Ombud's corner: I love you… but I do not

Unwanted declarations of love in the workplace may cause embarrassment among colleagues. If the situation is not quickly clarified, it might even cause a serious disturbance in the working relationship and have a long-lasting negative impact on the people involved.


Like many workplaces, CERN is often the place where one finds one’s life partner. However, not all budding relationships have a happy ending and, when this is not the case, many problems arise and the situation may deteriorate very quickly.

John finds Mary very attractive. He often pays her compliments on her looks, or her way of dressing. Initially, Mary is pleased and accepts the compliments. However, the number of compliments keeps growing, John seems to be following her everywhere and there seems to be an underlying purpose to his attentions. Mary starts to feel uncomfortable.

Ideally, at this point Mary should tell John that all this attention is making her feel uncomfortable and that this behaviour has to stop. Unfortunately, when things like this happen among colleagues who work together on common projects and perhaps even need to see each other on a regular basis, it is not always easy to broach this subject and one is easily tempted to postpone the difficult discussion in the hope that the situation will eventually resolve itself.

Mary is embarrassed; she wonders if she is over-reacting to John’s various remarks or misinterpreting his behaviour. She is unsure of how to handle the situation and hesitates to say what she thinks for fear that it will affect their on-going working relationship.  She says nothing and inevitably… John continues with this behaviour.

The best thing to do when embarrassed about dealing with such unwanted attention is to seek help in learning to say “stop” in an inoffensive but clear and unambiguous manner.

In such a situation, it is absolutely critical to make sure that John understands that his declarations are unwelcome, regardless of any possibly positive intention on his behalf.  He may react by saying that he was simply being gallant or that he had no idea that his compliments could have a negative impact. Whatever his reaction, the all-important message has been conveyed, that such behaviour is unacceptable and that any further action along these lines will not be tolerated. Of course, the same applies if John is the object of Mary’s affections and finds himself the focus of unwelcome attention.

The key message here is that we understand that it is the impact of our actions that counts – even when these actions are motivated by positive emotions. Any actions that cause discomfort or embarrassment on the receiving end must be stopped.

Persistent behaviour along these lines can undermine another person’s self-respect and have serious implications for a working relationship. If not stopped, such a situation can rapidly deteriorate into harassment.

Social conventions and on-going relationships often make it difficult for individuals to take a stand against such behaviour, and this difficulty is further compounded in the case of a hierarchical relationship.  However, they should be assured that such situations are clearly proscribed by the CERN Code of Conduct and will not be tolerated in a work context. Anyone facing this type of difficulty should not hesitate to contact the Ombud for support, either in dealing directly with the situation at hand or in seeking advice about possible further action from the dedicated services of the Organization.

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by Sudeshna Datta-Cockerill