Coworker and Former Friend Accused My Husband of Verbal Abuse

A Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a situation between coworkers who were close friends but now are in conflict about a personal issue that resulted in a confrontation at work.

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Question:

I have been friends with my coworker for four years. She lived in my home for three months when she had nowhere else to go. We have spent holidays together that included her family and mine. Almost a month ago she decided to change everything.

It started off with my husband and I kicking out my daughters’ boyfriend (my daughter is now 18 and her boyfriend is now 19) He had been living with us for about a year and a half after he got my daughter pregnant. We took him in, even though it caused us a financial burden. My coworker “friend” was asked by my daughter if her boyfriend could stay with her during work days for two weeks until the house they wanted to rent was ready.

My coworker agreed and told my daughter that her and my granddaughter were welcome to stay there as well. (I am all about my family and will do anything for them. So when my coworker offered my daughter and granddaughter to stay at her house I felt threatened and it hurt my feelings). The next day at work I decided to say something to my coworker. I told her that I didn’t appreciate her making an offer to my daughter to stay with her. I told my coworker that she knows how I feel about my family. Not much else was said and we went about our work day. Later that day my husband comes in and walks over to my coworker and says “so I hear your consorting with the enemy” and he went on to tell her why we kicked the kid out.

After he talked with my coworker he left. Every now and then I could hear her sniffing so I figured that what my husband said must have hurt her feelings. I apologized to my coworker on behalf of my husband for him making her upset. When my husband came back to pick me up from work I told him what had happened and asked him to apologize. He said he would and went over to my coworker and did just that. During that week I didn’t talk much to my coworker because I was still upset with her in regards to my daughter and granddaughter. We did however worked on a project together and a program. (We were both friendly towards each other).

She took a scheduled week off and returned to work with her and I barely talking. My husband had come in and said hi to her and she said it back to him. Towards the end of the week she had her current boyfriend come in and showed him around and introduced me to his children. That night we said goodnight after work and went home. At the end of the week my boss had a meeting with my coworker in regards to her work performance. (Which had nothing to do with me). During that meeting ( in which she was being nailed for all kinds of things) she decided to inform my boss that my husband had verbally assaulted her two weeks before. I’m not completely clear on what else was said but I do know that she took some days off because “she didn’t feel good”. Three days became a week and she still wasn’t back. I figured the meeting must have been really bad for her (I didn’t know that she had made a complaint against my husband). I didn’t contact her because I was still upset with her.

During her absence my daughters’ boyfriend decided to breakup with her with no reason. It broke my daughter’s heart. About a week or two after that I finally texted my coworker “friend” and asked, “Do you know what is going on with “Chad”? Is he really over Lisa?? He won’t tell her and I think it’s not right. She sits here every day with her hopes up. As a mother I am tired of watching her crumble like a dried leaf. You know how it is to watch your child be devastated every day.”

Apparently that pissed her off. This is what she texted back to me: “It really hurts, that out of everything that has happened that the only reason why you are contacting me is to ask me questions that only Chad can answer. This is between the two of them. The only thing I am involved with is providing a safe place for Chad and for Lisa and Emily (my granddaughter) during the times when he has custody of her. As for bringing up how it feels to see your child suffering that in no way compares to my situation and for you to say that was wrong. Lisa is alive and you KNOW where she is. You don’t need to worry 24/7 if you are going to hear that she had overdosed.”

I responded, “For one, I was not referring to your son his relapse (from drugs). I was referring to the sadness that both him and your other son went through when they thought they were in love and they were suffering for it. It hurts that you actually thought that about me. As far as “everything that has happened”, I don’t know what you are implying. I just figured that Chad has talked to you about his thoughts. I have been wondering what had happened that made you stop coming to work but I figured that you would tell me if you wanted me to know. My number one concern is my child and my granddaughter and their happiness.” I did not receive a response after that.

A few weeks later I was told at work that my boss thinks that my husband comes around too much (I work in a public library). I stewed on that for a while and then emailed my boss. She came over and told me why she said that. Apparently my coworker “friend” took an FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) leave and is claiming that it would be “uncomfortable” for her to come back to work with my husband coming around.

I still haven’t gotten the full details but she is making out to where my husband is a threat to her. This allegation has cause some serious stress on my husband and my family. My coworker is taking her sweet time with the family medical leave and we do not know what she is up to. So we are stressed and we are having disagreements every day.

I want to know if what my coworker “friend” is doing is some sort of harassment. She is causing a lot of pain. Do we have any rights? She has falsely accused my husband of something and it is eating away at him. What can we do to clear his name? It took her two weeks to come up with this allegation. I thought she was my friend. This situation is still going on. Please respond as quickly as possible.

Heartbroken in the Workplace

Response:

Thank you for sharing your workplace issue with us. Your question involves a series of unpleasant communications between you and your coworker and several communications between your coworker and others, where you were not present. You end with the question:

“I want to know if what my coworker “friend” is doing is some sort of harassment. She is causing a lot of pain. Do we have any rights? She has falsely accused my husband of something and it is eating away at him. What can we do to clear his name?”

Let me begin my response by saying that only a small part of this situation involves actual work issues for you, the rest of it is an unhappy family and friend situation.

*Your husband doesn’t work for the library, so being accused by one of your coworkers of rudeness or intimidating behavior or even verbal abuse, doesn’t have an impact on his job status.
*There is no implication that you put him up to it, so it appears your job is not in jeopardy.
*The coworker hasn’t spread it around all over town, so it’s not affecting your reputation in the community.
*You acknowledge that your husband did cause your coworker to cry, so it’s not like he is being falsely accused of upsetting her.
*At the worst, you were told that your supervisor thinks your husband hangs around your workplace too much and she is basing that on the confrontation with the coworker and the resulting feelings about it. Most workplaces do not allow spouses to come into the workplace unnecessarily, so that isn’t placing him in an unusually negative situation.

You are both upset, and I can understand that, but you are not being inherently harmed by the actions of your coworker. To an outsider, reading your own account of the situation, it appears she would have more justification for claiming harassment than you would. I don’t think your actions toward her rise to that level either, but your story does indicate that she hasn’t been the one wanting to talk about the problems involving your family relationships and her role in them, you have been. Look at the facts, as you stated them (and I realize there is always a lot more to an issue than can be written in a short letter, but these were the significant issues you mentioned):

A coworker and friend, who I will refer to as “Carol” for ease of writing, responded to a request from your eighteen year old daughter to help her and her boyfriend, because you had told the boyfriend that he and your daughter could no longer live together at your house. (You say you kicked him out.) Your friend agreed to let your daughter and baby and your daughter’s boyfriend, stay at her home a couple of weeks while they were waiting to rent a house.

It isn’t surprising that your daughter would want to be living with—and quite frankly, sleeping with—her boyfriend, so she either asked to stay there too or was happy to do so. You weren’t there, so you don’t know who suggested it, but I doubt that your friend had to talk your daughter into it, while she kept saying, “No, no, I want to stay at my house while the man I love is living here.” That’s a harsh truth but it’s a painful reality about youthful relationships. If your friend hadn’t agreed, you can bet your daughter would have found a way to be with her boyfriend—and maybe not in such a safe place for your granddaughter as your friend’s home.

After that happened, instead of calling your friend and coworker on the phone away from work, or emailing her or texting her away from work, you went to her desk at work and told her you were unhappy with her and that she had hurt you terribly by what she did. Next, your husband came to your workplace to see you, but instead of only interacting with you, he went to Carol’s desk and confronted her about being disloyal to your family. He upset her enough that she cried and you had to apologize and ask your husband to apologize. Then, you barely talked to her over the next couple of weeks. She went out on an extended medical leave and you texted her while she was on leave, asking her if she knew why your daughter’s boyfriend had broken up with her. (I would have thought you would be glad your daughter could get free from an irresponsible young man!) She told you she didn’t want to talk about it and was hurt that you were only writing to her to ask about something pertaining to your daughter’s boyfriend, which was a matter between the two of them. You texted her about it the second time.

Sometimes our emotions get so huge, they crowd out reasonable thinking. It seems that has happened here. I don’t think it was ever your intention to create a workplace problem or do anything yourself that could be considered harassing. You were and are simply a heartsick mother and wife, trying to work and still keep your family going. But, can you see how this looks? The key issue in deciding who is a harasser in the workplace is, who started the negative conversations? Who interrupted the work of someone else to discuss personal matters? Who accused who of being wrong? Who made the other one cry? Who kept talking about the negative issues when the other one didn’t want to continue? Who contacted someone who was out on medical leave from work?

You should be relieved that your coworker didn’t make a formal complaint about your actions, because based on your statements, I think it would have been sustained and you would be in trouble at this point. You never meant it to be that way, I’m sure of that. But bringing personal conflicts into the workplace will end up that way almost every time. At the very best, both of you would have been in trouble.

Now, having looked at the reality of the harassment issue, consider your concern about Carol accusing your husband of serious wrongdoing and now it’s eating away at him mentally. He doesn’t work there, so your supervisor has no authority over him anyway. But, let’s say your husband’s actions were in question because you work there. Has your supervisor started an internal investigation? Has she asked for written statements from you or from others who might have witnessed it? Have the police been called about a threat or harassment? Has HR contacted you? Probably the reason none of that has happened is because no formal complaint was made.

However, even if Carol didn’t want to make a formal complaint, your supervisor would be obligated to investigate the situation if there was a hint of serious threats or serious misconduct. Otherwise, Carol can just keep staying out of work but there would be no resolution. Furthermore, workplace violence and workplace harassment and bullying is too much of a liability issue to just ignore it when someone says they feel threatened. Apparently Carol talked about the situation and said it was at least part of the reason for problems she has had at work, but she did not make a complaint of threats or say that she feels physically threatened and thinks he will harm her.

Next, look at the issue of your supervisor saying your husband is in the workplace too much. Did your supervisor give you a directive stating your husband can no longer come into the library? Did your supervisor talk to your husband the last time she saw him and tell him he is no longer allowed to come into the library? Has there been talk about him being charged with trespass if he comes in when he has been told to stay away? Is there some kind of restraining order against him? No, there are none of those things.

You were told by another person that your supervisor commented (inappropriately) that she thinks your husband hangs around too much. If you hadn’t heard about it second-hand, you probably still wouldn’t know about it. Only when you emailed your supervisor, did she tell you that Carol had discussed the confrontation of a couple of weeks earlier and said she doesn’t feel comfortable with him being around. Once again, you weren’t there to hear that conversation. But, if your supervisor really believes Carol will not return until she is assured your husband will not come into the library, your supervisor will have to tell your husband to stay out, because Carol will never come back otherwise. Your supervisor hasn’t done that—although she may have to tell you to tell your husband to wait for you outside, if she thinks that will prevent unpleasantness down the line.

I’m inclined to think these recent upsetting things are only one of the reasons given by Carol for her performance problems and for why she is out on an FMLA leave. You don’t know for sure and your supervisor can’t or shouldn’t tell you, even if she knows for sure.

As far as whether or not it is valid for Carol to say the recent situation has anything to do with her work performance and her need to be away from work: It is up to the supervisor and HR to decide if those excuses apply to all of the problems or if some of the problems were happening before the upsetting incidents. Probably many of the problems were happening before the upsetting incidents, which is why your supervisor is not taking the approach that all of it was caused by your actions or by your husband’s actions. That is why there is no internal investigation going on.

Having established that foundation of facts, here are some things for you to consider as the next steps you can take to try to find a way to get through this unhappy situation:

1. Accept that there is nothing your husband needs to clear his name about. If you don’t talk about it to others, no one will know about it. Even if someone knows, apparently Carol didn’t say your husband hit her, called her vile names or screamed at her and threatened to hurt her. What she said is that he falsely accused her of being disloyal to you and him and he said it with a mean and angry tone that made her cry. That’s apparently the truth. She says she now feels uncomfortable around him. That’s probably the truth too—I would imagine he feels uncomfortable around her as well. But, saying your husband was rude and she’s afraid he’ll act rude again, is not a serious allegation of wrongdoing about your husband.

2. Ask your supervisor if you can talk about your work status. Then, tell her that you want to come through these recent upsets without being viewed as the source of problems. Tell her that you value the job and want to do well in it. Ask her if she is satisfied with your work at this point. Establish a baseline date—tomorrow or when you are at work next time—when you can say to yourself with certainty that you are doing well at work and that there is nothing you need to change in big ways. If your supervisor admits she is unhappy with all that has gone on, at least you can have the opportunity to promise her it will never happen again and you want to put your attention on nothing but work while you are there.

3. Even if you don’t want to talk to your supervisor about your work status, at least ask what she wants you to do about your husband coming into the library. Get that out in the open and know for sure. Apparently he drops you off and picks you up. If she says she doesn’t want him to come in when he does that, keep in mind that as upsetting as that may be, it is not unusual as a policy in any workplace in the United States.

Unfortunately, if your husband comes to the work area, even if he doesn’t talk to Carol, it will be uncomfortable, because it will be obvious and awkward. Maybe you and he can meet in a break room and chat, if that is what he usually does when he comes in. Or, there may be an area where you can meet where it won’t be right in the work area for Carol. You be the one to offer a suggestion.

I predict that one day this situation will be history and Carol and you and your husband will be able to talk again. You may not be close friends again, but there won’t be such restraint between you. For now and the near future, it will probably be better to give each of you some emotional space.

4. Ask your supervisor if a formal complaint was made by Carol about your actions and you would like to know if there is an investigation so you can make a written statement about it. If she says no formal complaint was made, tell her thank you for clearing your mind of that worry, drop the subject and move on. Do not insist upon telling your side of the story or telling it again if she has heard it already. You will hurt your case more by talking about it than by simply saying you’re glad there was no complaint and showing that your focus is on work. I’m sure there is no such complaint, but you need to know one way or the other.

5. Use this as a reminder to not discuss your family life at work. Certainly, never again bring it up to Carol if/when she comes back. If she mentions it, say, with a sincere tone, something like, “It was wrong of me to bring personal issues to work, so let’s agree that if we talk about this, it will be away from here. While we’re at work, let’s focus on work. We need to be getting along and cooperating here and I promise that’s what I want to do.”

From the first day Carol comes back to work, do your best to talk civilly and courteously to her about work on a regular basis, to get rid of some of the barriers that have built up. She will be dreading it and you will too, but you can help make it easier.

6. Your family issues will probably continue as long as your daughter and you are in disagreement over her life decisions. She is of legal age and is a mother and she is not obligated to let you be part of your granddaughter’s upbringing in any way. The worst thing I can think of would be for you to become so estranged that she moves away from your area or keeps you from your granddaughter. If you want to keep that connection, you will need to find a way to keep an active and mostly pleasant relationship with her.

One thing is for sure, this actively unpleasant situation at work and at home can’t continue without having serious negative effects on everyone involved—and it will continue to drag in people who shouldn’t be involved. Make the decision today to compartmentalize your life between work and family. Let your supervisor deal with your coworker and her performance and the reasons for her leave. Protect your job by getting back to the business at hand with as few distractions as possible. See if you can find something to add to your life—a health or fitness program, reading, church, a club, friendships or something else—to give you a way to get away emotionally from upsetting things. Encourage your husband to do the same thing, so both of you can enjoy each other, your marriage and planning for the future.

If you do that, things will stabilize and one day it will calm completely. You’ll remember this as a rough time, but one you were able to work through and come out of it stronger than ever.

Best wishes to you and to your family.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors