How to deal with a coworker invading your personal space

August 26, 2021, 4:00 PM UTC
Workspace-Harassment
Photo Illustration by Fortune; original photograph by Byron Cohen—NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Q: I’m creeped out by one of my coworkers, and I’m not sure if I should say or do something about it. Like many people, I’ve been working from home since we unexpectedly switched to remote work last year, and I spend a lot of time on company video calls, which have gotten increasingly awkward for me. One of the more senior men in the office (he’s not my boss, but he is in management) has started direct-messaging me over Zoom during meetings in a chatty way that feels inappropriate. 

The messages are always personal. We don’t work closely together, and he’s never reaching out because he needs something for work. He’s also the kind of guy that often comments in meetings about me and other women. Maybe he thinks he’s making small talk or being friendly, but the way he talks about people’s appearance and their homes and makes assumptions about our personal lives makes me uncomfortable. I’m not sure that he’s crossed a line yet with me, but I’m afraid of encouraging him and really wish this wasn’t happening. 

—Michelle 

Dear Michelle, 

Last week on vacation, I was walking my dog through a quiet neighborhood in a small East Coast beach town, thinking about how to respond to your question. Lost in my thoughts as my little pug enthusiastically explored the edges of people’s yards, someone yelled out at me. I jumped and looked up in time to see a stranger blowing me kisses from a passing truck. It took me a moment to realize I had been catcalled, and when I did, I looked down and away and brushed it off by habit. 

Then I did a cartoonish double take and looked back at the departing truck as it dawned on me that I’d just been harassed in the street while weighing your concerns about whether or not to take action on the potential harassment you’re facing at work. 

I felt annoyed. Not just at the stranger but also at myself, for being so used to being yelled at on the street that it almost didn’t register at first. If I hadn’t been working on writing back to you, I wouldn’t have paused or brought it up to anyone later, since the only thing that seemed notable was the ironic timing. My incident was minor in comparison with yours, but it is a good reminder that bad behavior—harassment, frankly—can become so normalized we don’t always even register it as such.

What makes your situation even more complicated is that it’s happening to you at work, and it’s coming from a man in a more powerful position than yours. This person might not be your manager, but it’s clear that you’ve been weighing what his position in the company means vis-à-vis how he’s acting toward you. Unlike a stranger in the street, your career and your reputation are connected to the people you work with daily. How you respond—or don’t—might impact your prospects, and I have a feeling that’s why you’re unsure of what to do. If you take action against this man, there may be repercussions for you, but at the same time it doesn’t feel like an option to just not respond to the direct messages. 

From where I’m sitting, it pretty clearly looks like what you’re experiencing is harassment. The fact that there are so many worse things that he could be doing (or asking you to do) doesn’t negate the reality of what he’s actually doing now. Unfortunately, harassment is so normalized and ingrained in our culture that we often brush off incidents and don’t take the time to name them. Yet the signs are there. Your coworker is talking to you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, you “really wish this wasn’t happening,” and it’s creating a distracting work environment. 

On top of that, this is happening on Zoom, which is adding another layer here: It’s not just that you’re questioning how to handle what this guy is saying to you, his messages are also arriving via a new way of communicating with all of your coworkers, compounding the emotional labor of working remotely.

While this situation seems to be a new development since you started working remotely, online harassment is more pervasive than you might think. Jacqueline Strenio, an assistant professor of economics at Norwich University who has published research on the impacts of remote work and the pandemic, has been tracking how online harassment is happening more and in new ways, as you’re experiencing. 

“Remote work has introduced or enhanced many risk factors for workplace sexual harassment. New forms of information and communications technology (or increased use of them) are a key risk factor (think Zoom, WhatsApp, Slack),” she told me. “All of these forms of communication technology have options for one-on-one side-channel communication options with limited or no oversight or bystanders.”

Pew Research Center, which has been studying online harassment for years, notes that “41% of Americans have personally experienced some form of online harassment,” and in recent years, harassment has become more aggressive. 

What you’re dealing with is so pervasive that we often don’t even recognize it as a problem at all. The regular exposure to harassment means that oftentimes people tune it out—as I did with my catcaller—or downplay the real impacts, as I worry you’re doing by wondering if this is harassment at all. But harassment is such a critical issue that the United Nations is taking it seriously. UN Women has produced research that specifically looks at the increase in online violence women faced during the pandemic, providing recommendations for organizations and individuals. I spoke with Anita Bhatia, assistant secretary-general and deputy executive director of UN Women, who explained how online violence, like physical gender-based violence, increased during the pandemic—and is likely underreported. “This kind of violence, because it is so insidious and hidden, is harder to track,” she told me. “Very often, women don’t even recognize that they’re being harassed and how to name it, what to call it. They know something’s off, they know something’s wrong, but at what point does it move from being x to y?” 

It’s not just that the way this harassment happens makes it hard to see, it’s also that the working conditions make women more vulnerable. Anita stressed the challenges that are specific to virtual meetings. “One of the things about remote working is that it has, for certain classes of workers, meant that you are online all the time. You’re kind of trapped in that Zoom call after Zoom call, morning, noon, and night,” she said. “Just in terms of the sheer access that a harasser may have to somebody that they’re choosing to harass, they have more access.” 

You can’t just get up and walk away. If someone is privately messaging you, others don’t see it happening, and by leaving a virtual meeting, you risk taking on the burden of missing information or appearing to not be engaged with the meeting. 

Naming what you’re dealing with as harassment and understanding this broader context is all here to help prepare you to decide if, and how, you take action personally. Harassment is ultimately the responsibility of employers to address, though so often they do not, which can make this quite tricky to navigate. The fact that management is overwhelmingly male, and that fewer women are moving into senior positions in 2021 than they have in the past, further influences work cultures.  

“Patriarchy has such a huge footprint in our lives, and power structures are such that it is very easy to ignore issues of violence against women, period. Online violence is particularly challenging because there is no physical evidence,” Anita said. 

While there is no physical evidence, there is plenty to document. If you haven’t already started, now’s the time to begin documenting what’s happening. “This is perhaps the silver lining of workplace sexual harassment occurring in remote work settings—you can screenshot it and/or record it and then save it or forward it to the appropriate reporting party,” Jacqueline said. 

The act of documenting itself can be a burden, and it’s unfair that it’s one more thing you have to do. The harassment itself is an affront, and documenting it means spending more time with that content while making choices about how to handle the documentation. But it’s also a risk not to be documenting what’s happening at this point. Documenting is critical to build a case around what you’ve been experiencing, to show a pattern of behavior, and, unfortunately, to protect yourself against potential counter-allegations. 

If “build a case” sounds too strong to you right now, maybe you’re thinking, “Hey, I could just talk to this guy and tell him to chill out.” You can if you feel comfortable, and a tip sheet from the Dart Center that provides detailed recommendations for documenting sexual harassment from colleagues or bosses encourages this as a first step, but it’s hard for me advocate for that when I can’t read how he might respond. Even if you’re not dealing with a Todd Packer level of bad behavior, harassment has become so normalized in our culture that confronting it can sometimes backfire on the person who calls it out. If you decide to confront him, you should document that interaction. It would be great if he took your feelings to heart and backed off. If he doesn’t, documentation will help you if he tries to retaliate or if you decide to get other people involved. 

The better your documentation, the better chance you have that it will be helpful to you. Make sure that your documentation has time stamps; don’t just keep a running document without dating entries. If you take handwritten notes, take a photo and email it to yourself so it’s dated when the incident occurred. For Zoom chats, you can always screenshot the messages. The platform only makes direct messages available to people who sent or received them, so you’ll be able to see those if you download chat transcripts, though others can’t download them on your behalf. 

You’re the one who will ultimately decide if and when you’ll share your experience, and the strength of the evidence you’re able to capture will likely inform your choice. You might find it empowering just to have a record in case you decide to pursue things further. Ultimately, the power in documenting your experience will be in sharing that with someone who can take action. 

You have options in who you reach out to and what you expect from them, though the way remote work happens also makes it harder to access help. Instead of being able to drop by someone’s desk, you’ll need to make an appointment, then deal with someone through a screen, which is more awkward than being in person. A friend or trusted colleague might offer you perspective and space to process what’s been happening. A counselor can provide support for you. Management has responsibility for setting and tending to internal culture, though in practice, it can be unpredictable how managers might respond to individual situations, especially given that you want to complain about someone in their ranks. If you have a human resources department, hopefully it can take action to stop the behavior, especially if you show that it’s violating the EEOC definition of sexual harassment. 

It’s important to point out that, historically, women have faced retaliation for reporting this type of behavior. “There needs to be better and safer (as in retaliation-free) reporting mechanisms. A classic study from the ’90s on U.S. federal workers found that two-thirds of women who filed complaints faced future harassment, demotion, or job loss. This is incredibly problematic,” Jacqueline said. “However, now that workers are more comfortable with working online, there’s an opportunity to leverage communication technology for anonymous reporting or virtual ombudsmen offices to provide backlash-free avenues to report harassment.” 

This is a bummer to mention, but there’s a chance that things might escalate if you choose to confront your colleague or if he hears from someone at work that you’ve complained. If you haven’t yet, you should think about your overall digital security and how you can better protect yourself online. Michelle Ferrier’s TrollBusters project offers digital hygiene lessons to help prevent harassment, protect yourself online, and keep abuse from migrating offline. The Rory Peck Trust also has guides on protecting your private information online and protecting yourself against trolling and doxxing

I’ve been focused on your options thus far, and have given lots of attention to the things that you need to be cautious about as you move forward, but let’s not let that obscure a crucial point: This shouldn’t be happening to you. Harassment at the office is a failure of management, and the person who has been harassing you should be the one held accountable for his own behavior. 

“It’s ultimately workplace culture that must be changed and specifically the disruption of masculine workplace norms,” Jacqueline said. “More concrete actions include updating policies and procedures and providing clear guidance on identifying and reporting sexual harassment.”

Workplaces need to proactively address harassment and how their internal cultures may allow or encourage this type of behavior. “I can’t stress enough the importance of leadership taking a victim-centered approach, and of really recognizing this as an issue and not brushing it under the carpet,” Anita said.

Management, Jacqueline added, should also be thinking about how tech such as Zoom can negatively affect workplace culture: “Managers/HR have the responsibility of regulating new and emerging information and communication technology used by the firm to ensure that it allows for workers to work with safety and security, which means free of harassment.”

Sending you lots of good vibes, 
Jen

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Work Space is a monthly Q&A column tackling the work challenges that keep you up at night. You can read all columns here. If you want advice on something you’re navigating at work, send your questions to workspace@fortune.com.