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How Should I Deal With A Co-Worker Who Harassed Me?

Welcome to Survey Says, FiveThirtyEight’s advice column. In each installment, our two advice-givers will take a reader question, debate what he or she should do, and then survey a panel of people about what the best course of action is. Need our advice? Send us your quandary!

I have a co-worker who in the past has made efforts to begin a romantic relationship with me. I made clear my refusal and distanced myself from this person; however, these efforts were limited because we were working on a project together. My co-worker took to texting my work phone, protesting that I was being unfair, insulting me and then bad-mouthing exes I had introduced at work parties. I responded strongly, along the lines of, ‘You’re embarrassing yourself, act professionally and, oh, go fuck yourself.’ The situation for the rest of the project was, um, tense. We had no contact over the next eight months until we were put on a two-week project. Our interactions were professional and civil. Now another project is coming up that we have both been assigned to, this one expected to last six months. I expect my co-worker to repeat her previous behavior. (I’d like to clarify that I’m male and my co-worker is female.)

What’s the best way to get off of this project? I already know the long-term solution is to leave, but until I get that new job, I’m stuck. — Boris

Morgan Jerkins: This sounds like a textbook case of harassment to me.

Walt Hickey: Right, and I think Boris has the right idea here: On a long enough time span, he’s got to get out of this gig. He’s got the material — the texts — that would prove a conflict or issue with this colleague to a human resources officer. It sounds like there might be some legal questions here, so he might want to talk to a lawyer. To be clear, we’re not lawyers — we’re just mere mortals here to offer our non-expert advice. So I suppose the question is how he handles this in the short term. What do you think?

Morgan: I would advise Boris to print out all exchanges that he has had with this woman, the interactions that have crossed the line into inappropriate. Boris should tell her that he has them and that if she continues to harass him, he will go directly to HR. He needs to keep documentation of everything at this point, and since she has been inappropriate with him on his work phone, that’s even more damning evidence.

Walt: Here’s an additional element from this that Boris sent along with his letter: “Her Midwestern gregariousness has won her many fans in our company.”

Morgan: Hence why he needs to print out and consolidate all his evidence.

Walt: I guess one issue on his mind is whether he needs to consider how this action could affect his reputation.

Morgan: Even if he has the documentation?

Walt: This legal question is different than the social case is what I’m getting at.

Morgan: I think if he decides to remain silent, it’s going to boil over and affect him both internally and externally. I mean, he once told her to f— off, so he’s almost at his wit’s end. That anger is going to really get to him, and I’d argue that it will affect his work too.

Even if this woman is more well-liked, the workplace is not about making friends. He has a job to do, and he’s being harassed.

Walt: Right, I don’t think he should stay silent at all. But should he notify HR discreetly first? Should he tell the co-worker he has the texts and suffer the potential fallout from her reacting?

Morgan: Ooh … good questions.

Walt: I’m kind of on the side of “make it known to superiors and then find an exit from the workplace at your leisure.” I don’t think telling the co-worker what he’s got is any help.

Morgan: Honestly, if she is more well-liked and he’s worried about the fallout, I think he shouldn’t even give her a warning. Alert HR discreetly ASAP.

Walt: Alert could be a couple different things, too! There’s notify — “she used to pursue me sexually, it made me uncomfortable, heads-up” — and notify and request actions — “she used to pursue me sexually, it made me uncomfortable, please move one of us” — so what were you thinking?

Morgan: I would say “she used to pursue me sexually, it made me uncomfortable, please move one of us,” mainly because the project is going to be six months long. That’s a lot of time together. It’s one thing to be on a two-week project and for her to be civil and professional. That’s short. But six months? No way. That’s too much stress on him.

FiveThirtyEight commissioned a SurveyMonkey Audience poll that ran April 12-13 and received 1,131 responses. We presented respondents with Boris’s letter and asked them what the best advice is, given the situation. They were allowed to choose only one option.

  1. Compile the texts and confront her.


  2. Compile the texts and do nothing.


  3. Compile the texts and take them to human resources to notify them ahead of any repeat incident.


  4. Compile the texts, take them to HR and ask to be moved.


  5. None of the above is good advice.


Walt: Massive majority agreement about cluing human resources in!

Morgan: I’m very happy with these results.

The thing that’s interesting, though, is that the second-best choice, according to the results, is the suggestion that this person should go to HR and ask to be removed immediately.

Walt: Combined, about three-quarters of people said to compile the texts and approach HR with them. All they disagreed on was the ask: More folks wanted to just make it known to HR, which I guess we all say is the best approach here.

Was there any major difference among age groups? I kind of want to know where those foolhardy confrontational types are (and, come on, they are definitely millennials).

RESPONSE 18-29 30-44 45-59 60+
1. Compile and confront 10% 7% 7% 9%
2. Compile and do nothing 10 7 5 4
3. Compile and notify HR 37 44 42 38
4. Compile and ask HR to move you 35 30 33 35
5. None of the above 8 13 13 13

Numbers have been rounded and might not add up to 100 percent.

Source: surveymonkey audience

Morgan: Hmm … OK, there aren’t any glaring differences.

Walt: Anything on gender?

1. Compile and confront 8% 7%
2. Compile and do nothing 7 6
3. Compile and notify HR 42 40
4. Compile and ask HR to move you 31 34
5. None of the above 11 13

Numbers have been rounded and might not add up to 100 percent.

Source: surveymonkey audience

Walt: Cool! So every possible demographic is aligned on this one, Morgan. We’re good.

Morgan: Got it.

Walt: This guy, long term, probably needs a way better job, though. This sounds pretty untenable.

Morgan: It’s going to come to a head.

More of our advice:

Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.

Morgan Jerkins is a writer living in New York City.