I’m a journalist employed by an international newspaper. Working from home has truly been a silver lining in these dark days of Covid – and I say this as a woman who has welcomed the hiatus to office life largely because of unwanted attention from others at the workplace. I find one male colleague in particular rather creepy –from his desk, opposite mine, he would often sit there gazing at me and frequently make needless excuses to approach. There is now a plan for us to begin returning to the office in the weeks ahead and I’m becoming anxious about it. I know that I should probably raise any concerns with my line manager, but I don’t like confrontation – and while I find this individual’s behaviour uncomfortable, he’s not a bad person. I just wish I could continue working from home. What can I do?
I’m so sorry you’ve been made to feel uncomfortable at work – nobody should have to put up with anything that makes them dread going back into the office. I completely understand that you feel nervous about raising the issue; and you’re being very empathetic when you say your male colleague is “not a bad person” – but while that may or may not be true, he is still responsible for his behaviour. You, however, are not responsible for his.
And, while I appreciate that you don’t like conflict, it’s time to stand up for yourself and to draw a line between what makes you feel happy, calm and (crucially) safe at work, and what doesn’t. It sounds to me like you’re doing that classic – and often very female – thing of taking on responsibility for someone else. We often try to minimise the effect on us, we even end up feeling guilty for upsetting someone who has wronged us, because we are socially conditioned not to make a fuss; to be “nice” girls, to be “quiet” and “amenable” and to keep everybody around us happy.
Many of us fall into the trap of constantly feeling like the onus is on us to avoid making other people upset or angry. And I call bulls*** on that.
Time’s up for people-pleasing: if the #MeToo movement has taught us anything, let it be that women have been putting up with these “little” encroachments into our personal spaces at work, on public transport, at bars and clubs (and even in the home) for far too long, and we’ve had enough. Let’s stop couching it with niceties and call it what it is: sexual harassment.
And no, this man you work with might not have done anything concrete (yet); he may not have done anything objectively “wrong” that you could point a finger to in a meeting with HR, but I see huge red flags here. He’s already disregarding your personal space – as can be seen through the many “needless excuses” he makes to approach you physically – and he clearly doesn’t care that he’s making you feel uncomfortable by staring at you all the time.
Believe me – very often, men like this begin with “tiny” or “trivial” transgressions (such as staring, a smutty comment or “joke” or a casual touch of the arm or knee) and get progressively worse. Sometimes these seemingly-small moments can be a calculated “test” to see if you are the type of person who will make a fuss; if you’ll call them out on their behaviour. When they realise you are too polite, or shy, or conflict-averse, they push those boundaries further.
I’m not saying this to scare you, but to strongly advise you to act now – to stand up for yourself. You don’t need to delay until something tangible “crosses the line”; why wait for that to happen? You’re already feeling uncomfortable, and that’s enough. Validate your own experience the way that you would if a friend or colleague were confiding in you about the exact same thing.
You’re a journalist: what I can tell you is that a support group exists to help women tackle sexual harassment and assault in our industry – I even helped set it up. It’s called The Second Source and offers advice, support and mentoring, as well as providing an alternative networking system for women in the media.
I do, also, think you should speak to your line manager, if you don’t feel able to talk to your colleague directly about how he’s making you feel (and if you do want to tackle it directly, make sure you do it in a crowded space such as a local coffee shop). You don’t have to raise a formal grievance right now if it feels intimidating, but it is important to have this noted as an ongoing concern – for one, so you no longer have to suffer in silence; but also so that you can keep track of a timeline of behaviour and the efforts made to get it resolved.
Plus, once your line manager is in the loop, it will make it a lot easier for you to make a case to continue working from home for the time being, if that feels right for you. I don’t like the idea that you would be staying away from the workplace because of this one person’s behaviour, though, so make sure you keep firmly in mind the real flow of responsibility from perpetrator (your colleague) to victim (you). It is not, and never, the other way around. It is not your fault.
Now repeat it to yourself every day, like a mantra, until you start to believe it.
Victoria Richards is The Independent’s advice columnist. Having problems with work, love, family or friends? Contact DearVix@independent.co.uk