When a co-worker is unnecessarily mean, flirtatious, or inappropriate, it’s sometimes hard to know how to respond professionally. HOW you respond can literally mean your career.
You don’t want to look like a stick-in-the-mud, but you also don’t want to feel uncomfortable at work. You don’t want to be seen as a complainer, but it’s just as important to stand up for yourself and set a precedence that you won’t tolerate mistreatment.
What can you do when your co-workers are treating you inappropriately? How do you do it without having to spruce up your resume and start to look for a new job?
The Professional Employee’s Guide to Handling Inappropriate Behavior
- Back Up All Your Claims
Before you contact your supervisor or HR department, you need to have proof of your situation. Document every inappropriate comment, invasion of personal space, and offensive behavior. Write down the date and time, name of co-worker, what happened, and any witnesses to the incident.
Think twice before lodging a complaint. Are you logging it because you felt offended, or because you just don’t like the person? Set aside your personal opinions and focus on their actions.
- Try to Understand their Actions
Research from an assistant professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business proves that people tend to act out when their ego is threatened. They become aggressive and rude to people they perceive as undermining their authority.
Skilled and friendly employees are often the targets of people acting out, because the aggressors consider them a threat to their perceived dominance or influence in the office. If you think this is where they’re coming from, it may help the situation to play to their ego.
You don’t have to overdo it. Just a simple, “thank you,” or, “appreciate your help,” in your emails to them can do wonders. A simple compliment can also work to soothe their ego.
- Tackle all of their Offenses in One (Long) Conversation
This might be the most optimal way to handle co-worker issues. Have one serious conversation that touches on all the issues at once to potentially clear the air.
Talk to the offender in private saying something like this:
“I know this is the first time we’re discussing this, but I’m not comfortable with the way you treat me. I really don’t think you mean to single me out, but you do a couple of things specifically to me, that you don’t really do with anyone else. It’s making me uncomfortable.
I’m talking about you trying to read my messages over my shoulder, yanking on my clothes, and even commenting about my lunch. I’d really appreciate it if you stop.”
- Remind them on the Spot, Every Time the Bad Behavior Happens
So you tried talking to them in private, but it didn’t work? It’s time to tell them straight, no matter who hears your conversation. A straight up approach might do the trick.
Every time the inappropriate behavior happens, say, “John, would you mind not yanking on my clothes?” Or, “Chris, can you please stop trying to read my emails?” If it still doesn’t stop them, staring at them directly, eye to eye, until they quit also works.
You could be at Fault, Too
Yes, you read that right. Before you escalate inappropriate behavior to your boss, it’s important to look within yourself and see if you could be the one causing the problem.
Put yourself in their shoes. Is there anything you did to offend them? Did you say anything inappropriate?
Only report inappropriate behaviors when you’re 100% sure it’s not going to backfire on you.