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drhat77's avatar

How do I keep a female subordinate from casual physical contact that makes me feel uncomfortable?

Asked by drhat77 (6195points) September 10th, 2013
59 responses
“Great Question” (7points)

There is a lovely female subordinate at work who is gushing her thanks for relatively small things that I do to help her. She also frequently either gets my attention or re-enforces her gratitude by gently putting her hand on my back or squeezing my shoulder.
I think she does this because she has learned that this form of communication with guys gets positive results. I do not think that she is being coquettish or a tease or that she is into me. I think it is just a communication style that has yielded her results.
The problem is that it makes me feel uncomfortable. I really have a lot of neuroses when dealing with women. I do not want to bring this up verbally because really I feel she is doing nothing wrong, so I don’t want to make her feel bad or weird. But maybe something in my body language to discourage her from doing it any more.

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SadieMartinPaul's avatar

Tell her to stop it. Yes, she’s lightly flirting with you, because she thinks she’s charming and can manipulate you. Such behavior is highly inappropriate in the workforce.

You may not want to “bring this up verbally,” but that’s what you need to do. The next time she rubs your back or squeezes your shoulder, physically pull away and tell her that she needs to communicate without touching. When she does this again, grasp her hand, remove it from your body, and say that touches (other than handshakes) are inappropriate and make you uncomfortable.

Just imagine if your genders were reversed – a man “gently” putting his hands on a female colleague in such a pseudo-affectionate manner. Nobody would even try to make the case that the guy’s acting acceptably.

Cupcake's avatar

I think you need to bring this up verbally… or you will make her feel bad or weird. I disagree that she is not doing anything wrong. Her behavior is making you uncomfortable, she just doesn’t know it. Please give her the information that her behavior has an effect that I’m sure she did not intend and the opportunity to change her behavior.

You can comment, gently, that her physical communication is neither desired nor necessary. Let her know that you fully appreciate her positive and helpful demeanor in the workplace, but that it does not need to be reinforced with physical touch.

Please don’t respond to her through body language alone. It could be easily misinterpreted and feel hurtful to her.

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drhat77's avatar

In the past I have asked women who were contacting me in a way that made me feel uncomfortable to stop, and they got offended, saying that what they were doing was ok, but the fact that I was giving it sexual overtones was not, and they might file grievances with my boss that I was being sexually inappropriate.

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Cupcake's avatar

@drhat77 How have you approached them in the past? Perhaps there was an element of your communication that made them feel defensive.

snowberry's avatar

Wait, that’s not right! So they get to be sexually aggressive because they’re women, and you’re supposed to put up with it? Naw.

Perhaps you could explain to her that you can’t think clearly when she touches you because…bla blah bla. Would it work? I don’t know. But in my opinion, threats like your co-worker made (sexual overtones, filing grievances with boss, sexually inappropriate) should be a total red flag to someone in HR.

My point: they don’t have to touch you to perform their job, so stand up for yourself.

drhat77's avatar

@Cupcake ask my wife worlds worst communicator here. I am pretty matter of fact when I need to accomplish a clearly delineated goal. I really don’t know how to do that better. I feel any subtlety I paint into it will make it worse.

Cupcake's avatar

@drhat77 Clearly, because you didn’t answer the question. :)

What did you say, in those past situations?

drhat77's avatar

@snowberry I think leaving HR out of this is an important goal. As the superior it will defiantly not be in my favor. And saying I can’t think straight! No way that will be misinterpreted and taken out of context.

drhat77's avatar

Maybe I’ll just apply a thin clear sticky substance on my back and shoulders when I work with her.

LostInParadise's avatar

I usually favor talking things out, but this is one case where body language is preferable. If I were in your situation, I would make a point of keeping some minimum distance between me and the woman. If she approached closer, I would step back and raise my hand palm facing forward, indicating “stop.”

drhat77's avatar

I work in a pretty busy and chaotic place (emergency room) and she can just slide up through the chaos and hand-on-back “I need your help” so maintaining distance at all times is not possible. By the time I know about it it is happening.

drhat77's avatar

@cupcake I do not remember what I said. Something like “I don’t like it when you touch me. Please stop”.
Of course how I remember what I said is probably not reliable.

snowberry's avatar

At the very least, I’d start keeping a journal. It can’t hurt, and might help if things start getting worse.

I like the idea of repeating, please don’t touch me if it’s not necessary for your job. Thanks.

wildpotato's avatar

This is a bit elaborate and might have little long-term effect, but it might break her behavior pattern. Next time she rubs your back or squeezes your shoulder in a situation where you have a moment to interact, wince dramatically and say you bruised yourself up badly the other day somehow. No, it’s not that bad, you already had it looked at, etc. Hopefully she will avoid touching you out of fear of causing you pain long enough for some other method of getting your attention to become her new habit. This way you might actually be able to introduce a new way for her to get your attention in discussion with her, so she has input and thinks it’s kind of her idea.

Another tack you might take is the sanitary issue in the ER thing – my cousin tells me they taught him to always keep his hands between nipples and navel (or something like that?) while in surgery and etc.

Cupcake's avatar

@drhat77 While I am all for being direct in communication, I think that could have been a bit harsh.

Perhaps you could role play a few scenarios with your wife to prepare.

drhat77's avatar

@Cupcake yeah I’m going to tell my wife a lovely nurse is flirting with me and its making me feel all weird. Suffice it to say she will remain ignorant about this.

Cupcake's avatar

Well… if you can’t talk to your wife about it, you have bigger issues.

You said very clearly that you didn’t think it was flirting.

If you are being aroused by subordinates, then perhaps you need to address your arousal.

snowberry's avatar

As a woman, I’d say it IS flirting. No woman I know would say it isn’t. Not acceptable.

JLeslie's avatar

Does she do it to everyone?

If she does, probably others are uncomfortable too. If she doesn’t she is definitely being flirty, it isn’t just a style.

I would try to step away from her hand. Also, you could try saying you are worried it makes patients uncomfortable. You are basically in a public place and it isn’t professional for employees to be touching all the time like that.

Cupcake's avatar

Or you could just say that you don’t think your wife would approve.

drhat77's avatar

@Cupcake I would love for my arousal to just disappear. It is unpleasant in the improper context. It has always made me feel bad except with my wife. I don’t want to tell her because she will over look the fact that I am seeking her advice to avoid this improper situation and instead hear that a nurse is making the moves on her man and kaboom, it’s on.

LostInParadise's avatar

If body language is not an option then I would tell your colleague pretty much what you told us, leaving out unnecessary details. You could start by saying that you are asking for a favor and then say that there is a problem that you have. Instead of talking about being aroused, it might be sufficient to say that you get distracted and find it difficult to focus on what she is saying.

JLeslie's avatar

I really don’t think you should say anything about it making you uncomfortable or unable to concentrate, that would be flirting back. Stay with blaming it on being unprofessional behavior.

drhat77's avatar

@JLeslie I think in previous circumstances I may have called it unprofessional, and that’s when insults abounded and I was told I was wrong for interpreting it as unprofessional, so that’s probably also a no-no word

funkdaddy's avatar

My wife worked for a long time in the ER as a nurse. She’s probably a lot like this woman and doesn’t necessarily realize she’s being anything but friendly when she tells someone she needs to “borrow their man muscles in the other room”, or gets their attention with a hand on the shoulder and a big smile.

When she made the man muscle comment I asked if she understood people would think she was flirting. She explained she doesn’t consider it a sexual situation, so in that context it just doesn’t register. She wouldn’t even consider any of that flirting, her argument was you wouldn’t think twice if a male nurse did the same thing. Do you agree?

If I were in your situation I’d use that environment to find a reason to talk to her. If it’s a big ER, people gossip. Use that as a reason to talk to her in private as informally as possible. I’d make it as simple and respectful as possible, maybe even a “praise sandwich” with “we need to keep a bit of distance at work, people are getting the wrong idea” in the middle. Tell her you don’t think she’s doing anything wrong, but you wanted to address it with her directly before anything more came of it.

Then try to move your fascination on to something else. It’s hurting your work.

drhat77's avatar

@funkdaddy officially better advice than my sticky shirt idea.
I think I’ve got my own internal situation under neurotic wraps so tight they hum. I am very uncomfortable in situations of either frank sexuality or sexual ambiguity, but I have been dealing with this for years, it is not just with this nurse, and I don’t think it’s going anywhere anytime soon. I think the issue is that now I am a superior, so perhaps I am a more ready target for that sort of strategy, so now I’m getting it more.

drhat77's avatar

@funkdaddy your man muscles remark just reminded me. I do use a lot of off-color humor in at work. It is an environment that seems more receptive to it. But I never touch other female employees. Like Ever. I think my humor pushes the envelope of appropriateness even for the emergency room, and I think I do it to make sure everyone around is a little uncomfortable as well. But I draw the line at touching because my neuroses have convinced me I am not attractive and I would not want to repulse women and then be protected by my hierarchical superiority.
I know everyone is going to be all, you should have told us this (but I didn’t even think about it), and that’s the reason, it’s all my fault. Maybe it is. But I do not think so.

Cupcake's avatar

I work in health care. I think many areas of health care are sexually charged, so your comment is not surprising. It doesn’t change my opinion or my advice.

Although you could throw it into your comment to this young lady, “Hey, I know I love to joke around, but I know my wife really wouldn’t appreciate touching. Gotta keep the old lady happy, you know?!?!” End on a light note. Perhaps start with a (VERY non-sexual) compliment.

JLeslie's avatar

@drhat77 Yeah, you should have. :) So basically everyone is flirtatious.

drhat77's avatar

I don’t feel I do it flirtatiously. If anything, I think it makes me seem more middle school than anything else.

funkdaddy's avatar

@drhat77 – for what it’s worth, I think you’re being too hard on yourself. The fact that you care is huge and you can solve this just like you solve other problems with a little trial and error. Probably easier than medical school ;)

We all have buttons that we can’t necessarily control that they affect us, you’re just saying yours is touching and maybe some other triggers this situation hits. Maybe try different things to dissipate that and take note of what works. The part you can control is how things affect you.

You can probably diffuse this situation but need a better solution going forward is what you’re saying. Ladies are going to touch you in the future, so ultimately you’ll be better off handling it on your end, if that makes sense.

Maybe that realization is enough to get it started?

drhat77's avatar

thanks @funkdaddy (and all, too). The realization has been there since puberty, so I don’t know how much that’s going to help. I will try better ways to diffuse it though. I will also ruminate on non confrontational discussion with her.
Thank you all for not just telling me I’m crazy. I already knew that, wouldn’t have been helpful.

JLeslie's avatar

@drhat77 I’m not there, so I cannot really make a judgement, but humor tends to be flirtatious.

snowberry's avatar

@JLeslie Wow. Humor never occurred to me that way before. It also means I’m in a lot of trouble, because I crack jokes (clean ones) all day long. So far nobody’s seemed to think I was flirting with them, but who knows?

drhat77's avatar

Nurse: You did great
Dr Hat: That’s what you’re mom said last night!

I don’t think most women would find this humor attractive. I think everyone has gotten over the initial shock of me and my humor, and I encourage all to give it back to me as bad as I dish it out, so I think we’ve got a good groove wherein I haven’t been fired yet.

geeky_mama's avatar

@drhat77, my dad is a retired ER doc. One way he dealt with this particular kind of behavior (and gently) was to claim he was a bit OCD and thus bothered by anyone touching him. (He used to refer to the TV show “Monk” and explain that he was a bit like the character Monk.)

In truth, he is no more OCD than anyone else (though, as you know, there is a lot of hand-washing and concern for cross-contamination in an ER setting…) ...but he did use this particular excuse to gently ask for more space & to not be summoned by nurses “by touch” and/or whenever their flirtatious behavior (standing too close when not in the middle of a procedure, etc.) needed addressing.

I’ve seen a lot of ER docs divorce and remarry nurses—so your wife’s concern isn’t unfounded, and your thoughtful approach to this situation is commendable. If you make it sound like it’s your issue (even if it’s simply a white lie) it gives you a tactful way to take this nurse aside, one on one, and ask for her to avoid touching you. You may have to ask more than once or jokingly come up with a way to remind her (“This is my space bubble!!”)...because if it is her style of communication she won’t change overnight.

snowberry's avatar

@geeky_mama has it for the win!

marinelife's avatar

Why don’t you just tell her that touch is not comfortable for you. “I would prefer that you not touch me.”

drhat77's avatar

Thank you all you’re the best

nikipedia's avatar

One way to make the comment go over a bit better might be to make it about you instead of her. You could say something like, “I can be a bit uptight about personal space, do you think you could give me a bit more? Thanks.”

JLeslie's avatar

@snowberry Just to clarify I am not saying flirting means the person wants to take anything any farther. When people have fun together and great rapport it can easily also have a flirtation mixed in there, but no one acts on it in any way. Ask 100 women what they want in an SO, withing the top 5 will be sense of humor for a large portion of those women. Humor is an attraction getter.

chyna's avatar

Next time she touches you, step back and say “I know I haven’t had a chance to tell you this, but I really don’t like people touching me.” I did this with an old co-worker and it worked.

Penycat's avatar

I don’t think we should go on the band wagon thinking what she is doing is inappropriate until the OP tells her to not touch him anymore. I work in the medical field and have been on code teams under very chaotic conditions. Sometimes people get so focused you can’t get another’s attention without a tap or touch. Maybe she has always had a very soft voice that can’t be heard over others and had to pick up this habit.
Remember he did say she was not flirting.
If you say she is not flirting than just tell her you have issues with physical touch. Otherwise if you don’t say anything just ignore it. You are in the business of constant physical contact. Not exactly the best profession to be in if you have issues with touch.

drhat77's avatar

@pennycat yes but I touch them!
This wasn’t in a chaotic code situation. She is coming up asking for my help in a situation. The touch was optional.

FutureMemory's avatar

I got it, I got it!

Tell her you’re ticklish!!!!


janbb's avatar

I think it may not be flirty; it may just be her style.

I think you can give her the message verbally without it blowing up in your face. How about the next time she says that just saying: “I’m sorry. It makes me uncomfortable when you do that; I’m just not a touchy feely kind of guy.” That puts the issue on you and takes any blame out of it. If she is aware at all, it should take care of the problem.

dabbler's avatar

I think the fact that you routinely spout questionable humour puts a twist on it, suggesting that you are opening to relaxing standard boundaries a bit. (I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, just suggesting it could be confusing to your peers if you are relatively hard-nose about some aspects of workplace behavior but push the envelope in others)

But I also think it could be easy to bring up with the nurse in a friendly manner.
“I really appreciate that you’re friendly to me, but you probably saw that HR memo/orientation video/policy statement with the guidelines about about unnecessary touching among collegues.
I feel uncomfortable that everyone in the ER might get the wrong ideas about the two of us, or that someone would complain about either of us to HR.”

ninjacolin's avatar

uh.. maybe this reads a few different ways but.. you’re saying she does certain things when she’s into a guy and is usually successful at communicating her interest.. and now she’s doing those same things to you.. BUT because of “a lot of neuroses when dealing with women” you’re failing to understand her signals to you?

Just tell her in no uncertain terms: Listen lady, if you wanna go for a coffee just say so. I’ll pick you up at 8, otherwise, quit leading me on, I have a fragile heart.

ninjacolin's avatar

oh, just read the rest of the thread. ^ This might work if you’re single and looking but not so if you’re happily married.

I would just have the talk with a few people rather than just her. Perhaps at everyone’s next one on one meeting, just mention you would like to commit to a hands-off policy between yourself and your workmates. Make it a personal request from you to your subordinates so that everyone knows your stance. Also, make it a new thing rather than a problem you’re trying to get over; Make the request more about the direction you would like to take going forward.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Start accidentally stepping on her feet. Accidentally of course.

Or the next time you feel a hand on your shoulder, slap it hard like a fly.

trailsillustrated's avatar

Wow I can’t believe no one has mentioned this to her- I was working with mostly male doctors and I went and laid my hand on one’s back and leaned over him (he was sitting down doing paper work) to get his attention to talk about some patient- the office manager beckoned me over and quietly, and gently and in a very non-embarrasing way told me , don’t do that. It’s unprofessional, and looks so to all and sundry.

snowberry's avatar

@trailsillustrated Considering the climate created by all the silly bantering, I’m guessing that wouldn’t have occurred to anyone.

drhat77's avatar

@ninjacolin sorry if I was too rambly I do NOT think she is into me. I think being a little more gushy and touchy has gotten her good results (ie, guys do what she wants them to in the workplace, like come assist her immediately), so she is just applying it to me subconsciously. I do not think she is flirting with me, she just has a more touchy communication style that happens to press a weird button I got.

Adagio's avatar

I am always in favour of being ‘straight up’, just tell her it makes you feel uncomfortable, no need to enter into any discussion about why it makes you feel uncomfortable, it just does, period.

ninjacolin's avatar

Cool, @drhat77. Then my second response above is your best bet. ;)

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