Can’t Get Rid Of A Co-worker!

Question:

My question concerns an irritating coworker. Eight months ago he decided to show up at my desk and just chat. I sent him away many times, and he would politely leave only to return again to chat. I usually ignore him and keep on working because I can’t afford to stop working as a result of his persistent behavior.

A few months ago, our Manager wrote a detailed letter to him stating that he needed to leave my workspace. The coworker did for a while but edged his way back, and now I spend a lot of time being sending him away. My problem is that I don’t want him to lose his job, but my managers want to know what I’m doing to entice this man back to my desk. I am an assertive person but clueless as to how to entice him out of my workspace. This man is socially abstract in the sense that he spends two hours or more attempting chat sessions with me, reads for three hours, and has very poor work ethics. I do not want him in my workspace.

I’m going to ask him to leave my workspace for good, as he has no business there. What are the chances his behavior will be dangerous? I work alone in a basement down several floors. I’m not sure I’m safe telling him to “leave for good” at my somewhat vulnerable workspace. Am I acting like a victim for no reason?

Signed,

Acting Like A Victim?


Answer:

Dear Acting Like A Victim?:

I have read and re-read your message and started and stopped a dozen responses! I want to be helpful. However, my frustrations over the way this has been handled from the beginning simply must be expressed!

*No one seems to be taking this frightening behavior seriously enough. The co-worker is not merely irritating–he is harassing you. That is a criminal offense. But rather difficult to make stick, when he has been allowed to do it over and over and only now and then told to stop. I do not feel sorry for him at all. But I can certainly see how the mixed messages he has received from you and others could be confusing to someone who is mentally unbalanced. And that’s the only way he can be viewed. A well-balanced person does not behave as he has. You know that. His actions are not just foolish or inappropriate, they are creepy and weird. *He should be fired, not talked to about it again, but I do not know how likely that is. You say he doesn’t do his work and violates his instructions by coming to your area, so why would he still have a job? What kind of workplace would allow that to go on for this long? You don’t say what your respective jobs are, but it makes me wonder how valuable his work is if he has been allowed to continue this way. *Your manager sent him a detailed letter telling him not to come to your work area, but when the employee violated that, nothing was done. Your manager has certainly not taken appropriate responsibility for stopping this completely. The moment the employee came to your area again, the manager should have written him up for failure to follow an order that was very specific. *You violated the rules yourself by allowing the employee to come to your area even though you knew he was not supposed to. Frankly, your manager should have taken action about that as well. I know it’s not easy to send someone away, but you’re not talking about a minor situation. It isn’t enough to ignore someone, you need to say no.

In a civil situation, if someone gets a restraining order, then allows the person to come over anyway, they are viewed as invalidating the restraining order and the judge will not issue another one without very strong reasons. A similar logic applies here. You had a chance to be protected from this behavior. This time, support the efforts of your manager rather than encouraging a violation of the directive. It may have been unintentional on your part, but still, you knew he had been told not to be there, but you did not take decisive action to stop it. As I will point out, you did not have to say anything to him. You could have gotten up and left, that would have at least stopped some aspects of it. Please know that I’m not saying you encouraged it purposely, I’m just saying that you knew he had been told to stay away, so you had the perfect opportunity to report him immediately. I gather from your message that you did not, but maybe I am not aware of all of your actions at that point.

*The employee is wrong in his behavior. He may be unbalanced in some way, or simply confused about whether you like him there or not. Certainly it appears that he has figured out how to get around the system….just hang around long enough and he will be allowed to stay. But he knows he is doing wrong. He absolutely knows that, so he alone must take responsibility if he loses his job. Don’t allow one shred of sympathy to stop you. He doesn’t have any sympathy for you, does he? He knows very well that he is bothering you, disrupting your work and that his boss doesn’t like it. He just thinks he can change your mind if he hangs around enough.

Now hopefully, you and management will realize that you and they must take strong and committed action. You do not say the size of your company or other details, so I will give you general thoughts that you may need to adapt.

1. As a foundation for everything: Do not ever, EVER let the employee come into your workspace in the basement again. If he walks in, you get up and leave. Go to your manager’s office immediately. Don’t stay there and talk to the employee. Don’t be friendly, cajoling, pleading or demanding. Just get up without a word, leave and go to the manager’s office and ask him to take care of it. Don’t go back until the employee is out of your work area. If you’re not there, he has no reason to stay anyway. Your work won’t suffer for the few times this happens.

If the employee says he wants to talk to you about it and you feel you must respond, have a memorized thing to say. Something like, “You’re harassing me and making me feel afraid. Do not come down to my work area do not talk to me again.” If he repeats his question, you repeat that answer as you leave. Those elements of what he is doing, how you feel and what you are demanding are important to say.

You ask if it is dangerous to tell him to stay away. It’s certainly more dangerous now than it would have been when this first started. There is no way to know how he might react, because he is currently not reacting as an emotionally mature person would. So, you know there is a likelihood that he might react angrily, with hurt feelings, sorrowfully–any one of which might cause him to do something inappropriate or violent. And no, you’re not over-reacting by being concerned. No one has reacted enough to this all along and frankly, I do not see why. Keep in mind that he has been warned in a very serious way already but has continued to what he knows is considered wrong.

2. Write a letter to your manager telling him that you don’t feel safe in the basement area because of the attentions of this employee. You may want to acknowledge that you have not wanted to cost him his job, but you realize that things cannot continue as they are. Ask for the support of the organization to assure you that you are safe and that the man will no longer be allowed to harass you. State your intentions for the future: You do not want to deal with him anymore, because you feel that encourages him in his actions. You will not stay in a work area where he is present. You will rely on the organization to help you through this situation.

3. Hand deliver the letter to the manager and ask him to share it with HR and others up the chain of authority, according to your hierarchy. Be prepared to be asked why you have allowed it to continue even after management tried to help. I would ask that if I were the manager. There’s no point in reminding the manager that he should have followed-up better. Just say you didn’t know how to stop it without making the employee angry but now you want to follow through.

4. For your personal safety: *Find out if you can work in another space. Is the office you have the only office space available for your task? You need to be where others can see you. *Is there someone else who could be placed in that area until this calms down? The presence of another employee might help a great deal. *Does your organization have any kind of security function? If so, you should see if a security camera could be installed in your area. Even if there is not security function, it might be a preventive measure to let it be known that a security camera is covering the area. Sadly, those don’t do much good unless someone is monitoring them or recording continuously. In the latter case, you at least have evidence of your actions and the actions of the person bothering you. *Do you have access to something like pepper spray or a similar defensive item? Consider having that readily available at work, in your hand coming and going from your car–or in your purse but readily available in a top pocket, and in your car. *Be cautious around your home as well.

You will notice that I view this as much more serious than an irritating employee! It may be that he has no bad intentions at all, but it would be better to be prepared than not. I have known of similar situations that were just misunderstandings by an emotionally immature person. I have also known of situations like this that were obsessive disorders that were threatening and resulted in criminal charges being filed. There is no way to know and I’d rather you’d be safe.

5. After your employer takes action, keep a log of any problems and if necessary call your city attorney’s office and ask about getting a restraining order. You must swear that you have told him to stay away, you have not allowed him to return and you are fearful for your safety. That would be a strong step, but certainly merited in this case.

A restraining order doesn’t protect you, but often will get the message across to someone that the matter is legal now, not just social.

6. If all of this seems too much, I will assume that you know the situation best. From what you say this is a person who is obsessed with you. Strong action is warranted to make sure you are protected and that you are not bothered this way again. And it should be organizational action combined with yours.–not just you acting on your own. Get full management support immediately.

Be cautious about your personal safety through all of this. Also, be aware of the mental and emotional strain this places on you. Make sure you have a good network of friends at work. Get out of the basement when you can and be part of the larger work area. Interact in positive, upbeat ways as a way to add better elements to your work life.

I hope these ideas are helpful. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens in all of this.

Taking responsibility for your work situation is a must for working in a safe and collaborative environment—one we call WEGO.

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.