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Monday, November 22, 2010

my coworker is physically bullying me

A reader writes:

I support a team of professionals and one of them has what I call “personal space issues.” He stands uncomfortably close to me, causing me to move away and when we pass each other in the hallway or common areas, he walks right towards me, forcing me to maneuver around him or go another way so that I do not have to touch him. (He also stares at me when ever he passes my desk). He is the type of man that makes your skin crawl.

Recently we collided in the hall. (And these are very wide halls.) He caught me completely off guard so I couldn’t get out of his way fast enough. I saw him coming toward me out of the corner of my eye and at the last second was able to turn enough that he clipped me sideways but is was a hard enough that I was knocked several steps back. I was completely shocked and said “WHAT THE HELL?” He kept right on going.


Fortunately another professional saw the whole thing and asked in rhetorical disbelief if he had really just run into me. She was as irritated as I was. She said his behavior is a “power thing” (machismo) and indeed I would liken it to the bully who walks down the middle of the hall shoving kids into the lockers.

I reported this to his supervisor, who advised me to talk to him and if he does anything else, to let the supervisor know. The next day I did talk to him, or tried to. At first adamantly denied it, but when I pointed out that it was witnessed, then insisted that he said “Excuse me.” I tried to address all the other near misses but he just kept talking over me saying in an increasingly hostile tone of voice, “I said excuse me.” I looked him straight in the eye and told him in no uncertain terms, “Do not touch me again” and left.

I emailed his supervisor letting him know that I followed his direction and the outcome. Later I did get an emailed apology from the bully but he also said he did not appreciate the way I talked to him.

A few days later, he nearly ran over me again, but this time stopped, blocked my way and condescendingly grilled me to “make sure I was okay” with a sneer on his face.

Two more important things: He is personal friends with his supervisor and our “HR department” consists of one woman who doesn’t want to hear any “drama.” She is also my supervisor and an owner of the company. 

I am a very small, not-so-young woman. This man is younger and over 6 feet tall. Do I need to tell you that I am extremely uncomfortable going to work now? What would you suggest in a situation like this?

There is no possible way that this is okay. He's physically intimidating you, and became more intimidating after you complained. This isn't just a bullying issue (although that would be bad enough); it's also potentially a physical safety issue -- and your management is insane if they don't see it that way after hearing what you laid out here.

Return to his supervisor -- who, don't forget, specifically asked you to keep him updated. Let him know that after the "apology," this guy physically blocked your way in the hallway, berated you condescendingly about whether you were okay, and generally had a hostile and threatening demeanor. Say these words: "I now feel targeted by ___ and he is making me feel uncomfortable about my own safety."

You also really, really should talk to your own manager, explain what's happened, state that he's making you feel physically uncomfortable and threatened, and insist it be handled. She may not like hearing about "drama," but I doubt this is the type of thing she was referring to when she said that. Any boss who wouldn't want to know that this was going on doesn't deserve the job ... particularly a boss who happens to work in HR, which means she should be very aware of the company's obligations in a situation like this.

Really, don't mess around with this. Go talk to both bosses.

You tried handling it directly with the guy and he's now forced your hand. You are not the problem here, and you shouldn't let anyone make you feel you are.

36 comments:

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, it sounds like her HR/Owner is just like an old boss I used to have. My old boss/owner didn't like drama too (even though my boss was either the direct or indirect cause of 90% of the drama in the building). No matter how right you are in thinking that this is a horrible way to run a business, people like my old boss will never see it that way. They might see it as a person who is over-reacting and just ignore the problem. The boss could even be intimidated/scared of the aggressor and thus afraid of firing them.

This brings up a good question. Let's assume her boss doesn't actually understand how harmful this situation is to the business. This boss for whatever reason has decided to either side with the aggressor or just pretend the problem doesn't exist to avoid confrontation. What do you suggest doing? Is it smarter to just find another job and be done with it, or is there ever a situation where it's worth getting a lawyer? Where do you think the line is? And are there any other options to resolving this kind of problem?

Doug said...

If this doesn't get results, you might even consider looking into explicitly calling this sexual harassment, as it seems to have overtones of that to me, and one thing the company won't ignore is a charge of sexual harassment. This isn't to say that sexual harassment charges should be used when you can't otherwise get someone's attention, but when an employee is touching you, or trying to, in ways that make you feel uncomfortable, or invading your personal space, it hardly seems like an overreaction.

Anonymous said...

carry a voice recorder so you have a record of any interactions with him.

Anonymous said...

DON'T use a voice recorder unless you know your state's laws; in many states it is a crime to record without both parties consent.

See http://www.rcfp.org/taping/quick.html.

But it sounds like you're in a pickle: the behavior is entirely unacceptable, but your manager may choose to fire you (or ignore you.) So start documenting. Keep a journal (and make sure you keep it on your person;) make copies of all emails, and--if it is legal--consider recoding your interactions.

that way, if you get fired illegally you will at least be able to sue.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anonymous. In my 20 years as an HR professional, I have seen many places where the owner/manager was not adept at confrontation. The supervisors may continue to ignore this problem as it probably makes them uncomfortable to deal with this bully (maybe he intimidates them too?). In fact the supervisors may even suggest it's her fault for provoking the bully somehow. I've seen companies fire people when they continue to make this type of thing an issue.

My suggestion to her is to relentlessly document, in detail, every encounter/conversation with the bully, plus every conversation she has with his supervisor and her supervisor. (Although I like the voice recorder idea Anon suggests, it may not be practical in real life.) Documenting everything in writing will help her significantly if she needs to lodge a formal complaint against him. She should immediately write down all the encounters/conversations to date and then document each one as it occurs. It would be prudent to confide in someone outside the company (like a pastor, therapist or other professional) so she can have a reliable source to confirm her situation.

She should also educate herself about sexual harrassment and bullying laws in her province/state. In Canada there are laws under the Employment Standards Act and Human Rights Act which she could use to seek redress and lodge a complaint. I'm not sure what agencies or laws there are in the US.

Further I would suggest to her that she start looking for another job. She should not think of it as avoiding the problem or giving up but think of it as protecting her mental health and personal safety. That workplace is a toxic place and she'd do well to leave it far behind.

Best wishes for a quick and successful resolution to this situation.

CM

Ask a Manager said...

If indeed her manager and the guy's manager refuse to do anything, then I agree she should start looking for another job. However, there's no reason to assume they'll respond that way before she's even tried. In fact, when she talked with the guy's supervisor, it sounds like he was responsive and encouraged her to return to him if there were any more problems. The first thing she should try is to assume her management will act reasonably; if they don't, then she can deal with that info -- but I don't see anything here indicating we should assume that'll be the case.

I mean, I don't like "drama" either but I'm sure as hell going to deal with it if someone's causing a problem like this.

fposte said...

In the meantime, thoughts on a more personal approach: can you make yourself less cost-free to run into? Does your workplace have binders or books that people would ever carry around? Pens and pencils? Things that bristle away from your body and would be uncomfortable for somebody to contact? I can see a million things in my office that might serve. Just the visual porcupine effect could well help in its own right by making the open space look more enticing in comparison. To be absolutely clear, I'm *not* talking about hitting people with stuff or using anything genuinely damaging, I'm talking about just making it look less enjoyable to body-check you.

Ask a Manager said...

fposte, the porcupine idea cracked me up. I love the idea of her sewing small bristles all over her outfit. (Yes, I've lost my mind this morning.)

Anonymous said...

This does sound like sexual harassment to me. He is going out of his way to touch and unnerve you. It is probably a thrill for him. Regardless, this is a potentially dangerous situation and you need to take this very seriously. You need to let your managers know this is serious and that you will not tolerate it. My workplace suffered from a huge lawsuit at one point resulting from a situation like this that started out with small instances of aggression and resulted in a stalking situation. This is a very big deal. Don't stop until you get results.

Anonymous said...

I agree, this is the beginning of a serious harassment situation. He is having success with every encounter, and as a part-time dog trainer, I can tell you that behavior increases with success. So far, there are no consequences or limit to this behavior, and it is pleasurable in some way for him, and therefore it will increase in intensity, duration, and frequency.

Like the other responder, I'd always carry a big notebook with the corners out. Learn how to brace it with your body so it will hurt him more than you.

Illegal or not, I'd "accidentally" have my smart phone in my pocket turned onto record. Always. Just use it to help you fully and accurately document each incident. And, keep this document ONLINE and NOT IN YOUR DESK.

Karen said...

How does a man like this get a job? I mean really...shoving past people in the hallway? Way to act like a 13 year old. Harrassment and safety issues aside, it just seems like something you would witness on Saved By The Bell.

Anonymous said...

Although it was mentioned previously, it bears repeating - do not record if the law prohibits it, intentionally or otherwise. Doing so will mar the case and escalate the situation as you'll be seen as someone who plays the 2 wrongs make it right to set the aggressor up. Unfortunately, that card doesn't play well and the truth will be discounted worse than Black Friday.

Send an email meeting request to both managers, identifying your concerns. You'll want this in writing, something like "I'd like to meet with you both to discuss an incident(s) with *_* on (dates). Meet with them, and also provide a recap of the plan in writing to both. The intent at this time is to work it out, but make no mistake, this documentation will be valuable if it doesn't go as planned. Good luck and put on a porcupine suit!

Anonymous said...

Last anon here, wanted to mention I've dealt with this type of aggression before and the company has a responsibility to limit their liability. Acts of aggression should be documented. I've inherited areas where the 'situation' was known but not published. That lack of management caused a lot of problems when I tried to manage one employee out. True story, HR wouldn't support the firing since none of the other incidents were recorded. Technically I was dealing with a first offense and the other party strutted around like I couldn't fire him. Well, until I had enough to fire him and the exit got ugly.

Don't allow this to continue or build or play into it. Steer clear of the aggressor, voice your concerns to those that can take action & make sure these incidents are on record.

Anonymous said...

Flop. Yes, like they do in the NBA. When he bumps into you get all dramatic and flop to the floor like a train just ran over you. Make it loud and let anything in your hands go flying. It will draw attention to his antics and I can guarantee you'll embarrass him when everyone sees a big bully who just bulldozed a petite woman.

Anonymous said...

In a similar situation, I had a coworker who would interrupt conversations, bump into me hard without saying excuse me, stuff like that. What I started doing was emailing the individual and cc'ing the two bosses. All I would say is, "I'm not sure why this is an issue, but again this behavior is not appropriate."

It forced everyone to deal with the situation a lot more swiftly, and it was resolved. Not sure if it will work in your case, but it did in mine. Something to consider if your boss keeps avoiding drama.

Dawn said...

Anon @ 12:42 PM...That's pretty funny! Sounds like something I would do, if I had to.

Anonymous said...

Regardless of whatever else you do, DOCUMENT like hell and keep that documentation in a safe place in which nobody from the company has access to. Do not let anyone at your company know that you are doing this, especially HR. I guarantee that they are already trying to find ways to make you look crazy or incompetent. Document whatever your HR person, Mr. Bodycheck and owner does or says to you (because really, they calculate that ignoring you isn't going to bite them in the ass more than ignoring Mr. Bodycheck) and the names of any witnesses. If there are any official HR meetings, DOCUMENT your version of events and forward your understanding of what happened to everyone.

I agree, it isn't worth it to stay there. Even if your #1 priority is getting out of there, this protects you, so if they decide to mess with you on your job search or otherwise, you are prepared. Plus if you decide that you actually do need to take legal action you have a paper trail.
Use your references from previous jobs as much as possible and keep your job search on the down low.

Ask a Manager said...

"I guarantee that they are already trying to find ways to make you look crazy or incompetent."

Anonymous, it sounds like you had a terrible experience(s) somewhere, but this is not how every place operates. In fact, I'd say the majority don't. I'm sorry you had an awful experience; it shouldn't be that way -- but at the same time, assuming every place operates that way is forfeiting any chance of getting it fixed. Assume people are reasonable until they demonstrate otherwise.

Anonymous said...

I bet the boss would like "drama" a little more than the potential lawsuit that's brewing here.

Anonymous said...

OP, you've already seen how having a witness benefits you - don't go ANYWHERE without someone. Walk to meetings with others, have a friend escort you to the bathroom, have someone stand next to you while you microwave your lunch. Having someone next to you may act as a deterrent, and if not, you will have better eyewitness evidence than just your own documentation (which they will claim you made up).

Anna/TheEdibleHR said...

This is really horrifying! I hope the OP keeps us updated on this situation. Great advice from other readers.

Charles said...

As so many here have already said: document, document, and more document!

Also, I would NOT share this documentation with anyone in the company - supervisors might think that you are preparing a lawsuit against them and would try their best to get rid of YOU. A lawsuit (or even the idea of one) would be a greater threat to them than the bully.

The supervisors have already been given the chance to deal with this appropriately and have FAILED! Telling a bully's victim to "talk" to the bully is NOT the way to handle this issue. (If I were that supervisor's manager he would not be getting a good review this year; one, for not handling this issue directly, two, for not seeing the "apology" for the passive/agressive behaviour that it really is) This issue should be dealt with by the supervisors and/or managers without bringing attention to the victim(s).

AAM's advice is what I would do. The "people in charge" should be handling this unprofessional, inapproriate behaviour themselves, not passing the buck to others. Since they passed it to the victim it should be passed right back to them - that's one of the reasons they are paid more!

P.S. I, too, would start looking for another job (just in case things get much worse) and would also be sure to include the lack of proper response from the supervisors in my documentation. Not because you plan to file a lawsuit; but, because it could be useful for an unemployment claim. Here's to wishing you a good outcome in this mess.

Anonymous said...

OP - Does he watch and wait for you to be in the hallway and then decides to get up? Not knowing the layout of the office, I don't know if this is possible.

Anonymous said...

This is horrifying.

This jerk is clearly a bully who physically intimidates colleagues. And as such should be fired yesterday. And no manager worth the title advises an employee to address to approach a bully themselves.

I can only echo the advice given - document everything. Dates, times, witnesses. Look for another job and be prepared to sue the ass off this company if they fail to take decisive action.

Take care of yourself, and I hope we'll be updated re. the situation.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

This doesn't sound like a management or HR issue anymore, it sounds like a criminal assault, for which there was a witness on at least one occasion. If I were the victim, I'd file a complaint with the police and attempt to get a restraining order to keep the guy away from me.

Laura said...

Yikes, that is awful. I think AAM is right on with the wording you need to use for this. I had a harassment complaint at my last workplace. When I just said "So and so did this", I was advised to talk to the person (just like the OP - which is always terrible). When I went back and phrased it as "I am uncomfortable, so and so is targeting me for x, I feel as though this is creating a hostile work environment", etc... they responded much differently.

Sometimes it's all about making the managers realize that they have a giant liability spot - but not giving the indication that you are litigious. You just want work to be a good, safe environment.

Anonymous said...

Anon at 1:23 pm here:
What flagged my eye was the OP saying that her supervisor "didn't like drama", is HR, and Mr. Bodycheck's supervisor is his personal friend. I would say talk to both bosses about your physical safety concerns, but I wouldn't hold my breath expecting them to be reasonable. But the nepotism at play makes me suspicious they would see Mr. Bodycheck's behavior as "drama" and not OP's reaction to it. Perhaps OP is the only person whom Mr. Bodycheck intimidates. I doubt it. Best case scenario: they believe the OP, fire him and she's got an idea of where you stand in the market. Worst case scenario: she's brushed off by the bosses, but she's out of there with another job before her work starts to decline from having to deal with Creep Bodycheck and they can't mess with her.

Ask a Manager, you're right:

I've had management tell me to ignore a creepy client who'd show up first thing in the morning before the office opened, hiding himself behind the corner and who'd brush himself against support staff. I've also been told I was overreacting (by saying "Do NOT put your hands anywhere near my neck" and glaring) to a much taller manager making choking gestures around my neck when I, a petite woman was sitting. This was at a large corporation with a well staffed HR department.

Ask a Manager said...

Wow, Anonymous 5:48 (previously 1:23), that is HORRIBLE. I'm sorry you went through that!

l said...

That this is happening at work does not mitigate the fact that it is assault.

I would absolutely get law enforcement involved, even if at first it is a sort of non official conversation with a police officer. If you have a friend, or friend of a friend, who is a cop you should speak with them and try to get some advice.

Also, are you sure it is just you? Are there any other women similar in size to you at the firm?

To the extent possible, have a friendly coworker walk with you to certain places, e.g. the parking lot or train station. These incidents could easily extend beyond the workplace.

Anonymous said...

OP here. First, thank you very much AAM for posting my situation and for the feedback, direction and all the comments that would not get me into legal trouble.

Here is the latest:

The bully’s supervisor decided (in writing) that I need to involve my supervisor. So I scheduled a meeting and told her what happened.

The commenter who said she would blame the victim was right. It was inferred that I was conspiring with the witness to damage the bully’s reputation. (She has gotten complaints from the witness about him.) She made a lot of statements that felt accusatory, unsupportive and counter-productive. But ultimately said she would talk to him to get his side of the story. The overarching impression I was left with was that I was now in serious trouble with her. Needless to say, after that meeting I was a wreck.

After taking a break to try to stop shaking and calm down, I was still too shell shocked to work. This is completely out of character for me so company president noticed and was genuinely concerned. He is a very different personality type than my supervisor and we share good rapport. We had a private meeting and I laid it all out for him. The news was not well received and he immediately had a meeting with my supervisor. (I felt a lot better after meeting with him. I got a lot of positive feedback, he was empathetic and I could tell he felt the situation was unacceptable on any level.)

My supervisor’s attitude towards me has been very, pleasantly different since then, as was our follow up meeting. She now says if there are anymore incidents with the bully to let her know because it is on record and the company will know that there is a problem they need to address. (I only hope that was not lip service.)

The bully avoided me at first (which suits me just fine) but has been getting friendly again. After barely speaking to me for a long time, he is now making pleasantries – which if it were anyone else would not be worth mentioning – but given it is him, it makes me uncomfortable (and nauseous). I have to be polite, it is my job; but I really would prefer to not talk to him at all above and beyond the specifics of the work I do for the department. I sense another uncomfortable conversation in the future.

Tomorrow is going to be a little scary. The president and the bully’s supervisor are both gone for the holidays. So is my supervisor. But I did tell the professional whose office is adjacent to my desk that there was an incident and if he sees the bully headed my way, to keep an ear open for trouble.

(Even though the current unemployment rate is still over 12% in my area, know that the 5 year plan of moving on has been accelerated.)

Thanks again for the help.

Anonymous said...

OP here. First, thank you very much AAM for posting my situation and for the feedback, direction and all the comments that would not get me into legal trouble.

Here is the latest:

The bully’s supervisor decided (in writing) that I need to involve my supervisor. So I scheduled a meeting and told her what happened.

The commenter who said she would blame the victim was right. It was inferred that I was conspiring with the witness to damage the bully’s reputation (She has gotten complaints from the witness about him.). She made a lot of statements that felt accusatory, unsupportive and counter-productive. But ultimately said she would talk to him to get his side of the story. The overarching impression I was left with was that I was now in serious trouble with her. Needless to say, after that meeting I was a wreck.

After taking a break to try to stop shaking and calm down, I was still too shell shocked to work. This is completely out of character for me so company president noticed and was genuinely concerned. He is a very different personality type than my supervisor and we share good rapport. We had a private meeting and I laid it all out for him. The news was not well received and he immediately had a meeting with my supervisor. (I felt a lot better after meeting with him. I got a lot of positive feedback, he was empathetic and I could tell he felt the situation was unacceptable on any level.)

My supervisor’s attitude towards me has been pleasantly different since then, as was our follow up meeting. She now says if there are anymore incidents with the bully it is on record and the company will know that there is a problem they need to address. (I only hope that was not lip service.)

The bully avoided me at first (which suits me just fine) but has been getting friendly again. After barely speaking to me for a long time, he is now making pleasantries – which if it were anyone else would not be worth mentioning – but given it is him, it makes me uncomfortable (and nauseous). I have to be polite, it is my job; but I really would prefer to not talk to him at all above and beyond the specifics of the work I do for the department. I sense another uncomfortable conversation in the future.

Tomorrow is going to be a little scary. The president and the bully’s supervisor are both gone for the holidays. So is my supervisor. But I did tell the professional whose office is adjacent to my desk that there was an incident and if he sees the bully headed my way, to keep an ear open for trouble.

Even though the current unemployment rate is still over 12% in my area, the 5 year plan of moving on has been accelerated.

Thanks again for the help.

Anonymous said...

OP here. First, thank you very much AAM for posting my situation and for the feedback, direction and all the comments that would not get me into legal trouble.

(I am going to have to post this in two parts. Google says this is too large for one comment.)

Here is the latest:

The bully’s supervisor decided (in writing) that I need to involve my supervisor. So I scheduled a meeting and told her what happened.

The commenter who said she would blame the victim was right. It was inferred that I was conspiring with the witness to damage the bully’s reputation (She has gotten complaints from the witness about him.). She made a lot of statements that felt accusatory, unsupportive and counter-productive. But ultimately said she would talk to him to get his side of the story. The overarching impression I was left with was that I was now in serious trouble with her. Needless to say, after that meeting I was a wreck.

After taking a break to try to stop shaking and calm down, I was still too shell shocked to work. This is completely out of character for me so company president noticed and was genuinely concerned. He is a very different personality type than my supervisor and we share good rapport. We had a private meeting and I laid it all out for him. The news was not well received and he immediately had a meeting with my supervisor. (I felt a lot better after meeting with him. I got a lot of positive feedback, he was empathetic and I could tell he felt the situation was unacceptable on any level.)

Anonymous said...

My supervisor’s attitude towards me has been pleasantly different since then, as was our follow up meeting. She now says if there are anymore incidents with the bully it is on record and the company will know that there is a problem they need to address. (I only hope that was not lip service.)

The bully avoided me at first (which suits me just fine) but has been getting friendly again. After barely speaking to me for a long time, he is now making pleasantries – which if it were anyone else would not be worth mentioning – but given it is him, it makes me uncomfortable (and nauseous). I have to be polite; it is my job, but I really would prefer to not talk to him at all above and beyond the specifics of the work I do for the department. I sense another uncomfortable conversation in the future.

Tomorrow is going to be a little scary. The president and the bully’s supervisor are both gone for the holidays. So is my supervisor. But I did tell the professional whose office is adjacent to my desk that there was an incident and if he sees the bully headed my way, to keep an ear open for trouble.

Even though the current unemployment rate is still over 12% in my area, know that the 5 year plan of moving on has been accelerated.

Thanks again for the help.

Anonymous said...

To the OP of this thread: this bully's actions are more than unacceptable - they are criminal. Physically shoving someone is against the law. Should he do this to you again, then definitely call the police and have him arrested for assault; he deserves to be in jail.

Mike said...

This is a pretty extreme situation and you did the right thing by escalating the issue higher and higher until someone did something about it.

There are several other types of problems that most people have with coworkers (not as serious as yours but still annoying). In general, approaching the coworker one on one in a respectful manner will usually give you the best results. If you're not a fan of confrontations or don't want him or her to know it's you that's complaining, then there's a website that will send him or her a letter about the problem for you, yoneighbors.com. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

I've experienced similar behavior from a coworker. My coworker also repeatedly asked me if I'd like to be punched in the face. He always said that after I would get work he wasn't trusted to do or didn't have the expertise to do. When I reported his threats of violence and his standing about 2 inches from me whenever he entered uninvited into my cube, my manager stated that my coworker was probably just kidding. I work in a shipyard as an engineer, and I'm finding that this type of behavior toward women there is worse among the engineers than the trades employees. He actually has to hit me for something to be done about it. Unfortunately, there is no state law against idiot managers.