Crossing the boundaries of what I consider an appropriate workplace interaction
Once upon a time, in my early 20s, I joined a small startup.
It was kind of a dream job. The product had potential, and I got the chance to work in the industry I liked, but most importantly the team was great.
We were all the similar age, with similar interests, and working there was pure joy—I could say I was even a bit romantic about it.
We worked from a two-room apartment. The large room was where the magic happened and the small one belonged to the CEO, only the CEO was never there.
Some months go by, and one day this enormous man walks into the office. It takes me a minute to remember that I've already met him... via Skype... on my interview. And then I realize— Oh! that's our CEO!
He starts visiting the office from time to time, and I can't help but feel like, all of a sudden, I'm working for a different company. He's quiet, always wearing a suit. His moves are slow and heavy, and the way he talks feels like he came from the past. He's having a hard time fitting in—a mature man, amongst the rest of us "kids".
One Friday, after-hours, I'm alone at the office, making a last minute UI tweak.
The front door squeaks and I hear steps in the hallway. It must be the frontend guy—he often worked late as well. So I stay focused on my screen and just yell—“Hey man, I'm still here. Don’t do anything stupid”.
"Don't mind me"—the voice responds. But it's not the voice I expect. I look up, and it's the CEO—“Oh, sorry, I didn't know you were coming... I needed to finish something."
He smiles at me, pulls out his laptop, and sits at the table next to mine.
Things get quiet for a moment and then, all of a sudden music starts playing. It snaps me completely out of my already disrupted focus, yet I don't really mind—It's less awkward with the music anyway. But soft tones of Salsa start distorting as he cranks up the volume, pushing his small speakers to their limit.
I turn to him in "can't you see I'm working" fashion, only to see this 2m tall man standing right next to me with his hand held out.
“Do you like dancing Marta?”—he asks, looking me directly in the eyes.
Hm... when did we transition from barely ever speaking to dancing alone in the office? Maybe I've misheard? But his body language is suggesting the same question.
“Do you like dancing?”.—he repeats.
"Oh! I didn't hear you over the music. No, no, no... I hate dancing. I don't even like music!"—I respond, trying to conceal my confusion.
He smiles, tilting his head to the side as he starts moving to the center of the room, slowly swaying to the rhythm.
I remain in my chair—my eyes locked on him. C'mon Marta, this is perfectly normal, the guy just likes dancing, I tell myself.
He starts spinning in the center of the room, looking like an out of balance piece of furniture, and I start relaxing as I realize how silly the whole scene actually looks.
But then he slows down.
He starts hugging the air in front of him, gently putting his hands around the waist of his imaginary partner. With his eyes closed he speaks again—“Marta, Marta, just imagine... white dress flying in the breeze, the music. Waves hitting in the background”
Ok... This is not funny.
“The smell of summer. Two glasses of wine as we dance...”—the voice goes on.
...definitely not funny.
I want to get out! But I'll have to get awfully close to him in order to do so.
With the fakest of smiles, I say—“aaand thats it, all done”. I stand up—“Didn’t even notice how late I am”, and I head towards the hallway, leaving my laptop on the desk. I glue my back to the wall and I start walking sideways—not to loose him out of sight. Our eyes meet and I can tell he's genuinely confused. That's when it hits me—what the hell am I doing? I'm overreacting! A sense of shame starts coming over me as I realize how stupid I must look. How embarrassing this is if I'm making it all up. But instinct takes over and, now already at the door, I shriek—“See you on Monday!”, as if everything is dandy.
His face turns expressionless. I can see him siting back at his table, without a word, and I hear the music turning down as I shut the door.
The next thing I realize—Im running down the stairs. Damn! I actually got scared. The animal in me took over. But now my mind is left with the task of making sense of what just happened.
Why the hell did he do that? Was it just a friendly thing? Was this his clumsy way of trying to fit in? Did I make it weird? Why didn't I just tell him to leave me alone and continued with my work? What if he was just joking. I'm not a stiff person.
It didn't feel like a joke.
I spend the weekend replaying the situation my mind, nervous about going back to the office on Monday. Either way you look at it—I've got some unpleasant times ahead of me. If I overreacted, I have some apologizing to do—I made this person feel like a creep. On the other hand, if the reality was in fact even remotely close to how I interpreted it—I don't want him anywhere near me.
And I honestly can't tell which one is it.
I'm late on purpose—making sure everyone is in the office well before I arrive. It’s again that cheerful space. The CEO is in his office, and only once we go out for our team lunch, I have to face him. He’s acting as usual—quiet, as if nothing happened. So I decide not to mention it.
The week goes by, and everything is as it was before. The only difference is that I'm the last one to arrive and the first one to leave the office. Other than that, all is perfectly normal. I'm fine! Free to start enjoying my job once again...
Only I quit the very next week.
10 years passed since, and I still have no idea if this man, I barely ever spoke to, just wanted to have some innocent fun, and communicated it in a clumsy way. Or if he in fact had other intentions. Maybe there was nothing to be afraid of—he needs to be given the benefit of the doubt (although I did "warn" my close colleagues at the time. None of them had similar experiences).
One question remains. How do I speak about this without being a hypocrite? I've nothing against somebody liking me. I know what it means being attracted to your colleague (hack I'm married to a person I work with). But this just wasn't a normal human interaction by my standards. Everything about it was wrong. I take the blame for not communicating the lack of my interest more maturely, and instead literally running away. But at the same time I'm glad I ran away. If things went south, there was nothing I could have done—and that right there would have changed the entire course of my life. The price was quitting the job I really liked.
I wish this was a story about the brilliant people on the team, and all the fun we had. I wish I could tell you about our process, our customers and all the things I've learned. Because this was in fact a great professional experience I had very early in my career. But that's not how I remember it. Instead it's a story about the— "white dress flying in the breeze...”
The reason I write about this now (other than the fact my husband made me do it) is that I want to say—Yes these things happen. Sometimes they are just innocent mistakes, sometimes they are... well something else. Defining the difference is hard—a challenge not to be taken lightly. But one thing is safe to say though—I'd prefer if both my employers and my colleagues at least assume that, when I come to work, no matter how passionate and even romantic I am about it, it's the work I'm attracted to, not them.
Just start by assuming that and we're good.