What Can I Do About A Co-Worker Who Called Me A Bitch?

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about being called a bitch:

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Question:

I go to work today like any other day, gave my manager some chocolate from Belgium and things were fine. A coworker went to lunch, came back, and told my manager her tire looked low. I called my husband because we have a pump and live 5 minutes from the office, while the manager grabbed her phone. I opened the back door said the employee’s name, heard nothing and shut and locked the door thinking she was in the restroom or something.

There was a knock on the door and I said, “Oh crap! Sorry sorry, sorry!” She immediately screamed at me in front of everyone that I did it on purpose and was stupid, etc. I was completely humiliated, trying to do her a favor. Later she said, “you’re a bitch and have a bad attitude” etc., because I was honestly looking around like, “are you kidding me right now?” I tried to get a word in and she’s telling me to lower my voice, so I’m supposed to just take it.

This is not the first time, but I can’t take this hostile environment. I sent a text to our boss and he said, stay cool. I told him what happened and he said sorry. I said, “Don’t be. It’s not you, but this needs to stop and you know it takes a lot for me to say something.” He said he will try and he knows others don’t understand why he kisses her ass (verbatim from text).

I went home in tears; all I tried to do was help her. But this has gotta be harassment right? I don’t know what to do, and there have been five people since I’ve been there she’s managed to convince our boss to get rid of and I’m worried.
Signed, What to Do?

Dear What to Do?
Here is a QUICK answer. Since you were so distressed, my quick answer is do NOTHING today. Go to work as though nothing happened. Don’t gossip about the incident. Don’t say anything to your coworker or boss about it. However, other than if they make a comment about yesterday, you might say, when you have time, might we talk about it or how to prevent what happened yesterday. For today, simply do a good job and be as cooperative and pleasant as possible.

This is my quick answer. I’ll send more later today or tomorrow.

Bill Gorden

Now for a more thorough reply: Apparently, you were still angry about what happened at work when you sent us your question. Sometimes telling someone else about an exploding incident at work helps. You feel insulted by being called a bitch by a coworker for whom you had tried to do a favor. To make it easier for me to respond to you feelings about this coworker, I’ll name her Jan. In addition, you complained to your boss but were you should cool it when you thought she should have reprimanded Jan.  I might not understand exactly what occurred, but I do sense that you feel that things are not right and you now are worried. You imply that you might be the next to quit or be fired because your boss overlooks Jan’s behavior.

So what do you do? Here are some suggestions for you to consider.

1. Repeating and replaying what happened in your head over and over makes you feel more abused and angry. Coping with stress and anger can be handled in different ways, some constructive and others destructive. Your instinct was good. You tried to help. You apologized sorry, sorry, and sorry. You tried to explain what happened to your boss. Also you have written Ask the Workplace Doctors. Each of these acts is constructive. Playing in over and over in your head probably is not constructive. Nor would be repeating it to friends, family or other coworkers, because doing so is not problem solving.

2. What can be constructive is for you to reflect on what causes screaming and conflict. Is not what transpired a failure to realize misunderstandings happen? They happen because communication is not simple. Words and actions, even good actions such as trying to do a favor and to lock a door, can be misinterpreted. Tempers can flair when we fail to expect that misunderstandings happen because of misinterpretations. Quick reactions do result in nasty insults. Jan called you a bitch because she assumed you had purposely locked her out. Once you understand that misunderstanding happens and that tempers flair, you will realize that you don’t want to add to being sworn at by also reacting angrily. Now how might that lesson be taught to Jan and what might your boss do to correct and prevent tempers and screaming insults occur?

3. Is it not past time, but not too late, to establish rules about how to communicate effectively? If the answer is yes to that question, might you now use this incident as an opportunity to engage your boss in problem solving? Rather than complaining to him about Jan, you might request informally or in writing that the boss conduct a session with the staff on how it might communicate so as to prevent misunderstandings and about how to react when the occur. In short, such a session would talk about how you talk to one another and what should be the do and don’t communication rules. If you will scan many of my responses to past questions, you will find examples of those rules, such as advice given to a question about a screaming boss. The lengthy answer is one that might help you; but for now here’s part of that about do and don’t communications rule-making:

“Yet another approach would be to request a skull session of the bossed to meet with Jane to talk about talk; something that all too often is not on a work group’s agenda. Yet it should be a normal topic: What kind of communication is effective and what is not? What do and don’t rules of talk can make us an effective work group? Some do rules might be: Check in with Jane to get assignments. To make sure assignments are clear paraphrase what you understand and ask clarifying questions if they are not; what, when, where, why and how questions. Complex assignments should have both oral and written instructions. Save most non-work conversations for break time. Some don’t rules might be: Don’t say something about coworker or boss that you would not say to them directly. Don’t scream at someone even from a distance. Don’t call one another a demeaning name. These are examples and of course your work group will need to word the do/don’t rules that apply to your particular work area. Should you choose this rule-making option, it should be understood that time should be set aside to review, change, and discuss how well you all are living up to them.”

4. See this as a proactive way to make your job and your workgroup’s performance more productive. For example, on your own, read some of our Q&As. They will inform you of some of the problems others, like you, face. For example what should an employee do if she feels ignored? To this question, among other things advised, you will see something you too might request your boss do: “Ideally, your boss will have weekly skull sessions in which she invites your work group to talk about how things have been going, what deserves applause, what you might do to correct mistakes and what’s ahead. Apparently your boss doesn’t do that. I predict that she might if you and your coworkers began to think big. By that I mean if rather than small talk (and some of that makes work go faster), you put your heads together to ask the big questions such as:
· How might we delight our internal and/or external customers?
· Where does our work group fit into making our company successful?”

So if you find any of these suggestions make sense, you now have an action plan:

• Review but not play the incident over and over like a broken record.
• Request a time out talk with your boss in which you encourage her to have the staff develop do and don’t rules about how to communicate with each other more effectively
• Recommend a pro-active team approach by the boss engaging your workgroup to improve internal and external customer performance—ways to cut wasted supplies, wasted time, wasted energy—and ways to satisfy and delight customers.

Working together with hands head and heart takes and makes big WEGOs is my signature sentence your work group can enjoy working together IF you don’t simply bite your tongue and if you channel your stress into engaging your boss in problem solving.
William Gorden

Added note by Tina Lewis Rowe:
Often one of us add to the thoughts of the other and I’ll do so in this situation. You asked if this is harassment. It sounds like you have a situation of long-term conflict, but it is not harassment under the law nor does it fit the usual descriptor of harassing behavior. I would bet there have been back and forth arguments or unpleasantness between the two of you for quite some time. This recent situation was just one more in a long line of them. Your co-worker was frustrated over her car problems and reacted even more harshly than usual. You had tried to do a good thing, but made a mistake about locking the door, so you reacted as well. You used facial expressions to convey your thoughts of indignation over her response to you, and those can easily be misread as bitchy (a generic phrase to imply a perpetually negative or angry attitude).

I’m wondering if the arrival of your husband with the tire pump made a difference in anything. That would have been a good time to gentle your tone and tell your co-worker that you hoped that would provide evidence of your good intentions. It would have given her a chance to acknowledge she was wrong about your intentions and for the two of you to calm things down.

One thing is certain, your manager needs to deal with this now and deal with it in relation to everyone, not just the one employee. As Dr. Gorden says, this is a whole-workplace issue of discourteous conversations and unresolved conflict. All you have control over is your own behavior and your reactions to the behaviors of others, but your manager can require some changes in everyone. Probably she dislikes the conflict and wishes it would go away. It’s easier for her to try to ignore it and let people quit or let them push things to the point they have to be fired, than to deal with the unpleasant work culture that causes it all. That’s a shame. But, you still can make things better for yourself and for others.

You will feel much better about work if you put your focus on your own work and limit your interactions with those you’re having problems with, at least for the short term. Be courteous, say hello and goodbye, but stay out of their work and their conversations unless it’s necessary. Let things calm down and give this recent situation time to heal a bit. Then, identify the issues that you know are an irritant to this co-worker and to others, and either reduce or eliminate those things or explain to your boss why you can’t do so and ask for advice. If she doesn’t want to even be that involved, be your own advisor: How can you–for your own sake, if not for the sake of others–calm the conflict?

As for being worried about your job, if you are doing excellent work that helps your boss and the business be more successful–and giving your boss no reason to think you are furthering the unpleasantness–you are going to be viewed as a valuable employee, not one who won’t be missed. Unless your boss is the owner, others will have to review her actions and those actions will have to be justified. Don’t provide any justification for firing you or for pushing you out. On the other hand, if your work is so unpleasant you can’t tolerate it and you don’t see it getting any better soon, perhaps you should do as Dr. Gorden often suggests and “vote with your feet” by leaving and letting your boss figure out how to replace you.

Your description of your workplace sounds very unpleasant, but all it usually takes is for one or two people to resolve to work together to find solutions, then to encourage others to do the same thing, for everyone to see how much better life and work can be.

Best wishes to you with all of this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.
Tina Rowe