Asserting Yourself in Inappropriate Work Situations

Dear 20-somethings,

I work in close quarters with a male colleague who is 23. I am almost 27. I am the only female on our team. He’s a bit of a frat boy, as is every other guy on our team.


He frequently says things that make me uncomfortable. He tries to make me blush because he thinks it’s funny how red I get. He called a co-worker the c-word when she walked away the other day, and I told him he shouldn’t use that word in what I thought was a neutral tone. He immediately got offended because he thought I was offended (I was not personally offended, but I wanted to set boundaries). He sarcastically apologized, rolled his eyes at our mutual colleague, and the next day jokingly said that a character in a book we were reading was a ‘slut.’ He started to say the word ‘whore’ and looked at me expectantly, hoping to get a reaction from me.


When he behaves like this, I often freeze. I look uncomfortable and stutter, which prompts him to laugh at my inability to ‘take a joke.’ My response to the c-word was the only time I feel like I was able to confront him in a neutral, calm way. The next day, however, his behavior got worse, and I think it was retaliatory.


What confuses me about all this is that my boss and teammates love him. I am the odd one out in the group as the only woman – and a quiet, low-key one who is bookish rather than into technology (my company’s industry is IT). I don’t understand why he is targeting me when I am the weakest link in the chain, at least socially.


Although the boss seems to prefer his company to mine, I have received a couple more special projects for this reason. So I am lucky in that respect.


I know the solution is to be more confident, laugh at his ‘jokes,’ and then joke back in a way that sets boundaries. The problem is that I know this intellectually, but when it happens I can’t help but freeze. My emotions overcome me. I consider myself pretty experienced — I’m well traveled, have a college degree, and have a large group of friends. I get along with everyone in the workplace besides this guy. Yet, when this 23-year-old guy, who acts like his 15, turns to playground bullying, I shrink up just as I did in elementary school and was teased.


I can’t, unfortunately, talk to my boss, because I’m already worried that my ‘freezing up’ is being noted by him as not being a team player. My boss, unfortunately, is exactly what this guy would be in ten years.


HR is another option, but I have little faith in our HR department considering the blatant sexism and racism that permeates my office.


Do you have any advice for me to learn how to un-freeze, control my emotions, and assert myself in a calm, clear way? Any exercises to help me break free from my own instinct to freeze?

Dear 20-something,


This is a very tough but prevalent and often unspoken of issue. Many women would rather ignore it than file a complaint – for fear of retaliation, time fighting a court case, loss of compensation / a job / time seeking another job even if the court justifies the claim.


First, let’s make no bones about it. It is sexual harassment. I went to a workshop on gender discrimination and sexual harassment the other night to get more insight into this.  While the workshop was more focused on what qualifies as sexual harassment it shed light on how to deal with it in the reality of your life (and how hard that may be).


The definition of sexual harassment is “unwelcome verbal, visual or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is sever or pervasive and affects the working conditions or creates a hostile work environment.” The key factor is whether is it unwelcome — the conduct makes you uncomfortable and you want it to stop. That includes sexual or sex-based jokes and innuendo.  The second factor is that is persistent – more than one or two times.


Philosophically, the workshop participants felt it was a catch-22. The onus is on us, as women, to speak up (especially daunting for many 20-somethings when everything seems to have big /final consequences). We do risk retaliation and fear that  it may jeopardize our career. But then we also risk perpetuating the behavior.  The moderator of the workshop’s answer to this quandary?


“I have two words: Anita Hill. In the big picture talking about it is the only way to stop it. If it is happening to you then it is happening to someone else.”


And as one participant tweeted, “In 2011, the EEOC received over 11,000 complaints of sexual harassment. We think it doesn’t happen anymore, but it does, plenty. @deanna #WAMNYC


So I can only imagine how many unreported complaints there are. Yet the moderator (a lawyer who works extensively on sexual harassment cases and advocates for workplace fairness) also acknowledged that in some industries (she was talking finance) you become immune to the sexual jokes and chatter… there are bigger battles to fight. Hmmm. That is tricky. More on “the bigger picture” in another post as I do want to get to your question about how to assert yourself regardless of whether to put your company on notice about this situation.


The specific advice I got from the workshop around your scenario was to do a cost / benefit analysis. Is it causing emotional damage? It is affecting your performance, health or ability to function.  That is up to you to decide. It does upset me that you are putting it all on yourself. You are not somehow at fault here for not having the sassy joke comeback to his taunts.  You shouldn’t have to play the fine line between being “one of the guys (somehow synonymous with ability to take a joke?) and setting boundaries. I, for one, commend you for speaking up to him when he first uttered the c-word.  And now for the advice of some 40-somethings on how you might handle the situation based on their experiences:


“The reality is that if you are in that kind of industry going to human resources probably will exacerbate the issue. You have to be ready to follow through. Then you have to decide whether it is ….or is not something you can live with. I think you are right to trust your instincts. The best way to resolve this is with yourself and then if it continues to be unbearable you can take further action.


If it is something you decide that you can live with and you are not let influence you, there are still steps you can take to deactivate him.


First I would recommend breathing. When he approaches you next time, close your mouth and start counting and breathing. 1, 2, 3 breath in. 4, 5, 6 breath out. This will center you and help ground you. Inhale through your nose and look at him with a blank stare. Don’t react. No reaction does not mean being rude. Just look at him. Don’t giggle. That is a mistake many women make. We giggle when we are uncomfortable. You could say a few different things or nothing at all. For example:


“That’s interesting. I’m pretty good at taking a joke but that word is offensive.”


“I know you are joking but I have a pretty good sense of humor and that is not funny.”


And keep breathing. If you are centered he cannot throw you off balance.  You can tune him out and turn him off by not reacting.   You need to validate your right to feel uncomfortable with it. It happens more often that is should.


And know that it is about him. Not you. You are just an easy target.


Another exercise to continue is to imagine you are surrounded by a while light. This is a shield that you can visualize protecting you. I find this keeps me light and free.  – 40-something, health and wellness consultant and coach, NYC




“You don’t have to be funny. Maybe you are not a jokester. That’s okay.  Subtle ignorance is the way to go. Don’t roll your eyes. Don’t do anything. He is a little boy. Treat him as one. A little boy can’t make you blush. He is insecure by the way.  Don’t try to be one of the guys either. You can enjoy being feminine. And you can stop his behavior by not reacting. — Accredited Psychosexual Therapist, MSc PhD DipPST, on multiple boards in relation to sexual health, author.


“When someone says something that is sexist or just plain uncomfortable, I just look at them, laughs and say, “That is sooooo inappropriate”.  By “assuming” that of course they were just kidding it can make them realize it’s not funny.  It isn’t confrontational but it says don’t try that again.” – HR, management consultancy


For more on this subject you can read a past post with reader reactions here. In the meantime, good luck and do keep track of his behavior. But not on a work computer or email.

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