I am a female working with a male subordinate who flirts with all the women in the office. I find his flirtatious behaviour toward me extremely irritating. His behaviour ranges from conversation to touching on the shoulder and standing too close to me. I make sure that I deal with him in a businesslike manner, including not standing too close to him, but it does not deter him. If anything, it sometimes makes him try even harder. Short of being rude, how can I discourage this without ruining my working relationship with him?
Flirtation is a tricky one because it’s difficult to establish and/or define.
If busted, this guy might retreat to: “Hey, I was just being friendly!”
But, to me, it’s similar to what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said of pornography: difficult to define precisely, but “I know it when I see it.”
I love that. Another statement I love, from Philosophy 101, is: When all’s said and done, the best way to know whether something is true is if “reasonable men and women agree” it is so.
For the purpose of this discussion, let’s do a mash-up of the two notions and say: It’s tough to draw the line between friendly discourse and flirtation, but we know flirtation when we see it; and reasonable women in your office agree that this dude has crossed it.
As a sidebar, I’d like to say that one-way flirtation in general, and guys like this in particular, really chap my hide. He’s hijacking and besmirching one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity: that frisson you feel, that buoying of spirits, upon discovering the person you’re secretly attracted to might be secretly attracted to you. It’s great.
But it’s a current, like electricity, and both nodes have to be switched on for it to flow freely. Otherwise it’s just static.
And static sounds like all your boy is throwing off here. So, without further ado, please allow me to provide you with a series of do and don’t steps you can take to throw a cold shower on this flirtatious fellow’s handsy, close-talking ways.
The first one doesn’t seem to apply to you, but bear with me (I include it as a precaution, for the sake of the general population).
Step 1: DO put on your soul-searching goggles and look deep within to make sure you’re not encouraging him/flattered by his attention/vibing him back in any way. If there’s a possibility any of this is happening on any level, frequency or wavelength, hit the “off” button on your vibe-o-matic pronto.
Then proceed to …
Step 2: DO try, at least as an interim measure, to joke him out of it. I know a lot of advice columnists might skip this step and advance straight to: “You must march to HR immediately and freak out until this flirtatious fellow is either fired or reprimanded!”
But that’s not “how I roll.” I like to “keep it real.” For the reasons stated above, this guy has a lot of plausible deniability, and you could wind up in a murky morass of grey areas and counter-accusations if you pull the trigger on a bureaucratic solution too soon. So …
DON’T do it just yet. Try this first: Parry his thrusts with “jokes” of your own to the effect that you’re not interested – preferably with other people in earshot. These flirty guys like to coat their true intentions in a Twinkie-type fluffy coating of jokiness – and the worst of them will accuse you of being “humourlessness” if you’re put off.
Keep it subtle, but sharp. Leave the button on your épée, but let him feel the pressure of your point.
And if he gets all sulky over your ripostes – well, who’s the humourless one now?
But if that fails, or causes him actually to ramp up his flirtation (such types do exist), then it’s time to take it up a notch, and move to …
Step 3: DO take him aside and tell him you don’t appreciate his unwanted flirtation and you do want him to please cease and desist. This encounter should be done mano a mano, i.e., no third parties present. If he claims not to know what you’re talking about, invoke the “know it when I feel it” clause and stand your ground.
An uncomfortable encounter, to be sure. Look at it this way: You could be doing him a huge favour. He might not realize his actions are causing offence. Some guys wouldn’t know an unappreciated overture if it bit them in the hindquarters – the kind who could barge into your hotel room on a business trip with Xs for eyes and grabby mitts, and still be awash in disbelief, later, at talk of “unwelcome advances.”
If he’s one of those, and you’ve tried everything else ...
Step 4: DO complain to your immediate superior. After all, you have the right to a frisson-free workplace. If his actions make you uncomfortable, and you’ve confronted him and he keeps it up, that’s a form of harassment, and it’s your boss’s job to keep everyone happy so the machine runs smoothly.
Anyway, that’s my two cents. Hope it helps, babycakes – oops, I mean: Good day to you, madam, and good luck.
David Eddie is the author of Damage Control , the book.
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