Unwanted Advances

What to do when a coworker only has eyes for you

Illustration by Tony Healey

Melanie Warner Spencer is editor of New Orleans Bride and New Orleans Homes & Lifestyles and managing editor of Louisiana Life and Acadiana Profile. Spencer’s ever-expanding library of etiquette books is rivaled only by her ever-ready stash of blank thank-you notes. Submit business etiquette questions to Melanie@MyNewOrleans.com.


A few years ago in this column, we explored the do’s and don’ts of navigating workplace romances. When a spark is ignited between two people, it’s often irresistible, and many a happily couple have met at work.

That’s all well and good, but what about when the feeling is not mutual? Unwanted attention from a coworker is awkward at best and at worst can turn into sexual harassment. For this installment, we’re going to focus on the awkward end of the spectrum, since for the other scenario there are fail-safes in place via human resources departments and the law. So, what should you do if someone is flirting with you, but you aren’t interested?

1. Investigate. Do your best to determine if the other party is simply a shameless flirt, or if attention and compliments are being reserved specifically for you. If he or she flirts with everyone in the office, you can probably chalk it up to a personality quirk and rule out the chance that they are hoping to date you. Either way, if it makes you uncomfortable, you are well within your rights to draw your boundaries.

2. Set Rules: Co-workers, of course, often socialize over lunch, happy hour or dinner, so set a few ground rules for those occasions. For example, perhaps you could agree only to lunch in groups, but decline happy hours and dinners. The former can help you avoid getting into potentially tricky, tipsy territory in which inhibitions may be lowered and people may not be on their best behavior.

3. Communicate: If you are married or in a committed relationship, often bringing up your significant other can curb the behavior. That said, not everyone can take a hint; besides, some people don’t consider that a deal-breaker, and will continue the pursuit. This means, it’s important to be crystal clear and assertive about the fact that you are not interested. At the same time, tact and professionalism are key, because you will still have to work together. You could say something like, “I’ve noticed that you visit my office a lot, compliment my appearance and frequently ask me to lunch and happy hour. It’s possible that I’m misreading the situation, but if not, I don’t want to lead you on. I enjoy working with you, but I’m not interested in dating.” If you have a significant other, you could also say, “I enjoy working with you, but I’m in a committed relationship.” Finally, and only if it’s true, tell them, “I enjoy working with you, but I don’t date people from work.”

4. Document: In addition to the above, be sure to document the behavior, including dates, times, context, other parties present and a summary of the exchange. Any time a comment or action feels “off,” write it down. This is especially important if the behavior continues after you make it clear that you aren’t interested in anything other than a working relationship. If you have a close friend at work that you can confide in, share the incidents with them in real time, so that you have support and a person who, if it ever escalates, can corroborate your side of the story.

5. Report: If you’ve done all of the above and the behavior hasn’t ceased, you are being harassed and it’s time to report it to your superiors or human resources.

Always go with your intuition and be firm about your boundaries, and usually, the problem will be solved without drama. The office should be a place where you feel safe and comfortable, allowing the focus to remain on work and not concerns over whether or not that guy or gal from accounting is going to swing by your desk — again.