Coworker Bumped My Chest To Provoke an Attack!

Question:

A coworker was yelling at me. Then,he got in my face and bumped me with his chest as if trying to provoke me into a fight. I backed off and went to my office. What should I do? Do I have any recourse?

Signed,

Feeling Threatened


Answer:

DearĀ Feeling Threatened:

What is the best thing to do may depend upon the totality of the circumstances in your specific situation. However, you were correct to back off and go to your office. There have been far too many cases of workplace violence to not take it seriously when someone is close to being out of control in that way.

You probably don’t have legal recource (charging him with “threats”, etc.) But you should have organizational resources.

1. If the behavior was not like the employee usually would act, was brought about by a unusual situation, and you have been congenial with him in the past, you may be able to talk to him directly and work things out. “Mike, I’m sorry we had had such a disagreement yesterday. But, I was really shocked that it seemed you wanted to fight. That’s not like you. What on earth was going on with that? No matter how upset we are with each other, I don’t want us to get fired over fighting!” That reminds him of the potential punishment for what he did, without threatening him about it. It also allows him to apologize easier. He may be regretting what happened and worried about the results and when like a chance to take it back. If so, when the two of you are talking rationally maybe you could work out the problem AND talk about how concerned his behavior made you. 2. Or, if this is typical of him to yell and threaten, or if you think talking to him won’t do any good at all because you have a bad history with him, or you simply feel too uncomfortable around him now to try to have a conversation, you should go directly to your manager and report exactly what happened. Don’t worry about sounding like a “snitch” about it. You not only are doing what most companies would want you to do, you could be saving someone’s life or saving them from harm, by bringing that kind of action to a halt immediately.

You should ask your manager or HR to ensure you that you are not threatened in that way again. That requires supervisory or managerial intervention that warns the coworker to not threaten you or do anything physical or make any physical contact that implies he is wanting to fight or is going to hit you. If there are company rules or policies that kind of action is probably the most obvious outcome.

You know your organization’s culture and what is most likely to happen as a result. I would hope you would not be told to “work it out” on your own, no matter what the situation, because that is rarely successful when someone has a nasty temper.

3. When you make your report, report the details from start to finish, with the conversation that took place, the degree to which he bumped your chest (pushing you back a few inches or enough to rock you where you stood, or other descriptions) as well as what happened after that (comments he might have made, etc.) and if there were witnesses.

Be accurate in every detail and, if it is the truth, say that you felt threatened and are concerned about what he might do next. That is when you could ask for an investigation of the incident to find out how you can be sure you can do your work in the future without feeling threatened. 4. You don’t say what led up to this situation or what your respective organizational positions are (supervisor, peer, etc.) But, it is clearly a serious concern if he tried to provoke a fight. I would imagine your history with this employee is not very good. He could be this way with many people or only with you. When you write your report and when you talk to your manager or to HR, let them know if the employee’s behavior has changed over time or if his temper is well-known and a long-term problem.

Putting that in writing may remind them that they are liable for harmful acts in the workplace, if they have been warned about an employee’s violent or near-violent behavior. That doesn’t help the person he might hurt, but might make your managers and HR more likely to take this matter seriously.

5. Avoid talking to others at work (except your managers or HR) about this to only gossip. If you say negative things it could make your coworker angrier and also could be viewed as provoking a quarrel. If someone seems sympathetic, list their name as a witness or as someone for your supervisor or manager to investigate.

6. Be insistent about this matter, if it was as bad as you describe and especially if you genuinely feel that it might happen again. To allow him to get by with doing that kind of bullying and intimidating is harmful to everyone. It sets a very bad precedent and it essentially says it’s OK to become violent or threaten violence in your workplace.

7. At the same time, review all that took place and see if there might have been a different outcome if you or others had done something differently in your communication with the coworker or in something that happened right before the incident.

For example, even though he should not have reacted in a physical way, he may have felt he was justified in doing it if someone was mocking him or saying something very insulting or if he was being embarrassed or humiliated in front of others.

There may have been none of that, but if there was, the situation is a bit different than if he flared up only because he was arguing or was angry. You may need to acknowledge that things should have been handled differently, but you can still say that a physical confrontation wasn’t an appropriate response. 8. We don’t have enough information to make any further suggestions or give more complete advice, but perhaps these ideas can be of assistance. Best wishes to you as you look for ways to calm down this recent event and also to build an overall better work environment. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe