Serious Conflict with Co-Worker

Question:

I work at a group home with adults that have developmental disabilities. My co-worker and I took them to church this past Sunday. She refused to sit in the church with us and insisted on sitting in the car, even though there should be TWO staff with them, not just one.

When I brought them back to the car, she threw the car keys at me and threatened me. She began by calling me names like F***ing dog, then called me a “stupid ass B****” and told me that if I ever threw something at her again she’s going to show me what she’s going to do.

All of this took place in the car in the parking lot of the church with the group home clients present in the car with us. I called my supervisor and told her what happened and she said she’s arranging at meeting to work it out and that I will still have to work alone with her on Sundays. I no longer feel comfortable working alone with her, needless to say.

What can I do? Should I call the police and file a police report? I feel like my supervisor is not taking this seriously enough. I live in Phoenix, Arizona if that makes any difference legality-wise.

Signed,

Worried


Answer:

Dear Worried:

I’m sure this is very upsetting and it’s difficult to work with someone after such a negative situation. I’ll share some thoughts so you can see if they might help a bit. 1. We don’t give legal advice or police advice, so you should check with authorities there about this specific case. However, based solely on what you described, it doesn’t sound as though a crime was committed or a serious threat was made.

That kind of verbal threat is fairly commonplace at work, and if prompted by something that happened between the two of you would probably be seen as simply an unspecific, angry outburst without intent to follow through.

2. It sounds as though something was going on before church started, so you will probably find that situation being discussed in your meeting with the coworker. I think you should write a clear description of what occurred, from the moment you started work that day until you left. Include descriptions of her tone, facial expressions and overall approach to you.

If you did something that might have been viewed as rude, admit that and say why you did it. For example, if you tossed the keys to her and told her to drive, explain why you did it that way. If you had harsh words, explain what the conversation was about. Be open about an ongoing problem between the two of you, if that is the case–and it sounds like it is.

3. This issue of attending church with developmentally disabled people is something we hear about quite often. Many times the employees do not share the faith and do not want to sit in church and hear the various worship aspects. Perhaps the people attending could be selected better. Or perhaps the families of the people could take them, instead of employees. It seems to me that church attendance in some cases ends up being like a day at the shopping mall–just something for people to do. Perhaps that should be rethought, with input from the pastor of the church involved.

5. The issue of two people with the group seems to be one of the two most important ones in this case. Your coworker does not have the option to not do what she is paid to do. She was not working when she sat stewing in the car or just sat in the car to avoid church. You probably should have called someone right then, rather than waiting. If one of the people in your care has to leave for the bathroom or some other reason, someone else needs to stay–and she put all of you as well as the church in a bad liability position because of her actions.

The second huge error which she was responsible for, was talking obscenely and loudly in front of the people in your care. Who knows what impact that could have on them? That might make them worry about you or about going to church again. She was very, very, very wrong to do that! I hope you can say that you did not. If you did, you will need to apologize to the residents who were present and reassure them that everything is OK. I would suggest you ask your manager if that would be a good thing for you to do anyway–to talk with them and explain that everything is OK now.

6. When you have the meeting you will probably hear a lot of accusations. If you have witnesses, make sure you have that list of names. But, you may not be able to avoid working with her on Sunday again. If you want to keep working there, you may have to find a way to deal with that, as difficult as it is.

Or, you might say, in the meeting, “Tanya, I don’t know if we will ever be able to be friends. But, I do know we have to get along well enough that the residents don’t see us fighting. I think we both just need to promise to focus on our jobs and not on the things we don’t like about each other, and that way we can work together better.”

That might seem like too nice for what she did. But, the bottom line is that if you keep working there and she keeps working there, you do have to find a way to work together.

I think, however, I would push a bit in the meeting. Try this approach: When you and the other woman were hired, wasn’t it made clear about working with staff and doing certain tasks? What if she would have said, “If I get in a bad mood with a coworker I’ll just sit in the car and won’t help with the residents.” Or, “When I get mad I’ll scream obscenities at coworkers in front of residents and anyone else around.”

If she would have said that, they wouldn’t have hired her! So, why would they want an employee like that now? And why should a good employee have to deal with it and act like it didn’t happen, and just move on with life?

In today’s economy jobs are valuable and someone who throws it away doesn’t deserve one!

Obviously, you may not want to take that approach! And, you may not feel comfortable pushing that point. The bottom line is that you have several options. You can explain your side of the incident and find a way to keep being a good employee while working with this person. Or, you can push it a bit more and insist that the actions of the employee were so out of bounds as to be completely unacceptable.

But, I don’t think people will generally consider that the woman’s remarks were threatening and serious enough for you to feel that your safety is jeopardized. If something is said again, call the police or call your manager at home if you have to. But, if you do that make sure you really feel afraid for your safety and that you think a reasonable person would agree that you were in danger. Otherwise, you might be seen as more of a problem than the problem employee.

Hopefully, your manager will meet with you individually as well as with the coworker. Ask for this if you can. Explain that if the coworker is there, you won’t feel that you can speak freely, and you will be interrupted. But, also agree to meet face to face.

Maintain your composure and demonstrate your maturity. If you have contributed to any of the conflict, promise to change that. But, if you have not, stand your ground that you do not think the coworkers actions were correct and you want assurance from your manager that it won’t happen again. If you are a valued employee she will want to keep you and will want to make sure this conflict is resolved.

Best wishes as you find a solution for this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe