Friday, July 30, 2010

Workplace Question

I've been insanely busy these past few weeks at work. I work for a small company (about 150 employees, but only about 50 in my office) that just got acquired by a really big company. I work in human resources, so I've had a lot to do in order to make things transition smoothly.

Anyway, completely unrelated to the acquisition, I'm not quite sure what to make of what happened at work this morning. Small company dynamics are such that everybody is rather friendly with one another. We're a casual Silicon Valley software startup. The CEO greets everyone by name when he runs into them in the hallway. Everyone is on a first-name basis with everyone. There's joking and banter in the lunchroom.

There are about 10 women and 40 men in the office. At 28, I'm the youngest employee. We have a few engineers in their early 30's, but most people are in their late 40's or older. There's this one sales engineer who is in his late 60's. We'll call him Fred. (Not his real name.) Over the past year, Fred has made occasional remarks to me, calling me pretty, gorgeous, beautiful, attractive, etc. I didn't really like having my appearance made a subject of conversation, but I let the remarks slide because I didn't want to be "that employee" who cried sexual harassment at the sound of a compliment. Anyway, over the last few weeks, he's started to hang out in the lobby when I'm covering the front desk for the receptionist's lunch break. He'll hang out for 5 or 10 minutes chit-chatting. I find it to be annoying but harmless.

This morning, I was standing in the cubicle of one of my co-workers having a conversation. Fred was walking by with another sales guy. Fred walked up behind me, grabbed my upper arms, grinned jokingly and said in a joking voice to the other sales guy, "Go get her!" I stepped away, freeing my arms, turned toward him, and told him that was inappropriate. The co-worker I was talking to said, "Yeah, Fred, that wasn't cool."

Fred and the other sales guy continued walking to their destination. I went back to my cubicle to collect my thoughts. My boss (the VP of HR) is on vacation until the middle of next week. I went to talk to one of my female co-workers who I also consider a friend. She told me that I handled the situation appropriately and that I should write everything down while it's still fresh in my mind and then report it to my boss when she gets back. I took her advice to write it down. I'm not sure whether I'll tell my boss.

What do you all think? Is telling Fred that his behavior was inappropriate sufficient, or do I need to report it to HR? (Especially given that I am HR, perhaps my remark will do the job.) On the one hand, I don't want to wreck this guy's career over a stupid moment of teasing, but on the other hand, his behavior really wasn't ok, and somebody really does need to let him know that, perhaps in a more official capacity.

Note to readers: This post deals with a sensitive topic. As many of you know, I blog under a pseudonym in order to deal with sensitive topics more freely. For those of you who know my real life identity, I would ask that you refrain from making any comments that would identify me or the company I work for. This could happen at any company.


C.J. said...

I'd wait, and see if it happens again. Many men (and women) are simply socially awkward, and harmless. Their actions may cause feelings of confusion, or even revulsion, but they don't intend to. The real issue is whether, knowing your boundaries, the person in question still violates them. Now that you've explained your boundaries to Fred, hopefully he'll respect them, having learned his lesson. If he does, great. If he doesn't, that's when you talk to your boss.

Incidentally, I, too, have experienced men telling me I'm pretty/gorgeous/whatever, apparently since this is supposed to be a compliment. Personally, I find making my appearance a subject of conversation in the workplace both demeaning and offensive, but many men don't seem to understand this. Although, in my opinion, the good ones do.

Usually, I make a joke out of it. A friend of mine is casually dating this guy who apparently felt it necessary to comment on my appearance; I jokingly said, "only one man is allowed to think I'm gorgeous" and let it drop. Most men (and women), once they see you're clearly not interested in their line of commentary, stop. But, if they don't, not only is it uncomfortable for you, it's also often an indication of a much deeper (and potentially more dangerous) problem.

Peter R. said...

If it were me, I would let it go with your verbal remark, especially since it was echoed by another coworker. But I'd keep my written account of the incident, and if anything like it ever happened again, I would talk to a supervisor.

If your company has a written employee handbook or a sexual harassment policy, you might check to see what the company suggests you do as well. It seems like the desired outcome is for Fred to get a clue, not to have him fired. But I can't help noticing that the last two sexual harassment trials I saw both involved similar behavior at first. If that sort of physical contact or joking escalates or continues, I think it would be appropriate to file a report.

Keri Brooks said...

Thanks for your comments. I followed your advice, Peter, and I checked the handbook. It turns out that it's company policy that I report the conduct to my supervisor or the HR department. Since they're one and the same in my case, I guess I'll be having a talk with my boss tomorrow.

Mike H. said...

"Fred" may not know any better. Yes, there are some men who are kind of dopey about how to treat women at work. But, some of them should know better.

I think just telling him should be enough. Let's hope that's all that's needed.

C.J. said...

Sometimes it's not so much about what policies are in place, but about what long-term result we want to achieve.

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Stephen said...

It appears that "Fred" is slowly escalating his behavior. Follow your company procedures and let things work out by the book.

There is more, technical advice, but an HR professional can give it to you better than I can as a lawyer who has handled EEOC and harassment matters.

Just follow your procedures at work.