it can be alarming for people who aren’t expecting it, so I wanted to get everything above board before it’s a problem” would be “Hmm, you might have forged this note to manufacture a reason to talk to me about your penis”? That seems like a serious stretch to me. That’s an easily checked report of a visible medical issue that could cause problems in the workplace, not a salacious story about his sex life; yes, it’s awkward because we don’t generally talk about genitalia in the workplace, but ‘awkward’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘red flag’ and it all sounds above board in this case.

              1. Kella*

                Yeah, I understand that it’s possible for “it’s a medical condition” to be used as an excuse to be a perv and could be delivered in a creepy, inappropriate way. But as someone who has multiple chronic illnesses and disabilities, I can say that disclosing details of a medical condition in a calm and collected way, to someone you just met is something that takes *practice* and a lot of confidence. The fact that he did that every time there was a new hire, to me, means that he has spent his life having to explain this to strangers and friends alike and this is the best method he’s found to limit discomfort for everyone involved. Remember, this medical condition probably impacts him *legally* the most at work but it’s likely to impact him socially in the rest of his life as well. I would expect a person in that situation to be *really* good at disclosing quickly and with as little awkwardness as possible because of all the practice they’ve definitely had.

        1. Green great dragon*

          Assuming he’s lying is an odd way to go for me. We are not assuming here that OP is being fooled and they guy’s actually a pervert, so why would anyone else jump to assuming that?

          I don’t think anyone’s suggesting this is a good conversation to have, just that it may be less bad than the alternative.

        2. SimplytheBest*

          Why is your first thought that someone is lying to you about their medical condition? This is an extremely detrimental stereotype about people with chronic illness and disabilities. You should maybe think about that.

      1. hbc*

        Inform people instead of letting him do it. Just because he has a medical condition doesn’t mean I need to be blindsided by a guy talking about his erection, even if it is for all the right reasons.

      2. EventPlannerGal*

        Be present when he informs people of the medical condition? Reassure new employees that it is indeed a medical condition and the guy is not making it up or attempting to harass them?

        1. Washi*

          Yeah, I agree. I can see why the guy would prefer to explain it himself to prevent any spread of misinformation, but I think someone from HR should be present. That would reassure me that this isn’t just some flimsy excuse to talk about his penis and see if I take the bait by appearing to be ok with it. I understand that this is a nice man doing his best with a difficult medical condition, but he’ll get the best results if he stays as far away from the kind of strategies sexual harrassers use to pinpoint their next victim.

          1. A*

            Agreed. I’d want to hear about it from HR prior to starting, similar to how I’ve previously been informed of allergies on the team limiting certain food items in the office space etc. or chemical sensitivities etc.

            That way it wouldn’t be a question of whether it was true or if there was an alt motive, and would come across professionally

          2. anon manager*

            I think this is right, and I think he should also show a little more discretion about who he tells. Even in a small office, you’re usually not in frequent contact with every single coworker. If he were my boss or a teammate I talked to in person multiple times a week, I might appreciate a heads up. If he’s someone I don’t know at all and our contact is limited to quarterly meetings and occasionally bumping into one another at the water cooler, unless he is saying or doing things that come off as creepy, the situation in his pants would not seem like my business and it would be very weird to be pulled aside and briefed on it on my first day.

    1. A.N. O'Nyme*

      I definitely agree with having HR or management present, just to ensure the new hire that this is indeed an actual thing. Maybe even have some medical documentation on the condition ready so they know it’s not just made-up and HR doesn’t do their due dilligence or something.

      1. Beth*

        Yes, this was my thought also. The idea is to take proactive steps to reassure the new hire; have a second manager or HR person present, so that it isn’t just the Guy and the New Hire. If the New Hire is a woman, have the second person also be a woman, so it isn’t the New Hire and Two Guys.

        The guy has a verified medical condition that he can’t control; it’s embarrassing (and can be painful), and puts him at risk of making others uncomfortable. I give him props for wanting to give his co-workers information that might help them, especially when it’s so awkward.

    2. iliketoknit*

      I mean, I think an important part of the context here is that it’s a very small company. There may not be a formal HR or a lot of hierarchy to rely on for this, and in such a context, I would imagine that confirmation is going to be pretty easy. The guy in question may also prefer to tell people himself so that 1) he knows exactly what’s been said and 2) it’s less awkward after. If he brings it up with me himself, I think that creates a different atmosphere around it than if someone else tells me, and then I talk to him and feel completely awkward, knowing that I know and he knows I know but how do I handle this????. I very much agree with the comment above that this guy has probably had a lot of experience with this by now and has found that this is the best practice for him.

    3. Wisteria*

      Yeah, I’m on Team Don’t Me About Your Genitals. Being a guy with frequent hours long, non-sexual erections and a doctor’s note makes you a guy with a medical condition. Being a guy with frequent, hours long, non-sexual erections and a doctor’s note who tells me about his erections makes you a perv with a medical condition. I wonder how many people were really uncomfortable about being personally notified as a new hire and were also uncomfortable with speaking up.

      1. pancakes*

        No, it doesn’t. Insisting there’s an element of lechery where there isn’t doesn’t make it so.

  6. PollyQ*

    Re #1 —

    As long as you trust the people you’re talking with to be discreet and not share what you tell them with others

    Ay, there’s the rub. (what?) I would really, really ask myself if the benefit of other people getting, say, a week’s advance notice outweighed the risk of one of them letting the news out, or even just treating the future firee differently. Given that people can leave at any time with zero advance notice — quitting, medical or family emergency, etc. — I think I’d land on the side of not letting the news out to anyone who didn’t absolutely need to know. And I agree with Alison that once the decision’s been made, there shouldn’t be much of a delay before letting the employee know.

    1. Anon again*

      I agree. My co-worker has a third interview with a company his cousin works for, outside of our industry, on Monday.

      Our office has this info because he told someone he was sure he could trust. He was wrong. She handed out that info all day last Thursday.

    2. NYWeasel*

      As mentioned downthread, there are plenty of people who don’t maintain confidentiality. My manager has told people leaders information “in strictest confidence”, and I’ve seen the other two people leaders walk out of the meeting and blab about it with their besties. And even if the recipient of the news has every intention to be careful with the info, there’s been a lot of letters here along the lines of “I know Fergus is about to be let go but he’s talking about making a large purchase, should I give him a heads up?”

    3. Mel_05*

      Yeah. I was let go from a job and I realized afterwards that some weird reactions from a coworker were because she knew at least 3 weeks before I did that this was happening. Which in turn made me realize that my boss had been talking with me about plans for the future – while she knew that they would never happen. All of which felt awesome.

    4. BusyBee*

      I am amazed at how little discretion folks have around things they are told in confidence, and it applies to people at every level of the organization. I think it’s a very human thing to want to tell someone what you know. I will say, though, because I’m good at not spreading info, I know a lot of things at my company that I probably shouldn’t be privy to. Any time someone has juicy news and just HAS to tell someone, they tell me because it never goes anywhere.

      1. Totally Minnie*

        Yeah, a lot of people’s reaction to “I’m going to tell you this, but please don’t tell anyone else” is “I’ll just tell this one person, but I’ll tell them not to tell anybody else,” and after enough rounds of that game, everybody knows.

        1. anon manager*

          I also think there’s a difference between “I have sensitive intel that is mission-critical for me to know” and “I have sensitive intel that is intriguing/nice-to-know and that I heard from someone who maybe wasn’t supposed to share it with me,” or in other words, gossip.

          The problem is that once the sensitive intel leaves the need-to-know circle of trust, it turns into gossip really fast. If I tell my boss that one of my direct reports has an offer from Competitor Inc., that’s mission-critical, need-to-know sharing. If my boss is venting to a fellow department head and mentions that Competitor Inc. is trying to hire away our people again, Fellow Department Head now has gossip.

    5. Tarso Infirma*

      10+ years ago when I was laid off, I was out of town at a conference the week before. I had attended conferences for 22 years with that company and never had a phone call from the office while I was away. Until that week. Two different people called my hotel (i did not have a cell phone) needing to know how to do something I had always done.
      I found it very odd until my first day back at work, which was also my last day at work :)

    6. Allison*

      Yeah I gotta figure people would start acting weird around a a coworker if they knew they were gonna be fired, and that’s something I think I’d pick up on, and start to wonder if I’m about to have an impromptu meeting with my boss. I do believe there are times where people do need to know ahead of time, but you definitely need to be super careful with this information.

      1. Puggles*

        Several years (and jobs) ago, I was in a meeting with my coworkers, boss, and boss’s boss who was the VP. The VP was noticibly treating my boss horribly, not even smiling or acknowledging him in the meeting. I thought that was so strange and that something was up. Sure enough, my boss was fired the very next day.

    7. Diotima*

      My boss told me he was firing a manager whom I was working with very closely. It was a month+ out from the firing. It was super awkward – I was very junior, but I was doing most of the project myself because of the manager’s poor work habits. My boss told me because the manager was being fired very close to the project’s due date and he didn’t want me to be caught off guard. I didn’t tell a soul – but honestly, I do feel like I was lying to that manager, and I don’t think I absolutely had to know – I would have rolled with the firing either way. It was a bit of a red flag to me about my boss (in the context of the job, etc.) and I quit a few months later.

    1. A.N. O'Nyme*

      If it happens regularly, some people may think he is performing certain actions to cause them. I probably would, if I didn’t know better.

    2. Kim D.*

      Sorry, I don’t mean to be unkind, but how is this even a question? Of course it can be considered sexual harrassment, since many erections are (generally considered to be) sexually motivated.

      It can easily make people who notice (and depending on the member, the clothing etc. it can be very noticable) feel uncomfortable and make them wonder it they will fall prey to someone who can’t even be bothered to control their penis let alone their actions, if their clothing makes that person have that erection, if they shouldn’t bent over a certain way to reach that drawer et cetera.
      And depending on the gender/age/work relation it can be more difficult to speak up, but the person who notices will wonder why it’s happening.

      1. Environmental Compliance*

        Not that I have one of those, but I’m pretty sure that those organs are just as controllable as a drunk possum, and especially so with a medical condition.

          1. MP*

            That is, err, not true. The difference is that healthy adult men don’t have them as often and they don’t last for hours.

          2. Environmental Compliance*

            No, but you can’t just… turn it off, either. Lack of control is not the issue here. Especially when it’s a medical condition.

      2. Another Anon*

        My understanding (having only ever experienced them secondhand) was that erections typically happen several times a day and often without psychological arousal. I think prominent nipples are probably a good analogy – they are a sign of arousal, sure, but also a bunch of entirely mundane things and sometimes just the way a particular body looks in particular clothing. I would be outraged if someone suggested I “can’t even be bothered” to control my nipples. Erections happen, sometimes at inopportune moments, and unless someone is doing something to otherwise draw attention to an erection, I really can’t see grounds for a harassment claim there.

        1. Gazebo Slayer*

          Yeah, I agree. I have never noticed an erection “in the wild” – I mean, I’m on the autism spectrum and a little oblivious, but I really haven’t. I’ve occasionally noticed erect nipples, but those don’t bother me in the slightest, and I was utterly mortified when someone took me aside at one of my early jobs to complain that he could see my nipples through my shirt. I was wearing a bra, but they were still visible, unfortunately.

      3. Brett*

        “will fall prey to someone who can’t even be bothered to control their penis”

        Erections are not controllable.
        If they were, then Pfizer would be making a lot less money.

    3. NotsorecentAAMfan*

      I think this is a totally reasonable question! I was wondering that too.
      Assuming of course that said erection was NOT accompanied by any comments or behaviours (eg standing too close) that would be considered inappropriate.

      1. Janon*

        I agree. I thought this sounded odd to me. If I am talking to someone and there is a spontaneous erection but he is otherwise doing nothing that makes me uncomfortable, I am not being harassed. Women could be aroused in the office and no one could know because we don’t have outward signs. Harassment should behavior or actions, not something that can happen involuntarily – medical condition or not.

        1. lily*

          As a young women, I’d be waiting for that behavior, even if he was perfectly respectful, and that would make me very uncomfortable.

      2. Frank Furter*

        “someone who can’t even be bothered to control their penis”
        I’m going to go out a limb and guess you aren’t equipped with one of these organs.

    4. Squab*

      Uh, yeah, absolutely, depending on the way they behave. And I say that with confidence even though I’ve never had a penis.

      Just the same as giving somebody a hug can be creepy or not, depending! I’ve had men give me an “innocent” hug where you 100% know the point is for you to notice their penis.

      One erection, not harassment. One erection that the guy takes pains to make you notice? Possibly harassment.

      A pattern of erections could absolutely start to seem like harassment; so from that perspective I understand the guy’s wanting to get out in front of it.

    5. Beth*

      Someone occasionally having one? Probably not–that would be a real stretch. A coworker having an obvious one almost every time they seek you out to ask about something? It’s not impossible that it might get read that way, especially if there’s no other explanation at hand. I think the coworker in this letter is smart to cover his bases, considering it sounds like the frequency and visibility of his condition is pretty unusual.

  7. CouldntPickAUsername*

    *puts on helmet and armor*

    here’s the thing. An erection is a bodily function just like farting or breathing. as long as the person in question is not performing an action related to it other than hiding it or making sure it doesn’t touch anyone then merely the state of arousal is not in fact sexual harassment. So frankly if someone complained of sexual harassment purely because someone else had an erection then I’d say they didn’t actually have a case.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think the issue is less a worry about sexual harassment complaints and more that people will simply feel creeped out that their coworker has constant erections around them, unless they understand there’s a medical situation in play.

      1. Drag0nfly*

        Exactly. If a coworker was constantly farting I would *naturally* think they were rude, crass, and disgusting — UNLESS I knew they had a medical problem. You’re supposed to control certain types of bodily functions when others are around, and I’d put erections right up there with belching and farting as “things you should not do around coworkers if you want them to think well of you.”

        With those bodily functions, doing them once in the office is unfortunate happenstance, and decency obliges me to pretend it never happened. Twice is coincidence. But three times? Any normal person would think it’s “enemy action” at that point, and no slack gets cut for that. It’s better to err on the side of disclosure if you have a medical condition that would make *rational* people assume the worst about your character.

        1. Staja*

          Even for someone without a medical condition, though, how controllable is it for a guy to stop an erection from happening? (Not a penis owner, do not know).

          We would not get into this nit-picky discussion about being able to see a woman’s erect nipples through her shirt, if it happens to be cold.

          1. SimplytheBest*

            I think absolutely people would think erect nipples that you can see through a shirt are inappropriate, so if that letter came up we absolutely would be discussing it. as for erections, no you can’t necessarily control them. But they don’t last for very long if they’re not sexually inclined and so a person can stay sitting for five extra minutes or hold a jacket in front of them. That’s not true of somebody who has an erection for 4 hours at a time.

        2. Reality Biting*

          The thing is, an erection is not something one “does”. It’s something that happens. You can indeed control a belch and (usually) a fart. Once an erection gets started, trying to stop it is like–well you know when your eye starts twitching and you try to stop it through sheer force of concentration? How often does that work? And for the record, something as innocuous as a full bladder can cause an erection.

      2. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

        Even with the “understanding” that a medical issue is the cause, I’d still freak out because of my own experience of abuse. So, who pays for my therapy sessions to figure out how to function in this work environment? If this guy is standing next to me and suddenly has “an issue”, I don’t know how I wouldn’t run or hit him just out of panic. It’s not something I’d ever planned to deal with.

        1. Myrin*

          What is your suggested action, then? You said below that you’d rather he not talk about it at all – which is fair – but from this comment, it sounds like you simply couldn’t work with him at all, period, since he could experience such “an issue” right next to you regardless of whether you were told about it before or not – which is also fair and understandable. But I’m not clear on what your preferred next step would be.
          It strikes me that this might be similar to the situation we’ve encountered before where one person needs a service dog because they’re blind while their coworker is severely allergic to dogs. There would have to be talks and arrangements made with both of these coworkers and the workplace should see to accommodating both people as far as possible without placing an undue burden on either of them.

          1. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

            Good question, I have no idea what could work in this situation, though I do appreciate that the comments are actually quite compassionate for both sides. Yeah, based on other responses I just couldn’t work with him is my guess.

            1. Michael*

              I don’t mean to sound unkind, but I found your comment so profoundly disturbing it’s hard not to respond. How can you work with any men at all, if your reaction to noticing that they have genitals is plausibly to physically assault them? Do you understand how wildly scary that is to hear?

              It’s like all the conversations around women with big breasts in the workplace. People don’t have bodies *at you,* they just have bodies.

              1. EventPlannerGal*

                I think the context of an abuse survivor’s feelings about encountering unexpected erections in the workplace, plus the wider social context of workplace sexual harassment that is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men, means that it is probably not actually just like women existing while having large breasts.

                1. Michael*

                  I have all the sympathy in the world for people who are recovering from trauma, but if you think your trauma might lead you to violently assault people as soon as you notice their body exists, you can’t responsibly go into public and interact with other humans.

                  Again, having genitals is not sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is an action.

        2. Bagpuss*

          If you have been warned by being given advance notice that he suffers from a medical condition then presumably you can then request your own reasonable accommodation for your own, such as asking to sit at some distance from him and/or somewhere where you are likely to be able to run rather than hitting out, or indeed either letting him or HR know that you have a hyper-sensitive flight or fight response to anything of that nature and ask if he can avoid approaching you if he is suffering from an erection.

          I do agree with those saying that this is probably a conversation that should be coming from HR during a new starter’s induction, rather than from him directly, as while it may be embarrassing, it does make clear that management is aware of the situation and it is less likely to make the person being told feel in the moment that they are or may be the victim of sexual harassment

        3. TechWorker*

          Currently you seem to be saying both that it would be awful to find out about the guys medical condition in advance and that you would panic and possibly hit him if you spotted it and weren’t forewarned.

          It’s pretty unlikely that you’ll ever be in this situation (so, not much pointing thinking about it if it’s stressful to do so, and I intend that kindly!) but it’s not really clear what you’d expect someone with this medical condition to actually do.

        4. Michael*

          Wait, you think that if someone standing next to you has an erection, you might physically assault them?

          I hope you never, ever go out in public then, because that is profoundly disturbing and violent behavior, and it seems likely to happen pretty often. Erections are like sneezing except even less voluntary – they’re not something you *do*, they’re something that *happens*.

          Does hearing it phrased like “If I ever stand next to a woman and notice her nipples are poking through the fabric of her shirt, I might punch her in the face” help you understand the issue?

          1. Wisteria*

            No, it does not, bc there is no societal pattern of women using their nipples sexually assault men.

            1. Michael*

              So if I see someone with hands, you’ll justify me violently assaulting them because in the past someone used their hands to hurt me?

              Existing in a body with male genitals is not sexual, and it’s not harassments or assault. And while I have endlessly empathy for people working our their trauma, if they think their trauma will lead to them violently attacking people, they have a responsibility not to ever put themselves in a position where they might happen.

      3. Anon for this*

        I’d be more creeped out by having the convo with the coworker than I would be by the erections which I would not notice unless his behavior drew my attention to them. I’d rather hear about it from my boss.

        We had a coworker with a service dog. They were not expected to educate every employee about how to behave around the dog, managers did that.

      4. CouldntPickAUsername*

        I’m just answering the letter writer, they specifically asked about sexual harassment.

    2. Drag0nfly*

      Also, it’s disingenuous to dismiss an erection as a mere bodily function like farting or breathing. While farting is gross, it’s utterly harmless, and never a prelude to a crime. I don’t know how far you’d get dismissing concerns your female employees would have about working in a room alone with a man who habitually walks around with an erection. Especially if he and those women are working late at night. A man with an erection is not a man *I* want to encounter in the parking garage after dark. I’m struggling to imagine the woman who would be nonchalant in those instances.

      I notice the OP said her employee is a nice guy, and that’s probably what saved him. Let him be “on the spectrum” (such men are often accused of creepiness even when they’re not trying to be). Let him be a dude who uses locker room talk. Let him be tall and burly, with resting bitch face. If he’s got any of those co-factors, is dismissing the misgivings of your employees *really* a safe bet you can take to court? What if the complainants are survivors of sexual abuse or attacks?

      Truly, this take of yours seems like an excellent way for a manager to end up dragged through the mud on the six o’clock news. The easiest PR victory for the company would be to simply throw the manager under the bus.

      OP should consult a lawyer on this one, and include the employee on the consultation. Soooo many ways for this situation to go sideways.

      1. iliketoknit*

        But the whole point of telling people about the condition is that employees (male and female) know that if this guy is walking around with an erection, that it’s nothing to do with any kind of harassment behavior, and simply a medical condition he can’t control. If we’re talking about erections in the workplace without that medical context, sure, then concerns about a dude walking around with an erection make more sense. I think there’s just a wide spectrum of behavior here, and the original question was more along the lines of “if someone is observed to have an erection at work, is that, in and of itself [presumably once] sexual harassment?” That is very very different from “habitually walks around with an erection,” and frankly I presume it got asked because the poster has on occasion had an erection at work, but there no evidence that this is happening regularly (as opposed to in the example in the letter). I don’t have a penis myself so don’t know how they work from the inside, so to speak, but it feels like there are some posters wondering, “if I happen have an erection once at work, is that sexual harassment,” rather than “why wouldn’t it be okay to walk around at work with erections at all hours of the day and night.” My impression is that even without priapism, sometimes bodies are unruly, and while yeah, avoiding erections at work is obviously the best practice, I think the concerns about this going sideways are based on a pattern of behavior that’s more than “erection in the office” in a vacuum.

        1. Colette*

          But the whole point of telling people about the condition is that employees (male and female) know that if this guy is walking around with an erection, that it’s nothing to do with any kind of harassment behavior, and simply a medical condition he can’t control.
          That may be the intent of telling people, but it’s poor logic – someone can have a medical condition and also harass people. I believe the OP that that wasn’t the case with this guy, but a new employee won’t be able to tell.

          1. BBA*

            You can have a medical condition and also harass people, but that doesn’t mean having a medical condition is itself an act of harassment.

      2. Gazebo Slayer*

        My experience (as a woman “on the spectrum”) is that people pull this out as an excuse for guys to harass women more often than actual men on the spectrum get accused of harassment they didn’t commit. (And of course it’s entirely possible for someone to be on the autism spectrum AND a harasser.)

        1. BBA*

          Yes. Thanks for this. I nearly said something similar… I get so tired of seeing harassment excused as ‘well maybe he’s on the spectrum.’ It helps no one.

    3. MusicWithRocksIn*

      Look, I am not a dude so I cannot say for sure, but having gone though high school (the time of the most unexpected boners) with several very candid dudes, I was under the impression that the socially acceptable thing to do when you are presented with an unexpected boner in mixed company is to excuse yourself (or stay sitting) and generally do whatever mental gymnastics required to get it to get it to go away (baseball statics seem to be popular in the media?). Not to just march around and hope someone asks you if you have a banana in your pocket.

      1. Littorally*

        The “mental gymnastics required to get it to go away” part is the problem. Priaprism means the things last hours and aren’t related to arousal, so thinking about boring or unarousing things is not going to solve the problem.

        1. MusicWithRocksIn*

          Yes – I get that. But this was in response to the argument that “erection is a bodily function” and thus it won’t be sexual harassment if he just walks around with one all the time and doesn’t explain that it’s a condition. But I’m saying that while it is a bodily function, it is not socially acceptable, and in normal conditions men do what they can so they aren’t marching around with one in the office. So if you are unable to do the normal thing, people need to know what’s going on.

    4. Firecat*

      *puts on constrictive, extensive bra*

      Here’s the thing. Breasts aren’t even a body function, just a part, and yet I and anyone with larger then D cups is expected to be discreet about their existence at great personal expense and discomfort to our persons.

      If 1/3 of 1/2 or more of the worlds population is expected to be conscientus about the style, fabric, cut, and type of professional (and frankly even personal) clothing as well as take efforts to bind said parts in public then the priaxis crowd can surely wear a jock strap and roomier thicker pants to work.

      1. Meh*

        Not a dude (and a triple D), but that kind of attitude of “just get over it” seems pretty ableist to me. The dude has a MEDICAL CONDITION. What about the woman on AAM last year who was getting harassed due to her post-mastectomy? Should she of been expected to be “conscientious” at great discomfort to herself so her coworkers felt less uncomfortable? What’s next? Asking people in wheelchairs to force themselves up the stairs because the majority of the population has to?

        1. Firecat*

          Are you really trying to suggest that requiring John Doe switch out boxers for briefs, and polyester for Dockers is the same as demandong someone who uses a wheelchair to take the stairs?

          1. Crivens!*

            That isn’t necessarily going to solve the problem. And actually BINDING a penis can be dangerous. And yes, demanding that someone accomodate their medical condition in the way YOU prefer remains ableist.

            1. Firecat*

              People are asked to manage medical conditions in certain ways all the time!

              Someone who needs an ostomy care can’t just let it free drain because it’s more comfortable/cheaper to them. They have to use a bad, filter, connectors, and would probably be expected to wear a fresh bag at the start of the day.

              I also never said anything about binding. That’s not how briefs work. In fact looser pants of thicker material is more comfortable then any material that causes the pants tent to be.

          2. anon for this*

            There is nothing to indicate that the person in question is not already dressing in such as a way as to conceal the condition as best he can.

            1. Firecat*

              True and there is nothing to suggest that he is either. Which is why I think “clothing Management’s should beuch higher up the list them “best way to tell everyone in the office about the problem.

              Considering some of the commenters vehement responses to daring to suggest briefs and baggy pants, I think the chances are higher then I though that this wasn’t explored first.

              1. pancakes*

                I just don’t think pants baggy enough to make this a non-issue would be appropriate in any office I’ve ever worked in. People stopped wearing JNCOs in the 90s, and even then no one wore them to work besides teens.

                1. Brusque*

                  Depending of the… well size the only accommodating pants could be a box. Also I understand that priapism is a very painful condition so he’ll probably already wears the least straining and thus for widest clothing possible.

                2. Firecat*


                  That’s not really true at all. My experience with this is in athletics and dance. These folks are in leotard and sprinting can cause erections due to blood flow. It really doesn’t have to be a box to be a roomy cut.

            2. Reality Biting*

              Yes. Came to say this.

              This guy is so aware of his medical condition that he literally CARRIES A DOCTOR’S NOTE ON HIM. Do we really think he hasn’t thought of his clothing choices already? This reminds me of those comments to working mothers to “just hire a babysitter”. Of course they’ve already thought of that! And I guarantee you this guy has already made every clothing accommodation possible.

        2. EventPlannerGal*

          Look, I think this is a complicated and unfortunate situation and I feel bad for this poor guy, but I think it’s really shitty to compare to the situation with the LW who had had a mastectomy. There are a number of IMO very valid reasons, mostly with upsetting backstories, for women to feel distressed at the idea of working with a man who is frequently and visibly in this state and to want him to take some pretty simple measures to mitigate the visual impact; it is not at all the same thing as that LW’s colleagues who just wanted her breasts to look better. Several comments have made this comparison and I think it’s really thoughtless and dismissive of the wider context of workplace sexual harassment.

          1. EventPlannerGal*

            (That is not to say that such measures are going to be effective or that he hasn’t tried them already – I’m just saying that *wanting* him to try or asking if he has tried isn’t really the same as the mastectomy LW’s colleagues wanting her to wear the prosthetic.)

      2. Brett*

        The problem with hiding an erection is that a body part suddenly quadruples or more in size (for a priapism, the volume increase is typically more than 10x!). The only feasible way to hide it is to wear a cup or a similar device. It does hide the fact you have an erection, but then you simply end up looking like you have a constant erection. Roomy pants (aka the sweatpants problem) and jock straps actually make erections _more_ prominent, not less.
        The normal way to hide an erection is just to sit down and wait for it to go away. But a priapism lasts 4 hours or more. If someone is walking down a hallway and a priapism occurs (incidentally, getting up and walking is a very common way to get an unexpected erection), they are going to at least have to walk back to their desk and sit for hours. Inevitably, someone is going to notice that they are walking down the hallway with an erection.

  8. bunniferous*

    I agree with you. Arousal even in normal cases is simply a biological function. Again, like farting, people don’t always have an ability to control it. If it’s that distracting, carry a strategically placed notebook or something. I have never noticed an erection in the wild myself so maybe I am just more oblivious than most.

    1. PleaseVote*

      I have never encountered an erection in the wild either. If I did, even though I adore erections, I would do my best to completely ignore it, for the bearer’s sake. It would be a non-issue. Anyone with any sense would realize a repeated erection at work without accompanying unwelcome sexual behavior to be involuntary.

      1. A.N. O'Nyme*

        How would you know he hasn’t just performed an accompanying sexual act, though?
        Also I find that involuntary erections in general aren’t really talked about (the only reason I know about them is because I accidentally stumbled upon it while doing some research, and I’m not in a very prude area nor am I that old) so it’s perfectly possible for someone to not know they can occur in non-sexual contexts. If on top of that it occurs regularly…Yeah, I can see how people would assume they may have interrupted some work-inappropriate activities. Depending on the size, a strategically placed notebook might also make it even more obvious.
        Admittedly, I’ve never seen an erection in the wild either, so perhaps I’m equally oblivious.

        1. Bluesboy*

          I find this fascinating, because in my late teens/early twenties, filled with raging hormones, I would certainly have been able to do nothing about regular, repeated involuntary erections. I really thought everybody knew it was a thing.

          Incidentally, you mention here and above the implication that non-appropriate workplace activities might lead to it. I know that when I was younger, I would sometimes go to the bathroom to rearrange (move it sideways to make it less visible. Maybe even put it under the elastic in underwear to hold it down). Reading your post I now realise, to my mortification, that someone might have seen me go into the bathroom with an erection, and come out two minutes later, apparently without one…and make assumptions about my own non-appropriate workplace activities! And the idea that someone might have thought I was sexually harrassing them is awful, I really hope that never happened.

          1. Ron McDon*

            I’m assuming this person is older than the age when it is common (teens to early twenties).

            I agree with other posters, I think it would be more appropriate for HR/the newbie’s boss to mention this, rather than the man concerned. I feel it needs that level of separation.

          2. EventPlannerGal*

            I think that a lot of people are probably aware that this is an issue for teenage boys; not so much for adult men.

            1. TechWorker*


              Whilst I do not spend time looking at my colleagues crotches, I would find it strange if someone was walking around with an obvious erection – mostly because for most people (I think!) that’s a rare enough occurrence they can probably hide in the bathroom for a bit or just avoid leaving their desk. That’s obviously not practical if you have a medical condition that means for you they are both frequent and can last hours!

            2. Brett*

              It’s an issue for adult men too. An average adult male will get 10+ random erections unrelated to stimulation per day. They actually get more, not less, if they have ED (which is common in older men).
              The issue is probably that most people don’t stare at crotches and do not notice them. Priapism makes the issue particularly problematic not just because of the length of time of the involuntary erection, because it causes large (and painful) erections. Whereas normal erection volume increase is 400-500%, priapisms are typically 1000-1200% increase in volume.

              1. pleaset cheap rolls*

                “An average adult male will get 10+ random erections unrelated to stimulation per day. ”

                Do you have a citation for this? I am male and completely unaware of this being common.

          3. ceiswyn*

            In our society, I find that people of one gender are not generally told anything about the other gender’s plumbing and its quirks.

            As someone AFAB, my sex education both at school and by my mother (who was mostly too embarrassed by the entire thing to talk about it and just threw some books at me) focused entirely on periods and pregnancy. Since I didn’t have male genitals, nobody ever thought to tell me anything about them.

            Similarly, how many men really know much about the menstrual cycle?

            1. Bluesboy*

              True. My sex education at school split us up boy/girl for a couple of lessons, and we boys didn’t really understand why. They just told us how to put condoms on and then we messed around for a few hours. It was only a few years later that I found out that the girls had been learning about periods, and understandably they wanted to be able to talk to the girls without us around to avoid them bring embarrassed.

              But I don’t understand to this day why they couldn’t have explained periods to us too!

              1. A.N. O'Nyme*

                My school didn’t separate us to talk about this, but even then involuntary erections were only mentioned as a “weird stuff that happens in puberty” thing. Until a few years ago I had no idea adults have to deal with it too.

    2. hbc*

      I have never encountered one outside a romantic interaction, sexual harassment scenario (thanks to one memorable subway ride), or middle school (i.e.: puberty.) Either guys are getting these in random situations all the time and adept at hiding them, or the vast majority of men have enough control the vast majority of the time.

      So yeah, if a guy who is older than 18 is talking to me and gets an erection, my first assumption is that he’s having sexual thoughts at that moment. If it happens again, I’m going to be even more sure and more uncomfortable that he’s mind-humping me while talking about TPS reports and not even trying to control it.

      1. UKDancer*

        Likewise. As an adult the main times I’ve seen them have either been when I’ve been with a romantic partner or when I’ve seen a flasher (which fortunately has only happened once). I’ve been to a few thermal baths / spas in Germany which are clothing optional and while it is a faux pas to look below the neck, I’ve not noticed any reactions in those men present. So I would tend to assume that in non-sexual settings men can exercise sufficient control in the main to avoid a reaction.

        I would accordingly probably assume, were I to notice a colleague having an erection in my presence, that this is a sexually generated reaction. This would make me uncomfortable and cause me some distress as prefer my colleagues not to have sexual thoughts about me.

        1. Reality Biting*

          So I would tend to assume that in non-sexual settings men can exercise sufficient control in the main to avoid a reaction.

          Oh dear god, you have no idea how penises work do you?

          1. Eleanor Shellstrop*

            Many women are never taught how penises work.
            Most men have no idea how women’s genitals work either!

            1. pancakes*

              Still? Philip Larkin estimated the turning point in common knowledge was 1963,
              “Between the end of the ‘Chatterley’ ban
              And the Beatles’ first LP.”

              1. Grizabella the Glamour Cat*

                1963? Really? Based on personal experience and anecdotal evidence, I would say that estimate was quite inaccurate, both in terms of women understanding how male body parts work and vice versa. I was 13 in 1963 and, as a cis female, was never taught ANYTHING about how male bodies work. Kids nowadays tend to be better informed about a lot of things because they can always look stuff up on the internet if nothing else, but back then, it was almost impossible to find any real information about sex, outside of a medical library. I remember trying so hard as a teenager to figure out how the actual mechanics of sex worked, but no adult was going to tell me, even IF I’d have the courage to ask, and there was no information available to me about anything other than menstruation (and the available information about that was pretty skimpy).

                Even now, there are loads of funny yet alarming stories floating around the internet about, for example, weird things males believe about female bodies. So I don’t know if much has really changed since 1963. I mean, information is a lot more readily available, but I dont know much people actually avail themselves of it, lol.

          2. Paperwhite*

            Isn’t this ‘fact’ often used as a justification for flashers, sexual assault, etc? That someone had an uncontrollable erection and just had to do something about it that necessarily had to involve an unwilling person?

            1. Michael*

              No? The fact that it’s literally impossible to control whether you get an erection has literally nothing to do with whether you can control what you do with it (flashing, sexual assault, etc).

              For me the biggest takeaway from this thread so far has been that women are as ignorant about men’s bodies as men are about women’s, which I should probably have guessed but never quite clicked for me.

        2. Julianna*

          Look, it would make me uncomfortable too, seeing a male colleague’s erection, but it really should be common knowledge that no, you cannot control an erection….

          This is one of the ways that men can be sexually assaulted, in fact, and then victim blamed, because people have this idea that erection==“wants to have sex”.

  9. Jen in Oregon*

    I am assuming that LW#3’s coworker is not cornering people and saying “let me tell you all about my penis…” but rather saying something like, “I have a medical condition that is not very well known and can be misunderstood. Here’s a letter from my doctor with a brief explanation.” While it would be a bit uncomfortable, I think it’s a good way to quickly and discreetly inform coworkers so that he doesn’t become the subject of gossip.

    1. GiantPanda*

      I like this way of having “the talk”. Of all the approaches mentioned in the comments, this seems to me least awkward and least likely to be interpreted as sexual harrassment. Having the letter end with a statement that the manager and HR are aware of the issue should cover it.

    2. Smithy*

      This makes a lot of sense, particularly because I have to assume that this is a man who’s come up with a number of personal approaches to make his reactions as subtle as possible without literally binding his body. So the heads may also include some mention of how on occasion he opts to sit at a table or behind a lecturn when making a presentation or may ask to delay a meeting 5-10 minutes to compose himself.

      I do think that it’s hard not to think of this from almost an SNL/Halloween Costume perspective where it looks like he’s walking around with a tent on the crotch. In practice it may be more a case of having a coworker prefer to be seated at a table when possible and need breaks for deep breathing.

    3. Joielle*

      Yeah, I think some commenters are really letting their imaginations run wild on how this conversation would go. The OP clearly thinks he’s a nice guy and a good coworker, so I think we’re safe to assume that he’s figured out how to tell people about his medical condition in a non-creepy, non-sexually-harassing way. Of course, we would all prefer to never have to think about our coworkers’ bodily functions at all – but sometimes, due to a medical condition, it’s unfortunately unavoidable. I’d rather get a discreet heads up than be left to uncomfortably wonder what was going on and whether to say something.

      Does anyone remember the episode of The Office where Phyllis starts taking a medication that makes her smell? She sent an email!

    4. Littorally*


      The thing I see missing in a lot of the comments here is that this man has been dealing with this situation for quite some time, and is the best expert on whether this is a discussion that needs to be had or not. I would think that “let me carry around a doctor’s note and give everyone my traditionally private and very embarrassing medical information” is not his Plan A.

      1. Smithy*

        Thinking about this actually takes me back to a letter from earlier this week about who HR is for…. If this guy lets HR or his manager tell new colleagues about his condition, he’s leaving it up to them in how it’s phrased. He may very well have had experiences where the way it’s explained at work is very crass or insensitive, i.e. “yeah, it’s disgusting – but because of ADA we have to tolerate it.”

      2. CM*

        This exactly! There are SO many opinions here about a medical condition that I’m guessing very few of us have direct experience with. The OP doesn’t seem to have a problem with how the coworker handled this, so why should we?

        But to answer OP’s hypothetical question, I think this would be relatively easy to explain after the fact — doctor’s note, plus evidence that this person didn’t actually say or do anything inappropriate, should head off sexual harassment allegations.

        1. SimplytheBest*

          I’m honestly not sure. Based on many of the comments, I feel there are plenty of people who would just assume that was a made-up excuse and that HR was trying to brush their concerns under the rug.

    5. anon73*

      That’s understandable, but if I start a new job and within a week one of my co-workers that I’ve just met pulls me aside to tell me about his medical condition involving his penis it would make me super uncomfortable. Not because I’m a prude, but because I JUST MET HIM. I think that management or HR needs to be involved when he explains his condition.

    6. OP#3*

      Yes, pretty much. If I remember correctly, it was something like “I’m sorry this is uncomfortable, but you’ll probably notice it and it’s usually weirder if I don’t give some context first. I have an embarassing medical condition, priapism, and here’s a doctor’s note with a basic explanation. I won’t mention this again unless you have any questions for me, and [manager] knows about this and can work with you if you ever get really uncomfortable about it.”

      It worked for him, particularly because it was a small company (no HR, hands-off manager). I’m mostly wondering how to navigate it if someone in his position didn’t want it know in the office, because IMO he was right, it *would* be weirder without context, and without being able to give some context.

      1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

        I really like how he approached it. Acknowledging the discomfort and the last sentence are really good approaches. I have no idea what the manager of someone who didn’t want to have the condition widely known could do. It definitely wouldn’t work to wait until an employee brought it up because most folks wouldn’t want to mention a coworker’s penis until things had gotten to the point they were really upset.

        1. GothicBee*

          Yeah, I agree. If it’s super noticeable, there needs to be some way to address it with others. If not, you run the risk of people wondering if there’s some major issue going on that’s not being addressed. And like you said, a lot of people won’t bring it up until it’s at a point where they’re really uncomfortable.

          The only exception I can think of is if the employee’s job is one where they don’t normally interact with others in a face-to-face format in which case you may not need to bring it up.

          That said, I do think you could keep the explanation more vague. I think it would be reasonable to explain that the employee has a medical condition which causes the erections, but not go into more detail, and specify that people should respect his privacy. And that explanation would only need to be given to people the employee would be working with regularly, so people in the same office or people he will be meeting with on a regular basis.

        2. Researcher*

          I agree with everything you’ve said here. I think their approach is great, and I may be in the minority, but I actually would have really appreciated this sort of heads-up (pardon the pun). I think it says a lot about the employee that they’re willing to discuss what must be an uncomfortable topic for them in an effort to avoid discomfort on the part of their colleagues. Being on the receiving end of the conversation would have been unusual, sure, but I’d thank them for their transparency and move on.

          I also wholeheartedly agree that not addressing it and allowing people to ruminate over what might be the cause is likely to result in a bigger issue than it is. It’s a medical condition, and it’s commonly accepted that human beings sometimes have medical conditions. As for how to discreetly convey this with enough specificity about the situation and still maintain the individual’s privacy, I too am puzzled.

      2. Smithy*

        OP – should you ever encounter this again, I think you actually are in a wonderful position of seeing someone manage this condition professionally and appropriately. The piece about offering to answer questions may not be something everyone with the condition would want to offer, and also depending on the size or the organization, this might be handled more by management/HR than the responsibility of the individual.

        That being said, having had a very experience with someone advocating for themselves and what they have found works – I would encourage to speak with them about their experiences what has worked best and what they see as the best possible outcome.

      3. A.N. O'Nyme*

        I don’t know if you can not make it known to be honest. Depending on how visible the erection is and what exactly the job needs, there is no real way to go around it. If a hypothetical priapism sufferer sits at a desk all day in a way that means other people can’t look at his crotch or is of a smaller size that can be hidden more easily you might be able to keep it from everyone, but in most contexts it is going to be noticeable at some point.
        That said, the employee themselves probably know what side they fall on, so maybe following their lead is the better option until people start complaining about it or you loose people over it? I honestly don’t know.

      4. Paperwhite*

        That’s a pretty good speech, leading in with “I’m sorry this is uncomfortable” which acknowledges the awkwardness and makes it clear that awkwardness is not his goal.

  10. Hapax Legomenon*

    I notice OP3 says the guy would “take the person aside,” and what exactly that means in this context probably has a big effect on how this message comes across. If he took new hires to a corner of an open-plan office where people still could overhear if the conversation got weird, that’s a lot different than pulling someone into an empty office and explaining his medical condition with no witnesses. I also imagine(or hope) the conversation was a little more oblique than just “I have a medical condition that causes erections and they don’t mean I’m aroused.” As weird as the whole thing sounds, I probably would’ve appreciated the direct conversation and the few minutes of awkwardness it caused because of the discomfort it would prevent.

    1. MK*

      Generally, I think, taking person aside doesn’t mean having a private meeting, just not having the conversation in a group.

  11. Rika*

    LW1: I would indeed only inform the people that absolutely need to know and definitely none of this person’s peers. I used to work at a company where informing others before someone else was fired was almost the norm, and it really puts people in an awkward position. Especially when the person who gets fired communicates their worries to you and you’re not allowed to say anything… (ouch!)

  12. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

    LW3: as a victim of sexual abuse, regardless that I live in a very “sexually open” place in Europe, I would have a panic attack right there if a man took me aside to tell me about this. ADA whatever, I’d walk right out the door of the company and never come back. Is there nothing he can do to hide it? Women can’t just walk around with blood on their clothing, or breast milk on our shirts- we are expected to “be discreet about things”. I may not understand male medical issues but I sure as hell know that putting the burden on everyone else to accept it is too much.

    1. Lady Heather*


      I feel less alone for that being your reaction as well. (I’d say “Glad I’m not the only one”, but I don’t think, given the context, that applies.)

      1. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

        Thank you, Lady Heather. I know that just to be able to work in a situation like this, I’d need quite a bit of therapy myself. As others were commenting, many of us have never seen male arousal “in the wild”/non- sexual settings or would even think to look for it. But deliberately drawing my attention to it to make this individual feel better is not the way to go. I don’t go into an office and say, “My flow is exceptionally heavy, so if you notice leakage, that’s the reason”.. I mean there’s not a real equivalent for sure and many people want to normalize talk about periods/breastfeeding, but neither of those has an inherent sexual connection. I get that it’s out of his control- My husband says jeans do a fairly good job of hiding things but not all situations are the same. I just.. I’m trying to find a way how I could function in this work place and I do feel bad for him but it’s not something I would know how to navigate.

        1. Kim D.*

          You say “But deliberately drawing my attention to it to make this individual feel better is not the way to go.”, but from what I gather he tells people so *they* don’t have to feel uncomfortable around him.
          I can’t imagine repeatedly having to have that conversation is great for him either.

          1. Insert Clever Name Here*

            I think what Teekanne means is that being told there’s a possibility this might happen draws her attention to the possibility of it happening (and yeah, it’s deliberate because the guy’s trying to let people know he isn’t a creep). I had an extended family member with a prosthetic limb that I never noticed until someone said something casually about “Uncle Henry’s prosthetic.” After that, I noticed Uncle Henry’s prosthetic *all the time.*

        2. Jellybeans*

          There is a real equivalent, women’s nipples showing through a shirt. Some women have large nipples that are hard to hide and I don’t think anyone would consider it appropriate for her to tell everyone about them. Also, unless this guy is incredibly well endowed, wearing pants that fit loosely in the crotch should disguise his erections. He may feel like they’re obvious, but I bet most people would never have noticed if he didn’t tell them. I have a brother who’s close in age and have *still* never seen an erection in the wild. If someone pulled me aside to tell me about this medical condition, I would make sure I’m never alone with him and avoid any unnecessary interactions.

    2. Tree*

      Same. If my coworker has this problem, I don’t want to know about it. If he doesn’t say anything that I won’t notice because I won’t be looking, or if I do notice then if he doesn’t bring it up then we can all engage in the collective fiction that it’s not happening. I’m only going to feel threatened if he does something to make it my problem: like having a conversation with me about it or warning me that it might happen.

    3. Janet Pinkerton*

      Thank you! I was having a hard time with figuring out a cis-female analogue for this one. Because truly, how many letters have we had here about women’s bodies being discussed or policed? So, so many. And women figure it out.

    4. Drag0nfly*

      Yeah, on the hiding front, I gather middle school boys resorted to leaving their shirts untucked, and wore baggy pants as much as they could get away with. Maybe the disclosure could be avoided altogether if LW3’s employee changed his wardrobe style.

      And to your point about the panic attack, this feels like a situation where LW3 should do the disclosure herself if she’s a woman. Perhaps we’re picturing “take them aside and explain” all wrong, but having the employee do this has so many potential downsides. If he’s telling his female coworkers about his problem, many will likely feel gaslighted, hyper-vigilant, or straight up panic. This whole situation screams “playing with fire”
      to me.

      1. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

        Yeah, LW said there were no problems in the past, but because this is “medical condition” territory, no one can say they feel uncomfortable without being made out to be unaccommodating. Also, was this individual in a customer-facing role? Because that’s not just something customers are obligated to accept either. But I still feel guilty just writing this because it reminds me of the woman whose colleagues were trying to make her wear painful breast prostheses just for aeshetic reasons. But again…an erection is..a sexual function so it’s once again a different discussion.

        1. pancakes*

          It’s not a sexual function for people with this medical condition, though. Simply insisting it is doesn’t make it so.

          1. Paperwhite*

            Yeah, “it’s not a sexual function” is true globally, but I think Teekanne aus Schokolade* is trying to explain that in her personal context as a survivor of sexual abuse she has a strong and painfully gained association of erections with sex. This may end up being one of those clashing accomodations situations, because I don’t think simply saying “stfu about sexual assault” will be a sufficient way to deal with such a situation.

            1. pancakes*

              Clearly that wouldn’t be sufficient—to the contrary, it would be horrible!—but no one is suggesting that she just not talk about her own need for accommodation in this scenario. If that is what she meant, “I can’t see it in a non-sexual way” is a lot clearer & more accurate than saying erections are sexual when these particular ones aren’t.

        2. mustang76*

          I’m not sure that’s fair, though – you can be uncomfortable around someone with an erection without being unaccommodating. I think that the key is that you have to think of reasonable ways this coworker can ease your discomfort. “Please don’t work here anymore, thanks” isn’t a reasonable accommodation for a totally involuntary reaction. He can’t necessarily control when he gets an erection (or think of Alan Alda to kill it if it’s an inappropriate time), but he can absolutely know to keep his distance from Teekanne during an episode because it is uncomfortable for them, and if he needs something he should email or pick up the phone instead of walking over for a chat. Sure, in a lot of offices that would considered a bit inefficient but that’s a very worthwhile inefficiency for the sake of both employees. But this is something that’s best handled by the manager or HR disclosing his condition (and having the accommodation conversation as well), rather than him pulling people aside himself.

          The operative part here is that it’s involuntary, not that it is sexual. It *is* sexual in a lot of contexts, but spontaneous erections do happen beyond puberty. Luckily, the vast vast majority of men are not afflicted with priapism and can do a discreet bathroom adjustment in the span of a minute. This person can’t, so fixating on the sexual aspect of it feels… unhelpful to the discussion.

          I think it is probably safe to say that he isn’t in a customer-facing role, mostly because while someone might be comfortable explaining a condition to someone they are working with everyday, they’re unlikely to be comfortable explaining the same to customers all day (and customers would absolutely complain, since their financial well-being isn’t at stake by needing to be around him).

        3. Kitry*

          For people with priapism, erections are occurring outside of any sexual arousal. So I think the comparison to the woman who didn’t want to wear a breast prosthesis is actually quite apt.

          1. Drag0nfly*

            And yet, priapism looks exactly like sexual arousal to the innocent observer. And any one with common sense is going to think that’s what they’re dealing with when they encounter this guy for the first time.

            You’re not going to get anywhere by telling people they’re crazy for thinking that a thing that looks and acts and talks like a duck shouldn’t be thought of as a duck, just because in this one case it’s a swan with a deformed bill. You hear the sound of hooves, you think horses and not zebras.

            And again, from a management perspective, there’s too many ways for your attitude to lead to expensive trouble.

            The breast prosthesis is not the same thing, because lack of breasts is not inherently threatening, there’s no fight or flight response biologically programmed concerning them, and it’s not something that can be done “at” you. There are no crime, abuse, or harassment stats that specifically point to breastless women using their lack of breasts to inflict harm, so it’s cut and dry to say that people in that case are being jerks. But you know very well there ARE crime, abuse, and harassment stats associated with erections.

            There IS a way to thread this needle with grace and consideration for the OP’s poor workmate AND his coworkers, but pretending people are crazy for feeling weird about the condition is not that way.

        4. 1.0*

          It’s literally not a sexual function, it’s a medical disorder. Saying “it’s NOT a medical disorder” isn’t going to magically make it not a medical disorder.

          1. EventPlannerGal*

            It is a medical disorder that is visually indistiguishable to the casual observer from sexual arousal, except that apparently the erections are larger and last longer which I think probably makes it worse. Saying “it’s not a sexual function” isn’t going to magically make it not look exactly like a sexual function. Many people have very real and legitimate trauma associated with men who appear to be aroused in the workplace. Nobody has trauma about catching sight of a woman not wearing a prosthetic breast. As Teekanne says, it is a different discussion.

    5. NforKnowledge*

      I don’t have a penis, so can’t say for sure, but surely there are things like modesty pouches that actors wear in nude scenes or special underwear this guy could use to hide his priapism better. That has to be a better response than making everyone else just… deal with it

      1. Curly sue*

        Dance belts have light padding for modesty underneath things like ballet tights; the shaping might look a little odd in a suit situation, but surely so much better than a visible erection.

        1. Random Commenter*

          Dance belts smooth things out a bit so you can’t make out the individual components, but they actually make a more pronounced bulge.

      2. TechWorker*

        I also don’t have a penis but I think this is a pretty unfair take. It’s a medical condition, according to google a painful one. I *know* there is normally sexual connotation to having an erection but some of the comments here genuinely feel the same as idk someone with a cancerous growth being told they need to find a way to hide it better (even if that’s painful) because it makes other people uncomfortable.

        I don’t think that’s equivalent to having a period where there are obvious practical reasons to not want to bleed on your clothes/onto furniture, and wearing a pad or w/e isn’t painful.

        1. Paperwhite*

          I don’t think many people have used cancerous growths to inflict physical and emotional pain on others, though. The comparison falls apart at that point.

      3. MK*

        It’s possible that he is taking other measures as well as having this conversation.

        But, frankly, this line of thinking is pretty gross: he is “making” everyone else deal with… his body? His medical condition? And there “has to” be a “better” response? Why should it be taken for granted that there are better ways to deal with it and he is a creep who is choosing to make others uncomfortable? I hardly imagine these conversations are fun for him.

        1. hbc*

          No one is saying this guy is a creep (I think.) What most are saying is that this guy is Schroedinger’s Creep when it’s your first week of work–you don’t know him well enough to figure out whether he’s Real Guy With Real Condition or Gaslighting Creep. And there are a fair number of people who won’t want this private conversation with him regardless, just like someone who is terrified of dogs doesn’t want the person with the service dog to corner him to explain why the dog is legitimately needed.

          1. Lady Heather*

            Yes. Transparency is not just “individuals have privately been told by one person”, but “everyone knows everyone knows” – I know my manager knows, that the company is aware of it, and that the company is very serious about sexual harassment and won’t excuse any, including from Guy With Tumescence.

        2. H2*

          Yeah, I agree. I have sympathy for everyone here, and I see how awkward it would be…but I think everyone needs to have sympathy for this guy and approach it from that POV.

          I do not think, also, that menstrual blood on clothes is the right female equivalent. Blood is a public health issue, so that is a whole other level. It goes beyond just what people see! I think a better equivalent would be visible nipples, which is something that has come up here many times. The answer always seems to be to do what you can to minimize how it looks, and then everyone should be an adult about the fact that people have bodies.

          1. Tomalak*

            Yes, to read some of these comments, you’d think that if a man behaves in a way that makes a woman feel awkward then there’s a good chance it means there is some kind of sexual pleasure involved for him? The Schrodinger’s cat analogy implies there is a 50% chance of this, which seems ludicrously high. Unless he’s completely making it up, I am almost certain he feels just as awkward or more so than the person who has to hear it. Some conversations are inherently awkward. The same is probably true of most men who are awkward with women – are they really deriving pleasure from making the woman feel awkward (creeps) or are they embarrassed and ashamed, or on the spectrum oblivious? I don’t get this idea that you and indeed company procedures should assume a 50:50 chance that a man behaving awkwardly is a pervert. It seems vanishingly unlikely. If a woman I worked with had a visibly erect nipple, or who was shy and socially awkward, it probably wouldn’t even occur to me that she was trying to sexually harass me, for example.

            1. Moose*

              Well maybe women react that way because we’ve all experienced men harassing us in ways that have plausible deniability.

              There ARE a lot of men who just get off on women being forced to think about their penis and being uncomfortable by it. Many. Most of us have encountered them. So at first glance, this seems like just another scheme.

              I also agree with the idea that if women were capable of having this issue, most of them would find a way to hide it. It doesn’t seem that impossible. Hiding inappropriate erections is a normal skill most men have.

              1. Tomalak*

                “There ARE a lot of men who just get off on women being forced to think about their penis and being uncomfortable by it. Many. Most of us have encountered them.”

                Can you explain this? It sounds like the heart of the difference between our positions. I think we both agree that a genuine medical condition doesn’t make someone a perv, but I happen to think these pervs themselves are way thinner on the ground than you do so if someone explains an embarrassing medical condition it seems very strange to assume they are creeps.

                1. Quill*

                  Thing is that to trigger the creep factor it doesn’t take more than one guy to set off the warning bells.

                  Let’s say one man in twenty five is a creep. This is probably kind of high but list off 25 men that you know. If you go through family, former classmates and teachers, coworkers new and old, you’ll get way past 25. You can probably recall the names of more like 50 men you’ve known at various points in your life. Then think how many men are just… existing around you who you don’t know, but who are – sometimes intentionally, sometimes not – giving off more subtle danger signals like standing too close, staring at possibly you, possibly not. The human brain is wired to throw up a LOT of false positives for danger, because it’s much easier to deal with than false negatives.

                  Put it all together and you get a significant part of half the population experiencing a lot of wariness around any man wanting to talk about something that is awkwardly sex-adjacent but not undeniably sexual.

                  The reason this stumped Alison is more about “how do we minimize this causing harm to either the person experiencing a medical problem or the people who have a societal reason to be weirded out by it that is neither his, nor their, fault,” so there’s not a great, universally applicable answer. Especially when disclosure has as many problems as non-disclosure.

                2. Paperwhite*

                  Sexual harassment and sexual assault are far more common than you seem to realize and sufficiently heard of that no survivor should be required to prove their prevalence to you,

                3. Librarian1*

                  If you’re a man, you really have no idea how common creepy behavior from men is. It’s much more common than you imagine.

        3. 1.0*

          Let’s be real, there are a lot of conversations on AAM about existing outside a specific, abled, binary, easily understood norm that devolve quickly into “making normals look at your weird, deviant bodies is gross and bad, and writing bad-faith fanfic about letter writers is useful and helpful”

          1. Paperwhite*

            I never thought I would find a defense of exposing oneself outside of 4Chan, and certainly not on AAM. Wow.

      4. Ferret*

        Would you suggest that someone with facial scarring should be forced to wear a mask lest their coworkers be forced into the horrifying ideal of just dealing with it? This is an involuntary visible marker of a medical condition. The particular body part it applies to is the reason why the explanation might be required but making someone cover up a disability or medical condition because bystanders might be made ‘uncomfortable’ is a classic piece of discrimination which reasonable prole should agree is wrong

      5. Empress Matilda*

        This guy has been dealing with a medical condition since puberty – I’m sure he’s aware of any possible clothing options, and has probably tried most of them. He’s also probably very aware of the pros and cons of having the up-front conversation vs not. And I would also hazard a guess that most of us here on this random internet blog are giving more thought to priapism this morning than we ever have in our lives to this point. So it’s fair to say that he’s the expert here. If there’s a clothing option that would solve the problem, he would almost certainly be wearing it already.

        1. Tomalak*

          I think office dress codes probably make this tougher, too. Well-fitting suit trousers have lots of advantages over a baggy pair of jeans – but hiding this poor man’s embarrassing problem is not one of them.

          1. mgguy*

            I wonder if allowing a relaxing of the dress code for him to allow for clothes that make it less visible would be considered a “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA.

            With that said, I am a guy, and all guys have experienced an unwanted erection at inopportune times. For someone without the subject guy’s condition, it’s not a huge deal provided that you discreetly…rearrange or just sit down until it subsides in a couple of minutes. You also kind of subconsciously learn to just not think about it, since that tends to drag it out rather than making it go away. Now that I’m in my 30s, it’s a WHOLE lot less common than when I was a teenager and in my early 20s, but it still happens and not always at the most appropriate time(albeit the random “no apparent reason” ones are not common, it’s just that guys are wired such that the threshold for “a reason” is pretty low). Not so much now for me, but when I was a teenager even clothing just rubbing the wrong way in normal movement can provoke one, not counting for the mess of hormones already there in all teenagers that can make strange things happen.

            Most guys learn really early on that the looser clothing is, the more likely it is to show. Heck, even in loose sweat pants, turning or moving the right way can show off your “goods” no matter what “state” they’re in.

            Even though I’ve(fortunately) never experienced this guys condition, I can say that even normally fitting jeans and/or tighter underwear can get painful if one lasts for more than a few minutes. Trying to hide a sustained one, particularly when just having it is already painful, would I suspect be excruciating.

    6. EventPlannerGal*

      Yes, I have to say that I would probably assume that such a conversation was the prelude to some kind of creative form of sexual harassment. I think at a minimum a manager or HR rep should be present.

    7. MK*

      Wouldn’t being around someone with frequent visible erections also be traumatic?

      Asking him to explore ways to make his condition less visible is reasonable (assuming he hasn’t already).

      1. Metadata minion*

        Why do you assume he hasn’t tried already? The LW has commented elsewhere that he has, but even without that, this is a condition that’s uncomfortable and hugely embarrassing for most people. Unless you’re starting from the assumption that he’s a creep, I would guess he has tried every underwear and dance cup brand out there until he came to Plan Z, which was having really awkward conversations with new coworkers.

    8. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

      I’m so sorry for any able-ist comments! These comments have been so enlightening, learning that it is such a painful condition and one not easily dealt with. I should have figured out the best way I would have wanted this handled before I commented, as people did point out I said I didn’t want to know, but also would react if I didn’t know. I still am not sure- and don’t know how to control my reaction that trauma instilled without therapy. I once had a colleague who was frequently sick and vomited due to medication, but several office mates would be triggered and vomited in sympathy. We didn’t fault her for her medical issue, but we really did have to find ways to work together without being together. There’s no perfect analogy, and I would hate to make him feel bad about himself, but if I was alone in an elevator with him and it happened I would start sobbing out of panic and guilt that it’s not his fault and how would that make him feel?

      1. GothicBee*

        I mean it sounds like this would be a situation where you’d need to also request an accommodation since being in this situation is also presumably a medical issue for you. Which could mean something like you don’t work with him directly or you don’t conduct meetings in a face-to-face capacity, depending on the context and situation.

        There’s such a thing as competing needs, which means that what person A needs and what person B needs are incompatible, but that’s not a valid reason to disregard the needs of one of those people in favor of the other.

      2. Paperwhite*

        To be honest, I’m kind of sorry people are being so dismissive of your trauma in response. ABove I brought up that if you worked with the man under discussion it might end up being a case of conflicting accomodations.

        Also, survivor fistbump! I am cheering you on!

  13. Lady Heather*

    Ew! Don’t talk to me about your junk!

    That’s a very fast way to either get me to complain to whoever is in charge of sexual harassment about “Person is telling me about their junk”, or to just start job-seeking.

    1. Random Commenter*

      Honest question:
      Which would bother you more? The co-worker talking to you about it, or the co-worker who you notice frequently has an erection with no explanation?

      1. Lady Heather*

        I can’t imagine I’d notice it. I’ve never noticed an erection before, not in secondary school, not on the street, nowhere.

        (I’m autistic and not attracted to men. I may be oblivious.)

        If it needed to be said at all, though, I’d hope it would be said by a person in charge, who then also assured me that if the coworker or anyone else was otherwise engaging in sexual harassment – verbal remarks, physical touch, etc – I could come to them and they would handle it.

        1. H2*

          Yes, that’s you. I personally would definitely notice, and would be uncomfortable. I would much, much rather have someone have a single awkward conversation with me about it than to spend weeks and feeling uncomfortable and wondering if I’m being harassed and agonizing about what to do and how to handle the situation, before going to HR. Some things are awkward! But if we can avoid angst, then we should, I think.

          I absolutely agree that this is a convo that should come from HR or a manager—that’s my answer to the question.

        2. Yorick*

          You haven’t noticed them before because this is a medical condition. Most of the time, men don’t have random erections that you’d see in public. But this man does.

    2. Mami21*

      Exactly. I’m very sorry that this guy has an uncomfortable, embarrassing problem with his junk. I also do not want to hear a single word about it from this guy, especially not in an earnest one on one.

    3. Amtelope*

      I am happy to politely (or actually) not notice anything that’s going on in anyone’s pants at work. I do not ever, ever want to talk about what’s going on in someone’s pants at work. That’s horrifying.

  14. Peep*

    OP #1
    I strongly do not recommend telling anyone. People can’t keep their mouths shut, any of them, and it will be your job on the line once the word gets out. My husband got in serious trouble for letting a couple of his “trusted” and “discrete” reports know about an upcoming firing. He told them the information wasn’t to be spread around. He told them to keep it quiet. He told them that he was just letting them know as a heads up since it would directly affect their work, and that this information was not to go any farther.
    The news was all over the office within the hour. Within two, he was in his boss’s office, enjoying a few hours of getting absolutely reamed out by his boss. It was the worst trouble he’s ever been in at work in his entire career. His boss was *phenomenally* angry. The person was going to be fired the next day anyway, so it was only a 24 hour advance warning for the people he told. His reports couldn’t keep their mouths closed An hour, let alone 24, and my husband got in serious trouble.

    1. The New Wanderer*

      I agree – there is very little good that could come of this, especially if it’s just a little advance notice. Give your people credit for being able to roll with any unpredictable changes. The risks of the news getting out are far too great and damaging for everyone involved.

    2. anon manager*

      +1000. This would be a HUGE no-no in my office, a management issue that would likely be escalated to HR on the first offense. There are situations where managers need to disclose something sensitive about a direct report that isn’t public on a need-to-know basis, but disclosing it *before the person involved knows* feels like a bright line, especially when the person is getting fired.

      The fact is, no matter how discreet and trustworthy you think the people you would tell are, they have less incentive not to tell anyone than you do. Intel you weren’t supposed to have in the first place is more tempting to pass along.

  15. Ponytail*

    I’m curious about cover letters because I don’t think I’ve written one in about 15 years – are these used for online applications, where the applicant is asked to fill in a form, or just with applications where a CV is sent in ? In the UK, an application form almost always has the ‘personal statement’ section, which is where you outline how you match the job description/role specification. A cover letter on top of that would repeat so much of the same content that I imagine that’s why UK employers (in my field anyway) don’t ask for one.
    Do all job applications include a cover letter ?

    1. Hare under the moon with a silver spoon*

      Also UK based – yes totally that section does function as a cover letter really. I tend to find application forms aren’t used as much in private sector where CV and cover letters are still pretty common.

      1. TechWorker*

        Or ‘just a CV, no cover letter’, which is what my company does as we hire grads on challenging degree courses and don’t want to put them off applying.

    2. Alex (UK)*

      I’m in the UK, and I’ll always include a cover letter (even prior to finding AAM) – sometimes it’s the body of an email when submitting a CV, or attached as a PDF as supplementary materials in an online application if the option is available, or sometimes job sites such as Reed etc. have a “cover letter” text field when applying for jobs. Even if the job advert doesn’t ask for a cover letter, I figure it can’t hurt to include one (unless of course the job ad specifically states no cover letters).

      The only exception would be if applying with a physical paper application form and handing it in in-person.. but the only jobs I’ve experienced with such an application process are retail/bar work/waiting staff, where a cover letter wouldn’t be expected.

    3. Des*

      I think it depends on the area. Some jobs you absolutely need a cover letter for. Others — like my area — you almost never see one.

  16. Elle by the sea*

    OP4, did they ask for a cover letter? If not, then it’s very likely that they don’t want one. Many companies don’t want unsolicited cover letters – the reason why they don’t mention it in the ad because they don’t want to read cover letters. Most jobs I’ve applied for didn’t ask for a cover letter and they didn’t have space to upload them in online applications, either. Although cover letters are a wonderful way of expressing your interest in the job and detailing the important highlights of your relevant experience, not all employers are a fan. There are many employers out there who think that your CV speaks volumes already.

    1. Lisa Turtle*

      I don’t know how universal this is, but in my industry I’ve noticed that fewer employers are asking for a cover letter and instead include a few short answer questions in the application system.

      I disagree with Alison that this is a weird choice or a mistake for employers to not ask for cover letters. A lot of people are bad at writing cover letters and some employers feel that they get much more useful information by asking specific questions about how your experience applies to the position rather than leaving it open ended.

      1. Koalafied*

        I recently applied for a job that had a few short answer questions of the “tell me about a time when” variety. At first I was slightly put off by the extra work required to apply, but then reflected that half the time I just cannot rack my brain for examples for those kind of questions when I’m on the spot, and it was actually nice to be asked on the application where I could take my time to think up an example without the pressure/nerves.

      2. Elle by the sea*

        I think it’s becoming quite common. But what I see more often is that they only ask for a CV without a cover letter or they say something along the lines of “you can submit a cover letter if you wish to, but we think your CV/resumé speaks for itself”. I don’t know what the norm is in other industries, but in my industry, employers who want a cover letter explicitly ask for one. So, if it’s not mentioned in the job advertisement or in the application site, you should assume that it is not needed.

    2. tinyfeetz*

      Hello from OP4! No, they did not ask for a cover letter. In the application process, you uploaded your resume, then had to fix the system’s interpretation of your resume into individual positions, then you selected “Skills” and “Education”. Weirdly, you also had to select from a specific list of the field your degrees are in, and the exact field of my Master’s degree wasn’t listed (it’s obviously listed on my actual resume correctly, but I had to pick something close but not exactly right). I guess I was just surprised to find there was nowhere to include a cover letter, especially since it’s major media organization and you’d think writing would be a thing, but I’ll just keep in mind that there might not be a desire for them. Thanks for the feedback!

      1. anon e mouse*

        Yeah, lots of tech jobs do this, where the cover letter is either optional or there’s no place for it at all, and as someone with a less-common degree field the latter is very frustrating, because I feel like if I don’t have the opportunity to explain in a cover letter, it’s hard to get past an HR screen. I applied for something a couple of days ago where my intuition is that I’m going to get screened out for this reason, even though I am very qualified and want the job.

  17. LGC*

    With LW3: I thought long and hard about it, but isn’t this somewhat similar to if a coworker has a facial disfigurement or uses a wheelchair, in that the condition is rather apparent?

    Also, speaking from experience: 1) I’m wincing in empathy at the thought of chronic priapism (there’s a reason why medicine ads tell you to see a doctor if it lasts longer than four hours) 2) it’s not uncommon for a person with a penis to be erect and not necessarily aroused by their surroundings. (This is actually a thing that happens. It’s embarrassing.)

    Also, although there’s some stiff competition in the archives, this definitely shot to the top of my list of most memorable letters on AAM.

    1. LawBee*

      #3 – One solution to the hypothetical would be to ask the man at the very beginning – how do you want me to handle it if/when someone mistakes your condition for sexual harassment? Talk it through BEFORE it happens, so there is already a plan in place.

      1. NotsorecentAAMfan*

        I’m really wondering; does having an erection, in the absence of ANY other inappropriate behaviour, constitute sexual harassment?

        1. mreasy*

          It doesn’t, but if I had a coworker who regularly had an erection in meetings, talking to me about work, etc, I would feel threatened by that coworker, because it’s an unusual event at work, that implies he is sexualizing the work environment. If I knew about his condition, I would know he’s not, say, mentally undressing me & my colleagues and fantasizing, causing the erection.

        2. LGC*

          Probably not! I tipped my hand to it, but people with penises can get erect for reasons other than sexual arousal. We can sometimes get erections unintentionally.

          If you draw attention to it, then yeah, it would probably be harassment. But…like, blood flows to weird places sometimes.

        3. fhqwhgads*

          The thing that makes it tricky is, in general, intent doesn’t matter when it comes to sexual harassment. Effect does. So if “every single time I interact with that guy he has an erection” absent any other information would strike say 90% of people as indicative of something sexual going on, then yeah, that could easily end up in harassment territory. That’s why the preemptive explanation makes sense, even if it’s awkward in the moment. As a lot of people noted, if they knew it’s a medical thing and to ignore it, they don’t get to point where they’re having to interpret “why does this keep happening” and thus feel harassed.

      2. Name of person*

        Challenge there though is that just because this man has this medical condition does not mean he could not also sexually harass someone.

        Reports of sexual harassment need to be taken seriously by the company, and needs to follow appropriate procedures. How he wants complaints of sexual harassment about him handled is irrelevant. They need to be handled exactly as they would in any other case. The company should not dismiss the case out of hand because he has a known medical condition (it certainly doesn’t prevent him from sexually harassing someone).

        This is difficult for the individual and company to navigate. Personally I think the manager/HR route of notifying staff (with their permission) is best. If the employee wishes to maintain privacy over their medical condition, then party of that is accepting that incorrect assumptions are likely, and yes people will likely be uncomfortable, potentially enough to be unwilling to be in physical proximity to them. The company would need to navigate the man’s right to privacy with their colleague’s right to feel safe in the workplace.

        While I’ve no doubt that men with this medical condition can successfully do many careers, reality is it would make them unsuitable in others. Thinking about the hypothetical – I really think there’sa lot of grey when it comes to reasonable accommodation. As a client I’m under no obligation to accommodate your medical condition. If my GP/physio/masseuse/carer was looking at me undressed or touching my body with a noticeable erection then I would be uncomfortable and would not be booking another appointment. Personally I think there are also many jobs where an employer could not in conscious ignore the implications of this condition (think kindy teacher or mall Santa, anyone working with sexual assault survivors, directing funeral services, front-of-camera roles that aren’t just head and shoulders). I believe in reasonable accommodations, but I also think that some medical conditions and disabilities make you unsuited for certain roles. This is one of those where there might not me a physical impediment, but there is still a significant impediment for certain careers/roles.

        1. Colette*

          Agreed – if someone reports sexual harassment because of his medical condition, that’s bad for everyone. And the fact that he has a medical condition does not make him automatically innocent of sexual harassment, so they would have to investigate. I don’t think there is a perfect solution here, but I agree that having management be involved in the initial discussion is probably the best of the options.

        2. LGC*

          True, but I think the question isn’t about how to handle sexual harassment so much as it is about handling the chronic priapism. (And that was QUITE the sentence to write on a work advice blog.) Of course the hypothetical employee can still commit sexual harassment (because harassment is often about power), and there are jobs where it might be less appropriate for him to work. But assuming that LW3 isn’t in a sensitive position, it’s about dealing with an employee that has a visually uncomfortable medical condition.

          I actually tried to avoid puns this time.

      3. SweetestCin*

        I’m pretty sure this IS the correct answer. We can guess all day in a vacuum (i.e. not know what the person with the medical condition wants/needs/requires), but honestly, isn’t this what a manager should do?

    2. AnonForThis*

      I can speak to the facial disfigurement part. I encounter individuals with facial disfigurement frequently in my line of work. We know that the general public can react to facial disfigurement with expressions of surprise, disgust, intense fixation, or even avoidance. These behaviors are normal and understandable for observers to display, but can often result in the individual with the disfigurement feeling ostracized and self-conscious. It can cause folks with facial disfigurement to avoid normal life, like going to the grocery store, and result in poor adjustment if their disfigurement is a result of recent trauma or disease. There’s a school of thought that if we can normalize, or better educate around, facial disfigurement in advance (at least for friends, family, colleagues that are likely to encounter the disfigured person) everyone has a more positive experience.

      With this said, I have so much empathy for this employee. He is just doing what he can to experience as normal a work life as possible, and it sounds like he has found a method of addressing the concern that helps him do that. I’m glad for everyone involved that it was handled so well. And from my experience with individuals with facial disfigurement, there’s a real case to be made for addressing the concern up front in an attempt to normalize it.

  18. agnes*

    there are some types of pants and other clothing that might be more suitable than others for this type of medical condition.

  19. Hornswoggler*

    OP1: I was once warned that a close colleague was about to be fired and I was very grateful.

    It was a very small not for profit organisation – four people in the office – and we all worked closely together. The guy was a lovely chap and not bad at his job but had made a potentially catastrophic mistake – spending a huge sponsorship grant in the wrong financial year, leaving the whole organisation exposed.

    Our director had a quiet word with me literally minutes before she did the deed. It was horrible but not as horrible as it would have been if I hadn’t known. I think she was worried he might blow up, but he didn’t, just left quietly and didn’t come back.

    I’m still in touch with both of them but they’re understandably not in touch with each other.

    1. Frantic Parrot*

      Unless they were expecting you to have some involvement in the sacking I really don’t see how those couple minutes notice would be helpful. It’s not like you could get up to speed in their projects or anything. Although it sounds like they thought you might be needed, so less a heads up about the sacking and more a potential situation.

      I’d be really unhappy with a boss that gave lots of people the heads up that I was about to be sacked Depending on my role, I’d probably understand that certain people would need to know (especially if the sacking was acrimonious), but unless you expect them to take action in the time left tell them after.

      You should always be weighing up the risk of the employee finding out through gossip (and if there’s an unfair dismissal case that’s doesn’t help you). Sometimes it’ll make sense to let people know (especially if the employee already knows), other times it’s too high a risk.

      I worked at a place where big boss was sacked with no notice locally. It was hell on those who had to cover (number two was on leave on a cruise at the time). But given that big boss left under police arrest warning anyone was too high risk. Other times staff have known it is coming eg an employer who lets you tick over to the new financial year.

      1. Hornswoggler*

        I think she just wanted me to be prepared in case there was any immediate fallout – shouting or throwing things. Happily there wasn’t.

      2. Salyan*

        I can see where it could be useful. A young colleague of mine was fired a year ago…. he came back from a meeting with a manager who hung around and chatted with me while my coworker collected his things from his desk. I was super oblivious and thought the manager was just feeling chatty, and made a light-hearted comment about how it must be nice for my coworker to leave early for lunch! It wasn’t until they left that I realized he was being fired. (doh!) If I’d had any prewarning, I wouldn’t have made such innocent but potentially hurtful comments.

  20. Susan Calvin*

    LW5, I agree with Alison – the local Glassdoor-competitor in my country has been soliciting ratings and feedback on companies’ pandemic policies for months now, and let me tell you, there’s a lot of people making good use of the feature.
    At least one company I know of (large online portal, of all things) is currently facing a mass exodus of their web devs because they don’t consider work from home feasible for them – and at least in industries that have held up fairly well this year, I foresee this becoming a trend.

    1. Des*

      Oh my god, there is a company out there that doesn’t consider *web devs* working from home feasible?? How.

      1. Susan Calvin*

        I know, it’s honestly wild. A friend of mine works there, and it wasn’t *awful* pre-covid (although the wfh policy already sucked then) but there was already some grumblings about disconnect between the devs and the product/project managers, who apparently get primarily recruited from consultancy wash-outs (who may or may not have internalized the “butts in seats = billable hours = good” mentality).

  21. Context is everything*

    I think there’s a big difference between addressing something in the moment and preemptively telling everyone you meet about your penis problems. I also think the same applies to other conditions that might impact your workplace participation, like IBS or Tourettes.

    If someone pulls me aside to tell me he has frequent erections, without context, I have no way of knowing if he’s a nice guy trying to head something off at the pass or a creep who is trying to create a situation where he can talk about erections at work. He should mention it only if the situation occurs – it’s very different to hear “I’m so sorry, this is the result of a medical condition, it’s not related to anything else, here’s my medical note” if the situation presents itself, just like “sorry, had to run, IBS”
    or “Sorry, I have Tourettes, that’s a tic, please just ignore it.”

    1. Julia*

      That’s kinda how I feel as well, BUT: how would Fergus know when to bring this up? When he has an erection around someone? When he thinks that someone has noticed him having an erection? When that someone tells him that they have noticed his erection? Or when that someone has gone to HR?

      1. Alex (UK)*

        Yeah, that’s my issue with this proposed solution. If the symptoms are obvious – you’re running to the bathroom with IBS, or a clear verbal/physical tic – it’s easy to address in the moment. But an erection isn’t necessarily obvious – there are many who would be oblivious to it, it may depend entirely on what clothes are being worn and how they’re creased/folded in the affected region, and there are many who might notice it but brush it off, there are those who would notice and be creeped out. And I don’t think very many people are going to be direct and say “hey Fergus, why have you got an erection whenever you’re talking to me?” to give Fergus the opportunity to explain.

        If Fergus tries to pick up on cues that someone has noticed but reads them wrong, he’s back to being the creeper who’s talking about his dick unsolicited, and now it’s worse because he thinks you were looking at his crotch. If Fergus doesn’t pick up on the signals that someone has noticed and doesn’t explain, now that’s fodder for a sexual harassment claim.

        If Fergus says nothing until HR are involved/it’s brought up as a sexual harassment problem.. well, whilst he can easily dismiss those concerns as it’s a medical condition, it might still hinder his career to have a string of sexual harassment charges on his record (despite that they were unfounded and he has a medical issue).

        And I have no idea how the boss or HR would go about explaining to someone who complained about sexual harassment that it’s not in fact harassment, without disclosing Fergus has a medical condition. How crappy would Jane feel if she kept bringing up to her boss that Fergus seems to have an erection around her and it’s making her uncomfortable, but as far as she can tell boss isn’t doing anything about it & Fergus is still having erections? She could well feel as if she’s being gaslit to oblivion, that no-one is taking (what she views as) sexual harassment seriously, and she’ll likely end up leaving.

        I realise the OP is a hypothetical situation (albeit one based on reality), but it’s a really tricky thing to get right and I think consulting with a lawyer from the outset would be a good idea.

      2. Context is everything*

        If it were me, I would bring it up if I thought someone had noticed my erection. Obviously that’s not a perfect solution, since you might not notice someone noticing, but I don’t think there is a perfect solution to this problem. For me the potential harm from a large number of uncomfortable conversations about erections in the workplace outweighs the potential harm of failing to notice someone’s discomfort in the moment, because I think the former is likely to negatively impact more people than the latter. I think of it like the number needed to treat in a research study – if you have to give a million people a treatment in order to prevent one death from the disease, probably more people will be harmed by medication side effects than by not receiving the intervention, so it’s not a good intervention to use.

        Ultimately I think this is an unfortunate solution without a clear best-case scenario, likely to lead to at least some discomfort over the course of this employee’s tenure with the company. I think the best they can hope for is a) not to break any laws and b) to minimize the unpleasantness for everyone.

        1. Julia*

          In theory, I would also bring it up when I thought someone had noticed, but in practice I think it’s not sure I would figure it out every time. Like, either I’d think they notice but they hadn’t (awkward!) or I’d think they hadn’t noticed but they actually had.

    2. DrSalty*

      Here’s the thing though – this conversation is already uncomfortable and it would be 100000x worse if he has an erection while it’s happening

      1. Context is everything*

        I don’t agree. I would be a lot more uncomfortable trying to parse an ambiguous situation without context than calmly discussing an obvious medical issue in the moment. If someone is clearly not aroused and the conversation is calm and businesslike, I would find that very reassuring. I’ve never had a colleague with this particular medical issue, but I have been sexually harassed at work, and it was the surrounding emotional/contextual clues that were the most upsetting element.

    3. Lady Heather*

      Re: Tourette’s, I did spend a while this morning trying to find examples of Tourette’s constituting harassment. I wondered how that would play out in court.

      I could find:
      Evans vs Orthopedics Associates, LLC: Case regarding person with Tourette’s that frequently used the N-word, sometimes as often as eighteen times in six minutes: the judge ruled that the plaintiff was right so the case should go to trial? (The US legal system confuses me – where I live, the judge rules at the end of a trial, not at the beginning.)
      Ray vs Korger Co: Case regarding supermarket worker with Tourette’s that used racial slurs at customers. Termination was judged to be lawful.
      Job Accommodation Network, case of the insurance telemarketer with unspecified verbal/vocal ticks: person was unwilling to engage in an interactive process (such as private office, frequent breaks) and was fired.
      Job Accommodation Network, case of the sexually offensive person with unspecified employment: as no accommodation was found to be effective, person was fired. (The sexual remarks were directed exclusively to female coworkers, and the person also drew lewd pictures and passed them around to (gender-unspecified) coworkers. JAN did not question the validity of linking those actions and Tourette’s.)
      Job Accommodation Network, case of the library worker with infrequent verbal outbursts: given the rarity of they occurred, the employer simply rolled with it.

      I was hoping to find something more nuanced than “if you use racial slurs at customers, you can’t do the essential job functions for working in customer service; passing around lewd pictures to coworkers is a cause for termination; if your disability is causing problems at work, you need to engage in an interactive process”.
      Maybe Evans vs Orthopedics LLC will have an interesting resolution.

      1. Natalie*

        Regarding the first case, it looks like what you found was a motion to dismiss – that is, one of the parties asked the court to throw the case out for some reason. The judge is ruling about that motion, not the whole case, which based on the date might be ongoing.

        Also this is an interesting parallel, just in general.

      2. pancakes*

        A US judge ruling that a case can proceed to trial isn’t at all the same as ruling on the merits of the case itself. That’s what the trial is for. UK courts make procedural / administrative rulings, too.

      3. Gazebo Slayer*

        I don’t believe for a moment that the lewd drawings passed around to coworkers were Tourette’s. The inappropriate remarks only to female coworkers? Maaaaaaybe, but I’m still skeptical. That dude is 100% a creep.

    4. Tomalak*

      “If someone pulls me aside to tell me he has frequent erections, without context, I have no way of knowing if he’s a nice guy trying to head something off at the pass or a creep who is trying to create a situation where he can talk about erections at work.”

      The “without context” seems very strange – surely the whole point of the letter is that he does explain the medical issue rather than give no context? Beyond this, the implication seems to be that the odds of your two scenarios are 50:50 rather than 99.9:0.01 – and that nothing about how he raised the topic would help you tell the difference either. How do you figure this?

      1. Yorick*

        OP3 has replied with specifics about what he would say to people, and it was so reasonable and shouldn’t make anybody think they’re being harassed.

  22. Silly Goose*

    Regarding the medical condition, I have two thoughts. First is that somebody having a physical reaction – whether to someone else or not – is not harassment. It might be horribly uncomfortable for everyone, but it’s also not a behavior.

    If it was chronic hiccuping (also an involuntary reaction) we wouldn’t be bringing it up, right?

    Presumably, this reaction is not followed by something behavioral like grabbing ones crotch or something – which would be an issue.

    In that respect, it’s not dissimilar to a woman with nipples that tend to get pointy frequently (i.e. it can be a sign of arousal, or it could be a cold room, etc). In that line of thinking, wouldn’t most of us be saying “why is Joe looking and Jane’s chest enough to notice?” Rather than “wow, Jane is harassing Joe by making her nipples erect!”

    Now, there is an issue of client facing and office harmony, etc. Probably it’s in everyone’s interest to, for instance, not have this hypothetical person wear really tight pants. That could be a discussion point on possible mitigation.

    Also, I have heard that there are compression briefs for such issues… I don’t know if they come in adult sizes (I heard it mentioned for young boys who can have this type of involuntary reaction). Upon hearing about them, my first thought was “why does anyone notice a 6 year old’s crotch situation?” But I tend a bit toward the autism spectrum in respect to my ability to process information about people, so maybe that’s just me. Anyway, I could see something like these compression briefs being useful for someone in this situation who wanted privacy but also needed to be client facing (or, I suppose, is well endowed enough for it to cause disruption in the office)

    1. Mami21*

      Chronic hiccuping doesn’t make people feel like they are being sexually harassed. Most reasonable people know that erect nipples, in people of both genders, mean something entirely different in a sexual situation or in a chilly room at the office.

      An obvious erection has no female equivalent, and for most people, is not something that’s acceptable in a professional setting. I have sympathy for the guy but I don’t see why it’s on other people to accept that someone might want to stand next to them with an erection. I wouldn’t want to deal with that on public transport, in line at a coffee shop, sitting next to someone on an airplane, or so on. It’s not a situation where a polite, frank discussion is going to improve the situation or make it ok.

      1. Silly Goose*

        Being the mother of boys, I can tell you that guys get erections form non-sex reasons, unless you want to argue about what I’ve seen during diaper changes. Even if we believe as a society otherwise, I would argue that it isn’t necessarily sexual. Then again, I have never spent any time looking at men’s crotches ( I find it like looking at women’s chests… Why would you if you weren’t in an intimate relationship?) So I also can’t say that I’d be uncomfortable around a guy like that… I probably wouldn’t notice if he didn’t draw attention to it.

        But that’s where my comment about compression briefs and clothes that would make it less obvious come from. Presumably, the issue is people noticing… Just like I wear certain types of bras that prevent my nipples from poking out, I’m sure some things can be done to make everyone more comfortable… Although that might not be a thing managers can bring up for a medical condition (it could be like saying a chemo patient needs to wear a wig).

        So definitely tricky.

      2. anon73*

        So is this guy just supposed to stay home and become a hermit because he has a documented medical condition through no fault of his own?

      3. TechWorker*

        Genuinely what do you expect this guy to do then? Never leave the house? Doesn’t exactly seem reasonable.

    2. Nanani*

      Nipples getting pointy is not an arousal thing, that’s a myth spread by porn. Nipples do not get erect like penises do, it’s just not a thing.
      Nipples can change shape due to cold temperature, just the same as other skin get goosebumps, but it is NOT a sexual thing.

      Don’t tell people about your junk, medical condition or no.

      1. Anon for this comment*

        And penises can become erect for non-sexual reasons as well. If he doesn’t tell people about “his junk” then someone is going to jump to conclusions that he is attracted to them and wants to have sex with them when in reality it’s medical condition.

        The amount of people on this post demonizing this man is incredible.

      2. Marni*

        “Nipples getting pointy is not an arousal thing, that’s a myth spread by porn. Nipples do not get erect like penises do, it’s just not a thing.”

        My nipples beg to differ…

        1. anon for this*

          Yes, mine too. Also, my husband’s. Both male and female nipples can harden in response to arousal. Nanani, you don’t speak for all nipples.

      3. pancakes*

        That’s just not correct. I can understand how people reach adulthood without knowing things like this, but I can’t understand how people who know they’ve never sought out information and/or experience about things like this come to believe they’re knowledgeable nonetheless.

  23. LawBee*


    ::lol forever:: Thank you for the unexpected giggle during an already-stressful Friday morning.

  24. Random Commenter*

    As the owner of a penis, #3 confuses me a bit.
    If you know you have frequent erections, you can dress in ways to minimize visibility.
    Tighter underwear so it can be directed sideways instead of creating a tent, looser pants so things aren’t as well defined. Something might still be visible, but not so much that you don’t have plausible deniability.

    1. Firecat*

      Yes I agree. I am shocked the general comments are: “here is the best way to get everyone else to deal with it” and not “ask him to solve it”.

      And before I get any of “natural body function. He shouldn’t have to be uncomfortable and spend money on a wardrobe change, etc. ”

      I have H cups. I have to uncomfortably bind myself, be very careful about the cut , style, and fabric of all my wardrobes, on a daily basis along with much more sizeable population then the priaxis crowd. It would absolutely not be acceptable for me to “pull people aside” and say “I am busty. You may occasionally see more breast then you want.”

      1. Julia*

        I don’t know. For one thing, while breasts are sexualized (I am busty as well), they don’t change in size when aroused, so people wouldn’t find your breasts uncomfortable in a way erections at work are.

        Plus, we just had a letter a while ago where we all pretty much agreed that it sucks having to hide our breasts. Yes, we have to, but don’t we want to move away from that instead of making more people hide?

      2. Des*

        >I have H cups. I have to uncomfortably bind myself

        This is sad. Are you binding for yourself or because you work with people who don’t understand that women can have big breasts?

        1. Firecat*

          Binding was a bad word choice. Constrict would have been better.

          I find bras massively uncomfortable. The straps dig into and bruise my shoulders. The wires underneath break. And they are expensive – $100+ each but due to the daily wear and tear I usually have to buy 4 a year.

          So yeah I think it’s completely acceptable to expect most men to manage this condition with clothing.

          The clothing swaps would probably not even be as uncomfortable as the average bra. If he needs help or tips – look up some professional dance sites. If ballerinas can keep an erection from being an issue in a leotard while leaping over an audiences head I think managing it while sitting in an office should be especially doable.

          1. Grapey*

            If someone feels harassed by the presence of an erection, I’m guessing they also would not feel comfortable with a guy sporting a Labyrinth style bulge that dance belts tend to show.

            Dance belts are meant to provide support – they don’t accommodate multi hour long erections. Dancers also don’t sit for long periods of time with their belts. I think uncomfortable clothing should be moved away from, not treated with a “well I do it, you should too” attitude.

          2. TechWorker*

            The condition is painful to start with, tight clothes may not be an option. I have no idea why you think it would be ‘more comfortable than the average bra’…

    2. comityoferrors*

      Looking up the condition, it causes erections that are uncomfortable to downright painful, to the point that draining blood from the penis is one possible treatment. I don’t think tighter underwear is a good solution for that.

  25. PossumToTheMoon*

    Couldn’t a little info sheet be included with new employee onboarding? I worked somewhere where a woman had the “doesnt recognize faces” disorder from birth, and my welcome package had her name and a small photo, and tips like announcing my name (think, “Hi Jane, it’s Paul here”) when speaking in person. That also being said, if that guy came to discuss his junk with me personally I would be Very Just No about it. Too many weird experiences with people who make elaborate excuses to do sexual behaviour.

    1. No Tribble At All*

      Oooh, in some ways this is a really good comparison, because it’s a medical condition that causes behavior that could otherwise seem unprofessional and rude. (“Why can’t Jane ever remember my name? Is it just me— why does she dislike me?”) I could also see a disclaimer about certain people being sensitive to light, so if someone’s working in a room with low light, don’t go turning on the light.

      HowEVER I cannot imagine putting a slide in the official new employee orientation: “information about Joe’s dick.”

    2. Firecat*

      I think this was a great idea for your, presumably on board, face blind colleague, and a terrible idea for this situation.. You want to codify this man’s uncontrolled erections in the employee handbook?

      1. Another Anon*

        If he’s ok with that, that would be a significant improvement over a one-on-one discussion with each new employee.

    3. Joielle*

      This seems like an apt comparison! Kind of similarly – at my workplace, there’s one person with very limited vision, so all of their emails have a large/unusual font and background color, and they don’t always recognize people in the hall. My boss gave me a heads up about that when I started, which was good because otherwise I might have thought it was kind of unprofessional.

      For the OP’s situation, I don’t know that I would put it in a written packet, but it does seem like the kind of thing a manager (ideally NOT the guy himself) would mention in an orientation conversation. “Quirks about coworkers” is a good thing to know about.

      1. mgguy*

        The vision comparison is interesting. For a while, I worked with a guy who was legally blind. He was very open, frank, and where warranted(such as not being able to do something) humorous about it, but for whatever reason management-at the time-treated it like a hush-hush-secret.

        I came to be fairly good friends with him, or at least a lunch buddy a couple of times a month, and he told me that he wished they’d just said it as part of his introduction to the department. He had given them permission to, and said it was frustrating when people would send him things that even a person with 20/20 vision would struggle to read and then get upset when he would ask for clarification. He was mostly a good worker(he had his annoying quirks in how he handled things, but then who doesn’t?) who did his job well once they had all the tools he needed like a big monitor and document magnifier in place, but he got a bad reputation because he’d have issues with tasks and some folks who just knew him as a point person for certain tasks but had never interacted with him thought that he was lazy or “making up the whole blind thing.”

  26. Workerbee*

    #2 Sounds like both the bigger boss and your boss handled this incorrectly, or it’s all on your boss. Asking point-blank if you’re unapproachable to someone whom you either know or suspect of claiming you are is a great way to keep the situation awkward and unfixable, especially if it’s to a someone you could fire or make their work life more uncomfortable. Even if that’s never your intention, you cannot ignore the power dynamics.

    I’d rather such a boss say something such as, “I’ve become aware that I am coming across as X,” and then matter-of-factly convey intentions, assurances, etc. that not just tells, but shows the boss is open to dialogue, welcomes discussions, etc., and is working on their demeanor.

    That is, if the boss thinks they have a problem in the first place. I’ve worked with several elbows-out people who openly acknowledge they come across as brusque, unfriendly, unkind—but at the same time do nothing to moderate themselves.

    1. Mami21*

      Exactly this. The manager sounded accusatory if anything, like he was putting the OP on notice that he’d heard the feedback, knew where it came from, and didn’t mind putting OP on the spot in doing so.

    2. CircleBack*

      Yes I just keep thinking about how a different approach to the question would’ve been much more constructive for both the boss and the OP. Like if he had said:
      “I’d like to make sure you feel comfortable bringing things to me, like problems you’re facing or suggestions for different ways of doing things. Is there anything I can do to make that easier for you?”
      “I want to make sure everyone feels comfortable providing feedback, so I’m going to start doing X in meetings. If you have any other ideas for opening up opportunities to share Y with me, let me know.”
      The boss has either no intention of or no idea how to address their unapproachability if their plan of attack was to demand of their employees if it’s really true instead of looking for solutions.

  27. Checkert*

    #3 I’m a woman with alopecia (immune system attacks hair follicles). I wear wigs to work so my shiny bald head doesn’t steal the show but I do wear very different wigs day to day! I try to pull new folks aside and inform them the why of the wigs (because in my world, perception is king, and that would be seen as strange, which is fair). I find this especially helpful with men, because while other women have an easier time and less to fear by commenting on another woman’s hair, the men are left wondering how in the world I went from a pixie to hair down my back! Rather than let them flail on how to ask (or have them whisper to others), I face it head on (heh!) and we all feel more comfortable.

    1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

      There’s something about this that seems uncomfortable, because women who wear hair extensions for other reasons aren’t expected to explain it for the sake of optics. I’m hesitant to spell out exactly what I’m getting at, but perhaps you can read between the lines?

      1. Yorick*

        Most women who wear hair extensions stay with a particular style for some time. (Including Black women – is that what you were getting at?) Checkert is describing wearing a different wig every day of the week, which would be more uncommon and might make people curious.

        1. EventPlannerGal*

          Hasn’t there actually been a letter along these lines, where the LW’s coworker went out all the time and got really drastic haircuts/extensions over her lunchbreak and it caused all sorts of confusion?

    2. Des*

      I think this is a good approach. As a woman who has difficulty with faces, I often recognize someone by their haircut+clothing when I first start working with them (think the first month or so). So knowing this is happening would be a *major* help, rather than wondering if this is a new coworker or someone I know each day, heh.

  28. A Simple Narwhal*

    #2 My husband likes to laugh about how his CEO had a quick last minute meeting to angrily shout about how someone had said he was unapproachable, and how wrong it was because he was very approachable.

    Yelling “I’M APPROACHABLE” is truly the best way to make someone feel like you’re approachable.

    1. Emi*

      I have people skills; I am good at dealing with people! Can’t you understand that? What the hell is wrong with you people?

  29. university minion*

    LW#2 – You said you were re-orged due to COVID-19, so Brad’s been your manager for only a few months at this point, yes? Unless there’s something you’re not telling us, this sounds like totally normal instance of a new manager and employee feeling each other out. It doesn’t sound like he’s being rude, loud, condescending or anything else… just different than your old boss. He’s probably a bit uncomfortable, too, having been given a new team during the re-org and learning everyone’s preferences and quirks.

    1. anon73*

      I was thinking the same thing. Not everyone is warm and fuzzy when you first meet them or at all. But as long as he’s not mean and treats OP unfairly, they just need to take the time to figure him out and adjust accordingly.

  30. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

    #1: In theory, you might be able to do this, but in practice, I think you just have to follow up with the team afterwards. The most I would do in advance is remind the teams, as teams, of business continuity and the need for every project to be able to continue to move forward without any specific individual. Don’t let people wonder, though; you don’t want creativity going into conjecture (as happens where I work).

    #2: Wait until you’ve given your 2 weeks’ notice. I don’t see that conversation going smoothly or well.

    #3: It’s a legitimate medical condition and you employ adults.

    #4: Their circus, their rules. Just submit your résumé alone and move on to the next employer/position if your cover letter is that important to you.

    #5: The phrase I like to use with recruiters/hiring managers is “my family’s needs and the business’ needs have begun to diverge.” That usually get the point across without having to muck through the nittiest and grittiest of details. I’m having to use it currently to dance around a different situation that I really don’t want to get into the details of.

  31. Sleepless*

    I’m sorry. I wasn’t able to read anything after “harder” was crossed out. I’m going to have to go get all of my juvenile giggles out, and then come back and digest the rest of this very excellent column.

  32. KittyCardigans*

    It seems like most of the comments are dealing with the priapus case as it *is*, but what the OP asked was how could a workplace handle it if the man wanted to keep his medical condition private? And I think that’s a very different and much more difficult question than “should OP’s place of work have handled this the way they handled it?”

    Frankly, I think that some of the comments have been pretty condescending—if the man is concerned enough about this to have gotten his medical condition diagnosed, carry around a note from his doctor all the time, and have a presumably uncomfortable conversation with every new hire, I’m going to guess he’s probably already given some thought to his wardrobe! Personally, I’d rather have this information about somebody so that if I do notice something, I can be like, “ah, there’s that thing,” and not think further about it instead of giving up brain space to wondering if my coworker has an erection because it kinda looks like they do, but I don’t want to assume, but it’s super weird and uncomfortable if he does, but probably he doesn’t because we’re at work…but it kinda looks like he does, but is it weird that I noticed? And should I say anything to anybody, or just ignore it completely? What if it happened last week, too?

    1. Reba*

      Yes, re: the actual question posed!

      I would think that the manager and hypothetical employee would need to agree on *something* that manager or HR could say if they are approached about the appearance of erections. “Fergus has a condition” at the least?

      I’m not sure it could work if the person with the condition wanted total discretion, unless it was full time remote work. Another employee becomes uncomfortable and you have to basically tell them, “deal with it, no comment”? If I felt management was totally unresponsive to my complaint, or even defending the person that I believed was harassing me by doing nothing (even if my belief was wrong, in this scenario I don’t know about his issue) I would be looking to leave, trying to compare notes with coworkers, and talking to a lawyer. All that is making it more of a deal than it needs to be!

    2. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      I come back to, what is he DOING?

      Okay. Is he saying anything inappropriate?
      Well, no.
      Is he invading your personal space or getting handsy or such?
      Well, no, he’s not doing that either.
      Okay, what is he doing that’s the problem?
      Getting an erection!
      Okay, but there’s no indication that that’s anything other than biology, and we can’t really legislate (not the best word but YKWIM) his biology. Right now, the closest we come in any direction to harassment is that you are apparently staring at Fergus’s crotch and offended by its condition. And I assume you don’t want me to follow up on THAT. So how about if you stop staring at Fergus’s crotch, and if he actually *behaves* in a manner that is inappropriate, we can address that.

      1. Kitry*

        Yes, I think this would be the best way to handle the situation. Stay focused on behaviors, not bodies.

      2. pancakes*

        There are a number of commenters saying they simply wouldn’t notice, but those of us who do tend to pick up a lot visually don’t necessarily need to stare at anyone or anything to do so. I’m the sort of person who notices a reel change in an old movie, and staring at the guy’s crotch just wouldn’t be necessary.

        Years ago, I walked into a meeting in a conference room and burst out laughing because three or four of my coworkers were sitting extraordinarily close to the ground and looked silly, like kids playing dress-up in business clothes. I thought it was some sort of prank, but it turned out the cleaning crew had lowered all the seats by swiveling the chairs out of the way for vacuuming. My coworkers said they’d noticed something felt off but they hadn’t identified what it was, although they were nearly low enough to the ground to rest their chins on the table!

        1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

          That’s fair. I would like to think that someone who *actually* works in HR and is not generally super socially awkward would phrase things better than I do, and probably leave out the “look, quit staring at his pants” bit absent any actual evidence that such a thing is happening. (And I’m super NOT visual, so for me to notice, I would pretty much *have* to be deliberately staring. I don’t mean to suggest that I disbelieve you, just, the incidental noticing is super outside the realm of normal to me, so it doesn’t register to me without conscious consideration that it’s totally normal for other folks. People look at the world from their own context most of the time – even if that context is practically sitting on the floor :) )

      3. Yorick*

        Yes, if someone complained I would ask if his actual behavior was inappropriate and if not remind them that erections are biological functions and they should ignore it. I’d try to make it clear that they should let me know if Fergus actually does anything inappropriate in the future. And if they were really uncomfortable being around someone with erections I’d try to work out something to make them more comfortable (move their desk farther away from him, whatever).

        It would be easiest if Fergus was ok with me mentioning that he has a condition, but I think it could be handled well anyway.

      4. come on*

        “Dear Alison: I have just started working at a new job, and one of my coworker constantly walks around with a prominent erection. I feel really uncomfortable about this, but when I went to HR they told me that it was my fault that I was staring at his crotch and that I am basically harassing him by noticing his constant erections. What should I do?” – next week’s letter

          1. pancakes*

            Why would HR say that if they knew he has a condition? Or even if they didn’t, for that matter. The next step, if they didn’t, would be to investigate what’s going on between those coworkers, not simply pick one to side with and tell the other to get lost.

            1. come on*

              it is a pretty direct paraphrase of what Red Reader says in the comment which I am replying to. I believe you have already read that comment as you responded to it above.

              “Right now, the closest we come in any direction to harassment is that you are apparently staring at Fergus’s crotch and offended by its condition. And I assume you don’t want me to follow up on THAT. So how about if you stop staring at Fergus’s crotch,”

              I am paraphrasing it from the point of view of the hypothetical coworker as a rhetorical device to illustrate that I think that it is terrible.

              1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

                Well, that’s why I clarified in a subsequent comment that the specifics of my hypothetical exchange weren’t great and anybody who actually has any business in HR (that is, Not Me) could improve on the specifics, but that the point was, as someone else phrased better, to focus on behavior and not biology. So yes, your complaint about my original comment has already been noted and addressed.

                1. Paperwhite*

                  A common tactic that people use against reports of discriminatory behavior (such as reports of racism, or of sexual harassment) is to say “Oh no it is YOU who are the REAL bigot by noticing this/bringing this up!” So the fact that you decided that was the route to go in this theoretical situation says a lot about how you’d likely advise a coworker who did come to you after suffering harassment. It wasn’t at all just some tiny mistake.

                  For what it’s worth, not least considering how many here agree with you, which definitely shows some of why sexual and other kinds of harassment are still rampant, I’m glad someone stood up to you and I hope you never have power over vulnerable people.

                2. come on*

                  It doesn’t take working in HR to realise that the basis of your entire script (which a worrying number of people seem to think is laudable?) is blatant victim-blaming. “It’s actually your fault for noticing and being bothered by this and you must be doing something to create this situation” is not something you should be dismissing as “the specifics” of your wording, it’s a really really gross attitude that is the basis for your entire script.

                  I think you should think about why this is the tack that immediately suggested itself to you and whether this is how you do or would deal with anyone coming to you with a sexual harrasment complaint. I also think the people applauding this script should think about whether they actually thought about how this attitude affects victims of sexual harrassment or whether they just enjoy imagining themselves delivering a righteous smackdown.

    3. Joielle*

      Yes! 100% agree, I was thinking the same thing.

      It is a much more difficult question, because I think the way the OP’s workplace handled it is the best way to go. I agree that I’d rather have the information up front so I don’t have to devote brain space to wondering about it. But if that’s not an option…. maybe you need to figure out some reasonable accommodations up front so it doesn’t have to get to the point of a sexual harassment allegation.

      Maybe they’d need to work from home, or only contact coworkers by phone or email when they’re having an episode, or something like that. The reasonableness of different accommodations would probably depend on how often it happens and how often they need to work with other people.

      1. Joielle*

        And after reading Red Reader’s comment above, I want to amend my comment to agree with them! (My kingdom for an edit button.) As long as the guy isn’t acting creepily, yeah, the condition of his junk isn’t really anyone’s business.

        1. SimplytheBest*

          You want to start telling women who are going to HR because they feel sexually harassed that it’s all in their head and they’re actually the harassers?

  33. Dr. Prepper the Urologist*

    I may be coming to this party late but I would be very wary of #3 with their colleague’s “erections” story as there is no way they are due to classical priapism. Priapism is a medical emergency caused by an abnormal blood flow process, frequently seen in medical conditions such as sickle cell anemia and leukemias, other times from abuse of certain drugs. It is usually exquisitely painful, not pleasurable, sex is the LAST thing on their minds and many times requires a surgical procedure to correct. If untreated, the blood will actually clot and the penis can become fibrotic – in other words natural erections cannot occur any longer. So, #3’s colleague is either full of it and faked/conned a doc to write him a note or he has some other way to get sustained erections episodically such as a penile implant.

    While there still may be no legal / HR way to address this, the medical facts are strongly against this guy walking around with episodic priapism that causes no lasting side effects that ultimately would “cure” his issue.

    1. Anon for this comment*

      I have a family member who gets erections due to a medication that they have to take for a chronic medical condition. They don’t walk around all day with an erection, but it does happen almost daily.

    2. Julia*

      A two minute Google search tells me this condition can be the side effects of medications as common as antidepressants.

    3. HardKnockLife*

      Yeah, you are wrong. There are multiple medical conditions and medication side effects that can cause spontaneous, non-erotic erections. For medications as common as Prozac and Wellbutrin, as well as blood thinners and hormones.

    4. Brusque*

      You are only describing the worst case of priapism. But as with almost all physical conditions it comes in variations and can have several causes and outcomes. So I’d be careful to jump to conclusions and accuse people of faking doctors notes just based on a Google search!

    5. Michael*

      Hi Dr. Prepper,

      I don’t believe you are a doctor, much less a urologist. That’s what you get if you copy + paste the first page of Wikipedia’s entry on priapism, not an accurate summary of the actual condition (which can be caused in much less extreme forms than the one you describe by a variety medications, among other things).


  34. MCMonkeyBean*

    For LW #1, I feel like there is a lot of middle ground between “We are going to fire Fergus” and “Change is coming that will affect this project.” Can you not go with something along the lines of “we’ll be moving Fergus off of this project soon. I wanted to give you a heads up so you can think about how we would need to adjust for that.”

    It sounds like he’s working on a bunch of projects so it would be reasonable for someone to think to think maybe he’s being pulled from their project to focus on another. They probably don’t need to know yet that he’s getting pulled off of *every* project.

      1. Des*

        Yes, this. If people think it’s a lateral move rather than a firing, they’re much more likely to bring it up with Ferbug. I wouldn’t say anything at all, tbh.

  35. Anon for this comment*

    I’m really saddened by some of the comments about letter #3. Someone in my family has this condition, which is caused by a medication that they have to take for another chronic medical condition. If you think it’s embarrassing and uncomfortable for you, imagine being the person who deals with it. They have to take the medication in order to be able to function and it’s side effect is priapism. So they have to disclose their medical condition in order to explain. If they don’t, they might get accused of sexual harassment. Or someone makes a compliant to HR and HR explains it to the complainer. Either way, it causes embarrassment for the person who is suffering.

    I also agree if this situation was flipped and a woman wrote in about something comparable, there would not be jokes and people talking about running away or being creeped out.

    I know many will disagree with me and that’s fine. I normally agree with both Alison and the commenters but it makes me really sad that this is a joke to others. I hope everyone has a safe and pleasant weekend.

    1. Des*

      Yeah, I’m actually really surprised by some of the comments here. Yes, it would be unpleasant for me to know this, but like, we’re all adults in the workplace, we should have the ability to deal with the unfortunate facts of life. It’s a medical issue — apparently! I had no idea! — so it should be handled as such.

    2. anon73*

      Yes, many of the comments on here are super juvenile. That being said, while I believe giving someone a heads up abut the situation is needed (pardon the pun), I think a manager and/or HR needs to be involved when it’s explained. I would feel a bit uncomfortable if someone I had just met at a new job took me aside to have a conversation about a medical condition involving his penis. It needs to be done in a professional manner, and management/HR can navigate that.

    3. pillbox*

      I totally agree, and I find it disappointing that someone’s medical condition is being used as a joke – both by Alison and by commenters.

    4. MCMonkeyBean*

      I agree, but I also appreciate that this is difficult to approach from all angles.

      At the end of the day there *is* nothing comparable for (cis)women. The closest thing people have come up with is visible nipples, but a woman cannot cause harm to another person with their nipples. This is not something men with this condition have any control over and they shouldn’t be judged for it, but at the same time I do have space for people who are saying they would not be able to handle being around someone with that condition because of trauma from their past. It sucks, but really there’s not an easy answer.

    5. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

      I posted above about being uncomfortable with it myself, but I know I couldn’t work with that individual due to my own traumas and that makes me feel horrible. I absolutely understand it’s not in their control, I just hope that a workplace would be able to work out reasonable accommodations like separate teams or digital communication. I’d be fine working with the employee, but feel wretched about being triggered by something he couldn’t control. It is like being allergic to a coworker’s guide dog as someone mentioned earlier.

    6. Also Anon*

      Agreed. I also find it disappointing that the armchair diagnoses/unsolicited advice to someone who hasn’t even written in to this column/more obvious ableism (making fun of a medical condition for cheap laughs? Essentially telling him he should just disappear from society? Calling it f’in gross and saying, “ew don’t talk to me about your junk”?) hasn’t been shut down by Alison.

    7. Paperwhite*

      Well in turn I think quite a few commenters are using this one man’s uncommon disorder to justify being dismissive of the real history of trauma many people, including women, have around what not a few men have chosen to do with their erections. There are people in the comments minimizing the incidence of sexual malfeasance. So there we all are thinking things.

      1. EventPlannerGal*

        Thank you, this. I have great sympathy for this man and his unfortunate condition, but I think it’s pretty gross how quick some people have been to minimise the possibility of other’s discomfort.

      2. Apatosaurus*

        Same. A lot of commenters are being really dismissive of survivors with PTSD, which is also a disability that won’t magically go away by telling us to just not feel scared.

    8. Firecat*

      I’ll be honest that the joking was part of the reason I dismissed it as a normal, albeit long lasting and uncontrollable erection, and pushed clothing management as an angle.

      I have been surprised how well a slightly roomy pair of Dickies dress pants can hide an 8″x3″ erection. So I didn’t understand all the pushback to pursuing that angle until the update that these are overflowing and painful so probably stiffer and more difficult to conceal.

      I do think pre-emptive warnings are probably not the way to go either though.

  36. LawPancake*

    My former boss would had to let go a few people in our department and would always give us a heads up so that we would take a long lunch so as to give them privacy when they were cleaning out their desks.

  37. learnedthehardway*

    OP#1 – My opinion (held very strongly) is that if you can’t control what people do with the information, you shouldn’t disclose it. And I don’t mean whether you can trust them not to tell anyone – I mean, can you PREVENT them from telling anyone? If not, I would not provide advance notice to anyone who wasn’t directly involved in the decision-making.

    The most I would do is to advise the person’s direct manager and grand-boss that they should develop contingency plans around the fired worker’s projects, whether that is starting a confidential search for the person’s replacement, cross-training other employees, or getting documentation about projects in process. All this can be done without it being obvious that the person is going to be replaced – with the person’s workload, it can be done as part of their PIP, which they should be on before being fired anyway. eg. regular reporting on project status and actions taken could be part of the PIP.

    1. learnedthehardway*

      ETA – forgot to mention – treat this as you would finding out that an employee got hit by a bus, or had a sudden medical emergency. There should be enough documentation and backup files that this doesn’t completely derail projects they were working on, in any case.

    2. anon manager*

      I absolutely agree with this, but I assumed the person’s direct manager was the LW and “managers” referred to other people in managerial roles at the company. Is it routine in other industries for someone to be fired without their manager knowing? That would be very unusual at my company and would likely be a red flag for me that I had lost the trust of upper management in a really serious way.

  38. 7.12*

    if any man ever approached me and said “i have permanent boner disease” i would literally not believe them, sorry. i’d think he was like sexually hazing the newbie. i don’t care if it’s medical, i know priapism is real, but that’s f-cking gross. he needs to deal with that another way.

    1. pancakes*

      Yikes! It’s childish and unreasonable to assume he’d phrase it that way, and you don’t in fact seem to understand that it is real. If you did you wouldn’t be characterizing it as impossible to believe and gross.

      1. 7.12*

        it’s gross to deal with this situation in this manner, by pulling people aside and drawing attention to something highly sexual that they probably wouldn’t notice or care about otherwise. if that’s childish, then i’m cool with that, i’ll preemptively title myself Biggest Baby.

        1. Des*

          If it’s priapism then it’s not sexual, and he has a doctor’s note so we have no reason to doubt it’s priapism.

        2. pancakes*

          It’s not sexual. That’s the point of informing people about it. I’m not cool with people being big babies past grade school age.

    2. Des*

      But…why? If someone came up and said they had, say, a bowel disease and need to use the bathroom very often, would you not care it’s medical and blame them for the bodily functions they can’t control? I just don’t get why the involvement of a particular body part causes such angst.

      I’m baffled by this reaction.

      1. 7.12*

        if you don’t understand why erections are an issue of sexual harassment and IBS is not, i can’t help you

        1. Des*

          I don’t understand why you conflate the issue of sexual harassment with the issue of disclosing a medical issue. Baffling.

          1. 7.12*

            this website is amazing. people are stringently! chill! about a guy doing a weird private erection disclosure but can’t deal with coworkers asking about their weekend. this is why i keep coming back here.

            1. pancakes*

              Those aren’t necessarily the same people. Any disclosure on this subject is bound to be a bit awkward, but it doesn’t follow that there’s no way for grown adults to discuss medical conditions that involve genitals without sexually harassing one another.

    3. Yorick*

      Read the comment section. OP3 has commented with specifics about what he would tell people. It’s in no way “I have permanent boner disease.”

      If someone heard that disclosure and thought they were being sexually harassed, they’re jerks.

  39. HardKnockLife*

    As a penis-haver and a survivor of sexual assault from another penis-haver, I am kinda shocked by the comments. Some people are saying that they think they shouldn’t be told AND that they would be seriously upset if they realized he had an erection. With no desire to attempt to explore that dissonance.

    There’s actually research that shows that people do look at crotches a lot, even if they don’t consciously register it (eye movement mapping studies) so all the people saying they wouldn’t notice, would probably notice. Hilariously men are more likely to look at other men’s crotches, but the maps show significant crotch looking for all.

    And for those that are suggesting different underwear or that he wear constrictive clothing, priapism can cause blood clots and so things that smoosh the erection down can worsen it AND be a danger to the person’s health. It’s NOT a regular erection and, like so many chronic medical conditions, you suggesting solutions off the top is rarely going to solve the issue. Ask anyone with a chronic disease how they feel about spontaneous advice.

    1. Empress Matilda*

      Seriously. As I said above, this guy has been dealing with priapism for decades – guaranteed he knows about all the possible clothing, medical, deep breathing, whatever options are out there. Whatever he’s doing now, he’s doing it because it’s the best option he has. And if he’s not doing some particular thing, it’s almost certainly because it doesn’t work, not because he hasn’t thought of it. I doubt very much that a bunch of random commenters on a business advice blog could come up with something that he hasn’t already researched pretty extensively.

    2. Ray Gillette*

      I’m quite bothered by the number of people conflating “I have an embarrassing medical condition, here’s a fact sheet from my doctor so that you’re not surprised when you inevitably see me showing symptoms” with cornering unsuspecting newcomers to talk about his penis.

      1. Yorick*

        Yes, this is bothering me too.

        If he had been cornering people to talk about his penis, OP wouldn’t have written about it as though he handled it well and was a good person.

      2. SimplytheBest*

        It’s not surprising though. People with chronic illness and disabilities are often dismissed as creepers and cheats. Of course this comment section thinks the same.

  40. Arctic*

    I would be much less uncomfortable if a dude had a random boner (which in all likelihood I wouldn’t even realize as I so rarely look at my coworker’s crotches but it’s possible) than if he pulled me aside to talk to me about his boners.

  41. Des*

    It’s not weird to not accept cover letters if nobody will look at them. Accepting them and then not looking at them would be weird! But in my area (tech) you don’t generally see cover letters — at least I haven’t seen one for the numerous people I’ve interviewed or when I have applied for jobs myself.

  42. Texan In Exile*

    So wait. We women are not supposed to let our nipples show – we are supposed to wear clothing that suppresses them, but this guy doesn’t need to find tighter underwear?

    1. Des*

      We’re supposed to try to move in a better direction, not worse. Hopefully, attitudes towards female body parts would also eventually undergo change. I mean, some 200 years ago you couldn’t show your ankle and 50 years ago you couldn’t go to the workplace without stockings, so progress does happen, if slowly.

    2. Green great dragon*

      It seems likely that if tighter underwear was going to solve the problem without causing medical issues for him, he’d be wearing tighter underwear.

    3. Yorick*

      It’s relatively easier to cover nipples than a painful medical-condition-induced erection. I get that this is sort of an analogy, but it’s not a good one.

    4. SimplytheBest*

      Do you have a medical condition that makes your nipples painfully swell multiple times bigger than their usual size? If not, you’re not really talking about the same thing at all.

  43. anon73*

    #1 – IMO it’s a very bad idea. There is always a chance that it could get back to the person being let go. Someone could overhear the conversation, or someone you thought you could trust may tell someone they thought they could trust, and so on, and so on…

  44. AlmostGone*

    Maybe the accommodation for the guy with priapism is to be allowed to wear his shirts untucked so that they cover his groin area.

  45. Anon for this*

    I’m skeeved out by priapism guy being “extremely open about his condition.” I’d rather he were extremely into looser pants. Please don’t talk to me about your dick at work, thanks.

  46. Spicy Tuna*

    LW#2 – I once had a boss that was very unapproachable. The two of us, plus another colleague, went on a work trip to the Dominican Republic. On our return trip, while standing in the check-in line, my luggage was searched. At the airport in Santo Domingo, they just would search your belongings out in the open (this was right after 9/11, so I don’t know if they’ve changed their protocol now). The security guy pulled out a box of super tampons, opened it, examined several tampons, and then moved on to my bra. He held it up to the light in all of its A-cup glory and stretched it out a few times before returning it o my luggage. My boss was standing right there looking like he wanted the floor to swallow him up.

    Want to talk about unapproachable. I don’t think he said a word to me for the next year. If I was in the kitchen getting coffee and he walked in, he would turn around and walk right out!

    Several years and jobs later, I had just taken a new job. My new boss mentioned that they had interviewed someone from my previous employer but took a pass because the candidate seemed “inflexible”. He wouldn’t tell me who the person was, but when I guessed my former boss, my new boss confirmed it. Hehe. If he only knew how inflexible this guy was!

  47. Suz*

    OP#2, You may find he’s not so unapproachable after you’ve worked for him longer. Years ago I worked for someone similar but once I got to know him he was the best boss I ever had. He just had a very stern, loud voice. A coworker once asked me why Boss was always mad at him. He wasn’t mad. It was just the way he talked to everyone.

    1. Spicy Tuna*

      YES! I had a boss like that. She always seemed cross and she would frequently close her office door for long stretches, during which time I imagined she was coming up with ways to fire me. Years later after we had both moved on to other jobs, she told me she would close the office door to a) pay bills; or b) yell at her kids over the phone

  48. MCMonkeyBean*

    I want to add also that I think a lot of commenters are misunderstanding the question from LW 3. I misunderstood at first too! I mean I think it’s fine to be discussing the situation that she already experienced (though I do agree with commenters pointing out a lot of people are being pretty ableist in their responses). But it seem to me she is saying that overall she thought that particular case where everyone was told up front what was going on was handled fine, but wondered what to do in a hypothetical case where a man did *not* want people to know about his medical condition. I see a lot of disagreements about whether or not people would want to be told, but ultimately that isn’t what she is asking.

  49. Observer*

    #4- I just want to point something out. As with most good advice, the advice to have a cover letter is good MOST of the time. There *ARE* exceptions. A system that won’t allow a cover letter is one of those exceptions. Other than putting your cover letter into the same file as your resume, don’t try to “force” or “trick” the system into taking your cover letter. And don’t feel bad about it – you haven’t left anything out.

  50. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    1) I worked in a company where – as in most companies – layoffs and firings are kept confidential until the “trigger is pulled”.

    There are several reasons for it – one, as Yogi Berra said “it’s not over ’til it’s over” and management may rescind the firing before it takes place – once it happens, it’s (almost) impossible to reverse the action. A guy or gal might be targeted for elimination and other factors could arise in the interim — the guy’s doing the work of three people, they weren’t aware of the scope of his duties, he’s not easily replaced, there are business and political situations – a client likes him and if you whack him, they’ll pull their business, etc., and there may be health or affirmative action considerations that HR is aware of but the management team isn’t.

    But once they call the guy or gal into the office and hand the walking papers, a manager can’t call back and say “oh we were only KIDDING!!! hahahha” – even if they realized they just made a huge blunder. A manager can’t appear indecisive (“wishy-washy”) and there’s a tremendous loss of face if he suddenly decides to “go 180” on an already executed termination.

    Nevertheless – only once in my career was I ever told , as a staff member, that someone was going to be let go the next day. The individual had exhibited an unfortunate history of instability – and several of us were advised in advance – confidentially and behind closed doors – because we feared an unpleasant reaction (which didn’t happen, thank God).

    So there ARE times – but – usually a manager should keep such decisions close to his/her belt. Once you send the person packing, there’s no going back.

  51. school of hard knowcs*

    I’m in IT and I get a list of name(s), and have been told to shut their access down as they are walked in to be let go.
    Once management actually called the police and then fired the guy and the police walked the guy out. The day before he had made very specific (names, method, timing) violent threats. And of course the usual lawsuits ensued.

    1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

      No, the individual had never done anything violent, etc. but there was a fear that the announcement of termination might , just maybe, trigger a major response. It didn’t.

      In fact, the employee seemed relieved that it was over.

    2. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

      And yes, hard knowcs, I have been in that situation as well – “these people are to be let go today – I’ll call you when each one is brought in.” Sometimes, though, you might have a list of 20 — and one or two or three wind up NOT being released. “Thanks for doing what you had to do, and destroy that list, not everyone got it today.”

  52. Copyright Economist*

    Re #1, I am a bit surprised at Alison’s advice. Why does someone on a cross-functional team need to know that someone will be fired *in advance*? I don’t know how that sort of information is treated in the US, but in Canada, information that someone is going to be fired comes under our personal privacy legislation (the acronyms are different, depending on whether the workplace is federal or provincial). Letting someone know that another employee is going to be fired is a serious violation of privacy, which could lead to the person who leaked the information being fired or, in some cases, prosecuted.

    That said, I completely understand letting people know that the employee is off the team as soon as the firing has taken place. But again, privacy doesn’t allow you to say more than so and so doesn’t work here anymore.

    1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

      To the best of my knowledge this isn’t universally true in Canada at all, because not every organization with employees is covered by PIPEDA or one of the provincial laws that’s a private-sector equivalent of PIPEDA.

  53. Geek*


    It sucks knowing someone is about to be fired, and doubly so if it wasn’t your decision.

    I would focus more on processes that will allow fairly smooth continuation of projects if *anyone* were to suddenly disappear than on hoping and wishing that people can keep secrets for any length of time.

    I was put in an awkward position once where my boss let myself and one other person know about a firing that would happen. It didn’t surprise me. This peer of mine had been having severe issues. I still did not enjoy the personal burden of knowing. Furthermore, my coworker was a known blabbermouth. I questioned my boss’ judgment in letting him know. Word got out. It was either from HR, my boss, or one of the two of us. Gee. Wonder where the leak was.

    1. anon manager*

      I agree with you. Question 1 is interesting because I could plausibly be in a scenario where I have information like this — I’m a middle manager who reports to a more senior manager, and part of my role is day-to-day management of individual contributors who, like me, report up to him. I end up knowing sensitive info about those employees (we collaborate on the first drafts of their annual reviews; I know if someone’s going on leave; etc). And even given all that, I wouldn’t want a heads up about a firing. I do not want to know that someone will lose their job before they do unless I’m involved in making that decision, even though the firing would have tremendous effect on my day-to-day. Similarly, I would not want my boss to give a heads up about me to anyone outside my direct reporting line.

      I would want to find out pretty much right after. But not before the person involved is told.

  54. Student*

    For OP3:

    I think you dramatically overestimate what most women would consider sexual harassment, and are unfamiliar with the workplace laws around sexual harassment. This isn’t a harassment issue, as you’ve described it. This is a workplace drama issue. Squish the drama; don’t pretend it is sexual harassment.

    If hypothetical employee #2 complained about hypothetical priaprism employee, then your job would be to make sure you knew exactly what employee #2 was actually concerned about, and evaluate the merits of that specific concern.

    If Employee #2 only cites the visible erection, then it’s your job as a manager to explain that this does not constitute sexual harassment simply because it causes some discomfort and is a sexual organ. I’d expect you to treat it the same way as an employee complaining about a woman’s nipples being visible through her otherwise dress-code-conforming clothes. Tell them to mind their own business and there’s no violation; then make sure they don’t harass the person they’re complaining about.

    If Employee #2 brings up other details that change this into harassment – for example, if employee #1 was giving a verbal play-by-play of his member’s activities and the motivating stimuli, or making inappropriate jokes about his member, touching people with his member, etc., then you’d address address that actual sexual harassment, wherein the member in question is but a supporting actor to Employee #1’s bad behavior.

    1. Ms Jackie*

      If you look at the comments above, i think you would be surprised. The amount of childish, ablest language used is astonishing.

  55. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    Funny how the erection situation draws around 20 times the interest of the other topics presented here.

  56. Michael*

    Allyson – you generally are great on this stuff, so I hope you’ll take this in the spirit with which it’s intended – the jokes re: OP #3 are in really bad taste. I get it, boners are funny, but priapism is an embarrassing and painful medical condition — I assume you wouldn’t make boob puns about a women who had a double mastectomy, for example.

  57. kalli*

    In some places there are rules on this kind of thing, whether they take the form of workplace-based policies, regulation or legislation, or industrial agreements.
    Taking a cue from those we understand the following: that people have a right to privacy, that a workplace should accommodate medical conditions with measures that can be performed without impacting the business operations or causing unreasonable disruption, and sexual harassment is not okay and should not be tolerated in a workplace.
    The error this manager is making is in assumptions that this person’s medical condition would automatically constitute sexual harassment and that, for some reason, a regular investigation would not reveal that no harassment occurred.
    We all know of examples where people in possession of a penis have been unable to fully disguise the size or shape of their genitalia, we all know that people going through puberty have issues controlling their sexual reactions at first – yet people in possession of a penis are generally allowed in the workforce prior to being medically deemed to have completed puberty, and even then, sometimes there are incidents. We are, however, capable of dismissing those as not harassment because we know they are not intentional – sportspeople don’t harass people interviewing them for telly simply because their sports uniform is revealing, for example.
    Thus, it is simple: in a case where someone is not made to feel they must preemptively disclose their medical condition in order to not be deemed a perpetrator of sexual impropriety (that poor man! that should never have been something he had to do, particularly as ‘Hi, I may have an erection around you but don’t worry, it’s not personal’ is not exactly the neutral statement LW thinks it is and could well cause issues on its own, since usually ‘Hi, I may have an erection’ isn’t something you hear at work), any complaint of sexual harassment against that person should follow the same procedure and would include a full statement from the complainant, which would reveal that no corresponding behavioural action occurred and the complainant was simply distressed by someone’s body not being hidden enough from them, in which case, the complainant could be told that they don’t need to look below the waist and no mention of anyone’s medical condition is necessary. If there were correlating behavioural issues, such as the penis-having person deliberately displaying their priapic erect penis, making remarks or jokes about it, or otherwise drawing attention to it unnecessarily, then those would need to be addressed, and could be dealt with without reference to the priapism – and the complainant would be entitled to no more detail than their role in the investigation required. But even in a situation where a priapic penis-haver was in a public-facing position, so long as they are capable of and doing their job, the fact that their medical condition may occasionally have a visible symptom should be irrelevant to that. It is not special enough to be differentiated from other conditions which do not affect one’s work capacity simply because it involves genitalia, and we do not have these questions about people with other medical conditions with variable physical symptoms because it is understood that so long as they do not impact on the job, they are not relevant to be commented on and do not in themselves constitute harassment or threats to others.
    The only reason one would need to consult a lawyer was if they did not know their position under law with regards to reasonable accommodations for a medical condition.

  58. #2*


    I had to tell my boss he was unapproachable once. It was impacting my work because a new coworker was too scared to ask him questions so she would come to me instead. I pretty much just said that every time anyone asked him a question he seemed annoyed and so it was hard to talk to him. He seemed a bit taken aback but the next day started trying really hard to be more engaged. Worked out great.

  59. RebelwithMouseyHair*

    About the heads-up over colleagues about to get fired:

    Back in the days of the recession, my boss managed to sell his company just before going bankrupt. We found ourselves moving to a new office, no idea what was happening. The boss didn’t even tell us why we were moving, although we guessed from bits we overheard (he had a foghorn voice so we could hear everything even with the doors closed).

    Later, once we had been told, we went to the buyer company’s annual get-together. A senior member of staff purposely came to see us and told us unofficially that our jobs were safe, but that the boss was to be kicked out just as soon as he had handed over all the sensitive info.
    This took several months, during which we didn’t say a word to anyone. It was just wonderful, listening to him ranting and trying to boss us about even though he no longer managed us, and knowing he was about to get kicked out. Schadenfreude can be delicious, and we had 9 months of it!

    Another time I was asked to work on a letter to be sent to a colleague who was about to get fired. This would mean that the woman working just opposite me would suddenly be flooded with work since they were the only two in that specific role. I was told that it was all to be kept a secret, but I told her (we’d been working for over 10 years together and I knew I could trust her). She was grateful for the heads-up, and started preparing to deal with the influx of work.
    Incidentally, my manager later started telling me some bullsh1t story about how and why the other colleague had been fired, and he had clearly forgotten that I had had all the background info from when my input had been needed. This was how I learned that I was not to trust this manager, knowledge that came in very useful when they started pressuring me to resign.

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