Hey Kat: I work in a office with co-workers who, like myself, are typically in their late twenties or early thirties and are single. We're all friends and tend to go to lunch together and do happy hour after work. There is a lot of dating among co-workers, in fact, and I myself have dated one or two of the ladies in the office in the five years I've been here. A new girl started working about a month ago, and she's fit in so far. The only problem is: She keeps saying things that border on hitting on me, and it's making me uncomfortable. It's all very jokey stuff, like she'll say I deserve a spanking if I've done something funny. It's not exactly hitting on me, but I'm not interested in her in the least, and I don't want to flirt with her, either. I'd like to remain friends with her, and I don't want to make things weird around the office. So what should I do?
Dear U.C.: Sexual harassment seems to come up every few months in the news, and when it does, I get to hear this gem tossed around: "If you like it, it's flirting. If you don't, it's sexual harassment." This is wrong, obviously, because sexual harassment is sexual harassment, whether it was meant as flirting or not.
I know! It's shocking! It happens to men, too!
So let's start with this: You're being sexually harassed.
I know! It's shocking! It happens to men, too! Even though the wisdom above indicates a man can't be sexually harassed! Why? Because men always like being hit on!!!!*
You've told us you work in an open environment where collegial dating takes place on a regular basis. And you've told us you've dipped your toe into the pool a few times yourself. It sounds like your company is just a giant lawsuit waiting to happen, actually. But you know what? That doesn't matter. What matters is that her behavior has made you uncomfortable.
Whether the intention of the harasser was to be funny, or flirtatious, or scary is unimportant. It creates a hostile work environment for you.
Whether the intention of the harasser was to be funny, or flirtatious, or scary is unimportant.
But given the fact that you want to remain friends with this "new girl," I'd say you can probably leave your HR department out of this for the time being. (Also, I'd advise you start calling your female colleagues something a bit less demeaning, while we're on the sexual harassment circuit. I know you mean it in a fun-loving way, but we can't be the pot calling the kettle black, now, can we?)
Take this co-worker aside and tell her as lightly as possible that, while you get she's joking, what she's saying is making you uncomfortable. An email might soften the blow, as long as you can do it through an email service or instant messenger that isn't going to be broadcast to the entire office, and as long as you keep it relatively short. But really, I think just talking to her in a private, lighthearted way is your best bet.
This way, you're not even insinuating that you think she likes you. You're just letting her know that you're not up for that kind of joking.
If she doesn't relent after that, and you're still really uncomfortable, it might be time to talk to HR. The problem with this is you're going to open a giant, ugly can of "but we're such a laid-back office" worms. If you're in an office where people are dating all the time, there's probably a lot of flirting going on, and people aren’t going to like having to watch what they say. (The advice I’ve heard for avoiding sexual harassment: Act like your mom is listening in on the conversation.)
Even if your co-workers don’t love it, curbing that behavior now before the company actually does have to cough up a settlement isn’t a bad idea. You could be doing everyone a favor.
*This statement is sarcastic, which may or may not be conveyed thoroughly through excessive punctuation.