Accused Wrongly, But Feeling That I May Be Fired After Years Of Good Work!

Question:

I asked a coworker if she had the information I needed that was sent to her in an email. She said she didn’t know anything about this. When I asked her if she had she read her email or talked to another person about this matter, she yelled at me to not speak to her that way. I was totally shocked at her response that I said “What???” while holding my hands up. I never expected this response. She then screamed at me several times with a raised arm and pointed finger to get out of her office. I said “What?” again and proceeded to defend myself. She then yelled at me again to get out with a raised arm and pointed finger.

I very furiously left her office. I’m not sure if there were any witnesses but I was alone in her office. I have never had a workplace experience like this. My supervisor was not there so I called her and explained what had happened. She said we would talk to our Director when she got in on Monday. The co-worker and I were requested to meet with our Director. She refused to meet but instead filed a claim with our HR Department. She told them that I threatened her by coming around her desk with putting my hands into her face. I met with our HR Department to explain my side of the story and it felt like an interrogation rather than a fact finding meeting.

I have worked for this university for 9 years as staff employee and she is faculty that has been here less than one year. I love my job and just given a glowing employee review by my supervisor who said she feels I have nothing to worry about and will stick her neck out for me. I have been crying for two days. Can I be fired for this? Any help is appreciated.

Response:

Hello and thank you for sharing your workplace concern. An employer can dismiss someone who they think has violated rules, policies and procedures. However, whether they do so or not, depends upon a number of factors. Since there were no witnesses, HR and managers above you and the faculty member will be considering whether it seems likely you could have or would have done what the faculty person alleges. Then, they will consider whether or not a reasonable person would have felt fearful if you had, in fact, done the things alleged. If they decide the incident most likely did occur, they would then need to decide the appropriate sanction—from warning, to reprimanding, to suspension or similar punishments, to dismissal. So, although firing is always a possibility, your story would indicate there would be lesser actions or no action at all.

You have already been interviewed, so you have given your side of the story. The faculty member has done the same thing. Now the Director and others will be talking to HR about the totality of the statements. They will think about what they know of the interactions of each of you previously and if there have been prior conflicts between the two of you—or between you and other staff members or faculty. They will also think about their own interactions with each of you and what the history of each of you has been when you’ve become upset about something.

I expect you and this faculty member have had conflicts of some kind in the past or at least you have not had a close working relationship. If others are aware of those negative feelings, it may give more weight to the allegation. I also think it is likely that in this situation, your tone of voice was more sharp and hostile sounding than you intended.  Your actions, when you were defending yourself verbally from her accusations, may have seemed more physically threatening than you realized, especially if the faculty member was sitting down and you were standing. On the other hand, if the faculty member has been quick to take offense from others and is known to react very negatively to minor conflicts, that will also be taken into consideration.

You have a supportive supervisor and a history of good reviews in the past and the incident does not sound severe, even if decision-makers choose to believe it happened as alleged. It seems likely that those things will come together for a positive result for you. If the university feels it does not want to be viewed as ignoring the feeling of threat by a faculty member, they may give you a warning about how your actions were perceived and how you should respond to conflict in the future. If there is reason for them to believe you were more agitated and threatening than you have described to us, you may receive some other sanction. A sanction as serious as dismissal doesn’t sound likely, given the situation you described, especially if you have a successful work history. (You may be asked to apologize to the faculty person, which will be hard to stomach, if you feel you did nothing wrong, but might at least help you put this behind you so you can move on.)  

Your responses to your director and to HR should continue to be focused on the facts of exactly what was said and done and on emphasizing that your goal is resolve this so you can do your work in the same excellent way you have done in the past. If your work history and your former actions support your words now, it will be easy for others to see this as a relatively minor incident that was blown out of proportion by one person, who probably was trying to cover her own actions and lack of effectiveness in a conflict. (That’s what it sounds like to me!)

I realize none of that can completely allay your anxiety, but I hope it will help you find some emotional peace about the situation this weekend. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know how this is resolved. Best wishes to you.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors

FOLLOW-UP RESPONSE:

Thank you for letting us know what is happening (or not happening) with your investigation. One positive aspect of the fact that this investigation is taking longer than expected, is that if there was an open and shut case it could have been handled more quickly. Unless you’ve been told not to contact your supervisor or HR, it seems to me it would be fine for you to contact one of those to find out the status of the investigation. You may only be told that it is still in progress and that you will be notified when a decision has been made. I know how unnerving that can be, but it is probably the truth. It shouldn’t take much longer though, unless it is much more complicated than it sounds. Two weeks is the norm for most investigations, but that all depends upon how efficient your HR section is or if your directors have been in their offices to read any of the paperwork about it. I always remind managers that to them a disciplinary investigation will be one of several things on their checklist of things to do but to the employee it is the most important thing on the checklist.

You asked about the value of an employment attorney: That is certainly something to consider, if you can afford to consult with an attorney. It could be there is some aspect of this that relates to your state’s employment laws and an attorney would be able to intervene. For example, if your university is state supported, there might be state requirements for personnel investigations. However, I would hate to see you spending money for an attorney, unless you have reason to believe some aspect of this is in violation of a law or regulation.

Consider contacting an attorney and requesting advice about it, before committing to hiring legal assistance. A reputable attorney will give you realistic advice about whether or not they think they can be helpful.

It certainly seems as though your view of what happened is much different than that of the faculty member and the person who says she heard the conversation. But, let’s say your director or others decide to believe the other side of the story. It still seems unlikely to me that they would jump to a firing decision after your years of good work without any negative incidents. It doesn’t even seem reasonable to do so, unless there is more to it than you realize or are acknowledging. For example, even though you may have had no disciplinary actions, is it possible a supervisor or others have hinted to you or joked with you, about some aspect of your behavior? Or has that particular faculty member had similar incidents with you in the past, but you didn’t think of them as serious?

 All of this certainly does seem puzzling and confusing. It isn’t common for something to just be made up to get someone in trouble. But, even if there is some truth to an allegation, it takes quite a bit to merit serious action or dismissal. Think of how few people in your organization have been fired, ever!

 Since we’re coming up on a weekend, this might be a good time to call your supervisor and ask if there is a timeline for the disciplinary action. Keep the conversation brief and don’t get involved in discussing the incident, just stick to the timeline. You can bet your supervisor will discuss your conversation with others, so you don’t want to give anyone anything that even inadvertently could be considered negative.

I wish I had some certain answers for you! Hold on to the thought that your managers and directors have seemed reasonable in the past and that you have been an employee they will want to keep, even if they think things didn’t go smoothly in one situation.  

Best wishes! Tina Rowe

 FOLLOW-UP REPORT:

I just got a lengthy email from our HR person that basically said we both were at fault and should have been more professional with one another.  She sent a copy of the email to my Director who is supposed to have a discussion with us about proper office etiquette.  I agree with this totally and my Director initially wanted it to be handled this way.  Unfortunately it was taken further.

Again thank you for your help.  Like I have said, I have never been in a situation like this before.  This is why I was so nervous and unsure.

Thank you for everything!