Reader: I’m a divorced, single man in my 40s, moonlighting evenings at a small office. My dozen or so co-workers are mostly female and married, some older and some younger. I’ve gotten what seem like mixed and not-so-mixed messages suggesting some of them are coming on to me: bending over to show cleavage or standing with their backs to me while I’m sitting, removing wedding rings and more-subtle verbal innuendo. The older women recently seem to be wearing more makeup, styling and dyeing their hair differently, dressing differently. One 70-something female co-worker told me most people think she looks young for her age, which I interpreted as her attempt to see how I’d respond.
There is a younger single male employee, and I’m sure the married female director had or is having an affair with him. I’m also pretty sure our married male boss is interested in the director.
I have zero interest in any married women, especially at work. But my lack of response seems to be making these women upset — passive-aggressive verbal remarks — and I’m concerned how this could impact workplace dynamics. I’m hoping for good future references from these co-workers for my main career. How should I handle this?
Karla: Dude, where do you work? A pheromone research facility?
I can imagine innocuous explanations for these women’s behavior: They’re not aware of the views their posture affords. Being in the majority encourages a more ribald level of discourse than you’re used to hearing from women in mixed company. They’re experimenting with style to emulate and impress each other. Their wedding rings are uncomfortable. They’re fishing for compliments from someone they feel comfortable with. In short, it’s possible this has nothing to do with putting the make on you.
Then again, none of that justifies discomfiting you with verbal swipes when you don’t join in the banter. And the sexually charged undercurrent you sense among your managers, besides setting a bad example, could be fostering unhealthy competitiveness. Since you’re there to witness it and I’m not, you should trust your instincts.
How to handle it? Play it cool — as in, “Han Solo frozen in carbonite” cool — and make clear that work is your focus. Inventing a romantic partner outside the office may seem an easy fix, but it usually creates more problems. Your best bet is to affect a good-natured, charming bafflement; for inspiration, watch Jeff Goldblum on YouTube reading salacious Twitter comments from fans. Keep it up until your “fans” get bored — or their passive-aggressive muttering escalates into behavior that you can call out directly.
As plenty of women can tell you, it can be a challenge showing just enough professional friendliness to be likable in a way that no reasonable person would interpret as sexually charged flirting, especially if you’re a desirable and unattached minority. All in all, it sounds less exhausting to just find another side gig somewhere stable, keeping contact with those likely to give good referrals.