Can I Complain About Verbal Abuse?

Question:

I have co-workers who have been harrassing me and on occasion cursing me for the past few months, but cannot prove it to my supervisor. What can I do?

Signed,

Verbally Abused


Answer:

Dear Verbally Abused:

You can certainly make a complaint within your organization, about inappropriate remarks or harssing behavior, by co-workers. The nature of the actions and remarks, circumstances involved, nature of the organization and the size of the company will make a difference in how the complaint is handled. If you want to make a complaint within your company, write a letter to your supervisor and either send it, or hand carry it to him or her. In the letter state what has been said and done, when it happened and the circumstances. If there were witnesses, list them. Then, state how each situation made you feel while you were trying to work, and ask for the supervisor’s help in making such actions stop.

He or she doesn’t have to be present when the events happened, for an investigation to be done. Even if the people involved deny it, their history may be enough for the supervisor to at least warn them about the matter.

Before you do that, do an evaluation of what is happening and why, and if there is anything you can do on your own to make a change. Consider if the remarks occur as the result of a specific type of event or an action on your part. If one particular kind of situation tends to lead to it, perhaps you can ask the supervisor to be present and observe. Or, you can determine if there is triggering cause. Maybe you can play a role in a group meeting in which stress and anger are handled better overall.

Consider the nature of the remarks or actions–are they focused on your work product, the way the co-workers think you have treated them, something about your behavior, your gender, your race or some other personal issue?

If there is clearly a focus on any of the protected status issues–ethnicity, age, gender, religion, etc., you might have a basis for a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Another factor would be what is happening along with it. If there are physical actions or threats, you may have a criminal complaint–or at the least would have more to bring to the attention of your supervisor.

Also consider what your reaction and responses have been to the people making remarks to you. Have you ever tried to find out what is behind the hostility? I know that’s not easy to do but it’s better than coming right back at them, or acting as though it doesn’t bother you at all.

I can’t recommend a response that would be sure-fire effective for you, because your work situation would make a big difference in that. But perhaps someone you trust who works with you could advise you about the best way to handle it. If you can identify someone who is viewed with respect by those who are bothering you, that person might be willing to not only advise you, but also stand with you in trying to get the situation to stop. You could also use that person and others, as examples of how they are able to work effectively without being subjected to such remarks. I do feel your supervisor should be more strongly told that you are asking for his or her help. And if that doesn’t happen, I think you should go over his head to find someone else in the company who does care. Businesses are very aware of their liability if the work environment leads to illegal harassment or physical violence. At some level, someone will want to find out more and do something about it.

These are tough situations to handle on your own, which is why you will need to support of someone, at some level. You may find you simply don’t want to work in a place that allows such behavior. But you may also find you can do something to stop the bullies, or to change the habits everyone has gotten into. Best wishes as you work to meet this challenge. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what results.

Tina Lewis Rowe