Celebrities in the locker room… career opportunity or creepy awkwardness?

As other people have probably mentioned here and there, there is a very nice health club near Microsoft and a membership to that club is one of the options in our benefits plan. Therefore, it isn’t all that surprising that most of the folks in the gym at any particular time are Microsoft employees. This can lead to an interesting occurance that has left me wondering (on more than one occasion), what is the ‘right’ thing to do in this situation?

Let’s pretend for a moment that you are me, a mid to low level Microsoft guy who just happens to be in the locker room at the gym before work… and along comes Steve Ballmer… and you end up standing around near this guy who is your great-great-great (and so on) grand boss… and a celebrity to boot. What do you do? Personally my approach has always been (and believe it or not this is not an extremely rare occurance) that since he (whoever it is, Steve being just one example) doesn’t know me, that I should treat him like any other guy at the gym that I don’t know… make friendly conversation about the fact that he is standing on my towel/foot/etc or whatever else needs to be said, but in general silence shall prevail.

This approach seems the most polite and proper, since I don’t know the guy already… versus the alternative, which in my mind (I only picture the extremes) is walking up to him and saying:

“um, hi… I work for you… I guess most people here work for you… that must be cool… um, anyway … you seem busy … name’s Duncan… I’ll probably blog this…  um, yeah this is a camera phone… pictures? no, of course I didn’t…”

After that, it doesn’t go well in my mental walkthrough of this scenario…

Of course, if I know the guy, then none of this applies. Althought I do notice that when I talk to people from work, even when they have work issues they want to bring up with me, work doesn’t come up. There seems to be an unspoken agreement to ignore the fact that I have 5 to-dos outstanding for Eric Gunnerson when he runs into me at the gym, which I find quite a relief as it means I don’t have to hide in the steam room and wait for him to leave (anymore).

Today though I ran into a situation that seemed rather borderline, and I didn’t have any handy reference manual to guide me, so I was lost. Eric Rudder was using the locker next to me, and while I’ve never met him, I’ve always thought of him as having a developer focus and therefore being at least one or two steps closer to my world. He knows a lot about what MSDN is doing and might have even visited the VB or C# developer centers once or twice… maybe I should say something, introduce myself… hey, if he’ll pick up random guys on campus and let them attach a camera to his dash, then I’m sure he’d be a great guy to talk to about a number of the big work issues that I am focused on (Developer Community, .NET Adoption, etc.).

Sadly though, my own worries about being rude or inappropriate took precedence… I said the expected ‘excuse me’ and whatever else the situation required, but nothing beyond that. Of course, if I ever had the need, I’d have no hesitation to email him about something at work… but in general that situation is not likely to occur… it isn’t that Microsoft is big on the hierarchy thing, but it does exist and there is little cause for me to be skipping 4 or 5 (or more?) layers by adding his name to an email. Maybe I need to put my picture on more developer centers, then people will recognize me and they can be the one to start the conversation? 🙂


Comments (10)

  1. Uwe says:

    Steve Ballmer doesn’t look like he is going to the gym very often… 🙂

  2. E says:

    Wow. That was a great read. I really enjoyed that.

    As far as your social skills are concerned…probably much better than mine.

  3. Me says:

    I would take the opportunity to express my opinions or concerns about your job. I would think if they were a "higher up" in the company, they would like to hear from the people who actually keep their company alive. If not, they don’t deserve to be in that position.

  4. Julie Lerman says:

    Duncan- there must be some casual thing you can say that is a) not work related and b) not dorky — so that at least you are not being extra rude by completely ignoring the person, no matter who it is. That’s the flip-side problem in my mind and definitely something I find discomforting. So just the fact that you are both at the gym working out gives you something in common besides work related stuff. You just might want to avoid something like – "hey I’ve noticed you’re really looking buff lately from all of your great workouts at the gym" especially if they are skivvy-less. Or even worse if you are both in your b-day suits! That’s definitely something girls can get away with in the locker room – "ooh, nice bra. Where did you get it?" or "wow, I’ve always wanted to get my navel pierced. It looks so sexy. Did it hurt?" Nope – probably wouldn’t want to try either of those on Ballmer or Rudder. Hey, wait, here’s a good one for Eric Rudder: "Eric, did you know that people are reluctant to start blogs if they don’t think they will keep them up because they say they don’t want to ‘do a Rudder’?" (Yes, I have literally heard some MS employees say this!) Okay, I’m really going to click the submit button now!

  5. Phil Scott says:

    I’d like to take this opportunity to disagree with Me. Even if they were your higher up AND a celebrity, guy code over rules everything. And with Guy Code, you simply don’t talk about anything of importance in the gym locker room! You have a 95% chance of creaping the other guy out. What if he’s about to drop his pants or something and you blurt out "you don’t know me, but I know you. i’m glad I ran into you, I could use some help." Nobody wins in that situation. If you said it in the hallway, it would be perfectly innocent, in a locker room the whole place would immediately get quiet and everyone would stare at their shoes pretending like nobody heard anything.

    Places it’s understood guy’s arent’ going to be butting in with work problems

    #1 Bathroom (duh)

    #2 Gym Locker rooms

    #3 While out on a date

  6. Abubakar says:

    Are there any chances that you will meet Bill Gates there maybe ? 🙂

    I would love to meet him. 🙂

    – Abubakar.

  7. Customer who shall remain nameless says:

    Ballmer seems like a regular guy at the gym. His face is just a little more famous than mine. 🙂

    I’m a customer who goes out to Redmond often, and I usually use the gym. The first time I bumped into Steve was kinda funny. I was a little lost and looking for the weight room. He was nearby on a treadmill doing his thing with a trainer. I walked over to the trainer, asked for directions, and *then* glanced at the person on the treadmill and *then* realized it was Steve.

    I ignored him. Hope he wasn’t offended. 🙂


  8. DarthPedro says:

    Dude, just keep the comments to yourself at the gym. There’s a reason Eric Gunnerson doesn’t bug you about the to-dos at the gym — the Guy Code that Phil mentioned. So, honor it with other folks; otherwise, Eric might start asking you about those work items.

    Sometimes I don’t even want to talk to people I know at the gym (present company excluded), never mind some random guy I never met before… 🙂

  9. EAW says:

    What if, at a perfectly innocent opportunity, you said (as polite as possible), "Excuse me, are you Steve Ballmer?" He’ll probably mumble something to the affirmative and hope you leave him alone.

    Then you say, "Hi, I’m Duncan Mackenzie. Nice to meet you." And go right back to putting on your socks. Nothing else.

    Then the next day you pleasantly say "hi Steve", as you’re taking off your socks. Nothing else. Keep this up for several weeks, until he realized you have no interest other than being cordial.

    Then you could talk about the weather, and at least it will pass the time while fishing through your bag for socks. And talking about the weather with Steve Ballmer is pretty cool.