March 22, 2017

Can I Tell My Gay Coworker to Back Off Without Sounding Homophobic?

Hey, Bonita…

Hey Bonita,

I am a straight male, totally accepting of all sexualities and ways of life. But I'm deeply worried about sounding homophobic at work.

At my new office job, a very friendly guy whom I'll call Rick makes me uncomfortable. Every day so far, I get hugs that linger (despite us having recently met), a touch on the shoulder or head as he passes by my desk, searching eye contact and repeated mentions of how cute I am.

I've tried the subtle rebukes—mentioning my girlfriend, steering conversations back to work, joking about the long hugs—but nothing changes. It's not like he's my boss or anything, but it's still definitely unwanted.

In the past, when a woman has given me unwanted attention in a professional setting, I've had no problem finding the words to explain that I'm uncomfortable. It’s only happened once, but I felt confident being direct and laying boundaries.

With Rick, every time I open my mouth to say I'm uncomfortable and uninterested, I stop myself short because I worry that what I'm about to say will sound presumptuous or judgmental of his sexuality.

Can you help me with phrasing here? How can I be clear without being hateful?

Rick's Coworker


The best phrasing to tell someone to stop touching you is simple and direct. “Stop touching me.” “No, thank you.” “I'd rather you not.”

It's important to establish firm eye contact when telling someone this, so they know you mean business. Also, never hesitate to physically remove someone's hand from your body. I'm not the most generous anymore when it comes to casual affection, so I end up in plenty of situations where I have to tell people to back off. It's different when you're hanging with friends or partying. The fact that this is happening in your workplace, honestly, is a little alarming.

This guy is being dangerously cheeky by openly flirting with straight guys at work. Add the fact that you've already hinted at your discomfort, and I see a situation that is blurring the lines of workplace sexual harassment. The lingering hugs are especially troubling, because if you were a woman I'd accuse him of just trying to molest you. And, actually, who cares if you're not a woman, because his intentions make his actions inappropriate.

Sorry, but this guy is feeling you up. I have no idea what he's thinking by being so blatantly unprofessional, but you don't have to put up with it just because he's gay. His minority status does not give him a free pass. No one should be mussing his coworkers’ hair or telling them they're cute, even if they're dating and human resources is aware. It's not professional, point blank, period.

Seriously, guys: What are you thinking cruising your coworkers? There are plenty of people in the world, so why become the resident creep at your bread-and-butter? I believe it's more ego-related than a real attempt to get laid, but work is no place for that kind of posturing.

Women in the workplace deal with this bullshit from men all the time, Coworker, so I'm going to advise you in the same manner that I'd advise a woman. Start by telling him plainly and with as few words as possible that he should not be touching you without consent. It's 2017, and consent is a thing for everyone, regardless of gender. He can respond negatively if he wishes, but he's still gotta agree to keep his hands to himself.

If he doesn't, go directly to your company's HR office. Remember the date and time that you confronted him, and if you can email him about it and have something in writing, even better. Sexual harassment makes a workplace unsafe, and what you've described is exactly that. You've done nothing wrong here, and you will be doing nothing wrong by going to HR if he ignores your request and continues.

Need advice? Email, use the anonymous form, or find Bonita on Twitter: @flagpolebonita.