“A fine-looking lady.”

This isn’t something that happened to me, just something I witnessed, but I thought it was the best way I’d ever seen to deal with a harasser when one is at a customer-service-type job. I was waiting to get a permit approved for a sign (lengthy process.) The DC permit center is full of people, mostly small business owners, contractors, and home-owners who are looking to get construction/renovation/Certificate of Occupancy permits.

There is a long curved counter with little stations for each department (Historical, Structural, etc) with a DC city employee at each to look over permit applications that relate to their specific areas. A man was sitting at the structural engineer’s station, when the engineer had to get up to get some form or other. The man had been staring at the woman sitting at the next cubicle, the Historical station, from around the partition.

When the engineer left, the man wheeled his chair back so he could see her better, and started saying things to her in a strange monotone. At first I thought they must know each other, since he didn’t introduce himself and was saying things like, “Oh, what a fine-looking lady, you look really nice today…” She ignored him and moved her computer screen so he couldn’t see her. He wheeled his chair further back, so she pushed the screen aside, looked directly at him and said firmly, “You’re staring at me. This is a professional setting; please stop.”

The man immediately wheeled his chair back to the desk and stared at his permits till the engineer returned. I was awed; the woman had firmly, but politely, shut down unwanted attention from a stranger without even raising her voice. However, I was irritated as it occurred to me that the man probably wouldn’t have respected such a rebuke if it had come from, say, a waitress or a bartender, instead of a city official. I was also shocked to see someone hit on a city official so blatantly, apparently because he was bored.

Submitted by KS on 7/16/2009

Location: 941 N. Capitol St. NE at the DC city government permit office

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4 Responses

  1. Golden Silence

    I’m impressed with the employee’s response! From what I gather, it was cool, calm, collected and to the point. I bet that man won’t do that again! (At least I hope he doesn’t.)

  2. christine

    I think that its great that being firm and polite worked for her, but i also think that in most scenarios politeness usually backfires.
    i also think it can be problematic to uphold the idea that women should respond with controlled courtesy, or that we should not raise our voices when getting harassed by someone who feels absolutely entitled (as KS points out, even if the woman is in a position of power, or if they are just doing their job!). when i get harassed, it makes my blood boil. we should not have to shut up about harassment, or be nice about it. it is just as dignified an action for this woman to have had him removed from the building or something. he can wait in that long line again, because she (we) don’t owe him or any other entitled scumbag anything.

  3. Colette

    I am impressed with this woman too! I wish we could ask her more, like does this happen a lot to her in the workplace? She had just the right thing to say ready to go (instead of thinking of it a couple hours later as some of us often do). Maybe she chose not to raise her voice or have him tossed out because she suspected or knew (from prior experience) that it might backfire and affect her job. Oh how I wish we could forgo that *politeness* that Christine references unhappily but too often we get looked at as The Problem when we do. (Still, I am beginning to think being looked at as The Problem might be okay more often if it means I’ll be left alone.)

  4. LNC

    This happened to me once. I work in a federal building. I was walking down the hallway during the course of conducting my job and a maintenance man or contractor started making the kind of comments TO ME you’d expect to hear in a nightclub. His buddies were egging him on. In full view/earshot of the whole hallway I turned and said calmly and loudly, “This is not a meat market. This is a professional environment, and it’s also federal property.” That shut him up!