One of my work colleagues sometimes slaps the top of my head when he passes behind me (as in the Benny Hill sketches). I am bald. I find this demeaning and have asked him to stop, which he won’t. I have two options. I can complain to my manager, but it will go down on my records and I will be seen by the rest of my colleagues as a whinger. I could threaten him or hit him, but I might be dismissed. What would you do? Male worker
Lucy’s answer: I am a bit worried about the culture of your company. You work in an open plan office, so everyone sees what everyone else is up to all day. This man hits your head, you are obviously discomfited, all your colleagues watch — and presumably your manager does, too — and no one says anything.
That’s not a good sign, but even worse is your suspicion that important records are being kept about you, and if you complain about something legitimate it will somehow go down in history as a black mark against your name for ever.
Your office sounds like a nasty place in which no one trusts anyone. In such an environment you have little choice but to take matters into your own hands. By that I do not mean that you wallop him next time he tries anything, tempting though that might be. As you point out, if you hit him it could easily end up hurting you more than it hurts him.
Instead, I suggest you attack him verbally. Wait for him to slap your head when there are a lot of people around, and then take a stand. Say in a loud, calm voice something like: “I’ve already asked you not to slap my head, but you have chosen to take no notice. I find it unpleasant and demeaning, and I am telling you again now, in front of everyone, to stop doing it.” If he says: “Can’t you take a joke?”, say “No. It’s not funny.”
I guarantee you will have the attention of everyone on your floor. They will all gawp. They will discuss it afterwards, and I suspect you will emerge as the hero. If this man is doing this to you, he will also be messing with the heads (metaphorically as well as literally) of other colleagues, and they will thank you for your courage in confronting him. He will doubtless harrumph and swagger and possibly mimic your voice and do everything to make you look foolish, but that will be to cover his embarrassment.
Even though I have the good fortune of not knowing this particular brute, I am confident this will do the trick. But if it doesn’t, and if he continues to hit you on the head every time he walks past, then it is easy: you complain to your manager, to HR, to anyone else you can think of. You will not then be seen as a sneak but as a man who has reached the end of his tether and has quite rightly had enough.