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How to set professional boundaries with male colleague?

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Anonymous User at Taro Communitya year ago

I’m a female engineer (E5) at a Big Tech company. I worked closely with a male colleague on the same team for a while. He’s also E5. After our team’s manager resigned, there was a re-org and we ended up on different teams. His team had some attrition, so he recently asked if I would like to join his team. I’m happy with my current team, so I said no.

Over time, there’s been a growing undercurrent of very personal questions and crossing of professional boundaries.

Some questions he had asked me (he asked these very aggressively and kept pushing for answers when I gave hand-wavy responses to some of them):

  • What did I do with my company stock? How much did I sell? Where did I put that money? What’s my financial strategy? We both joined pre-IPO, so our stock was worth a lot at one point.
  • Do I own a house? Where is it located? When did I buy it? How big is it (square feet as well as number of bedrooms/bathrooms)? How much is left on the mortgage?
  • Do I have a boyfriend? Do we live together? When did we meet? How did we meet? What does he do for a living?

Moreover, he keeps asking me to meet him in-person. Back when we were on the same team, I had skipped our in-person offsites due to COVID worries. I’ve never met him in-person, and am now extremely hesitant to. My spidey senses are going off.

He also asked me to communicate via WhatsApp instead of our company slack. Then he sent me a TikTok video with a sexual innuendo. When he recently asked me to use a non-company Zoom account to zoom, I declined and said that I don’t want any more sexual jokes. When he asked me if I’ll report him to HR, I asked him to keep things professional.

We’re in the same org, so I may need to work with him at some point. How do I enforce professional boundaries here? I don't want to go to HR unless absolutely necessary.

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Discussion

(4 comments)
  • 10
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    Junior Software Engineer at Series B Startup
    a year ago

    Very sorry you’re experiencing this! Except for last few things that sound especially uncomfortable, I was struggling with a similar situation a few months back... Unenthusiastic replies nor delaying them seemed to work, and even when clearly expressing that I didn’t feel comfortable sharing some information I would still receive long, animated responses and more random personal questions- which I couldn’t tell was out of obliviousness. I think most of the time I just wanted to tell them to stop but struggled to come up with a way to communicate it professional/assertively.

    My unhelpful response (mainly out of empathy!) is that I began to only give timely replies if it was code-related and if we absolutely had to converse I would not react much at all; just dry yes/no replies, no emotive reactions. And anytime the conversation felt like it was skewing into a topic that was not work-related/off-topic, I did my best to redirect us and ignore the invitation to go there.

    I remember this was an issue that really weighed on me for some months, so I can’t imagine how it might be for you. Hopefully there will be better answers after me and that you will not have to involve HR 🙏.

  • 15
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    Tech Lead @ Robinhood, Meta, Course Hero
    a year ago

    I'm so sorry to hear this - My heart sank as the actions and questions this coworker did got more and more inappropriate... Unfortunately, this happens so often to female engineers, way more than many people (especially men) think. Almost every woman in tech I know has gone through this. 😔

    Here's my thoughts:

    1. Maintain a paper trail - Take all the creepy DMs from this person and compile them into a folder of evidence. If you ever go to someone formally about this, this will be tremendously helpful.
    2. Tell your manager (if you trust them) - Managers are meant to solve issues like this. I always describe them as a "people API".
    3. Mute this person - I'm not sure if the other person knows if you block/report them on WhatsApp, but muting should definitely be safe. If you're connected on any other messaging app, take the steps to prevent them from entering your inbox (ideally without them knowing). And obviously, if they suggest to connect on any other platforms, politely decline (you can make up something about not using the platform or trying to cut social media use or something).
  • 2
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    Anonymous User [OP]
    Taro Community
    a year ago

    Here's ChatGPT's advice:

    Setting professional boundaries with a male colleague is an important step in establishing a healthy and productive working relationship. Here are some tips to help you set professional boundaries:

    1. Be clear and direct: When communicating with your male colleague, be clear and direct about what you are and are not comfortable with. Use assertive language and avoid beating around the bush.
    2. Use "I" statements: Instead of blaming or accusing your colleague, use "I" statements to express your needs and feelings. For example, "I feel uncomfortable when you make comments about my appearance."
    3. Define your limits: Decide what behaviors and interactions are acceptable to you and communicate them clearly to your male colleague. For example, you may not be comfortable with physical touch, or you may want to avoid discussing personal topics.
    4. Maintain a professional tone: Keep your interactions with your male colleague professional and avoid getting too personal. If your colleague attempts to cross a boundary, gently redirect the conversation back to work-related topics.
    5. Enforce your boundaries: If your male colleague continues to cross your boundaries, be firm and assertive in enforcing them. You may need to involve a manager or HR representative if the behavior persists.

    Remember, setting professional boundaries is important for maintaining a respectful and productive work environment. Don't be afraid to advocate for yourself and your needs in the workplace.

  • 4
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    Engineering Manager at Blend
    a year ago

    😔 not cool...

    1. Loop in HR sooner – other people may disagree but I would suggest looping in HR sooner rather than later. You don't have to initially give a name, but I'd suggest to let them know of the situation and how uncomfortable it is making you.. so then if/when something does occur that "crosses the line" (if it hasn't already) it doesn't come as a surprise and HR would be better prepared to take actionable steps.
    2. Manager – I agree with Alex, if you trust your manager then I'd suggest you let them know. One thing to consider is if your manager knows this male colleague, and how likely/unlikely would it be for the manager to tell this male colleague about what you've told them. Unfortunately, in situations like this it's important for you to control the narrative...

    I hope the best for your situation.