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Inappropriate touching at work


Lizzy
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First, let me explain that the inappropriate touching is not sexual in nature, but it's unwelcome, which is why I feel it's inappropriate.

I have a new coworker who started back in December. My company is a very sterile work environment - no public displays of affection are allowed, because, even if it's welcomed by both parties involved, it still could be unwelcome to an observer. This is very well established, and even when my late fiancé worked there with me, we were nothing but platonic towards each other.

This new coworker has latched on to me as her mentor. She's equal level to me, but since I've worked there longer and was handling some of her work before she started (it's not part of my regular workload, but we all helped out with the extra work when her predecessor moved to another department). Although there are many people directly around her who are great sources of knowledge, two of whom have actually been there longer than I have, she for some reason always asks me questions first, and seems to think that we're close friends (our interaction is strictly limited to work, so I'm not sure where that comes from - it's a very friendly workplace, but that's the only reason I can think of that she seems to think I'm a friend is that I, like everyone else around her, am friendly and helpful).

She made a joke once about how we should skip and hold hands, and ever since, every day she'll hold out her hand to try to get me to take it. It's extremely annoying. Lately she's been reaching to put her arm around my shoulder, and the other day she actually patted me on the shoulder. All of this makes me very uncomfortable. I'm a very affectionate person towards my close friends, but she doesn't even know me, nor have I accepted any of her multitudes of requests to go hang out during lunch (I've repeatedly explained that I like to just relax during lunch and do my own thing, but she still invites me constantly). The only thing I have accepted is her daily invitation to go get coffee - I figured it would make her stop with the constant complaining that I never hang out with her, but it hasn't and I'm getting tired of that, too.

I wouldn't mind it so much, but she clearly has no respect for any boundaries. She'll make a comment about my hair, which will start out as an innocent and even nice compliment, like "Your hair looks nice like that" but then she won't stop there. She'll follow it up with "You shouldn't wear it in a pony tail." Another example would be "That color looks really good on you." Which she followed up with "I think light colors make you pale," to which I responded that I don't wear light colors. Her response was "I don't think you look good in black." I wear a lot of black, it's my favorite clothing color, and she's often noted how much black I wear, so that was clearly insulting.

I sprained my ankle last weekend and have been using that as an excuse not to walk over to get coffee with her, but that can't hold up for long. I don't know how to handle the way she oversteps boundaries without loosing my cool and without getting our boss or HR involved. I don't want to get her in trouble, but it's getting very uncomfortable for me at work.

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Guest ASchwartz

Hi Lizzy,

You are describing a familiar situation that many of us have been in. It is one of those situations that calls for you, or whoever is in a similar situation, to be assertive. Being assertive does not refer to being mean or angry at the person but it does refer to being very firm about what they are doing that you do not like.

For example, when this co worker makes comments about your appearance, you can tell her that you prefer she no longer does that. More, when she touches you or tries to, tell her that it makes you feel uncomfortable and you want her to stop. You also have to let her know that you are not going to lunch with her.

I do not think you can do all this at once but meet each situation as it arises.

Do you have difficulty with self assertion? Can you tell us about it? What about our other members? Have any of you been in this situation and how did you handle it?

Allan

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I do have difficulty with assertion because I don't like conflict, and I guess I can't tell how assertive is too assertive and likely to cause problems. I have to work with this woman daily; we collaborate on a lot of projects. I guess I fear that things will become tense between us and that will make it difficult to work with her.

I also have some strange dynamics with a kind of separate world I've created in the work place. When my fiancé was sick with cancer, the only way I was able to cope with that and still function at work was to create a sterile environment for myself at work. I would not talk about my personal life at all while at work, and that helped keep my mind off my troubles at home, and helped get me through the day. After he passed away, I still kept things separate, because I was grieving so much. She came in after my depression hit rock bottom, and after I was put on anti-depressants, and I had begun to be more open at that point, but I'm still very uncomfortable mixing personal life with work. Because of that, it's very uncomfortable to me when co-workers ask about my personal life, and so it's hard for me to be "normal" in those situations. I recognize that I'm the disordered one in that respect, and so I guess I don't see it as a situation where I need to assert my boundaries. I feel in that respect, that I'm the one who needs to learn to adapt, not that others should adapt to me.

I've started having nightmares about it. I will be in the bathroom trying to get dressed and the door won't lock right, and then people will come barging in. I think that has to do with feeling like my personal space is being invaded.

I will try and see if I can assert myself more (I've been pretty successful with the lunch aspect - she still invites me sometimes, but I've stood my ground and not gone to lunch with her). I guess I just feel awkward around her when she does these things, and caught off guard. It really feels to me like her behavior is really abnormal - I've never heard a 30-year-old tell someone they barely know what clothing they shouldn't wear, for example.

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Guest ASchwartz

Lizzy,

I am really sorry to hear about the loss of your boyfriend to cancer. That is an awful tragedy and I hope the anti depressant medications are helping you cope better.

Many people feel the way you feel about not wanting to cause conflict. That is why there are classes you can take on assertiveness training. Do a seach of the Internet and of this site to learn more about those types of classes.

There is no reason to think of your self as "disordered" or even you co worker as that way. Work and social situations can be complicated and that is true for everyone.

Can you tell us more about yourself and about the issue of being assertive?

Allan

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