Is This Unpleasant Comment a Threat?

A Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about remarks that were inadvertently recorded.  Should they be considered a threat?
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Question:

I am a niche employee that at times must follow two different chains of command. Following one side I recently completed a task we do every month. As a result, a manager and supervisor responded by calling my office. The recorder picked up and taped the conversation between the two of them saying a different supervisor was going to “Rip her a new one” and continued with some other derogatory remarks.

I answer to this general group one day weekly, but in my permanent position I am instructed by headquarters to train and correct the supervisors also. What kind of threat is this? I played this for the manager’s boss but he seemed less concerned than he did at first.

I talked to upper management here about five months ago about problems with the supervisor group. I also had expressed to the head of our entire organization the fact that actions by our local management had put us in situation where the supervisors were allowed to question our permanent job function and the credibility of the position. This made them believe they could treat us with disrespect.

Is a verbal threat just as serious? How can I get management to correct this? At no time did either official in the recorded conversation say “this is wrong “or “we can’t do this.” What if one of the supervisors made good on this threat the manager said was going to happen? Please advise.

Our response:
You did the right thing by taking your concerns to the manager of the two supervisors who made unpleasant remarks about you, behind your back—not realizing they were being recorded. At least the higher-level manager knows the two people lack good judgment about their conversations and you have proof that there is hostility between the offices outside of headquarters and the headquarters functions you perform.

It nearly always creates at least a few problems when an employee reports to two chains of command—and having a headquarters component and a field office component tends to require that kind of arrangement. For example, an employee may be housed at a field office but actually report to the IT section at headquarters. One day a week, the employee performs work specifically for the field office and devotes the day to getting work done that they have requested. The rest of the time, the employee is directly working for headquarters and is responsible for training and certifying field office employees, getting various forms from them and in other ways representing the needs of headquarters. This can cause resentment, especially from supervisors who dislike thinking there is an employee in the office who is not directly subordinate to them.

The negative effect on the employee is that he or she doesn’t have a work “home” either at headquarters OR in the field office and may not get much support from either managerial levels. I’ve heard many employees in situations similar to yours say they feel disrespected and resented.

That may not describe your exact situation, but will help our readers see what a problem it can be to put an employee in that situation. When it’s a necessary part of doing business, the situation has to be handled very carefully by everyone involved, especially the employee, with the help of that employee’s direct supervisor and manager.

I’m sure the higher-level manager of the two people who made the unpleasant comment has told them they were recorded and that you complained about it. He may have “ripped” THEM “a new one”, which would serve them right. Whether he chastised them or not, he apparently feels it is over and done with and doesn’t see a reason to do more. (You say you played the recording, but he did not seem as concerned as when you first told him about it.)

One reason the higher-level manager may not seem as concerned now, is that he doesn’t think of the recorded conversation as being a threat. The term “rip a new one” is crude, but it is a common phrase for referring to reprimanding someone verbally or berating them for a mistake. It would be the same as if the supervisor had said, “Greg is really going to yell at her for this.” That would be unpleasant, but it is doubtful it would involve actually yelling or using profanity–and certainly would not involve a physical threat.

If you haven’t been reprimanded about anything by the supervisor the two people mentioned, they now realize they judged the situation incorrectly. If you have, in fact, been reprimanded about something, they were correct in their expectation—even though they expressed it in an uncouth way. But, the comment itself is not a threat of anything harmful physically, if that is your concern.

You don’t mention what conversations you have had with your direct boss about it—the one who signs your performance evaluations and to whom you report directly. This would be a good time to ask him how he thinks you are doing in your work and let him know the comment you overheard is bothering you. You will either get some verbal support or your boss will suggest ways to improve your work. If you don’t know why the supervisor mentioned in the conversation would be upset, perhaps your manager can find out and help you clear up any problems.

If you are the kind of person who feels comfortable confronting a situation directly, consider talking to the supervisor who was supposed to be so upset with you and ask him about it. You said all of this happened after you completed some regular work. Maybe you can figure out the problem on your own and find a way to explain it better to the supervisor.

For now, I think you should just move past this and keep trying to improve relationships when you can. Don’t confront the two employees, just let this slide into unpleasant history. They may regret having said it and the other things they said. Work at being a credible and valuable person for those who may wonder about your work and your link to headquarters. Rather than keeping the focus on this unpleasant situation, put it on finding ways for the field office to better accept your dual-role.

I often give three steps for having influence–and you certainly could use some influence, it seems! To have influence you must be credible (know how to do your work very well) and valuable (be a needed resource and someone others want to have as part of their network). And, you must communicate directly and effectively with the people you need or want to influence (conversations need to be engaging and worthwhile for the listener).

That puts more of the burden on the person who wants to have influence, but the payout can be huge. For one thing, it can prevent the kind of ongoing unpleasantness that seems to be taking place at your work. Perhaps you can work with others in your situation in other offices, to find ways to show more value. If nothing else, maybe all of you can share ways you have been able to break down barriers and mend fences.

However, whether or not you are able to establish a better working relationship (and I hope you can), I don’t think you need to worry that the comment was an actual threat. It was just a mean-spirited way to say, “She’s going to get in trouble!”. As long as you are being supported by headquarters and as long as your own boss knows you were doing the right thing, even that kind of remark doesn’t have any power to hurt you and your work.

Best wishes to you as you move forward and past this unpleasantness. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know how things work out.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors