A Problem Workplace–But Two Coworkers Are The Worst

Question:

This has been going on for a while. And I admit that I have irritated my coworkers which I have been seeking therapy for. I had a baby this year so the hormones have not helped. This is going to be long. First, a little background: Recently we just had a manager get terminated because she was not only discriminating against certain employees but she also got caught in borderline illegal activity. This has resulted in her telling other things about me that were not true and her telling them about some personal medical information, as well as some complaints about some unethical workplace issues I had. Okay, now with that background I need some advice with an ongoing issue.

There are two men at my work that have been repeatedly and viciously attacking my character to other employees and my immediate supervisor. It has gotten so bad that I had dropped to part time and got another part time job. I finally broke down and reported it to the franchise owner as the things that they are doing are not being corrected or they keep repeating the behavior. She brushed it off as this was something that I needed to just discuss with my therapist and that I was overreacting. But, since then it has escalated to the point of borderline sexual harassment and baiting me to try and say something bad about my coworkers.

This is what happened last week: I was in the breakroom as I had finished with the daily cleaning, didn’t have any clients, and wanting to just play some Scrabble on my phone. As I was getting into my game one of the two men, man A, told me he was worried about another heavy set male getting fired. So, of course I asked him why he thought that. His response was because this man had given him a massage and he thought he was breathing too heavy. (Now at this point I immediately recalled a conversation where the manager and my immediate supervisor had asked my opinion on this exact situation since I have been a massage therapist for 10 years and I used to be the immediate supervisor.) So, my response to man A was “maybe you could coach him?”

He started going into it more in depth. Also, I told him about another man where this had happened and the man had to be terminated because too many female clients felt his heavy breathing was inappropriate. Thus, I told him that he should maybe notify his friend that he was doing this and make him aware of it. So, I left it at that. Next, he started a conversation with man B about the comic book he was reading. The comic book is a graphic one and this is where it gets strange and borderline sexual harassment. They were talking about this crazy character in the book. And man B told him “that was crazy looking.” So, they started talking to me about the comic and cool this character was. So, for whatever reason(stupid me) I ask to see the character. And man A gave me no warning and showed me an obese, giant, nude, male alien character. If you need a reference the character is in Saga Volume 2. The drawing definitely had a penis and scrotum as well as being quite disgusting! Plus all this was caught on camera!

My husband wants me to file a complaint with my work but I have been down this road before and everyone looks down upon you for it. Also, these two men are well liked among the other coworkers. Also, I feel that since I asked to see it that that would look bad on my part if I complained. Now what’s really weird is man A has shown me this character before. And I don’t think he realizes that I remember him doing this before. Also, they both had a good laugh about it.

Finally, this does not just stop there. The same guy who showed me this and tried to bait me into saying bad things about my coworker has also purposely not finished his work. We are to not only change linens on the massage tables but we are to also disinfect our rooms, change the garbage, make sure we remove towels from the towel warmers, and wipe any greasy hand prints off the walls when we finish our shift. So, the evening before my shift, he gets the room I’m assigned. I constantly come into garbage not changed, hand prints on the wall, smeared lotion on the wall (more than what would be a normal amount), and litter on the floor(more than normal amount). One morning, I brought the franchise owner into the room to show her how bad the room looked after three months of enduring this. She told me it would be handled. So, I thought ‘great.’ I figured it was handled! Nope, three shifts later and the room was even more disgusting than the previous times! We just recently had a meeting so I am hoping this gets resolved!

I love my career there however this has gotten to a point where I have asked for a transfer. It was denied. I have talked to managers and the owner, but no resolution. It is getting to the point where I’m going to quit and the franchise owner will lose me, a 3 year employee with many awards(most requested therapist 2 years in a row and therapist of the year), ten years of experience, and I rarely call off in an industry that is plagued by call offs.

I am seriously wanting to confront this person head on as I use to be his direct supervisor! However, I don’t want to cause a bunch of unnecessary drama or gossip as it runs rampant at this place! The franchise owner is already under a ton of stress due to the manager she just had to fire as well as the 5 employees that just quit! Please, help me.

Answer:

It sounds as though your workplace is very unpleasant! It may be that some of your colleagues are caring, compassionate and professional—but obviously several are not. If you live in an area large enough for this massage franchise to operate, there are probably others as well. It sounds to me as though you should do as Dr. Gorden often suggests, and “vote with your feet” by leaving the miserable people to their misery. If you choose not to do that, your best solution will be to rewind, reset and renovate your own work life. You can’t change the other employees and apparently your manager has done all she intends to do, so it will be up to you to look at your corner of the world and deal with it effectively.

There are three steps to make things better: 1.) Focus on your own life and work. 2. Develop a reputation for being a highly professional colleague who adds to the workplace rather than detracting from it. 3.) Use the first two steps to gain more influence, so you can be the standard for professionalism. That is a big vision for what you can do and be—but it is achievable. Working to achieve a great vision is soul-satisfying, in and of itself—and, based on your comments, you have been missing that in your work life.

Let’s look at those steps individually:

1.) Focus on your own life and work.
If you are seeing a therapist, you have a tremendously valuable resource for helping you deal with your situation. I especially hope you continue to seek guidance from your therapist and your physician, about how you are feeling, physically as well as emotionally, as you deal with the challenges of being a new parent. You are probably aware, from you reading and research and from first-hand experience, that the first three years or so of parenting can be tremendously stressful and tiring. Both parents can feel under constant pressure as a result. Combined with work, it is almost too much to expect—but our work culture does expect it. Even the parents themselves seem to think they can function as well as always, with only a short amount of time off. Any problems you have had may have been caused or made worse by the mental and physical fatigue that tends to be ever-present.

Of course, even stress and fatigue are not excuses for repeatedly irritating others or being considered a problem, but if you feel you have had more problems since the birth of your child, you probably can attribute it to some of the aspects of being a new parent.

Given your training as a massage therapist, I’m sure you also know all of the elements of a healthy lifestyle and how important each of those elements are for your overall well-being. Renew your efforts to keep your body fit and healthy. At the same time, develop a menu of positive things you can do to relax and refresh your mind and emotions: Get more sleep; do things and talk about things that are not related to work; nurture your spiritual life; keep your home tidy and clean; pay extra attention to grooming and personal presentation; shower love on your husband, baby and family and welcome their love in return. In short, wrap yourself in the protection of a well-lived life.

2.) Develop a reputation for being a highly effective colleague who adds to the workplace rather than detracting from it.
You mention that you have irritated coworkers in the past. However, a former manager created problems for you as well. There are also two men who say things about you to others and then say bad things about other employees to you. There was a situation that involved one of the men showing you a gross comic image. A final issue is that one of those men does not clean up the room you will be using on the next shift (apparently on purpose). There are probably many other irritants growing out of all of that. As I said at the beginning, it sounds as though your workplace is unpleasant. If energy is passed from massage therapist to client, I can only imagine how negative some of that energy is!

You can begin today to change parts of the situation. You’ve already identified the people who are most problematic for you and others. Don’t engage in conversation about anyone with them ever again, unless they change their pattern of behavior. Be like one of those skillets on TV commercials, where nothing sticks to you, and let them slide out of your life mentally, every time they start to stir up trouble. Find something else to do. Don’t engage with them about anything other than work. I do think it’s better to not have a “holier than thou” attitude about it, but you can redirect their attempts to gossip and still sound civil to everyone listening. Have a menu of responses tucked away in your brain for those occasions.

“I haven’t heard about that situation, but I don’t need to know. I’m really working at staying focused on what I’m responsible for and not getting involved in the things I’m not responsible for. So, help me do that by not telling me about Jon and Rita.”

“Stop! If you’re going to tell me something Lisa said about me, I don’t want to know. Please, just don’t say anything more to me about it.” (Cover your ears, if it will help!)

“I’m sorry to hear about that, but unless we were there, we don’t really know what happened, so I’m not going to assume it’s true. Besides, there’s more enjoyable things to talk about, like…………”

Another antidote for negative conversation at work is to talk about improving work, sharing ideas for new procedures, problems in similar workplaces, new products, experiences that have been interesting or helpful, etc. Most gossipers run at the thought of talking about how they can improve their work! Have some magazines about products or methods involved with your profession and have a page or article to which you can refer when you want to introduce a new topic or when small talk is devolving into petty talk. You can offer to loan the magazine or make a copy of the article.

Whatever you do, do not get caught up in the reports made by coworkers about other people or situations. If they lied about you, they could be lying about anyone else. Or, even if they told the truth about you, it was ultimately hurtful and harmful.  You don’t want to support even truthful talk about others, if it is negative feeling and serves no good purpose.

3.) Use the first two steps to gain more influence. You can set the standard for what a professional in your workplace should be like. If a video was made about the ideal massage therapist in a franchise operation, how would that person act and talk? How would they deal with conflict and solve problems? Let that person be you and let others slowly realize that you fit the description of a true professional in your work. It takes three things to have influence: You must be credible, you must be valuable and you must communicate effectively.

You can work on each of those three things simultaneously and set the standard for everyone else to follow. From what you say, many of your clients already think of you in that way. Probably many colleagues think so too. However, any of us can benefit by being more credible, more valuable and a better communicator.

That brings me to how you could handle the situation of the naked comic image—and I did research it and agree the figure is grotesque. However, it is in a widely acclaimed graphic novel series and is not considered pornographic—it is “adult themed.”  It seems to me that your situation involves disrespect and inappropriateness more than sexual harassment. I think you are correct, that in this case the men could say you weren’t forced to look at the image and that you had reason to suspect it would be bizarre, based on their comments as well as the nature of those adult graphic novels. This is one of those times when what you would get from a complaint would not be worth making it. They aren’t going to fire those two men, so you would just be made more uncomfortable.

It often is helpful to ask, before looking at or listening to something considered funny, “Is this going to be G rated? If it’s PG or X rated, I don’t want to see it.” Or, “Before I look at it, is it anything I’ll be embarrassed about? I don’t want to look at something crude or rude.” That is another time when a menu of responses is helpful. I wouldn’t normally mention that, because most of the time it isn’t necessary. However, I expect you may have something similar again, if those two guys are around.

Fortunately, you won’t be as likely to be in that situation again, if you don’t engage in casual conversation with those men. If you are professionally civil, you won’t seem unfriendly or as though you’re shutting them out of work conversations. But, don’t let them get into your life and mind by talking to them any more than necessary. If they improve one day, you can rethink your approach. They won’t be around forever and you will at least have the satisfaction of knowing you didn’t let them get the upper hand.

You also said the two male coworkers have been spreading stories about you. The only way you would know that would be for someone to tell you. If it was your manager, ask her to work with you to stop that kind of hurtful behavior. If you were told by other employees, keep in mind their report might not be the entire truth. The old adage is correct: “It takes two people to  make you feel bad—an enemy to say something behind your back and a friend to make sure you hear about it.” Don’t even let friends fill your mind with unpleasant thoughts. Just redirect them and make it clear you are doing your best to stay focused on your family, your work and your clients.

You don’t seem to be in a situation where you will be fired for the things the men are saying about you. Over time, if you make it a project to focus on your own work, be a valuable member of the work group and work to gain influence, you will be able to overcome idle talk. If any part of what they say is true, work on that first.

The third issue you mentioned about the men was that one of them doesn’t clean up the room after using it. In fact, it seems he messes it up more than needed. What a juvenile thing to do! Really, anything bad that happens to him as far as his job goes, is well-deserved. I don’t know why people would like him and the other man, if they know he does things like that.

You say you had a meeting about it, so hopefully the matter is settled. However, if it happens again, take several photos, some of them close up. Then, take several photos showing how it looks when you leave it. Use those to ask your manager to direct Coworker A to clean the room correctly.

I would think your business would have a checklist for each room, so the therapist could never say he or she had thought it was cleaned. They could look at the checklist and look around the room, to ensure they have done all that is required. If there isn’t such a checklist, consider developing a draft and asking that it or something like it, be place in each room.

Your final comment was that you have considered confronting the employee directly. Replace that with “communicate with the employee directly.” But do it in writing, if possible, so you will have documentation.

First, let your manager know that you are going to send an email or leave a message for Employee A. Then, make your message a request—making the assumption that it will be seen by others and you want your words and demeanor to appear professional but not falsely sweet. Something like, “Hi Kevin, when I got here this morning, I saw that there was trash on the floor, lotion on the wall and two towels still in the warmers. Cleaning it up made me have to rush to get my first client started on time. Please help me by following the process we discussed in our meeting last week, in which we agreed that each of us would leave the room clean, picked up and ready for the first client on the next shift. I’ll be sure to do the same. Vanessa”

You may be thinking that since you’ve talked about it before, you can’t easily send something that sounds so mild. However, it can be more effective than other approaches, because it gives the other person one more chance and is clearly something that can be forwarded to higher levels. If you talk about it, the words are in the wind, but if you put it in writing, there is no doubt about what you said. If he approaches you about it personally, stick to what you wrote, rather than getting involved in a back and forth argument. Just repeat the thoughts in your message. If nothing is being resolved, suggest that the two of you talk about it to the manager again. (Or if you haven’t talked with the manager about it, suggest it as the best thing to do.)

The Bottom Line: All of this is a lot of words of advice and I realize that you may have tried some parts of it already. However, I don’t think you have tried all of it, and all of it can be useful. Start by promising yourself to not talk about work at home to same degree as you have done in the past. Give your family and yourself a break. Then, focus on work at work, not the human drama that is swirling around you. Talk to your manager when it seems to be a good time and find out if she has ideas for things she’d like to see you change or do more of or less of. Remember, your goal is to establish the standard that your manager can use for comparison, when considering the work of others.

These suggestions put a lot of weight on you, but you are the only person you can control. You can guide others by being a good example and you can inspire others by supporting their positive efforts. I hope you can lead the way to a better workplace.

If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know how and when things start smoothing out, what worked and what didn’t. Best wishes to you.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors