Now We’re Heading Back To The Office, How Should I Handle My Creepy Co-Worker?

'One of my teammates excels at making me uncomfortable. It wasn't so bad when we were all on Zoom, but I'm worried that it will be worse than ever now we're going back to working irl.'

return to office harassment

by Sue Unerman and Kathryn Jacob |

In a world of in­spi­ra­tional memes and #girlboss In­sta­gram posts, it’s easy to for­get that we all get stuck at work, or feel like we can’t find a way for­ward at times. Sue Uner­man is the Chief Trans­for­ma­tion Of­fi­cer at Me­di­a­Com and Kathryn Ja­cob OBE is the Chief Ex­ec­u­tive at Pearl and Dean. To­gether they wrote The Glass Wall: Suc­cess Strate­gies For Women At Work And Busi­nesses That Mean Busi­ness. Their new book Belonging, The Key to Transforming and Maintaining Diversity, Inclusion and Equality At Work is out on now. Each week an­swer your work ques­tions with prag­matic, hon­est ad­vice that’s proven to work…

Q: While I have been working from home so much, I have had some difficulties, but there is one thing that has been less of a problem. One of my teammates excels at making me feel uncomfortable. He’s always been known for his so-called banter and as junior member of the team I have had to put up with this pretty much as he is valued. It hasn’t been as bad while I have been on Zoom. I am really worried that it will be worse than ever now that we are all going to be back in the office more of the working week. What can you advise please on how I should handle this?

A: SU: We are really sorry to hear about this, and appreciate that you must be dreading a return to former ways. You are not alone, one survey we have seen has indicated that 49% respondents believe that sexual harassment will be worse when they return to the office. And we know from research in our book Belonging, the key to transforming and maintaining diversity, inclusion and equality at work, that one in three people overall have experienced bias, harassment or inappropriate behaviour at work, and that among some underrepresented groups this rises to over half. Why should one individual in your team, make life at work so difficult? Someone needs to deal with this.

KJ: Your first step is to ensure that you make notes and keep records of anything that makes you feel uncomfortable so that if the situation needs to be escalated you have clear proof of the pattern of behaviour. In normal circumstances I would immediately refer this to my line manager, but you sound as if you are concerned about this approach not working. Another way to help deal with it is to ensure that you have allies around you so that they can provide support, assistance, and if it comes to it evidence of his behaviour. Sometimes in this situation, people can claim that what they are saying is “just banter” or teasing. Anything that makes you uncomfortable is not just banter or teasing. Be very firm and determined when you say to him that what he has said is not funny or appropriate, and that he must stop.

SU: He might say to you: “Oh, I’m only joking, haven’t you got a sense of humour?” Our co-author, Mark Edwards, has the perfect response to this push back, which is to say politely, but clearly, “Yes, I do have a sense of humour, however that is not what we are discussing right now. By all means, let’s discuss that another time, but the point at question is not whether I have a sense of humour or not, but instead, whether what you have said is either appropriate or acceptable.”

KJ: Its important that you practice this. And know that you can say it firmly and repeatedly where needed. If you get upset, or lose your confidence, you may appear tentative. In any case, you can always coach one of your allies to follow up your intervention so that there are two lines of questioning of this behaviour. Its typical of people like this that they pick on individuals, for some reason it gives them a sense of superiority however misplaced this is. With your cohort, you can turn this around. You will probably find that there are others who have been a target of this hideous behaviour.

SU: You feel powerless, but in fact you are not. You do have power, if you can find the inner strength to speak up, the current business climate of inclusion should and will support and sustain you. That is unless you are really working somewhere that is stuck in the last century in terms of culture. Bear in mind, that if this awful behaviour is extreme in terms of physical or verbal intimidation you are more than entitled to escalate this formally. This may mean calling in your HR team if you have one in the organisation, or alternatively reaching out to a senior person in the organisation beyond your line manager. There will be someone I hope who will hear you and act with you.

KJ: Return to the office is bringing up a lot of apprehension and nervousness at all levels. It seems that even in remote working there were patterns of behaviour that you would have hoped would have disappeared, however I was made aware of a man who made comments about a colleague’s dressing gown, which he could see hanging up during a zoom call. He messaged her privately that he would love to see her IN that dressing gown. She was upset and raised it with her line manager, and he was reprimanded. So please use this example of speaking out and addressing the situation to create change, as an instance of how no-one has the right to make you feel uncomfortable at work.

SU: Good luck with your situation, we firmly believe that everyone in the workplace has to lead in terms of creating a better kinder place of work where everyone feels that they belong.

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