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Saturday, December 3, 2016

What the HECK!? A story of co-worker harassment gone wild

Sometimes, conflicts spin out of control, and can get disruptive and even dangerous. Image from

What happens when you work with a person that goes off the rails? Do you have to put up with it? Listen to this recent story posted on a law bulletin board we monitor:
I have learned that several people in my office are extremely concerned about the erratic behavior of a colleague and no one is sure how to handle the situation. This colleague has a unique personality and in the 2-3 years he has been employed everyone has been sensitive to this and generally people do not discuss it; however, on a few occasions we have speculated that he may be on the autism spectrum. This seems important now because we are not sure whether his escalating behavior is benign or if it may be extreme even for him. A couple of months ago, a new person who has a supervisory role over him was hired, and they immediately had poor chemistry. She claims only to interact with him on a business level, disregarding his behavior, and he plainly is disrespectful to her and speaks to her in a condescending tone. On one occasion approximately six weeks ago, she told him he needs to behave in a professional manner and that she wouldn't allow him to speak disrespectfully any longer. He went to his desk and sent her an email telling her to be more professional and respectful and then told a colleague to handle a meeting he was supposed to staff because he was enraged and had to go home. Shortly thereafter he did not go to an annual out of town meeting that all staff are required to attend; the reasons behind this were handled confidentially and staff only have vague rumors as an explanation. Since returning there has been no discussion of it. Upon returning, the supervisor discussed above and another colleague received emailed "reprimands" from this man that told both to behave more professionally and respectfully. The other colleague had not been involved in the personal dispute prior and she has kept her distance from this man since she received the reprimand. (Both women are organizationally senior to the young man who "reprimanded" them.) Prior to the 2016 presidential election, the young man taped photos of one of the presidential candidates and Adolf Hitler to his office window facing out toward employees, which disturbed several people who previously had chosen to ignore his disruptive behavior. Following the election, he replaced the photos with five posters that illustrate the four horsemen of the apocalypse and satan in the center. He has reduced his socialization with staff overall but has escalated his aggression toward the two women discussed above during this period. The vice president in charge of his department evidently did ask him to take down the apocalyptic images after two weeks. She has privately disclosed to the CEO that she feels this employee could be a potential threat to her safety and to others', but she said she is concerned about retribution if she disciplines him because she is worried his mental health and his sexuality may be used as the basis for a discrimination claim should she dismiss him. I am seeking professional advice about the appropriate measures. Despite the bad blood between the two individuals involved, everyone's concern is this young man's erratic behavior, which feels vaguely threatening and which has at least four women feeling fearful and "walking on eggshells" to avoid triggering potential violence.

This is more a narrative than an actual question. You need to tell your employer to contact an employment attorney immediately. Hanover Law both defends and prosecutes civil cases related to EEO and reasonable accommodation issues. Have your manager contact us now. I should note that the person who is acting erratically can sue both the employer and the manager herself. Delicate situations like this require ironclad processes and response. The law does NOT require that you tolerate abusive or disruptive behavior. However, it DOES require that you ensure all procedural safeguards have been met before taking action. The EEO defines harassment as follows:
Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive. Anti-discrimination laws also prohibit harassment against individuals in retaliation for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or lawsuit under these laws; or opposing employment practices that they reasonably believe discriminate against individuals, in violation of these laws.

Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality. To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.

Offensive conduct may include, but is not limited to, offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance. Harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances, including, but not limited to, the following:
  • The harasser can be the victim's supervisor, a supervisor in another area, an agent of the employer, a co-worker, or a non-employee.
  • The victim does not have to be the person harassed, but can be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
  • Unlawful harassment may occur without economic injury to, or discharge of, the victim.

See: EEO Harassment Guidelines

I would also refrain from any public comment of your employment issue (such as the outline you provided). If anything, that could be found later and used against you (to show your "true" feelings about the person). The important step here is to get counsel and discuss this privately. Your employer and the manager (supervisor) in question should do this without delay.

I should also note that by NOT taking action, the employer may be creating a hostile working environment for the remaining employees -- especially the other employees that he is accusing of being rude, and otherwise making them feel very uncomfortable. You cannot ignore this type of conduct.

Give us a ring at 703-402-2723 or 1-800-579-9864. You can also email us at

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