my coworker has a crush on our boss and is mad that I asked her to stop talking about him

A reader writes:

I work for a small company. We are an office of about 10 people and most of my colleagues have worked with each other for several years. My position was newly created to take some of the clerical burden off the others, and I’m definitely the new kid on the block, so to speak. I’ve been there about four months now.

The problem I’m running into is our chatty office manager, Jan, who I work most closely with. Although Jan is a great technical worker, personally she driving me nuts. Through many conversations with her, it’s clear she has a crush on on our boss, Keith (10 years younger than her, 10 years older than me). Keith is a retired fire fighter and the textbook tall, dark, and handsome. He’s charismatic but professional. For context, Jan’s husband passed away suddenly about a year and a half before I started working there. I think the loneliness of being a widow is setting in and that’s why she had eyes for our boss, simply because he pays attention to her.

It has gotten to the point that whenever I’m alone with Jan, the conversation quickly turns to an unrelated conversation about Keith. Most of the time, I just ignore her or redirect the conversation to the original topic. This seemed to be working up until recently. Over lunch the other day, Jan and I were talking about a time-consuming project the office was working on for a client. Keith seemed irritated about possibly not meeting our deadline. Jan said, “I wonder what his wife does to make him relax at home, I know what I would do. Oh, who am I kidding, you would have a better chance with him since you’re younger.” I finally stopped her and said I didn’t feel comfortable talking about Keith in that manner with her, and frankly the continued conversations about him were getting annoying. Her response was, “Oh, it’s just a little girl talk. There’s no harm in that.” I countered with, “I’d rather talk about something else” and then changed the subject. I could tell I embarrassed her. We awkwardly finished our lunch and she was very curt and stand-off ish the rest of the day.

For the last week, if the conversation happens to drift towards Keith she’ll say, “Oh, that’s right, we can’t talk about about him” or if I have my office door shut (to avoid her!) she’ll proclaim to the office that I’m not being social today.

I’m not sure how to approach Jan going forward. Do I confront her and call out her immature behavior? Since we are such a small office and I’m fairly new, I really don’t feel like I have anyone I can confide in. Do I just keep ignoring her so she doesn’t get a reaction? I also don’t feel comfortable going to Keith just yet because I feel like it will just be an awkward she said-she said conversation. I feel like she’ll just gaslight me to make me look crazy to stay in his good graces.

First things first: You have the right not to be exposed to sexual comments at work, and you have the right not to be hassled when you express that sexual comments are unwelcome. If you want to escalate this, you can.

I’m guessing in such a small company you don’t have HR or even pseudo-HR, which makes this harder. But if Keith is the person you’d need to report it to, you can do that! You mentioned you’re worried it’ll be a she said/she said situation … but that’s true of most reports of sexual inappropriateness at work, and it’s still worth doing if you’re feeling harassed. It doesn’t sound like you’re necessarily at the point where you want to take that option, but it’s there if that changes.

If you don’t want to go that route, my advice is to keep ignoring Jan for a few weeks and then reassess.

If she says you’re not being social because you have your door closed, just ignore that or calmly say, “Yep, just trying to focus.” I’m not sure exactly what she’s trying to get out of you, but my best guess is that she wants you to walk back what you said so that she feels better about it. You don’t need to.

And when she says, “Oh, that’s right, we can’t talk about Keith,” you should take that as a win. She’s right, she can’t talk about Keith. If you want, you could respond very sincerely with, “Thanks, I appreciate you respecting that” … or you can just ignore her. She’s likely to get tired of making those comments eventually. Or someone will overhear and ask why she can’t talk about Keith, and the answer she’s likely to give will reflect poorly on her, not you.

If she’s still doing this a couple of weeks from now, or if she starts escalating how obnoxious she’s being, at that point it might be worth trying to clear the air by saying something like, “I think I embarrassed you when I asked you not to talk about Keith that way. That wasn’t my intention. I’m not comfortable hearing anyone we work with spoken about in a sexual way, even if you’re just joking around. I hope you understand.”

But if that doesn’t solve it, then you’ve got to decide how much she’s bothering you and weigh that against your desire not to bring Keith into it. To help overcome your discomfort about involving him: If a man you managed were talking about you this way and then freezing out someone who objected, wouldn’t you want to know? I’m not always a fan of flipping the genders as a thought experiment unless you can also reverse thousands of years of history and systemic sexism, but in this case it might help you feel more comfortable letting him know.

But let’s hope that after a few weeks of not getting a rise from you with her comments, Jan will pull herself together and move on.

Read an update to this letter

{ 221 comments… read them below }

  1. Essess*

    I would not be shy and when she makes another snide comment I would reply, “Locker room talk is inappropriate at work no matter whether it is coming from a man or a woman so stop getting upset at me for asking it to stop.”

      1. Librolover*

        Are we allowed to guess what the follow-up will be in a year? Or at follow-up time? I feel like the letter writer does go to Keith Keith says oh, hmmm, and then Keith and the annoying lady start dating.

        1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

          I think so too. What Jane said to OP, and the treatment she’s giving OP now, where she tells people OP is “not being social today” in retaliation for OP pushing back, is so wild that I could see a story like this used on a quiz on one of those annual harassment classes I have to take at work; where I’d shake my head, say to myself “the stories they come up with for these classes! Of course it would be harassment, but who’d say this in a real workplace?”, answer the quiz question, and move on. The comment about Keith’s wife is worse than anything I’ve heard at any of my jobs, and I’ve heard some… things. You really do not have to have a ton of capital to push back on something that is textbook harassment (of OP, not just of Keith).

          1. Mad Harry Crewe*

            I am currently doing harassment training for the company we just got acquired by. This is literally textbook.

          2. rebelwithmouseyhair*

            ToxicBoss1 joked with the buddy he hired about mutual friends who were having trouble conceiving, how he’d have to show the guy how to do it. My colleague was just about to embark on fertility treatment and had been wondering how much to tell the boss, this “joke” totally confirmed that I was right to suggest saying as little as possible and that I would help cover times she needed to be at the clinic.

        2. Sorrischian*

          That’s … not how that works. Everyone everywhere should have the right to insist that this kind of behavior stop, but plenty of people don’t have the capital to do so without major repercussions for their continued employment.

        3. lilyp*

          I don’t think you should worry about capital before speaking up about sexual remarks or significant retaliation — in fact, OP already spoke up (despite being new and not having much capital) and the uncomfortable remarks have stopped! But this line seems like it’d just throw a drama bomb into the situation unnecessarily, and OP might not have enough capital to come out on top of that escalation. As long as Jan isn’t interfering with OP’s work, it’s not really hurting anything to let her be cold/weird/awkward/dramatic for a while and I don’t think there’s a lot to be gained out of confronting her about it.

        4. Insert Clever Name Here*

          But not everyone everywhere can absorb the fallout if they get fired or retaliated against. We have seen many, many times on this site someone who can’t afford to lose their job and though LW doesn’t include that information it’s a worthwhile thing to remember.

          And OBVIOUSLY it sucks that people have to do that calculation, but it’s the reality.

    1. T.N.H.*

      I agree this is one of those times when the genders of all involved don’t matter. Inappropriate.

    2. Well...*

      I’ve dealt with passive aggressive types SO much and at their core they are cowards. Directly addressing what they are hinting at always wins.

      You can counter people like this by just stating facts. When she says “LW isn’t being social today,” just respond with, “Oh, it’s not that I don’t feel social, I just need to get work done right now.” Call her out every time she tries being passive/aggressive or talking about you as of you aren’t there. Literally just respond head-on as matter-of-factly as possible in a flat voice, and speak the truth. There’s no way for her to argue. If she pushes back just keep repeating, “I am social, just right now I need to work” very flatly.

      Also if she says she can’t bring yo Keith, I’d say, “of course you’re allowed to talk about Keith as long as it’s not inappropriate or creepy.” Over and over, rinse and repeat.

      1. Dr Sarah*

        She doesn’t even have to do the ‘oh, I am being social’ line. She’s *not* being social, and this is 100% appropriate because she’s working; she doesn’t have to excuse it or pretend it isn’t so! As Alison says, it’s fine for her to agree:

        Jane (sneery tone): Oh, I see LW’s not being social today.
        LW (briskly cheerful tone): That’s right, going to focus on work now. [goes and focuses on work]

        That’s… actually pretty hard for Jane to push back on without looking really bad herself.

        1. yala*

          I imagine Jane already doesn’t look great to the rest of her office, because constantly commenting on someone having their office door closed is *weird* and also, irritating to everyone else?

    3. Irish Teacher*

      Yeah, I was thinking flip the genders and I think most people would agree it’s inappropriate at best. And it’s not any better when it’s “girl talk” rather than “boy talk.”

  2. Goldenrod*

    Alison’s advice is spot on. Jan sounds extremely immature and annoying!

    One really good life strategy I’ve picked up over the years is to just let things be awkward sometimes. Most of us have a strong instinct (especially women) to smooth things over if we feel like we’ve made someone else uncomfortable or embarrassed.

    But, OP, Jan made *you* uncomfortable and didn’t seem to care! If she now feels awkward about you pushing back….good! Let her feel awkward. Minimize your interactions with her and just focus on getting your work done. And just let her discomfort hang in the air. That’s for her to deal with, not you.

      1. BatManDan*

        A line I got from (I think) Carolyn Hax – “What an odd thing to say” delivered in a flat / curious tone of voice.

    1. Festively Dressed Earl*

      +1. I just visited a relative that uses Jan’s manipulation tactics, and if you stand your ground she’ll give up.

      1. fiona the baby hippo*

        I get the sense that Jan might have felt uncomfortable to be (rightfully!) corrected, so now she’s trying to push it all on OP…. but as everyone is so rightfully pointing out, if OP can resist acting like THEY are the one that erred, eventually Jan will burn herself out.

        1. Rhiannon*

          This right here. Jan is trying to turn this into “The REAL problem here is that LW isn’t social!”, which is just so….a word I can’t type here.

          Stay strong, OP, and hold those boundaries!

      2. Dust Bunny*

        My mother does the, “Oh, that’s right, we’re not allowed to talk about it,” bit, in pretty much those exact words, and it’s absolutely manipulative and narrative-controlling. It’s actively harming her relationships with my siblings and I, but she can’t/won’t stop herself.

        1. jojo*

          My reply would be “as long as you are not talking about your crush on the boss because that topic is off the table with me, I am perfectly willing to be sociable when I am not too busy with work”. Makes it plain what the problem is and gives other the idea it is also OK for them to shut it down.

    2. Putting the Dys in Dysfunction*

      Keep in mind that part of the awkwardness is Jan being (implicitly) confronted with the idea that her crush on Keith is a bad thing.

      Because of that I’m not sure that the awkwardness will ever completely disappear. This is on Jan, though, not on OP.

        1. Marna Nightingale*

          Yep. Like, I expected this was going to be about mentionitis, which is that thing people usually don’t KNOW they’re doing when they have a crush.

          You know, where every topic under the sun makes you think about Crush so Crush keeps coming up in conversation and it feels perfectly natural to you while being blindingly obvious to everyone else.

          If she were doing that, some grace and a quiet friendly word might be in order.

          This is … really not that.

    3. Lacey*


      I’m so freaking aware of how people are feeling and how they want me to respond, that I find it hard to just ignore, but if you can pull off just acting entirely normal around someone like Jan – it puts the awkwardness all on them and there’s no good explanation for their behavior so they just have to stop.

      They will low-key hate you forever, but it won’t hurt you because they can’t explain to anyone without that person understanding that they are the problem.

    4. Pricilla Queen of WFH*

      One of the best prices of advice I’ve picked up from Allison that I use the most is not just to let awkwardness exists, but to use it as a weapon. This is particularly effective in confronting problems (especially those of sexists, racist, or homophobic natures) in a middle ground way, without raising things to an HR level or spending too much of your own capital, or potentially putting another innocent or targeted party in a spotlight. This is the crux of the “explain it to me” theory when people make a bad joke. Invite the awkwardness in, use it to make the other person feel bad for what they said. The first time I used this on an older male colleague who made a relatively innocent but sexist remark, it was amazing how fast he backpedaled, how hard her tried to smooth things over with me and how badly my coldness upset him. Even someone else tried to jump in and cover for him, just to smooth the awkwardness out but I made it remain and later explained what I was doing. That person then used that advice to make uncomfortable touching stop from this same person. Awkwardness is your sword, you can use it to battle and defend yourself or others, without appealing to the king so to speak.

        1. Jack Straw from Wichita*

          I tried finding a post where Alison talks about it, but came up emptyhanded.

          For me, it’s responding to a racist/sexist/ableist/classist/etc. statement with a quizzical look and “Why would you say that?” and an attitude/tone of ‘surely you can’t have meant to say what you just said because absolutely no one would say that on purpose.’

          Then you stop talking. You have to resist the urge to fill the silence or save them from stammering and stumbling over themselves to try to explain. If the other person replies with “It’s a joke” I’ll follow up with, “I don’t get it. Can you explain it to me?”

          1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

            The stopping talking is key. And might be the hardest part for those of us who have been socialized to smooth things over.

        2. Joielle*

          I’m not Priscilla but I’ve done something similar – when someone makes an inappropriate joke or remark you just say “Huh, what do you mean by that?” It’s amazing how quickly the person will backpedal. And you can either say it coldly/pointedly (if you want to make it clear that you don’t approve) or in a way that suggests you actually don’t understand the joke/comment (if you want to let the person save face). It is powerful stuff!

        3. Sara M*

          If you’ll pardon the example, here’s why it’s powerful.

          Coworker: Well… you know how it is when you hire women in their 30’s.
          You: No, what do you mean?
          Coworker: They’re absent a lot.
          You: Are they?
          Coworker: *uncomfortably* you know… maternity leave.
          You: So you think we shouldn’t hire her because she might become pregnant?
          Coworker: uhhhh

          The key is a perplexed, interested tone. Force them to be the one to describe the problem they’re having. Don’t close any inferences for them.

          There’s a lot of people who will imply things they know aren’t ok to say. They count on listeners hearing the secret message. Don’t let them do this.

          1. Dr Sarah*

            My mother once called this sort of thing out directly in an interview:

            Interviewer: “Ah, yes, Mrs ____, I see you have two school-age children. Can you tell me what their state of health is and whether they’re often absent from school?”

            My mother (with Firm Stare): “Excuse me, I believe what you *meant* to ask is what my attendance record at work is like. I believe you’ll find it’s very good.”

            My mother rocks.

        4. Twix*

          This is also the root of the advice that Alison frequently gives to respond to someone ignoring a clear boundary with terms like “weird” or “bizarre”. For example, if the coworker in this letter hadn’t stopped talking about Keith:

          Coworker: “Wow, Keith is really looking fine today.”

          LW: “I’ve asked you to stop talking to me about Keith in a sexual way. It’s really weird that you won’t.”

          Because of course it really isn’t that weird socially speaking. The coworker is expecting that LW’s desire to avoid awkwardness will supercede her desire to enforce that boundary. But if someone calls it out and is willing to let it be awkward, there’s no way to say that that doesn’t make you look like a jerk.

        5. Library Times*

          I had this interaction not long ago:

          Me: We’re closing, so I was about to ask you to wrap things up, but I see you’re doing that.
          Patron: I wish I were *really* wrapping it up, but I’m going home alone.
          Me: I just meant that you were wrapping up your laptop wire.
          Patron: But I wish I were wrapping myself up, if you know what I mean.
          Me: *Stares blankly for a moment.* Are you talking about sex to me?
          Patron: Well, safe sex.
          Me: We don’t talk about sex to staff here. *Walks away*
          Patron: Not even safe sex?
          Me: *Still walking away* Nope.

          He shouted an apology my way after that and didn’t harass me again. However, he did harass others and had to be banned after that.

          1. Le Sigh*

            Pick-up lines as a concept are generally terrible but … of all of the many, many pickup lines out there, that’s what the patron went with? Whatever happened to “You got any fries to go with that shake?”

      1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        This is great! Basically, cultivate an attitude of “it’s weird that Jan is doing this, how strange…” All of your choices stem from that approach.

        I’d probably aim for perplexed but friendly, rather than neutral or cold. In this case, I’m guessing Jan is hoping you’ll have a big reaction so she can paint you as being mean to her. It’s easier to sell it as a she said / she said if she can paint the situation as having fault on both sides. Don’t let her. To be clear, Jan is being a jerk. What she’s doing is unkind and not OK. The way to get the upper hand – as much as that’s possible in a workplace where everyone knows each other and you’re new – is to not react.

    5. Falling Diphthong*

      Just let things be awkward sometimes.
      This right here.

      OP, you have encountered a trope that goes:
      Person A: Keeps saying inappropriate thing.
      Person B: Finally says “Yeah, I am not discussing this with you.”
      Person A: Pressures person A to admit that the inappropriate thing is totally appropriate, normal, everyone else does it, and it is part of A’s quirky charm. A is trying to pass the inappropriate potato to anyone else.

  3. Cobol*

    LW you are right, but Jan isn’t going to change. Take your win, use Alison’s language whenever Jan says we can’t talk about Keith. I think maybe Jan is just the type of person who would bug you anyway, so maybe think of your interactions with her as a way to practice ignoring things you can’t change.

  4. HannahS*

    Not much to add, just good for you for shutting it down. My general approach when faced with an unreasonable passive-aggressive person is to be resolutely pleasant with an undercurrent of puzzled.

    Her: “WHOOPS I GUESS I’m not ALLOWED to talk about KEITH anymore!”
    You: Pleasantly puzzled, “Oh, thanks Jane. It’s fine if it’s about work, though–is there something I can help with?”

    What Jane did is not ok, and I’ve known women who did similar things. I think they saw themselves as harmless and non-threatening, but everyone regardless of gender should have a workplace free from sexual harassment, and just because women are more likely to be victims of it doesn’t mean we can’t ever be perpetrators.

    1. GammaGirl1908*

      It is SO TIRESOME when you politely ask a person not to do a thing, and they then just have to start shouting, “I’M OVER HERE NOT DOING THE THING!” Ugh.

      A friend went to a yoga class where she politely asked the instructor not to adjust her because of an injury, which most yoga teachers invite you to do. The instructor started announcing to the whole class, “See, I’m NOT ADJUSTING people today because SOME PEOPLE don’t like it!” and glaring down my friend and saying, “See, I DIDN’T ADJUST YOU today! OKAY?”

      Even if you’re a little embarrassed, which you usually don’t need to be, you can just say, “Oh, okay,” or “Sure, no problem,” and then let it be. You can stop doing the thing with no further comment.

      1. BadWolf*

        Wow, gross of that yoga instructor. The last class I was at, the instructor has us close our eyes and then raise our hand if we didn’t want to be adjusted/touched during class.

        1. ferrina*

          I love when yoga instructors take that approach! Since most yoga studios cultivate a safe space, I’m less concerned about people looking around than I would be in other scenarios.

      2. Not teenage but still ninja turtle*

        It would take everything in me to not respond with “…do you want some special recognition for finally learning to behave in the workplace?” Or even better, “Hey, you’re getting better at behaving appropriately in the workplace! Great job, buddy!”

        The last word is key, since “buddy” is a term usually applied to toddlers and dogs. One hopes it would spur the thought process of “Why is she talking to me like I’m a child? …oh” but I realize that’s probably wishful thinking.

      3. Samwise*

        OMG. If that happened at my club (whether I was the victim or a witness) I’d be contacting the customer relations supervisor asap, with a cc to the club manager/owner. That is beyond unacceptable.

        (Sadly, when I was in my early 20s, I would not have said a thing. I would have just never gone back to that class.)

      4. Clobberin' Time*

        I hope your friend feels confident enough to report that instructor to the studio and/or make it clear why she’s never going back to that studio. It is creepy and unprofessional for an instructor to get upset about a student not wanting to be touched (and in fact the appropriate thing to do is to ASK the student BEFORE touching if adjustment is OK, not to just assume). There is a whole predator problem in yoga, too.

      5. Just Here for the Free Lunch*

        That’s so gross and would be so unacceptable at the club where I take yoga. We have cards that you can put by your mat to indicate that you are ok with hands-on adjustments, but the default is “no touching”.

      6. Laika*

        A few weeks back I asked a co-worker to stop whistling ( our open plan office..) which means now we’re subjected to three bars of whistling then a pause then a loud “oh SORRY I forgot that LAIKA doesnt like WHISTLING”

        like, why

        1. Agent Diane*

          It’s because someone has dared to set a boundary.

          I asked someone to leave a little space between us in the queue at a cafe this weekend because they were getting right up into my personal space. They then pointedly made a huge amount of space and kept making remarks/snickering. I reminded myself that they were the muppets who were being weird, I was just setting a boundary.

        2. Eevee*

          this is why open floor office plans are the worst. It makes even innocuous behaviors major irritations, let alone whistling!! Good job for speaking up. Your coworker’s a child.

        3. yala*

          For new years eve, my brother got kind of drunk (and possibly a bit manic), and was NOT behaving responsibly with the fireworks (trying to light them in the fire pit, wanting to do “wizards duels” with the roman candles, and not aiming them away from fences/stuff when the other person realized what he meant and backed out, reeeeally wanting to light more smoke bombs, even though the air had already been smoky af from the fire pit), while we were at my friend’s house (so mostly people he didn’t know), and I’m doing my best to corral him so he doesn’t hurt himself, someone else, or damage their property, and getting a lot of “Hey, will you light this for me? I would, but YALA gets upset when I do!”

          It was exhausting. (and mildly triggering)

      7. Jack Russell Terrier*

        I am a yoga teacher and that really gets my goat. It goes right against a number of yoga principles – the yamas and nyamas. They include non-harm / non-violence. You’re supposed to create a safe container in yoga. Obvs that doesn’t include embarrassing someone. It’s not even true – you can do hands on assists for those who want. It’s always an option.

        This is how I was taught to handle things: take people into child’s pose so they can’t see anyone else, giving people the ability to be anonymous. ‘I do hands-on assists, if you wish to opt-out, please extend your right hand. If you have a physical situation or injury I should know about to make your practice more accessible, please extend your left hand and I will quietly come over to hear about it.’

    2. Devo Forevo*

      This is exactly the approach to take with people like Jan, in my experience having worked with and being related to several Jans. Confronting them will only make then focus on making your life miserable. Be relentlessly cheerful and polite, which indicates both to Jan and to everyone around you that you aren’t playing the game.

      1. Well...*

        Idk I always confront them and it works. I think they thrive off making you fear saying the thing out loud, so I just say it. They are so cowardly they can’t even engage past “that’s creepy though please stop” they lose it.

    3. Jopestus*

      “Well of couuuurse its not a big deal if i am the one doing it. It does not harm me in the slightest.” -That kind of people.

  5. SereneScientist*

    This doesn’t quite rise to the level of ridiculousness in a similar letter from 2020, but I’m still a bit agog over people like Jan who just…don’t recognize how inappropriate comments like hers are?

    There’s also an interesting angle here of Jan likely misunderstanding the attention she does get from Keith. Reminds me of a LW from before who had a self-described massive crush on her employee, only to later realize she was confusing her feelings about the job with feelings for the employee. Doesn’t excuse Jan in the slightest, but I feel a little sorry for her in seeking attention from the wrong places.

    1. Sunshine*

      I also feel sorry for her, but can’t help but think how WILDLY inappropriate it would be for an older male colleague to be constantly making sexual comments about a younger female colleague! Or even take the ages out of the equation, it would be obviously horrifying. Jan doesn’t realize how serious and gross it is to make those kinds of remarks.

      1. SereneScientist*

        Very. And the way she tried to minimize it with “Oh, it’s just a little girl talk. There’s no harm in that.” Oof.

        1. Lacey*

          Ugh, yes. I volunteered with someone who talked that way about another volunteer and when I flinched she said, “What, I have eyes! It’s harmless!”

          And I know volunteering is different than work, but it just still feels inappropriate. People shouldn’t have to deal with that kind of talk.

          1. Lenora Rose*

            But it’s not her eyes. It’s her MOUTH that is at issue.

            I have worked with some distractingly attractive people. I suspect the vast majority have no idea I thought that.

            1. Curmudgeon in California (they/them)*

              Yeah, you can enjoy the scenery without commenting on it. Some people are really good looking. That doesn’t mean you need to announce to all and sundry that you’d like to get more “familiar” with them…

            2. goddessoftransitory*

              I’m with Sister Boniface, who, after mentioning a certain character was a handsome guy, said “One can still appreciate the form.”

              It’s cool to notice a toothsome fellow/lass–just keep it to yourself. Especially if you’re all in the same professional setting.

            3. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

              THIS. I’m not going to police a coworkers thoughts. It’s when they start talking to me about those thoughts that we’re going to have a problem.

        2. Quinalla*

          Yup, I set a boundary like this with a colleague in the past who was objectifying a male coworker she thought was cute – not this level of ew, but still her and another woman had given him the nickname Captain America which they used among themselves and then shared with me. I was basically like, hey we all are going to notice when someone is attractive, but it isn’t cool to be gossiping about it like this as clearly this wasn’t a passing remark but a repeat conversation. They too wanted to brush it off as no big deal, but it actually is.

          And while it feels like and is a bigger deal when a man does it to a woman because of the power dynamic of the privilege there, it is still a big deal when a woman does it to a man. No one should have to put up with being objectified at work or subject to sexualized comments, ugh.

      2. Merrie*

        I heard several 50-something ladies joking around about how “Mike” (30-something) wears tight pants, with the implication he’s doing it to get attention. I thought it was kind of gross. But then another time when I worked with Mike, he was joking about sending people selfies of himself in tight pants, so whatever, I guess? The whole conversation still seems inappropriate.

    2. MK*

      I don’t think she is misunderstanding anything, it doesn’t sound as if she actually thinks Keith is showing her any personal interest. It’s more likely that she is a woman who is single again after possibly decades and doesn’t have the emotional tools to handle her loneliness and inappropriate feelings.

      1. SofiaDeo*

        I don’t see how the fact of her being a recent widow changed her ability to determine that sexual innuendo/locker room talk is not acceptable at work.

        1. MK*

          From what I have known of women from older generations, some of them, especially conservative ones married young and without much romantic experience, are frankly incredibly immature in this area, because they basically went from teenage girl to wife. And for them, being married was the end of their interest for other man, period. If she has a similar background, she may never have been single at work, ever, so professional norms might not be something she ever had to consider. Add the internalized shame that a middle aged woman probably feels for having a crush on a younger married man, and you could get this inappropriate behaviour in an effort to both give some vent to her feelings while passing them off as trivial. Of course, I may be completely off the mark, but I have seen this play out more than once. The difference is, in most cases when called out by an exasperated colleague or gently by a friend, they are mortified and self correct. Unfortunately this woman is doubling down.

          1. Isochrone*

            What on earth. Middle-aged women are Gen Xers. We did not go from teenager to wife, and we know how to be single at work.

            1. MK*

              What on earth indeed. There is no “we” here, you realize that? I said “some” women who had a particular life progression, not all middle-aged women. Your personal experience of Gex X is not universal across all countries, cultures and social groups, plus plenty of older middle-aged people are not Gen X, unless you think people in their late 50s are considered elderly. I am Gen X myself (1978) and it’s true that it hasn’t been my experience either. But in my country (which more conservative than parts of the US and, hilariously, a lot more progressive than others) women born in the 1960s, so late Boomers and early Gen X, absolutely did have that life progression, and I am betting that is true in many places.

            2. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

              MK was referring to a subset of women – primarily those who were raised in conservative environments and married young. I don’t read MK’s comment as being about any generation as a whole.

              1. Dust Bunny*


                My mom’s quilting cohorts (Boomer and older, in this instance, but also conservative and married young) were THE WORST about insisting that every little bit of attention from a man meant he was interested. Much, much, worse than my teenaged (Gen X) friends and classmates. It was mortifying, both directly and to watch.

          2. jojo*

            I am that older generation. I will be 59 in a couple of months. Andcwe certainly do know how to be single a work. Some guys I appreciate as well going as coming. And some would be very nice to cradle rob. And I certainly know better than to make certain comments about men. So do 99 percent of my generation. It is that one percent thatvis the problem. Same as with the big mouth men. It comes down to the individual.

        2. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

          I imagine that a loss like that and the fact that it changes every aspect of someone’s life could lead some people to spiral a bit. Not making excuses for Jan’s bad behaviour. But I do have some empathy for her.

      1. SereneScientist*

        Under “You May Also Like” above, it’s the first link–“my coworkers have a crush on my boss … and are taking it out on me”

        1. Slow Gin Lizz*

          I would love an update on that letter. This one too, of course, but that letter was long enough ago that there would definitely be at least *something* to report.

          1. Cookie Monster*

            I do too, but I have a feeling it would be something like “COVID hit, we all started working from home and so they couldn’t harass me anymore.”

            1. Expelliarmus*

              Maybe, but now not everyone is WFH anymore so maybe they do still have an exciting update, even if it’s just “I got a new job away from this mess”

    3. goddessoftransitory*

      I think a lot of people who are this brand of inappropriate get away with it as long as they do because–nobody actually says yikes, that’s a little off the rails, there, let’s rein it in.

      They keep it juuuuust this side of really dirty or blatantly offensive, so whoever they’re talking to does the yeah uh, heh heh…uncomfortable but let’s move on brush off, so they can tell themselves “Well, nobody’s ever told me to stop–in fact, they all laugh! This is normal socializing!”

    4. Frankie*

      I doubt Jan actually thinks Keith is into her, which doesn’t make her comments or schtick about him any less inappropriate. I think she’s doing that “I’m a harmless old woman and it’s funny for me to sexualize a younger man” kind of thing. It’s gross, and a have your cake and eat it too fantasy, but ultimately she probably is well aware it’s not reality.

      Again…still messed up in or outside of work and absolutely should be shut down.

  6. animaniactoo*

    The awkward was returned to sender, and the sender is keeping it awkward.

    LW just try to remain calm and unphazed and this will likely solve itself.

    1. Aggretsuko*

      Technically, LW has gotten what she wanted–Jan knows to not yak on about Keith. If she keeps making pointed digs about it, ignore ’em as long as she doesn’t go on about his heavenly blue eyes or whatever.

    2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      Oh it will. I bet Keith is going to be horrified *when* he finds out. LW cannot be the only one Jan has tried to have these “girl chats” with.

      1. The Person from the Resume*

        I think it goes without saying that Jan has not tried to “girl talk” the men, but also the LW was hired to “take some of the clerical burden off the others” and is younger than Jan so maybe Jan is getting this special treatment.

        And Jan’s crush is not inappropriate in and of itself (emotions are difficult to control), but her discussing it with coworkers and letting it be obvious to coworkers (which are actions she’s taking) is in appropriate.

        1. Sparkles McFadden*

          Yes, Jan probably figured she’d have a willing audience in the new, younger coworker. Instead, she received an appropriate and direct response from a mature professional. Her snippiness now may be partially from embarrassment of having her unprofessional behavior pointed out by the new person…but the LW doesn’t need to care about that.

    3. Office Lobster DJ*

      LW, just to underscore this point – I think you’re closer to winning this one than you might think. In fact, you already have, since Jan has stopped.

      There’s a good chance Jan will try to soothe her pride with those pointed little digs for a bit, but, at least in my experience with this type, they will taper off. Those comments are NOT a sign that you should have handled things any differently.

  7. EMP*

    LW, I get the sense you might be nervous that Jan will paint you as antisocial to the rest of the office, and since you’re new, they might take her word on it. But just be being pleasant and normal everyone else will (likely) catch on that Jan is being weird about something and it’s not anything you did.

    1. hodie-hi*

      Yes, this is good advice. Be normal, be pleasant, and whatever Jan says and does will probably not stick to you.

    2. SleeplessKJ*

      Especially since this crush probably isn’t anything new. LW is just Jan’s latest victim.

      1. Slow Gin Lizz*

        Oh, excellent point. Maybe everyone else there has already told Jan to shut up about it already. Or, more likely, everyone else there is either quite a bit older than OP or has been there for a few years so the fact that OP is the youngest (maybe) and newest employee means that Jan feels ok acting this way around OP when she wouldn’t act that way around the older employees.

    3. ferrina*

      Yes! I was wondering about this too. LW can head this off by having casual pleasant conversations. Maybe saying hi in the break room or while waiting for the elevator, or walking over to someone’s desk to ask a question rather than emailing. Just so everyone else can have a personal interaction with LW, so they have a counterpoint to whatever Jan says.

    4. MigraineMonth*

      There is no world in which “LW isn’t being social today!” reflects worse on the LW than the speaker. It’s such a blatantly passive-aggressive move that she’s shooting her own credibility in the foot.

    5. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      Yup! If you continue to be generally pleasant and react to Jan’s nonsense with bemused confusion, one of two things will happen. The first is what EMP described. Everyone who works there will see that Jan is being super weird and you’re being chill. I think this is the more likely outcome. The other option is that the office has weird norms and they’ll side with Jan. But that’s not on you, OP. It just means that the issue with your workplace is bigger than you thought. Even still, there’s nothing to be gained by adding fuel to the fire of weirdness by reacting strongly to Jan.

  8. Jennifer Strange*

    Her response was, “Oh, it’s just a little girl talk. There’s no harm in that.”

    Perhaps you should remind her that you’re both grown women, not girls.

    1. Persephone*


      You don’t talk about ANYONE you work with like that, let alone your BOSS.

      And while AT work??? Jane doesn’t have appropriate boundaries.

    2. Anon4This*

      The timing of this letter was super odd because I just had someone at work try to brush off unprofessional behavior with the “girl talk” excuse, and this is one of the points I made to them. We’re all adults here!

      In their case, too, a good chunk of their team is not women, so it’s exclusionary. This is a professional environment, not a slumber party or locker room. And, perhaps most importantly, we do not “girl talk” with direct reports or people below us on the org chart!!! (The power differential is such that they may feel like they can’t decline to participate or say that they’re uncomfortable.)

  9. Sunshine's Eschatology*

    Just to affirm LW’s sense of WTF… I work at an office where conversation can get pretty informal, verging on (for many workplaces) inappropriate, in a group setting and even moreso with one of my co-workers who I’m very friendly with. But yikes, it feels very different to talk about another co-worker in this way! At the comment about boss’s wife helping him “relax,” I had a full body shudder. No no no no no no no.

    1. Observer*

      Yeah, especially since she then followed up by mentioning the respective ages. That gets rid of any plausible deniability here.

      1. MigraineMonth*

        The cherry on top was turning the conversation to a possible LW/married boss pairing! Way to take something extremely inappropriate and make it weirdly personal as well.

    2. Just a different redhead*

      In addition to which, knowing someone well enough to know how they personally like to relax in the first place and then the separate knowledge of how they would like to relax while living life with you personally… is not where Jan is with Keith here, and it just seems to add extra “ick” to the whole thing as she pretty strongly objectifies him in that statement. : /
      I hope she’s able to deal with her grief, it can take a long time, but it’s no excuse to let things get that far out of hand (to where you’re on any level attempting to punish a coworker for objecting to your line-crossing).

  10. Starbuck*

    Yikes Jan! She definitely needs a better outlet for whatever she’s feeling; the more boring and awkward you make it for her, the less likely she is to bother you. While maintaining whatever thin veneer of politeness you need to function.

  11. Dona Florinda*

    OP, if you’re up to it, whenever Jan says that “we can’t talk about Keith”, you could respond in a breezy way, “Of course we can talk about Keith, I just don’t like to talk about anyone inappropriately”.

    Other than that, just be professional and pleasant to your coworkers. They’re probably familiar with Jan’s comments and it’s unlikely they will think that you are the awkward one.

    1. ferrina*

      I wouldn’t even open up that door for talking about Keith. That might invite Jan to figure out where the line is.
      I’d say “oh, did he have a new assignment for us? anything about work?” If it’s not about work, you don’t need to hear it.

      Totally agree about the coworkers!

  12. Michelle Smith*

    I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this. I hope you are able to update us and let us know how it worked out. I seriously hope Jan stops retaliating like this. It’s not normal behavior to someone asking politely to stop inappropriate talk.

    1. Sunshine*

      Agreed, I hope she’s just playing it off as a joke because she’s embarrassed and trying to seem casual about it and not that this is a permanent thing!

  13. ENFP in Texas*

    “Oh, that’s right, we can’t talk about Keith”

    Reply: “I never said we can’t talk about Keith. I said I wasn’t comfortable hearing you making sexual innuendos about Keith. There is a difference.”

    Preferably said within earshot of someone else. Preferably Keith.

    1. Aggretsuko*

      That would tempt me to start making comments about how it’s a bad idea to date the boss unless you plan to leave the job.

      1. ferrina*

        That could seriously backfire if someone overhears and thinks LW is the one who has an inappropriate crush on Keith!

    2. JustSoTired*

      Yes! I would make it clear that I won’t be discussing anyone’s physical attributes or hypothesizing about their personal life.

  14. Mim*

    I wonder if this is a situation where it would be good to privately document things that are happening, in case it ever escalates. Having worked with someone who Never Let Up on perceived personal slights, I’d be concerned about Jan escalating things and potentially causing trouble for you. I have witnessed this happen, to the point where the Jan in that situation was making up lies about unrelated things to try to establish herself as a victim and the other person as a bully. While it’s totally understandable that there might not be a person (other than Keith…) to bring this to right now, I’d be doing something like emailing myself every time something happened, so I had a date-stamped record. And if it turns out that there was no need to do that, at least you let off some steam by taking a few minutes to write things down?

  15. Enn Pee*

    I took a sexual harassment training a number of years ago, and something that was drilled into us is that someone does not need to directly be on the receiving end of a conversation to be affected and be able to make a formal complaint.

    If a coworker had overheard Jan’s comments and was uncomfortable, that would be just as valid as your feeling discomfort.

    By your shutting down Jan’s inappropriate comments, you are potentially helping others (as well as preventing any complaints against her!)

    1. yala*

      For real. I cannot imagine how uncomfortable I would be if another coworker, especially one TWENTY YEARS OLDER THAN ME, started sharing sexual fantasies about someone in the office.

  16. Rosa Rosa Rosa Diaz Diaz Diaz*

    I’d say focus on making sure you’re super friendly, professional, and reasonable with everyone else, so that if she does try to paint you to others in an unfavourable light, they’ll be much more likely to assume she’s being ridiculous.

    I like Alison’s suggested response to “oh yes we can’t talk about Keith, can we”. Being polite and sincere really highlights how wildly unreasonable she’s being by objecting to it.

    1. ferrina*

      I’m loving the juxtaposition between your advice and your user name! I’m imagining Rosa Diaz telling someone to be super friendly

      Totally spot on advice though!

    2. Artemesia*

      simple things like joining others for breaks in the break room or going to lunch — if people do go out, then initiate or ask to be included — think about your presentation of self at work and how you can showcase that you are easy to get along with and enjoy interacting with others. This can be very calculated.

      Example, years ago (long boring context) I felt a need to make clear that I was doing a valued task that others didn’t want to do — so I did this task involving consulting with clients with my door open during a high traffic period in the office so that all my peers repeatedly could see me doing this client oriented task. After a couple of months of this, my impression as someone who was on top of this was set — after that I could be less intentional.

      You are new, so think about little things you can do to ingratiate yourself with your peers in a friendly way. I wouldn’t even rule out cookies when you ‘baked too many to eat yourself’. But mostly find ways to informally interact in a friendly way or even seek their counsel on things that long timers would know but you as a newcomer might not. Preempt her ability to paint you as standoffish and unsocial.

      1. Expelliarmus*

        I like this idea in general, but I know that Alison tries to steer women away from accidentally becoming “the office baker”, or something like that because the expectation can kind of become rather gendered and such. But yeah, definitely make conscious efforts to ingratiate yourself to co-workers, OP!

  17. Qwerty*

    Stick to just the facts when dealing about this. The color commentary will result in a debate on whether Jan has a crush on Keith, which isn’t the issue here. Painting her as the lonely widow desperate for male attention is going to reflect really, really badly on you. I almost noped out of your letter before we got to Jan’s problematic comment because I was icked out by how you were describing Jan. More importantly, if you say any of this stuff to Keith or coworkers, you’ll then be starting a rumor about Jan’s romantic life. You want the focus to be on getting comments about you/Keith to stop and for Jan to act professionally once you told her to stop, rather than whomever you go to for help getting distracted by what Jan’s motivation could be for the comment(s) and what feelings she may or may not have. Less points + more facts = harder to dispute.

    Back to Jan’s inappropriate comment. The last part is the key to focus on: “you would have better chance with him”. It’s firmly in the inappropriate category and introduces the scenario of a romantic relationship between you and boss, which any sane person is squicked out by. Jan’s got plausible deniability on the first part – plenty of spouses get their spouses to relax after work without it being sexual and you don’t want to get dragged into that debate. Certainly give the full statement as context, but let Keith or whomever you are talking to deal with the part that’s not about you.

    1. mlem*

      Hard disagree. They’re presented as a cohesive statement — how does what the wife would do relate to what Jan would do, and how does either of those relate to the OP having more of “a chance” with him, if there’s not meant to be a sexual element? And why would anyone speculating about how Keith relaxes ask not that but what *his wife* would do *to get* him to relax? Short of some kind of tranq-dart scenario (which would fascinate me!), I can’t think of any non-sexual scenario in which the wife needs to be brought into the discussion.

      1. mlem*

        Oh, and WHILE I’m up, “So-and-so is irritated about a work thing, they must need to get laid and then they’d be more chill” is disgusting.

    2. Endangered Gummies*

      I like this – let the facts speak for themselves and strain out any personal assumptions (no matter how much you believe them to be true).

      This is something I’ve struggled with out of a need to over-explain for fear of being misunderstood or unjustified.

      But there’s no need to further muddy things. Remain a professional, pleasant, and helpful colleague.

    3. Appletini*

      Painting her as the lonely widow desperate for male attention is going to reflect really, really badly on you. I almost noped out of your letter before we got to Jan’s problematic comment because I was icked out by how you were describing Jan.

      This is a good point. Jan wouldn’t be any more entitled to act like this if she were 25 and single.

    4. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      When I read the letter, I figured that OP was giving us context for the situation, not that she would say all of that to Keith or anyone else. I mean, nobody at work would need the context because they all know Jan.

      I agree with you on sticking to the facts of behaviour. Some of the events may not be super bad on their own / have plausible deniability, but there is a pattern here. That pattern, for me, makes it more likely than not that the comment about relaxing Keith was sexual or intimate. The solution is for Jan to be more thoughtful about what she says.

    5. yala*

      I think speculating on how you would relax a coworker, or how their spouse relaxes them would still be pretty inappropriate, even if you claimed you just thought they would play parcheesi

      1. Snell*

        Your use of the term “play parcheesi” unearthed one of my tweenage memories—in one of the Princess Diaries books, Michael (if I remember correctly. One of the boy characters, anyhow) uses that exact term, and Mia spends a good portion of the book agonizing over whether or not it’s a euphemism for sex.

  18. Lady_Lessa*

    Off topic, slightly.

    I once had a crush on a boss. (both of us were single at the time). I tried to keep it under wraps, but at least one person picked up on it.

    After he laid me off, I let him know I was interested. Nothing happened, and now years later I can see some flags that showed that we were incompatible.

  19. Ellis Bell*

    OP I thought you shut this down like a boss, and good for you in not going along with objectifying someone just because you’re new. I don’t think this is a poor lonely widow with a crush issue; whenever I’ve seen someone do this it’s simply because they have a poor grasp of professionalism. The “girl talk” comment was a big sign of her being steeped in an unprofessional culture that simply shouldn’t exist. Crushes are typically not a problem at work; being unprofessional is when it becomes a problem. I’d probably try to treat her pouting as temporary and reactive. I would try to be as warm and ordinary as possible to indicate “hey, it’s time to move on”. It’s worth taking a look at the wider culture too; how in step or out of step is Jan with the others? If you get the sense it’s more than one person’s misstep, or more permanent than a temporary embarrassment and there is any pressure to get you to accept a locker room environment … then you need to let Keith know the giggling girls need to grow up into women.

    1. brjeau*

      Agreed. Frankly, it doesn’t matter why Jan has a crush, or even that she has one at all. Crushes are perfectly normal at any age or stage of life, and there’s nothing shameful about having one. Saying inappropriate things to coworkers based on that crush, however, is a serious problem (as is her treatment of you afterwards). It’s especially important to keep that distinction in mind as your reputation with other coworkers is important and still developing, so you don’t end up speculating to someone who will be off-put by the judgement

  20. HearTwoFour*

    In a kind, non-confrontational manner, ask her if she’s ever had a man make inappropriate comments about her, over the course of her career. When she says yes (because duh), ask if she remembers how that made her feel, especially when those comments were dismissed as a joke. Assure her that you know she IS just joking, but it’s still not your thing. She’ll get it.

    1. learnedthehardway*

      She might, or she might not. I wouldn’t bother with the analogy – for one thing, she’s likely to say “this is completely different”, and will refuse to see it as the same thing. At some level, Jan KNOWS this is not appropriate, otherwise she wouldn’t be having a temper tantrum about it. She doesn’t want to know, that’s all.

      Better to just enforce the boundary, shut down inappropriate comments, and carry on.

    2. Gumby*

      When she says yes (because duh)

      While women hearing inappropriate comments about themselves at work may be prevalent, it is not universal. I have worked in tech my whole post-college career; every company/group I have worked in has been majority-male. I have never had a man make inappropriate comments about me in a workplace. At least not within my hearing. There was *once* where some co-workers were talking about a video game character’s physique for about 30 seconds (more from a how to program the graphics standpoint than her appearance in and of itself) and one of the higher ups stopped the conversation in its tracks. It could be that I am extraordinarily lucky. Or, possibly, oblivious. But in 20+ years of working, I haven’t had to deal with that particular problem.

      Jan’s behavior is wrong whether she’s experienced it from the other side or not. And it’s not on OP to convince her to empathize with how her words might make Keith feel. It needs to stop regardless. I have also heard people say / seen people write that men are flattered by such things so it is perfectly fine to say them if directed at men. I’d hate to find out Jan is such a person so it might be best to leave that can of worms closed.

      1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        I will agree that people try not to say that stuff to one’s face nowadays. I’ve been working in corporate US since 1997 and only reason I know that there were dirty comments made about me behind my back was because I had friends who passed them on to me – years later, mind you – who were also close friends with the people who’d made them.

        With that said, I’ve definitely seen, and been on the receiving end of, more subtle stuff. As well as weird behavior like sneaking up behind my back and giving me a kiss on the cheek, or trying to take a photo of me and saying it’s for his girlfriend, who has the same outfit, or holding the door for me, but in a way where I wouldn’t be able to walk through it without making full body contact with the person. (I also work in tech and there’s a lot of odd behaviors going around.)

        With that said, Jane seems to be in the frame of mind right now where I wouldn’t rule out her saying something like “yes I did and it made me feel pretty and appreciated” and then what would OP say? I think what OP has already told Jane is correct and enough.

        1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

          I did not mean to say “with that said” twice! Need more coffee. Apologies to anyone rightfully peeved by it.

      2. Alpacas Are Not Dairy Animals*

        Yeah, same. I’m nonbinary but generally perceived as a woman, and the only thing close to an inappropriate comment about my appearance during my career so far was a woman from HR who told me that I needed to look ‘more tailored’ when I was trying to masc up my appearance over a decade ago. (This is borderline because my first attempts were pretty awkward and she might have genuinely been reacting to that, but she refused to clarify and just said ‘you know what I mean’ when I asked for clarification, which left a bad taste in my mouth.)

  21. CharlieBrown*

    I’m not always a fan of flipping the genders as a thought experiment unless you can also reverse thousands of years of history and systemic sexism

    THANK YOU!!!!!

    (And, may I add, this also applies to issues of race and sexual identity.)

    1. Sunshine*

      Yes, but… in this case (at least for me) I feel like Jan’s gender and status as a widow is making me feel more compassion for her outrageous behavior and I don’t think that’s right. If this was a man making comments about a female colleague, it wouldn’t be enough to just tell him to knock it off around me – I would want to make sure he knocked it off permanently and would not feel bad if he incurred awkward consequences because of his behavior.

      It is different because a man making sexual comments about a female boss has an air of not taking her seriously/potential danger for the boss that I’m not sure Jan’s comments also have, but I really think this is super problematic behavior no matter the genders and flipping them helps to highlight that.

      1. JSPA*

        I wouldn’t assume it’s the widowhood. Our office “Jan” (30-some years ago) was happily married. She also leaned hard on, “you’re too young for this sort of married woman talk.” (Otherwise an excellent coworker…and none of us had the benefit of today’s clearly-defined lines.)

    2. Jack Straw from Wichita*

      Yes, thank you for including this, Alison. I’m not sure I’d thought about it in those exact terms, but I’m glad I did today. TY.

  22. Skyblue*

    Is it typical for people in your office to keep their doors open? Is so, I wouldn’t close it just to avoid Jan. You don’t want to risk isolating yourself from your other coworkers.

    1. All Het Up About It*

      This is a good point. I have to admit I’m also curious how the OP knows Jan is saying this. Does she announce it loud enough that OP can hear it through the door? Does she do it when OP is walking out of the office to grab something off the printer?

      I’d also STRONGLY encourage the OP to start forming relationships with other people in the office so they can get the idea of how others see Jan and two so they have the support they need. If they OP knows that every other person is rolling their eyes when Jan makes the sarcastic comment regarding the not being social, it’s going to help a lot.

  23. scurvycapn*

    If this were me, I think I’d try to make Keith aware of the situation without it feeling like a full-on incident report. That way if he notices something (and he may be more receptive with the knowledge), he has an idea of what needs to be addressed.

    “Hey Keith, as an FYI, I just wanted you to know that I told Jan I was uncomfortable about some inappropriate comments she made about you, and she’s been a bit standoffish since then. Just wanted to make you aware in case something seems off.”

    If he presses for more info, hopefully that means you’re safe in giving him the creepy details.

    1. ferrina*

      Agree. You don’t even need to say that it’s about Keith, with a minor change to scurvycapn’s suggested script:

      “As an FYI, I just wanted you to know that I told Jan I was uncomfortable about some inappropriate comments she made that contained clear sexual overtones, and she’s been a bit standoffish since then. Just wanted to make you aware in case something seems off.”

    2. AngelicGamer*

      I wouildn’t say “about you”. I’d leave that off and just let him know there were inappropriate comments.

    3. Skyblue*

      I think it would amount to the same thing as reporting it to him because I can’t imagine him hearing that and then not requesting the full details.

  24. nm*

    I’m wondering if Keith has the power to fire Jan (as opposed to if some other person is the owner and they do all the hiring and firing. I never know with really small companies).

    At any rate, if I was a boss and heard someone talking about me that way I’d want them gone; probably most of us would feel that way!

  25. Keymaster of Gozer*

    I’ve had to deal with a female member of staff who was making very inappropriate comments about a male member of staff and it is not easy and I do not envy you.

    What did stop it was a clear statement of ‘I’m really not the right audience for this kind of talk, and frankly nobody else here is either’. There were some angry comments, but it did finally stop. Deprived of an appreciative audience she just gave up. After a period of extreme snark. I just had to ride it out.

    It’s like, I remember that kind of mentionitis and obsessive thinking about someone I had a crush on, but I left that behind 20 years ago.

  26. Sloanicota*

    I’ve started a mental fanfiction in which this same boss is *also* the one OP has just learned they’re related to through a freak DNA test incident, if anyone wants to join in.

  27. Camellia*

    Honestly, I would be concerned about Jan spinning the “we can’t talk about Keith” into the OP being the one with the crush on him, if anyone else in the office picked up on her snide remarks and asked her about them.

    1. Artemesia*

      Good insight and does suggest some pre-emptive work on the OP’s part to lay it out for HR or if no HR to the boss in a heads up way.

      Once you could overlook, but constantly it became an issue and OP dealt with it appropriately and Jan is embarrassed and so retaliating. A little preemptive defense is probably not amiss.

      And absolutely need to build positive relationships with everyone else and really give that some thought.

  28. Mopsy*

    Alison’s approach of thanking Jan for not talking about Keith reminds me of a similar incident at a former job…

    I used to work on a team with a man in his 50s who every once in a while would proclaim, “I would say something here, but I’m going to hold back because of Me Too” with the very obvious expectation that I’d say “Oh come on, say it!” — it always led to a satisfyingly awkward pause when I’d say “Thanks for your thoughtfulness, Fred.”

  29. KellsBells*

    We don’t talk about Boss Keith, no no; we don’t talk about Keeeeeeeith!
    We were in the office chatting, the copier was jamming (jammed for the third time that day)
    Janet walked in, with a salacious grin, and said Did you see Keith’s butt today? (Not this again, nooo)
    Sorry, I know this is a serious letter, but I jyst watched End an to with my nephews!

    1. Rebecca1*

      Thank you! I was looking through the comments for this and could not believe I hadn’t seen it yet.

    2. Anonomatopoeia*

      Exactly what was in my head but I was like oh I will be waaaaay too much nerd if I go there. Yay for less reticent nerd friend.

  30. Essentially Cheesy*

    Honestly I think no one is immune to being attracted to a coworker from time to time. But I’ve always tried to keep it to myself. I may have mentioned to a former manager one .. oh, so and so is so tall and handsome .. and she thought it was silly and cute .. which is fine. But then she knew my feelings! Yeah never again. Too risky.

    1. ecnaseener*

      Well and there’s a big difference between “he’s so handsome” and “I’d like to ~help him relax~ the way his wife probably does!”

      1. Expelliarmus*

        Not to mention BEING STANDOFFISH when someone tells you to cut it out, when what you should be doing is apologizing and never doing it again!

  31. aarti*

    Sometimes we want to deliver a message and have no hurt feelings. But why? Sometimes people need it to sting a little to stop their behavior. Own the hurt feelings. Yes, she should have stopped, she didn’t, now she has to be embarrassed. That is the price she has to pay and she’ll get over it.
    I say this not to be cruel but because i am a nicey-nice person and want everyone to like me. But guess what – they won’t! I am not the B-52s where everyone likes me. Sometimes I am going to upset people…and that is ok.

  32. Health Insurance Nerd*

    LW, I haven’t read through the comments, so this may already be out there, but you 100% did the right thing responding to Jan the way that you did. You didn’t embarrass her, she embarrassed herself! The best thing you can do at this point is ignore her barbs and immaturity- eventually, she’ll get tired and move on.

  33. chs.29*

    I got some great advice from a fantastically successful colleague the other day (very similar to what Alison has said on here before): If you deliver an unpleasant message and the person is uncomfortable with it, let them be uncomfortable. It means they understood the message, and makes it clear that you’re in control of your boundaries.
    I know it’s awkward! But hopefully Jan will come to realize how inappropriate her comments are, and will treat you professionally and maturely going forward. And, if Jan is that chatty about Keith, she might even be making similar comments to others, who would respect you immensely for shutting it down.

  34. TiredMama*

    Yesss, I love the Alison’s response, ‘Aw, thanks so much for listening and respecting that.’ Kill the attitude with kindness.

  35. Flash*

    This is sexual harassment. Just imagine if a guy was talking about what he was thinking about doing to to a female coworker in bed. Totally inappropriate “locker talk”

    1. Luna*

      You don’t have to reverse the sex or gender to point out how creepy it is. A woman doing it is just as creepy and uncomfortable as a man doing it.

  36. Knitting*

    I’d advise OP to put a bit of extra effort into keeping relationships smooth/friendly with the rest of the team, or some of them, just in case Jan proves to be toxic. Allies could be handy, down the line.
    Also, I agree with “Document, document, document.”
    Future proof this!

    1. Work Related Acquaintance*

      Agree. And if anyone ever asks about Jan’s frosty attitude or snide remarks, I would say something like “Jan spoke about a coworker in a way that made me feel uncomfortable, I let her know, and she’s upset with me.” All true, and I really doubt this was the only time she’s cross

  37. Tiger Snake*

    Heck, you don’t even need to make this a ‘she made comments about Keith’ thing. She made comments about you in relation to Keith. That’s two of her coworkers she’s making inappropriate comments about, right to your face.

    Myself, that would be what I’d be super tempted to counter her retaliation with. “Yes, I’m not interested in making small talk until you can stop making sexual comments about me to my face, to others, and I get a sincere apology.”

    1. ecnaseener*

      I definitely agree on principle – if you’re going to talk about your sexual fantasies don’t include me, ew – but practically, I’d worry that Jan would interpret it as “sexual comments about Keith are fine in general, it was just involving me I had a problem with”

  38. Work Related Acquaintance*

    When people get passive aggressive, I sometimes like to counter that with an approach I call “active aggressive”. Basically leaning into the conflict a bit so the other person realizes that snide comments are not going to fly. If the coworker says “oh, right we can’t talk about him”, I would counter with a look of confusion and say something like “oh, I’m so sorry – that’s not what I meant! We can certainly continue to discuss him, just not in a sexual way that’s inappropriate for a work conversation. Okay?” Telling other people that you’re not feeling social is especially ridiculous because she’s involving other people in your issue. In that case, I do think it’s fine to offer a bland reply, but I would follow it up with something like “Why did you assume I’m not feeling social – is there something I have done to make you feel that way?” I realize OP wants this to blow over as soon as possible and it may seem like continuing to be direct will not help. But OP also needs to keep in mind that they are not dealing with a person with normal boundaries here. A person with normal boundaries would have already apologized after the OP expressed discomfort and realized they went too far.

  39. Mrs. Hawiggins*

    Everything that’s already been said is absolutely the right thing to do – including and especially OP’s response. Jan is embarrassed and projecting the internal hurt on to OP to make it sting less. What Jan should obviously focus on is appropriate work behavior, AND the fact that if not already, this WILL get back to Keith whether through the HR channel or someone just flat out telling him. I’ve never known a time when it hasn’t.

  40. JSPA*

    “Sexual innuendo with your besties is girl talk. There’s no such thing as girl talk in the workplace.”

    “Let me send you a link from the training I had in a previous job, so you get why I don’t participate in these sorts of conversations.”

    I’d be temped to send her the “let me google that for you” (LMGTFY) link for, what’s the rule on sexual innuendo in the workplace. But she might get scared enough that she’d try to get you fired.

  41. Persephone*

    LW, I’d be reporting it to Keith.

    Send him an email, tell him you need to talk about something to do with another employee. Don’t name Jan in the email—you never know who’s looking over your (or his) shoulder.

    When talking to him, tell him this is going to be awkward! You didn’t want to be put in the position where you need to tell him! But you’ve tried to manage it yourself and that didn’t work, and it does involve him so here you are. Make it clear that you are uncomfortable with all of this. That will make it harder for him to ignore (ignoring it would be easier for him, but he has a responsibility as your boss to look after you in the workplace).

    Then tell him everything the way you have written in this letter. Give examples of the things she said before you told her to stop and the things she says now (especially the one about helping him relax, that is disgusting). Heck, *maybe* even include that you feel this is a result of the loss of her husband and misinterpreting Keith’s attention due to loneliness.

    Ask him to not tell Jan that he heard about this from another employee—she WILL link it back to you, and given her passive aggressiveness when you asked her to stop, she may retaliate.

    If Keith’s a good boss he’ll deal with this even though it’s uncomfortable for him.

    Remember, you aren’t the only person forced to listen to Jan’s comments—especially now that you’ve shut her down. You’re the one dealing with this the most, but she’s probably picked another victim now that you aren’t receptive anymore.

    And if all else fails, the next time she makes any remarks, just respond *really loudly* “I’m glad that you understand making sexual comments about your boss to a coworker is wrong Jan. Thanks for remembering that I asked you to stop.” It’s not your fault if someone overhears.

  42. Luna*

    “Jan, I don’t care for this type of talk. I don’t care if you call it a ‘little girl talk’, ‘gossiping’, or whatever. I don’t want to hear it. You can certainly talk about Keith, but if it involves you mentioning how you want to do him up one side of the kama sutra and down the other, that is beyond creepy, and goes way too far. You like him, I get it, it’s not my business.”

  43. CA Cupid*

    Jan tried to do the classic “be self-deprecating in hopes you’ll correct me” thing and is mad it didn’t work. She wanted “what? noooo, you’ve still got it!!!” but got “please stop being weird” instead, and now she’s embarrassed. She’s soothing herself by making LW look like the one doing something weird. Just keep being normal with everyone else and it should blow over.

  44. RagingADHD*

    I strongly recommend that you lean *hard* into the positive / sincere responses like “just gotta focus” and “thank you for respecting that”, as well as taking time to make warm, friendly connections with other coworkers.

    They all know Jan. They know what she’s like, and she probably has similar conversations with them.

    If you blatantly ignore her, it’s going to be chilly, and people will notice. They have made their own peace about how to deal with Jan, and if you are exacerbating the negative vibe, they are going to consider you part of the problem.

    If you are positive, sincere, and warm, they will pick up on that too (even if they don’t hear what you say). They will perceive that Jan is being obnoxious, and see that the negativity isn’t coming from you.

    Besides, sincerity is always the best way to respond to passive aggressive people. It frustrates them to no end, which is very satisfying.

  45. yala*

    “I wonder what his wife does to make him relax at home, I know what I would do.”…“Oh, it’s just a little girl talk. There’s no harm in that.”


    I can’t help but immediately do the gender-swap thing, because if that was coming from a man about a female colleague, it would IMMEDIATELY clock as inappropriate and the sort of thing Workplace Training Videos are made for. The whole “girl talk” has a “locker room talk” vibe.

    If it was just a crush and she got a bit gushy at you, that would be bad enough, but she’s making sexual references about someone she works with to you, another person she works with, at work.

    That needs to stop, like. Yesterday.

    I’ll admit, I would have difficulty not responding to the 10th or so “Oh, that’s right, we can’t talk about him” with “Yeah, I don’t really want to hear your sexual fantasies, thanks.” Which…probably wouldn’t help much. I haaaate people doing the “I’m not touching you” equivalent of a conversation.

    But OP, if you’re a better, more rational person than me, then I wish you luck with gray-walling her into finally giving up on needling you about it.

    1. tamarack etc.*

      Maybe rather something like: “[putting down pen and looking at her to attract attention] Look. I’m saying this in the friendliest way possible: The Keith talk has to stop. Please run this by someone you trust, if you don’t believe me. But this is making it uncomfortable for both of us and isn’t reflecting well on you. End of message.”

  46. e271828*

    LW1, how many variations are possible or needed on an email confirming a meeting? Did you need ten unique emails or did you just need the meetings confirmed? You produced a usable email body, copy-paste for the other nine meetings seems reasonable to me. I’d do it. (And how warm and cuddly does that email need to be, anyway?)

    If Other Jane is learning from your professional style about catching more flies with honey, and your collaboration is temporary, it’s not plagiarism or copycatting. If you have to work with her constantly, and people start getting you two confused because of the similar email tics, then maybe it would be time to have a chat.

  47. Jessica Fletcher*

    Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that gaslighting is not denying you did something when someone reports you. A lot of people are confused about that, so it’s ok to be confused about it!

  48. Greg*

    Reading OP’s letter as well as skimming the comments, there seems to be an assumption that Keith is totally in the dark about Jan’s crush (eg, OP is worried about a “he-said, she-said” situation). I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Keith is almost certainly aware of what’s going on with Jan. If she’s confiding in a brand new colleague she barely knows, she’s probably not doing the best job of hiding her feelings. (Not to mention that if Keith really is the prototypical tall dark and handsome, it’s probably not the first time a woman has had a crush on him.)

    It’s entirely possible that bringing these concerns to Keith will actually be doing him a favor. It’s probably difficult (and potentially hazardous) for a manager to call out an employee’s crush on him as long as the employee retains an element of deniability. This way, Keith can focus on Jan making inappropriate comments to a coworker, not on her feelings toward him.

    I’m not saying she definitely should do this; there are likely other factors to consider. But I wouldn’t let his presumed ignorance factor into her decision, since he’s likely not ignorant at all

  49. CLC*

    If the LW ever feels she needs to go to Keith with this, she could always say that Jan was talking about *someone* in the office in a sexual way. I don’t think she would have to tell Keith it’s him, at least not at first. It really doesn’t matter who it is.

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