Workplace Doctor: Suggestive emails by colleague are seriously inappropriate

How do I tackle a male colleague’s unwanted suggestive emails in the office?

Powered by automated translation

A male colleague has been sending me suggestive emails in the office. Because he is one of the managers, I replied to a couple but this seemed to only escalate the situation. I want the emails to stop. Ignoring them completely is difficult since I work directly with this man – what can I do? I don't want to involve HR as that only seems to make issues more serious than they actually are. MN, Dubai

First of all this is unprofessional behaviour from a senior manager. It is also unfortunate that you have replied to some of his emails because he may now feel his advances are justified. The fact that someone feels they can get away with this is truly unacceptable, it shows a lack of respect for you and for the organisation. Often in the workplace these situations are laughed off or overlooked, but for many like you this is no laughing matter.

I can understand you are finding it difficult to ignore these emails as you work directly with this person, but do not reply to any more of them, and keep a record of those that are sent to you both privately and in your work email account. Replying not only fails to stop his unwanted advances but leaves you open to his misinterpretation. He may be reading your words in a different way than you intend; probably using it as a way to further massage his already inflated ego. I imagine you feel uncomfortable and I do believe that something needs to be done, especially if his behaviour is beginning to affect your work.

At the moment you do not want to involve HR, but if you do not take steps to manage the situation yourself you must consider this option, or speak to another member of management you trust. If the advances continue, then appropriate channels must be followed.

In the meantime, if you wish to try to have this conversation with him yourself, take some real consideration over your approach. Firstly, make it clear that this conversation is relating to you not feeling comfortable with the emails he has sent. Ensure this chat takes place in a part of the office where you can be seen by others, and I would also strongly consider telling a trusted colleague you are having this conversation – both precautions in case his behaviour changes for the worse. It is important for you to manage impressions and make sure he does not feel that you simply want his attention, and an impartial witness present may be useful in backing you up on this if you have to go to HR in the future.

It is important you prepare what you want to say and how you want to say it, making sure it is clear and to the point, leaving no space for interpretation. Write down what you want to say, keep a copy of it, and then send him the minutes of your conversation over email after it has happened. You must make sure he knows how seriously you are taking this, and that you have a written record for future reference. Think about what you know about him and his personality; how is he likely to react? He may think it is fine to act in this way in the office, or perhaps he genuinely believes his advances are warranted. Either way, you need to communicate assertively and clearly that it needs to stop, and if it does not you will discuss with HR or management.

You may feel this conversation could affect your job, or he could make life difficult for you, but doing nothing is not helping. It is important that even though he is senior to you, you maintain an adult to adult conversation – provide the professionalism he so obviously lacks.

Doctor's prescription:

Let him know what you’re thinking and how it is making you feel, he may realise the effect he is having on you. Ask him some questions about the situation (for example: do you feel it is OK to send these kind of emails or speak to a colleague like that?) and check if he shows any empathy. While you should be prepared for him to be defensive, confrontational or even to ignore your request altogether, the mention of speaking to HR or management should be enough to stop his emails.

However, if nothing changes after this conversation it will be even more important for you to back up your words with actions. Keep in mind if he gets away with this he may continue with you and even worse with other colleagues.

Alex Davda is a business psychologist and consultant at Ashridge Business School, based in the Middle East. Email him at for advice on any work issues.

Follow The National's Business section on Twitter