Boss Won’t Fire Violent Co-worker!

Question:

HELP! I have been working at this company for 7 years now. About 2 years ago brought in a friend to work with us. For about a month, I took my time after work to train him. About 6 months ago he was dating an employee who works in our same department. They got into an argument, and he put his foot in her crotch and slammed her against the wall. Even though we all saw that, our supervisor denied seeing anything.

Because of this incident, the female employee, who was pushed, moved her location right next to my work area. Last Month the person, who I brought in and who I thought was my friend, assaulted me and threatened to hit me. He accused me of spreading rumors about him, then told me that he was going to make sure that everyone knew how I really am.

I have recently discovered through people out side of work that he has a reputation with being very violent toward women and not being able to control his anger.

I reported him and apparently, he was written up. In two years of working here, he has blown up at different people about 8 time and all were reported. He told me that the boss would much rather help him than hurt him.

Nobody wants him working here any more. We have all have spoken out about how we feel, and nothing has been done about it. Our department supervisor disagrees with us and does not understand “why we are making a big deal about it”. The employee that he pushed will be leaving in about a week because she can’t take his attitude anymore. He walks around as if he owns the place. He listens to loud music and is usually on the phone. Because no serious action was taken, his attitude has gotten worst. The work environment is very bad and we are not a team anymore.

Should I leave as well? This department is important to me and to the Company. I have made it what it is today. When I started it was only me working here, and now there are five of us. Should I just move on?

Signed,

Confused


Answer:

Dear Confused:

This certainly does sound like a workplace gone bad! You ask if you should leave a place you formerly enjoyed–and had a large role in developing. That assumes that you only have the options of leaving or continuing to work with a problem employee. It seems you also have the option of trying to improve things–and if that doesn’t work, THEN leaving–and letting the company pick up the pieces.

Incidentally, this situation of finding out that a friend can be horrible to have as a co-worker is a common one. It is also why I always remind people, who talk about how badly mistreated their family members or friends are at work, that we never know someone completely unless we see what they are like in other settings.

At this point, your actions will depend on how far you are willing to go to make an issue of the need for supervisory and managerial intervention. You want them to improve your workplace by controlling the behavior of the problem employee–and preferably removing him from the workplace. You want the workplace to return to a better environment and be more team oriented. Your managers do not seem to agree that there is a serious problem. Since you are considering quitting anyway, it certainly seems to be worth the effort to try to do something that will make it possible for you to stay and for problems to be corrected. You know your work situation and the levels of management better than I do, so you may need to adapt some of this to fit your situation.

Keep in mind that the following steps are really those that a supervisor should be taking. But, you may have to prod the supervisor and managers. It will be time consuming and frustrating–but is necessary if you want to say you have tried everything.

1. First, you need to develop a complete list of behaviors by the problem employee and how they have affected the workplace, as well as what has been done by management about them. Do this in writing so you can include it in a packet of material. Number the events, starting with the first one you remember. Then, for each event use the following headings:

Date, action, witnesses, responses by employees, negative results.

These headings will reflect how often the major problem behaviors have occurred, what the behavior was, who can verify it, what the other employees did to report it or to get assistance to help about it and the negative results in the workplace.

If an action is ongoing, use to and from dates.

What you are trying to achieve with this is a list that shows there are more than one or two things that concern you and others, that there are several witnesses and that there have been negative results. The results might be fear, nervousness, a required move to another location in the office, distrust, focus on the conflict rather than on work, anger, frustration, etc. You need to show that the employee’s actions are having a definitely negative affect on employees and their work.

Be specific and quote the employee as accurately as possible.

When you are finished with that list, look at it with the eye of a reviewer who is not involved and ask yourself if it appears there is a quantity and severity of activities that require action. You will also want to ensure that you determine if every event was unprovoked. Are there mutual hostile actions, threats, pushing and shoving and so forth? Could the other employee make a counter-claim to show that he is as much a victim as an aggressor in the things that have happened? Have individuals ever talked to him about his behavior or is all the talk behind his back? Those things don’t excuse violence or threats, but might explain why he does not feel like part of the group anyway–and therefore lashes out at everyone.

Consider having an impartial person look at the list and tell you what they think. It may be that you are so upset over the change in your friend that even relatively small events seem larger to you. Certainly I can understand that you would be upset about physical violence and about threats. But I often find when a manager or supervisor seems to be completely disregarding a serious situation, there may actually be another perspective.

When you list the witnesses, list those who were present, whether or not they have indicated they want to be involved or make a statement. But, if your other co-workers are serious about wanting to do something, they will need to make a statement at some point. The best time to do it is in support of your efforts. Ask them if they will write you a short statement about each event, or about the entire situation. Tell them to be specific and to say how they have felt about it. Also, they should state what they have done to try to help make it better.

2. Next, consider what it is you are asking managers to do about the problems. Is firing the problem employee the only satisfactory action from your viewpoint? What if he changed his behavior so it was appropriate again? Has he ever behaved correctly? What if he went back to that behavior? What if it was discovered that he needs psychological counseling, would that make a difference? Would there be a time-line you would consider workable, for him to improve?

You don’t have control over organizational disciplinary actions and you can’t recommend actions to supervisors and managers, but you CAN say what is necessary for you and others to feel comfortable at work again. Develop a list that might include the following:

What do you want to see stop, in order for you and others to feel OK about work again? Do you want the loud music to stop? The excessive phone time? Specific remarks or actions? List all of those.

What do you want to see instead of the things you listed above? What changed behavior or attitude? Is his work product or work performance good? If not, how does it need to improve in order to not negatively affect other employees?

What do you want to see stay the same? Are there things he does that are OK or even above average? Apparently he must do something valuable or your managers and supervisors wouldn’t be so anxious to keep him!

What do you see as the worst things he does? The best?

All of those issues are ones that you will need to explain at some point, so you should think about them ahead of time and have them in writing, either to include in a packet or to have for a reference if asked.

3. What will other employees be willing to write statements about? Will they write statements supporting your thoughts? Will they at least write statement verifying the truth of some of the things you mentioned in your message? If you can’t get active support from others, your task will be more difficult.

4. Has there ever been a time when the employee has corrected his behavior, based on something the manager or supervisor did? That would be good to note, since it would indicate what is an effective way to deal with his behavior.

5. Do you know of any interventions that have taken place to help the employee? I ask that because your manager said the company would rather help the employee than hurt him. Do you know what resources are available to help? Is there an Employee Assistance Program or similar support program for troubled employees?

Have you or the others considered going to an employee assistance program to ask about help in dealing with this situation? This would show a good faith effort and would also get the attention of those involved with employee issues. If your organization is too small for such a program, what about HR or similar units in the company?

6. This will likely seem a strange thing to consider…but consider your performance evaluations. Have they been strong all along? Has there been any diminishment in your performance or attitude since the other employee became so difficult to deal with? Or, have you been able to stay effective up until now? Does your supervisor and manager have a reason to want to keep you working there and feeling good about work? Are you better thought of than the other employee or not?

Do you have any idea if he has had problems with work? Apparently not, since managers and supervisors seem anxious to keep him, no matter what happens to other employees.

7. Finally, consider the organization of your company: As I asked previously, is there an HR department? Are there other levels above your boss? Are there levels of managers that probably don’t know about this situation? Of everyone you know about, which one would be most likely to be concerned about this situation? Who is ultimately responsible legally if something were to go wrong? That is your target person for ensuring that the full extent of the problem is known.

Does the employee ever interact with the public? Could his actions somehow affect the business? Have other employees tended to be more focused on his behavior than their own work? Is the focus being taken away from good work?

8. After you have considered everything above, you will be in a better mental situation to decide what you want to do. If you will only be satisfied with a firing, that might not happen right away. If you are having problems with your own work you might not have the influence you would need. If other employees won’t support your statements you might not be believed.

You may decide that all of this work is not worth the hassle, and move on to another place. But other places aren’t easy to find! And why should you? Your former friend is the one who has ruined the work environment, so he is the one who should make a change.

On the other hand, from the problem employee’s perspective, why should he make a change if the bosses don’t view that he is a problem? He may feel that he has been wrongly accused and that you and others are telling false stories about him–or that the stories are exaggerated. In their efforts to help him, his supervisors and managers may have added to his feeling that he is in the right.

9. Once you have decided where you stand with all of this–and if you have decided it’s worth staying and getting things back to a better situation–consider writing a letter, to be sent to several people at once.

Keep in mind that there are only a few things that seem to get management attention about issues such as this. You already know that at least one of the managers thinks you’re making too big a deal over it, so just being a concerned employee isn’t enough. Generally speaking, managers won’t be anxious to deal with a conflict situation unless one or more of the following are present:

*The company is suffering or will suffer because of it (this could be loss of productivity, loss of good employees, etc.) *There is a potential for a lawsuit because of a situation for which the company could be held liable. (The potential for violence in the workplace would fit that concern.) *Higher management doesn’t know about it because it has been covered up by those lower in the organization, and those lower don’t want those higher to find out. (That may be the case here.) *There is so much agitation about it that something has to be done to avoid a serious problem. (Having your fellow employees support you might fit that situation.)

You don’t have to be a great writer or to make the letter very long. Just be honest and open about the issues. You might consider starting your letter by saying something like, Next week Mary is leaving because of her fears of Joe. I’m considering leaving too and so are others. None of us want to leave, but we feel we have to because Joe has been allowed to bully and threaten all of us. The purpose of this memo is to state my fear that Joe has been violent and will continue to be violent until someone is hurt badly. I also can tell that many of us are not able to do our work as effectively as we would like. I am asking that this matter be investigated fully and some action be taken to make our work environment safe and effective again.

Tell about your initial friendship and when and why that changed and what has been the result. Paint a picture of the work environment changing from good to bad because of this one person’s behavior. Be fair about it and don’t exaggerate, but be honest and fully describe the problem. Then, use your list, as described above, to show the problem.

As mentioned before, do not insist on a particular course of action, such as saying that the employee must be fired. That will only make most managers stubborn. Just say that things are getting worse all the time and you would like to know that supervisors and managers care enough to do something about it. Say that you are available to talk about it and that others will too. Close by saying you are anxious to get the workplace back to a good point and thank them for their efforts to help with that.

Send this to your supervisor and manager, as well as to HR if you have one. Give them a day or two and if you have not gotten a definite response with a plan of action, send it to the highest place in the company that you can send it. You have nothing to lose at that point because you will likely not want to stay anyway!

10. In the meantime, if the employee gets in your face again or makes threatening remarks, immediately…do not wait…walk into the supervisor’s office and say that you are being threatened and want action taken by the supervisors to stop the wrong behavior. If the remarks are threats of physical violence, call the police right to the workplace. They may not take action, according to the circumstances, but they might. They will certainly create enough of a stir that the company will see that things are serious!

Reserve that response for if the employee truly seems to be intent upon violence or threatens serious violence. The female employee you mentioned should have made an assault report against the problem employee when he slammed her against the wall. If she had done so–or if others would have called the police–the problem would likely not be a problem now!

Have zero tolerance for his disruptive behavior but deal with it in an appropriate way. If his music is too loud, ask him to please turn it down. If he doesn’t, ask the supervisor to ask him to turn it down. If he’s on the phone excessively, that’s up to the supervisor to stop. BUT, if he’s on the phone when he should be doing something at work that relates to the work of others, the employee involved should go to the supervisor and say that work can’t be done at that point. This may sound petty—but what everyone has been doing up until now hasn’t worked, so apparently something else is needed!

You may or may not be successful with any of this, but at least you will have tried. If the employee’s behavior is really as bad as you say, perhaps this will reinforce it to the supervisor or manager. Just keep in mind that the fact all the employees want someone gone is not reason enough for the company to fire him or her. What is necessary is showing that the problem employee is frequently having a negative impact on work and the effectiveness of other employees–and having the people with hiring and firing authority agree with you.

Best wishes as you decide what to do about this challenging situation. If you have the time and wish to do so, please let us know what happens.

A safe work environment comes before all other concerns. That is WEGO action.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.