Q: I am a woman who has worked in the same job at the same company for 10 years. A male co-worker started several months ago. He joined me when he saw me in the company cafeteria. He began asking me questions, and I politely answered him. A few days later, he joined me in the cafeteria again and began another personal conversation. I did not like being in a personal conversation with him, so I was abrupt in my answers. After that, I stopped talking to him except for business conversations.
Our department rearranged our desks, and we now sit facing each other. I have caught him staring at me, but he looks away when I look at him. I asked to be moved to another location, but my supervisor asked why. I didn't want to tell her why because she will gossip about me complaining and others in the department will tease me.
I don't want to speak to him because I know he has a crush on me. I also won't complain to human resources because others who've gone to HR were made miserable. I have started a job search, but the companies I've interviewed with won't match my salary. I make more than my husband, and we need the money, so I cannot quit without a job. It seems I am stuck in this job and don't know what to do.
A: Whoa! A new co-worker tries to be friendly with you, a seasoned employee, while in the cafeteria and you curtly answer his questions and then stop talking to him. Ask yourself if that's how you would like to be treated if you started a new job. It sounds like you are drastically overreacting to a co-worker seeking to befriend another co-worker of equal ranking.
Before the furniture was moved, placing the two of you across from each other, he did not hang out at your desk trying to distract you from your job. He spoke to you in the cafeteria, where you were likely having lunch or taking a break. Male and female co-workers can, do and should form appropriately friendly relationships at work, and having personal conversations at lunch or during break time is quite natural. What is not natural is to turn a cold shoulder to a new employee and refuse to converse with the person simply because he is of the opposite sex. It would behoove you to take a good look at his and your behaviors before you jump to conclusions. If his questions have not crossed the line into sexual propositions or questions of a sexual nature, you may be the one with the problem.
On the other hand, if you see him gawking or longingly gazing at you for extended periods (and you are certain you are not misreading his behavior), it's time for a face-to-face conversation. Privately tell him you have noticed him staring at you, that you feel uncomfortable when you become aware of it and you would like him to stop. This is a major accusation, so you must be certain beyond a reasonable doubt about the situation before you address it. If you are certain, you should have no reason to be afraid to communicate your discomfort. Politely but firmly correcting a co-worker's behavior by sharing your honest feelings should not create any awkwardness. If it does, it may relate to your emotional state of mind and perhaps an inability to have a nonsexual friendship with a man.
It is disconcerting that you seem fearful of having a friendly, personal conversation with an employee with whom you work. With your desks facing each other's, it's only natural for both of you to periodically exchange glances and minor conversation. It is interesting you think your boss will ridicule you for wanting to move your desk. Perhaps your boss senses a rigidity or awkwardness in your personal behavior but has never commented on it.
Some people, both male and female, never develop the ability to have platonic friendships with the opposite sex, which can be a major detriment to career advancement. Confidently, appropriately and calmly handling this situation on your own may be critical to your advancement in this job or at another company. Refusing to talk to an employee is neither professional nor an acceptable solution to any problem. Clear communication is a key factor in moving up, and your ability to treat all co-workers equally, regardless of gender, requires you to get past seeing all male-female relationships as sexual.
Management has a legal responsibility to investigate and put a stop to sexual harassment, but you have not mentioned anything that would trigger such a complaint.
Email your workplace issues and experiences to [email protected] For more information about career and life coach Lindsey Novak, visit www.lindseyparkernovak.com, and for past columns, see www.creators.com/read/at-work-lindsey-novak.