Q: I work for a mid-sized law firm and I am enjoying the work. One of the partners is a problem. After I started in my role, he started hanging out near my office and it became excessive. I learned that most of the attorneys will close their door (but not completely), as a sign they need quiet time. I have learned that you can interrupt a co-worker when their door is almost closed, but you better not linger and it should be a work-related interruption. I have started closing my door to signal to Mr. Partner that I have work to do. In the past, he would stand in my doorway and talk about his kids, wife, college days, vacations, etc. Some information was just too personal. My goal is to be friendly but professional in the office. I have no interest in developing any social relationships or friendships with anyone at the firm. Now, he is asking me to join him for coffee, lunch, drinks or a beer. He doesn’t seem to do this with others, just me. How can I set the tone that I want to maintain a professional relationship but really don’t want to connect with him socially? Thankfully he works in a different practice area. I also don’t want this to hurt my career.
A: Sadly, your situation rings a distant bell for me. I had a very similar situation early in my career. It was awkward and weird. I also didn’t have an office! Thankfully, this situation disappeared after I sent a few verbal and non-verbal signals that Mr. VP’s behavior was annoying. It was a different time then and “the line” is much more well-defined now.
First, I am assuming that his comments or questions were not of a sexual nature. If so, I would continue down the path that you are headed in. Always be civil, professional and polite. “Good Morning Bob.” Keep it brief. Don’t ask, “How was your weekend?” That type of question could be interpreted as an invitation to engage in a dialogue about Mr. Partner’s weekend. Keep refusing invitations for social events. If his behavior continues, I would jot a quick email. In short, the email should say something like:
I wanted to circle back with you regarding your invitations for coffee, lunch and a few beers. At this point in my career, I am really trying to keep my work relationships just that – work relationships. I enjoy my work within the firm and have learned a lot. Thanks for respecting my choices. See you around the office.
The tone of your email should be professional and polite. Don’t apologize for your behavior. You also have a record of sending him a message that his conduct is unwelcome. This may be important at some point. Hopefully he will understand that his behavior is bothersome, annoying and unwelcome and he will “cease and desist.” If not, you may need to consult your employee handbook and/or Human Resources to better understand what your firm’s internal process looks like regarding unwelcome behavior.