How do I stop inappropriate email banter?

A colleague is starting to be uncomfortably
flirtatious over email and pressuring me to engage in a similar tone. How do I stop this interaction before it goes any further? I’d rather avoid any unpleasant scenes, drama or awkwardness. Joanna, 29, solicitor

THERE are two ways to deal with this kind of issue. One is to be assertive. Kate Faragher, of career coaching consultancy Working Voices, says: “If you feel someone's behaviour at work is inappropriate, no matter what anyone says, it is inappropriate for you and therefore requires action. Don’t ignore it or laugh along with it as this can fuel the behaviour. Flag it up and say you're not happy about it. This can be tricky but it’s necessary.”

Faragher says a good way to do this is to focus on the actions that are disturbing you, not the person. “Being assertive means you tell them how their behaviour makes you feel or think. Their behaviour may be appropriate for someone else but not for you. You are challenging the action not the person. You do this by being specific about what you’re not happy with – for example: ‘When you ask me out for lunch, I don’t feel comfortable so I'd rather you didn't do it’.” A more direct approach is to challenge each question or comment you deem unnecessary: “Why do you need to know that?” or “Why do you want to know?” are effective ways of getting to the bottom of what’s going on, and of deflating the asker in a light but direct way.

The second tactic is to go quiet. Joss Walker, director of The Skills Academy and Anderson Hoare recruitment, counsels the ultimate deflationary tactic: ignoring the offender. “Nine out of 10 times not replying is the best option,” he says. “However, don’t delete supposed banter e-mails, however upsetting. If things get worse you may need to show them as evidence
one day.”

If you have to reply, do not reveal any hurt, anger, surprise or shock. “The exception of course is boredom,” Walker says. “Always try and convey boredom even if your blood pressure is off the scale. A suppressed yawn, real or metaphorical, is banter's greatest enemy.”

If neither of these works, both Walker and Faragher say it’s time to take the matter to HR, along with any emails or recordings of messages that are evidence of bad behaviour. Demand that action be taken immediately.