my coworker is spreading a rumor that I have bulimia — Ask a Manager

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A reader writes:

I really need some unbiased advice here as I am really struggling with a situation at my job but at the same time love my position and don’t want to leave.

I’ve been at my current job for just over two years. Initially, I really enjoyed my job and my coworkers, but over the past few months the office secretary, Marcia, has started to make multiple comments regarding my appearance and what I eat. She has made comments regarding dresses I wear, claiming they are not work appropriate ( even though they are turtleneck, maxi, sweater dresses), made comments about how much I eat, comments about how little I eat, and so on.

These comments had started to chip away at my morale, but the most recent incident has me completely baffled.

We were having a company luncheon at which all of my colleagues were present. Midway through the lunch, I notice Marcia making odd looks at my plate, motioning to her boss (the VP) to look at my plate, and such. Finally, I asked her what she was looking at as I could genuinely feel her stare from across the table. She proceeded to tell me, in front of all of my colleagues and the VP (!) that I reminded her of a girl she knew with bulimia. I was so taken aback that I stood up, threw my food out, and left.

Multiple lower-level managers, including my boss, asked me about the incident and I responded that I was obviously offended and would not be attending any food-related work events. I did hear from my boss that when Marcia was spoken to (by him, not her boss) she said the only reason I was offended was because I must actually have bulimia!

Fast forward a few weeks, I am finally starting to forget about the incident, and suddenly Marcia storms into my office, raises her voice at me, and tells me that I need to stop discussing her comments regarding my bulimia (!) and that people do not like that I keep bringing it up. An important fact to note is that I’ve only ever discussed the incident when asked about it. Her boss, the VP, then came over to my office to state that while the way she “apologized” was not acceptable, he really needs to work culture here to remain good! From his statement I sort of got the feeling he was telling me to stop talking about the issue as well.

A few weeks have passed and I’m really having trouble getting over this. Is there anything I can do about to make sure Marcia doesn’t continue spreading these hurtful rumors even though multiple weeks have passed since the initial incident? It seems the VP and the rest of the office (minus my boss and immediate coworker) have her back and are doing nothing to rectify the situation. Furthermore, I have lost all trust in the local leadership and am not sure how to move on from this. Note, we do have a small HR team but they are not local.

What is up with Marcia?!

Aside from being off-the-charts rude and obnoxious, Marcia’s actions are also creating a legal liability for your company. If you actually were bulimic, Marcia would be creating a hostile environment over a disability — and in fact, the law protects you even if you’re just perceived as having a disability (regardless of whether or not you actually do). By attempting to convince people that you have an eating disorder, Marcia risks triggering the Americans with Disabilities Act, and that could have significant ramifications for your company.

Two next steps:

1. Go back to your VP and say this: “I thought about our conversation and I’d love to put this to rest — but to do that, Marcia needs to stop commenting on my food and clothing and spreading false rumors about my health. Can you help with that?”

2. I also suggest getting in touch with HR. It doesn’t matter that they’re not local; this is the type of thing that any decent HR department wants to be looped in on, and they would want to hear about it now, not after Marcia has handed you a legal cause of action.

I’m also curious about your other coworkers and whether you can enlist any of them in shutting Marcia down if they hear her talking about you. Ideally you’d have a few — or even just one very assertive one — who will say things like “that’s really inappropriate” and “wow, why would you say something like that?” if she tries commenting on your food or clothing again.

Last, where’s your boss in all this? If there was ever a time for a manager to advocate for someone on her team, it’s when they’re being harassed by a coworker and no one else thinks it’s a big deal.

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