The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

February 21, 2014

Watercooler: No, it's not 'just a joke' or a 'compliment'

By Karla L. Miller
Special to The Washington Post

— Karla L. Miller writes an advice column on navigating the modern workplace. Each week she will answer one or two questions from readers.

Reader 1: I work in a small, laid-back office where only 4 percent of us are women. My issue is the inappropriate sexual comments I've heard men in the office make about some of the other women. For example, one woman sometimes wraps herself in a blanket when cold; one guy said, "She's probably masturbating under the blanket."

I enjoy my work, and my immediate co-worker doesn't participate in the inappropriate talk. I'm just interested in keeping a level of professionalism.

A: For a quick response that will set boundaries without throwing up barricades, try a strong, assertive "Wow" or a so-over-it "Really?" Your more evolved male colleagues might even help chill the eighth-grade locker-room talk if made aware of your discomfort.

If you don't see improvement, follow your company's procedure for reporting issues. A lawyer can suggest ways to word it, but the gist is: Women in your office are being repeatedly targeted with demeaning, inappropriate comments.

It's possible that any management action will simply generate grumbling about "political correctness" while the bad behavior goes underground. If the incidents continue or worsen, start documenting; when they reach critical mass, go back to HR. Retaliation is illegal — and often lands offenders in worse trouble than the initial comments.

Reader 2: During a recent lunch with our company's top executives, one of our younger male employees, talking about healthy eating, pointed to me (female) and made a comment about my being thin, using his hands to illustrate my body shape. His supervisor was not there, but she eventually spoke to him, reluctantly, at my request.

When I brought it up with the president, he said, "Well, he just gestured to show your body shape was straight." He told me I should go to Human Resources if the employee made me uncomfortable. Should I?

A: When someone embarrasses you, the last thing you need to hear is, "It was a compliment!" or "He didn't mean anything by it." Even if true, these statements are too often the refuge of disingenuous scoundrels who have peculiar notions of what women should consider complimentary.

Yet I'm not sure this incident demands further action. If you do approach HR, be clear about what you want: An apology? Or perhaps a reminder that comments about physiques are unprofessional. (And — hel-lo — rude.)

Thanks to Declan Leonard, of the McLean, Va., business law firm Berenzweig Leonard.

Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office. You can find her on Twitter, @KarlaAtWork.