Q: On Day 1 at my new job, a finicky co-worker complained to my supervisor that I was chomping my gum and talking too loudly in my cubicle. I am reasonable; if she had told me directly, I would have apologized. I have tried to avoid repeating the behavior, and told my supervisor so.
Then I found myself accused of staring at female workers' chests, and the pipeline says this co-worker started the rumor. Honestly, I am a shy guy and never would overtly look there or consider doing so. I respect all co-workers and never have been accused of doing something like this. While my direct supervisor, being female herself, sided with my co-worker, the manager above her — after knowing me and hearing every small complaint by this co-worker — realized this was being blown out of proportion. I got a verbal warning for "appearances' sake" (his words).
The third strike was when the co-worker and I had a disagreement about office procedure, and she went to my supervisor, who overruled me without hearing my side. Should I tell the manager about this? I think I got through to my co-worker by telling her we need to communicate professionally and can't go running to "mom" each time, or the bosses will get sick of the tattling and fire us both.
A: I see two possibilities here:
1. Your co-worker falsely accused you of ogling because she has it in for you. That's serious business. Abusing anti-harassment policies renders them useless to real victims — as does your manager's apparent warning-with-a-wink.
2. Being shy, you may tend to drop your gaze below chin level to avoid prolonged eye contact — which could be misread by anyone familiar with the sensation of eyes burning holes in her bodice. (Whether it's done overtly or covertly — we always know.) If so, that's a habit, like loud gum-chewing, you'll have to overcome. Learn to study noses, ears or your notepad instead.
Speaking of misreading, I hope I'm wrong in inferring that you think your supervisor sides with your co-worker just because she's "female herself." Does your male manager support you because you are both male? Also, I hope you didn't actually say "running to 'mom' " and "tattling" when requesting more professional communication.
It may be time to request a meeting with all parties, plus HR, to discuss making interactions less adversarial and resolving conflicts evenhandedly. If you're being unfairly targeted, a dukes-down, eyes-up overture will show management that you are sincere about wanting a mutually respectful workplace.
Karla L. Miller writes an advice column on navigating the modern workplace. Each week she will answer one or two questions from readers. 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.