Can Non-Work Arguments Be Sanctioned by HR?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about off site dispute:

I am a supervisor and have been friends with a co-worker for several years. We both work part time, during the same hours. Recently we had a text argument, and I started my text response with “you suck” after she called me a nasty name by text message. I was at home and she was at her home. We did not work that day or the day before that.She waited 11 days and fowarded my text to HR. I was called in after work and asked to explain the situation.

Then, I was told that I was expected to react with co-workers as if we were still on the job. Since I didn’t save any of her vulgar texts it put me in a bad light.I’m sure you will say that keeping it professional at all times is good policy, but I think that the HR manager overstepped his boundary by not recusing himself in the first place. I don’t think that non-work related arguments should be settled at work by HR. I consider that an invasion of my privacy even if I was right or wrong.I’m almost 60 and this young man made me feel like I was in second grade. He is now considering if and what action he might take. He says that California law is on his side. I feel like I’m on shaky ground.

Signed, Worried

Dear Worried:

There are several things that could affect your situation:*Are you the supervisor of this employee? If so she is not only a coworker, she is a direct report (“subordinate”) which makes what you do away from work more likely to be linked to work. If you are peers, there is much less link to work because you have no authority over her and she would have no reason to be fearful of your actions.*What led up to this argument and what was it about? If it started based on something at work, it is linked to work–no matter when you wrote the text message. If it was never part of work and never discussed at work, there is less of a link. There still might be SOME link, just not as strongly.

However, the supervisory relationship creates an extra responsibility for you, no matter what the topic.*What has happened at work since then? If you never referred to it again and you have worked together since then–or if you talked about it and both of you apologized–then it is less likely the other person is fearful about your actions. If there has been constraint or lack of communications between the two of you since then, she might feel you will use the argument against her.Any of those issues would affect how your actions might be viewed.You mentioned HR, but did not mention your immediate manager. That person would have an impact on this as well. If you have not done so, write to that person and follow up with conversation, to say that you never intended a personal issue to become a work issue.

Ask for your manager’s insights and thoughts about it. Your manager would have more clout about this than HR would, most likely.If HR was notified by your manager, that says something about your manager’s attitude, but I still think you should write and talk to your manager about it.The bottom line answer is that if you are a supervisor, your personal arguments with a subordinate employee (even if they do not report to you directly) can be considered as part of work, if they involve issues that affect work. They are not so likely to be considered if work is not affected or involved in any way–but it still could happen if the employee says she feels worried some aspect of her work as a result of the argument. Another issue here is your feeling that the HR director treated you with a lack of respect. That’s difficult to deal with, especially given the age differences. He may have felt awkward too, and over-reacted a bit as a result. However, he may have felt strongly about it, or felt that he should take a strong approach.It is obviously very important how you handle it from this point forward. You will present yourself best by taking the approach that you didn’t realize your away-from-work activities would have an affect on work and that you have learned a lesson from this that will help you in the future, and will help you be a better supervisor.Ask to talk to the employee involved, with HR or your manager as a witness, and apologize for any lingering bad feelings she might have. Say that you did not realize the affect your private text might have on the employee and it won’t happen again.You may want to say that as much as you have enjoyed her friendship in the past, you now see that it can cause problems at work and ask her to understand that you will not be able to continue your personal relationship away from work–but that you always want her to feel that you can be friends at work as you have been in the past.You may also want to ask your manager if he or she has suggestions about that conversation with the employee. They may prefer that you not discuss it at all.

While all of this is going on, other employees are probably aware of it. Just keep your focus on your own good work, and work to keep building positive relationships with all employees, all the time. I don’t know your complete situation at work or what has happened before, but it would seem this is not severe enough an issue to merit more than a reminder to you. Hopefully that will be the case.If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens with this situation.

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.