Many relationships start from a friendship in the workplace so it is not uncommon to have budding romances going on. However, one of the most disheartening HR experiences is handling personal rejection for employees.
The scenario: a male co-worker asks a female co-worker out to lunch or for a date or invites her to a happy hour or something similar. The roles could be reversed but in my experience it’s always been the guy asking out the woman. The female co-worker freaks out because the male is not her type (maybe he’s a bit nerdy or more than a bit nerdy or unattractive) or she’s married or has a boyfriend. Instead of just being honest with him, I would get a visit asking for intervention.
Why is it so hard to say no? This is how it works:
- No thank you (sweet and simple — if it requires an answer to why? you can always say you are not interested)
- I am so sorry but I don’t date co-workers
- Thanks so much but I prefer to lunch alone
- I can’t accept this gift but thank you for thinking of me
- I have a husband (or boyfriend or whatever) but thank you for asking
On one occasion I asked “why don’t you tell him yourself?” The response was that she didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Can you imagine how he felt when the head of the company’s HR department told him to back off (gently of course)? Perhaps it was less about his feelings and more about her level of comfort. They should teach this in schools! They could call it Feelings 101 or maybe Simulating Feelings 101!
Then there is the stalking threshold. We had one employee “claim” she was being stalked by another. As the details came out, she was asked out. When I asked how she responded, she said, “I told him I was busy, maybe some other time.” When he asked the second time (and why wouldn’t he, she left it wide open?) she considered it stalking.
Now I am not condoning real stalking or sexual harassment which is no laughing matter and often requires action. I am talking about the reluctance to kindly reject a potential suitor no matter how nerdy or homely he/she is.
We had an odd guy who worked for the company in a facilities-type position. Some people thought he was mentally challenged because he wasn’t good at social interaction. Today we would think he had some sort of autism. Back then people thought he was stupid. I knew he wasn’t because in the course of talking to him, he told me about the poetry he wrote. Immediately interested, I asked him if he would let me read it. It was worthy of publication. There was nothing mentally slow about this guy.
His process for working up to a date was to buy a woman a small gift – something good-smelling from a bath and body shop. He would wrap it and present it as a gift totally blindsiding the woman. After she accepted he would invite her out to lunch. Ouch! Now what do you do. The really smart women didn’t accept the gift in the first place (graciously of course) so they didn’t feel compelled to accept a lunch date. The not-so-smart women, well you know what happened.
I can’t tell you how often I interceded with him and eventually starting coaching him on his approach to women, preferably outside the workplace. That is how I got to read his poetry.
Sometimes the difference between accepting the date, lunch, whatever or not depends on what the guy looks like. That is so unfair but it’s how it works with both sexes. If the person doesn’t fit the proper parameters of attraction, they are SOL.
As a contrast we had a male employee who was a player. He was adequately good-looking and fun-loving but could be a jerk with women. He had no problem getting almost anyone to go out with him. Tears and unhappiness would eventually follow and somehow Human Resources would end up involved.
There was a time when we had legal documents requiring the company to keep formerly dating employees separated. In a large company it isn’t a problem. In a midsized company with one location and angry people seeking revenge, it’s much harder.
There were times when a serious social interaction (spit swapping, tongue wrestling, etc.) was voluntary and welcomed on both sides but totally inappropriate for a variety of reasons. That is a blog for another time.
In my early days of working in Human Resources, one of my colleagues always said that HR was the underbelly of the company. We knew the worst and the best about the employees. We also knew to keep our mouths shut.
Here is my motto:
You don’t get your honey where you get your money! Damn it!
Epilogue: The socially inept guy found a woman outside of the company to date. He eventually left and moved south with her. As far as I know, there was a happy ending.
Artwork credit: Brushingup