Tuesday, September 11, 2012

How Not to Make Other People Uncomfortable (Unless for some reason you want to)

In previous posts I've talked about some traumatizing stuff that has happened or I've had to deal with when I was an employee and as a manager. Today we're going to discuss how avoid that happening to you, or at least look at some basic guidelines on how not to creep other people out. In the blogosphere as a whole, there is a lot of discussion about Creepers; people creep other people out without actually recognizing, or in some rare cases, caring, that they are doing so.

As an employee, but especially as a manager, you are in hot water for even the appearance of creeping--perception is reality in the workplace. If any of your employees might be guilty of creepy behavior, or creeping, as a manager you get the extra special bonus of being liable for the discomfort their behavior may create.

What is Creeping? 
  • Creeping is making someone or someones who are not you uncomfortable with your presence and/or behavior. 
  • Creeping can be malicious, but is most often inadvertent--this is to say, the person being creepy may not understand he/she is being creepy. 
  • Creeping can be passive as well as active; its based on how a third party feels, not on how the creeper feels or what the creeper is doing. 
  • Creeping is subjective to those being creeped out. 
  • Creeping IS the problem of the person doing the creeping AND his/her manager, even if the perception of the issue is that the person in question isn't doing anything wrong. This is because, in the work place, expected duties include keeping everyone with whom you work and interact comfortable being in the work place, which falls on each individual to maintain for the group. 
  • Creeping can seem unfair; a person accused of creepy behavior might just be occasionally looking at the person who is complaining of being creeped out. A person accused of creeping may have committed one act that made someone uncomfortable by accident and never do it again, but keep the creeper title and have it communicated by others within the group that felt targeted by the behavior. 
  • Creeping can create a hostile work environment. 
Be Proactive about monitoring/preventing potential uncomfortable behavior:
  1. Know your team. Understand team dynamics. When a team is being formed, uncomfortable and awkward situations can arise as people determine the power structure within the group. These transitions need to be supervised and employees protected from feeling slighted or frightened. Employees who might be creeping others out specifically to achieve a particular position should be dealt with on an as-needed basis; the only common feature should be that they are denied whatever they attempted to achieve through creeping, and going to everything from informal conversation to formal reprimand (or worse) as the situation merits. 
  2. Do not expect that only women will be creeped out by men. While a large percentage of this type of issue occurs when a male colleague creeps out a female colleague, females may end up creepers to other females, males to other males, and females may creep out their male colleagues. 
  3. Creeping behaviors can seem very benign when they are not targeted at you.  Take any suggestion of uncomfortability by other employees very seriously. Initially talk to the person who feels uncomfortable to discuss what aspects make him or her uncomfortable. In talking to someone, you may encounter associated memories to that type of situation of which they are really uncomfortable, and not necessarily another employee. However, you might find that something you find normal or the person doing it finds normal to be culturally or personally inappropriate for the person complaining. The complaint should be taken seriously. Too often creeper behavior--in business and outside of it, say in a group of friends--is brushed aside; this can give the message to the creeper the behavior is okay, which you have someone literally telling you, that it is not. 
  4. Unlike may inner-office conflicts, being the victim of creeping makes it very hard to approach the creeper and ask for change. I often encourage my employees at conflict to talk to each other before they come to me, or to come to me together with my presence ensuring a fair discussion. However, when someone is that uncomfortable, its very difficult for them to communicate it to the source of their discomfort; they may be worried of embarrassing that person, making too big a "deal" out of things and losing support from other co-workers, worried that they may be considered "oversensitive" or have other fears triggered by a co-worker being told he/she is acting creepy and then them having a natural defensive response.  Where possible, men or women who are feeling uncomfortable should be asked to stand up for themselves as soon as the behavior starts; however, if they are unable to, accept that, as a manager or fellow co-worker, you may need to do so for them.
  5. Creeping needs to be stopped as it happens. Typically I recommend praising in public and punishing in private; however, if someone is creeping and someone else is uncomfortable, it needs to stop right then. This could be you removing the creeper from the situation and explaining it, or it could be just telling them to stop whatever behavior is triggering the issue. It can be as distinct as "Cut that out, John, it's creepy," to "John, why don't you and I change chairs so I can sit closer to Jane?" depending on how low key you need/want to keep the interchange. Whatever is done should be done immediately, however. Allowing inappropriate behavior while you are right there is effectively tacit approval
Recommendations to Creepers/People accused of Creeping that you can offer:
  • No touching other people.
  • Increase personal space boundaries around yourself and others (most people like 2-3 feet); always leave enough space someone can walk around you without touching you.
  • When people excuse themselves and leave, let them go away
  • Stop telling jokes for a while - work with the manager on what is, and is not funny
  • Don't stare at people
  • Test out any new tactics/behaviors to reduce creeping on you--the manager--before moving forward with any co-workers. 

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