What should I do when I get hit on by colleagues?

sloan profile image Sloan Aug 29, 2017

This is an anonymous question sent in by a member who does not want their name disclosed. Please be thoughtful with your responses, as these are usually tough questions to ask and answer.

I'm just starting out in the software industry and I've experienced my first couple of instances of being hit on by people I solely consider an industry colleague or contact.

It's a pretty disheartening feeling that I'm sure many of you are familiar with.

Considering I'm just starting out and I don't want to burn any bridges, but I also don't want to build the wrong kinds of bridges, what should I do?

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I'm sorry you have to deal with this nonsense - and make no mistake, it is nonsense and you should not have to worry about it, your response to it, or the other party's response to your response, so on and so forth.

In your shoes, I've done the whole "change the subject" thing with varying degrees of success. You don't need to feel shame, embarrassment, or remorse saying "Let's keep this professional!" or "Hey, that's not the way I want to talk with my coworkers, ok?" or (mileage may vary with this one), I've had some luck with a gentle aside: "Please stop reminding me of my gender." That one seems to make folks stop and think (sometimes :/).

Regardless of how you handle these situations, please remember - you weren't the one who got yourself into it. Please don't be afraid to reach out for help from people that you trust whenever this happens!

That's tough. Sorry you have to deal with this.

In my experience its best to ignore it, if it's persistent then what Jess said, "Thanks, but our relationship is strictly professional.". If it continues on, you could try talking to them about it on the side.

If it ever crosses into sexual harassment though, please take action by contacting your manager, or getting HR involved as a last resort. (HR is rarely on your side, so that's why I say last resort).

Honestly, you're going to burn bridges along the way. Some people will get upset and lash out if their ignored, others will take the hint and move on. I understand where you're coming from, but better to have that bridge burned than to be in a situation where you're not comfortable. Good luck <3

That's really disappointing. I've had a very not-so-subtle instance where someone on my team (who was living with their partner at the time), decided to share that they had a huge crush on me that they couldn't get over. They kept saying they didn't want to 'freak me out' but that they needed to tell me so they could get over it. It was really uncomfortable and I didn't know how to navigate it, except point blank say that I wanted our relationship to stay strictly professional.

It sucked because a few weeks later, my supervisor said that xyz person said I was doing a great job managing a product build, and I could never take the feedback seriously because it came from that person.

Without assuming whether you're a male or a female, my number one piece of advice is to go ahead and rid yourself of this idea that not allowing someone to hit on you in a professional setting is burning a bridge. There is absolutely no reason you should have to endure that level of discomfort to keep a connection with someone (even if it is professional). I'm a huge fan of light that bridge on fire and watch it burn if it becomes a necessary step to take. There will always be ways to go around people and still get what you need if you burn a bridge. And if you do end up burning a bridge with an upper level executive because of something like this (sexual harassment), it might be time to re-evaluate that company and your employment.

Can't agree with this hard enough. Never allow yourself to believe that you are somehow responsible for someone else's lack of professionalism, or that you have to remain uncomfortable by not putting a stop to it/calling them out on it.

In addition to speaking directly with your coworker, if you get suspect comments in emails or instant message, screenshot them and save them (including your reply). If this person ever cross the line, it helps demonstrate a pattern of behavior which is easier for HR to take action against. I gave a coworker this advice and it lead to a very quick dismissal.

Additionally, consider emailing yourself to create contemporaneous memos directly after any inappropriate interaction. A simple paper trail of exactly what happened while the events are still clear in your mind.

Even if you never end up needing them, it may be helpful to have these documents sometime in the future.

So sorry you're being forced to deal with this type of harrassment.

That's really horrible to hear, I'm sorry you have encountered this.

I would tell the user that your relationship is strictly work based and you're not looking for anything more. If the person doesn't get the message I'd say go to someone higher up in your department like your boss or your HR department, especially if it becomes a problem that is affecting your work.

It may cause tension between the work place with you and the employee(s) in question, however this is something no one should have to deal with at their place of work.

If in the unlikely event that your boss and HR can't do anything, if it comes to the point where it continually happens, it's affecting you and your work then there is no shame and nothing wrong with leaving the company. I've written an article about being happy in your work place (dev.to/rapidnerd/string-happyworkp...).

Best of luck, hope this will get sorted for you!

Want a man's perspective?

So, first, let me make some assumptions: I'll assume that you are female and the colleagues/contacts are male. I'll further assume you're in a "western" - ie, American or European - culture. If these are incorrect assumptions, you can ignore the "second".

Second, the average American or European is more likely to strike up a romantic relationship at work than anywhere else (in person, anyway - internet dating is probably on a par). Outside of work, the opportunities to strike up a conversation with a woman are few, and often frowned upon. If your industry is tech-related, then sadly we have a dearth of female colleagues and contacts, so the opportunities in work are few and far between as well. Given all this, women in tech get more romantic attention than they probably want, but for the majority of men in the industry, it's simply a rare opportunity to find a potential girlfriend without having to approach a woman entirely cold - and that in turn is heavily frowned upon.

I say all this not because it's okay for dozens of men to hit on you, but in order that you understand that men trying to shift a relationship from purely professional to something else is not in itself a malaise of the industry, it's just a byproduct of a combination of social pressures and an unfortunate minority of women in the industry.

So, you are, unfortunately, going to get more attention than you want - and the individual men doing the "hitting" are going to be blissfully unaware that they're doing anything to annoy you. Men are rarely in the situation of being the only man in a sea of women, constantly being hit on, and would probably think it sounded quite good - until they considered the reality.

And so we move onto thirdly... What can you do about it? I can't give much advice - you'd be amazed, but men hardly ever hit on me - but I can tell you a few things to do.

  • If you want to keep things professional, then keep things professional. Cool, calm, polite rejection is fine. Trust me, we're men in tech, we're expecting it.
  • If a guy doesn't take no for an answer, or is aggressive, or in any other way is behaving in a way that would individually be unacceptable, then burn that bridge. Ideally with him on it.
  • But... try not to lash out at the fourth (or fifth, or ninetieth) guy to politely ask you if you'd like a drink after work. Honestly, he won't have thought about the previous three (or four, or eighty-nine). He'll probably be thoroughly ashamed if he knew. It might even be worth telling him, politely, that he's the sixth one this week, and it might even be flattering if it weren't just that you're the only girl in the department. [Adjust to fit].
  • Keep a "contemporaneous account", even if it seems innocent at first. Emailing yourself is a good one, but use a gmail account or something else you clearly don't control. Then should it have to involve HR, or even courts, then you have admissible, actionable evidence.
  • Explaining the situation to (non-hitting) colleagues helps. Men are not devoid of empathy - no matter how many times we get told we should be - and your team members will look out for you. If they don't, they're not worth working with.

As I point out, however, I'm a man, and so thankfully haven't been in your situation. Good luck.

I'm a little surprised that everyone jumps immediately to harassment. If you express disinterest directly and it persists, then that's harassment. If they take the hint and drop it, it's just somebody trying to do what people do.

I do agree with everyone that you should not feel pressured to just let unwanted advances continue to protect your career. That is nonsense.

The definition of "hitting on" is vague...

Before you're anything else you're human, and it is natural human behavior to romantically couple. Very frequently those are born from working relationships simply due to the amount of time spent together. Politely declining is an important skill.

Clearly, lines may be crossed and frequently are. I don't know why, I don't understand why. The best thing you can do is document, document, document. You will need to present a strong case whenever escalation is necessary - talking to your manager/supervisor, HR, going to court for a restraining order, going to court for violations of that restraining order.

I hope you don't have to deal with that.

Early in my career, I had a co worker who persistently hit on me. She typically did so in a humorous way. It became a running joke around the office. Sometimes it was uncomfortable, but I consistently declined or ignored her (half-joking) advances and kept a good sense of humor about it. After a while, it died down. We worked together for a year or so (in different departments). Looking back nearly 2 decades later, the memories of it make me chuckle and I hope she is doing well. That's not advice, just my experience.

Hello,

That's not an easy question, the context, the company's culture and the mindset of the two people are important for such problem.

I will assume that you started a few weeks ago, and it has not been too far.

The only advice I would give is: keep it professional.

Do not disclose anything private about yourself. Sometime you can get "trapped" in group discussion, and people will ask you something private. Just laugh and respond something obviously wrong.

If people send you invitation through Facebook, reject them. Send them another one through LinkedIn instead.

Read, read, read, a lot, about anything. Read until you're able to start a conversation with almost anyone about anything that interest them. When people talk to you at work, ask them to talk about their current projects. And talk about yours. Talk about anything technical that you have read and you would like to share.

Keep it professional :)

I'd say be blunt upfront. But politely decline. It's good to get rid of this in the very beginning before it becomes something else.

You'll never be able to keep everyone happy, it's life.

I for one have been blunt if you get the hint in it. It has always worked just fine.Except for one time. But that's how it is.

I'm sorry. It doesn't do any good to say that you shouldn't have to deal with this problem, because you do.

If it's at ALL possible, I play oblivious. Sometimes it's not, and I say, "No, thanks." Making excuses just encourages boundary-free jerks to try a rules-lawyer around them. If they keep it up, go to your manager (not HR). Save any sketchy emails you send or get to a non-work location. If your manager passes the buck, start looking for another job. I know it's hard to believe, but there are less terrible places out there.

And, this is the unfairest of all - Don't trust them. Not your hotel room number, your personal phone, your home address. Don't drink anywhere near work. Almost all bartenders will give you a non-alcoholic drink in a drink glass if you ask.

Find allies. The queer-looking women with bright hair have been playing this game long enough that they can usually help you at an event. (not all of them, but a lot). Find the slacks, the communities, the backchannel communications. I can't tell you where the door to Narnia is for you, but I promise that there is a place you can slip into and get help from other people.

Congrats, you are, for now, attractive enough to draw conspecifics' attentions. If you wear a faux "wedding ring" you will filter out gentlemen. Or mention a boyfriend verbally.

Attractiveness fades, enjoy the ego boost, don't stress, unless they persist, then document.

--Jealous