Coworker Kicks Chairs and Intimidates

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about intimidating coworker:

I work in the healthcare industry. My coworker has no patients and gets very frustrated at the drop of a dime. He kicks chairs, tanks phone lines and intimates patients and coworkers. Everyone is scared of him and won’t report him because, if he finds out who reported him, he will confront that person.

Signed, Worried

Dear Worried:

Your situation can explain how people who are mean and bullying get their power. No matter how upsetting the mean person is, most people don’t want to do anything about it and they nearly always say it is because they don’t want the person to be mad at them. However, if he’s treating you badly, you’re not losing a friend. If you think he would kill you or injure you seriously, you have even a worse problem and should certainly take action! If not, you will only be uncomfortable for a few minutes when he confronts you, but at least you will have done something to stop the situation. I’ll tell you, further on in this response, how to deal with him if he confronts you. If what you say is exactly true, your coworker has probably done what he wants for long enough that he thinks he can get by with it. He may not even think anyone minds.

It will continue until he is required to change or is required to leave. If no one does anything substantial, he’ll just keep on the way he is. If you are a healthcare worker, surely you care about your patients. If so, you have the obligation to protect them from abusive talk or actions. Even if your coworker is upset about something else–another person or an inanimate object like a tank, chair or phone line–it could have a very harmful effect on patients if he shows his anger or frustration in front of them. In addition, every time your coworker becomes angry and intimidating, it distracts him, you and others from your focus on work and your responsibilities. That’s a very bad situation. You know you need to do something, which is why you wrote to us about it.

The key is: what are you and others willing to do to make it better? Here are some things to get you started, leading up to something that will make a difference.

1. Make sure you are doing your job in the best possible way. You can’t very well complain about his anger if something you are doing is not right. For example, if he can point to coworkers coming to work late, goofing off, standing around gossiping or not doing their work fully and correctly, the problem-person will feel that he isn’t any worse than them. (And he is probably correct!)

2. Unless the coworker is harming someone physically or is severely harming someone mentally and emotionally (in which case you have a legal obligation to report him) you have some time. Make a written note to yourself, when your coworker loses his temper. Only saying that someone loses his temper or intimidates people isn’t enough. That could just be a made-up story or an exaggeration. What you need to have, in writing, is exactly what he said and did and the way he looked and sounded when he did it. For example, you say, “He kicks chairs, tanks, phone lines and intimidates patients and coworkers.” But what does that mean in reality? Did you see him get angry about being asked to do something, so he kicked a chair clear across the room and it hit a table and knocked over a water pitcher, with the result that a patient started crying? Or, did he get frustrated because a chair was in his way when he was trying to help a patient and he kicked it slightly aside and said, “Chairs are never supposed to be left where we can’t get to a patient! Who left it there?” See the difference? In the first situation, he would be in the wrong. In the next, most people would say he was correct to be frustrated. If that kind of thing happens all the time, it could be that he will be able to truthfully say he is only angry because of the poor work done by you and others. I know you don’t see it that way–and hopefully that isn’t the case. BUT, it shows you why it isn’t enough to make an accusation. You need very specific information to back it up. Your managers and supervisors need facts not emotional opinions, in order to do anything. Write down: The date and time, witnesses (including patients), the circumstances, what he said and did, his tone of voice or facial expression and the impact it seemed to have on everyone. That last part is important. If people laughed and didn’t seem to mind, that’s one thing. If the patient seemed to get nervous and started apologizing for causing a problem, that’s much worse. If his yelling made your hands shake and you were distracted for the next hour, that’s also a serious problem.

3. Resolve today to not give the coworker the power to upset you extremely. None of us like to work around an angry person. But, as I said earlier, unless you fear for your life, he can’t do anything more than make noise. It would be pretty sad if all of you let him frighten you. Get into the habit of stopping what you are doing when he gets angry and just looking at him until he stops. When you scurry around trying to make him happy, it makes him feel powerful. When you get quiet and try to stay out of his way, he notices that too. I’ll bet you would tell a stranger to stand up straighter and not act intimidated. Take your own advice.

4. If it seems some specific type of situation upsets your coworker more, make an effort to monitor that type of situation to see if the issues can be avoided. You won’t be doing it for him, you’ll be doing it for you and your colleagues as well as the patients.

5. Keep your composure, no matter how angry he becomes. If patients see you get upset, they’ll feel like things are out of control. If you react by becoming calm and supportive of them, they will feel better about it. One way to do that is to say something like, “Mrs. Grant, don’t let us upset you. Our number one goal is to help you feel better and nothing gets in the way of that.” Just speak up and be the one who represents the place you work in the best way, not the bad way of the other person.

6. Don’t gossip with others about the mean coworker. That only will give him a reason to be more angry at all of you–and justifiably so. Instead, if someone starts to tell you about him, just say something like, “I can tell you’re upset and I don’t blame you. But if his actions really bother you, you need to write down the details and go to our manager (use his or her name) about it. That’s what I’m going to do the next time I see him lose his temper badly.” Managers often tell me that employees complain about another employee, but when the manager looks out in the office, the one being complained about is working and the ones complaining are huddled together gossiping about the one they’re complaining about! Don’t get into that situation.

7. You have two options for what to do when you want to deal with the issue in a solid way: *You can start by talking to the coworker and if that doesn’t work after a couple of weeks, you can talk to your supervisor or manager. *You can go immediately to your supervisor or manager. If you decide to try talking to him, follow the advice I give supervisors: Mentally, make the next time he acts out, the first time, from your viewpoint. There is no point in talking about things that happened weeks ago, only in talking about something you remember well. Wait until he does something upsetting again and say something right then, if you can. For example, he kicks a chair. Go over and straighten up the chair, look at him and say, “Nothing justifies kicking things and upsetting people, Mike.” Keep it brief and don’t argue. If he says something, just stick to what you said in the first place, like a broken record. If you can’t say something right then, do it as soon as possible, even if he’s in a better mood then. “Mike, I’m glad you’re happy now, but the way you acted in Mr. Kingston’s room was really upsetting to both him and me. Nothing justifies getting so angry it upsets a patient.” Or, “Mike, I can see why you were angry about the schedule, but yelling that way was really scary to everyone.” You don’t have to get into an argument with him or do much talking, just tell him the negative effect he had. If he argues, tell him you won’t argue with him. “There’s no point in getting mad at me. I’m telling you to your face, so you won’t do it again and get in trouble.”

8. If you have tried everything else or think nothing else will help, go to your supervisor or manager–or to HR, if your business has a separate Human Resources group–and give them your evidence and ask for an investigation and for help. Don’t waste your manager’s time or your time by saying, “But please don’t say anything to him about it.” If you want the bad actions to stop you will have to be willing to stand up and be counted and have your manager talk to the coworker. That is why having witnesses is so important. Give your manager names. At least that way you will know who you can depend upon. If you share the thoughts in this response with them before then, they will be more likely to know why their support is crucial. 9. If your coworker confronts you, either before you go to your supervisor or afterwards, put him on the spot for a change. It will make you feel incredibly strong, if you do it the right way. Don’t lose your temper and don’t yell, just say, “Don’t say anything else until we can talk to (say your manager’s name) together. Let’s go talk to him right now.” Or, “Don’t say anything more until we can talk to Mrs. Anderson together. I’ll call her tomorrow morning and tell her that you are upset and that I want both of us to talk to her together.” I have never, ever, even once, seen that approach fail! No employee wants to have his confrontation of a coworker taken to the manager, right after the coworker has made a report about the first employee’s temper!” Tell all of your coworkers to say the same thing. Look the mean guy in the eye and say, “Let’s go right now to Mr. Smith’s office and talk to him about how you feel.” THEN, go to your manager’s office with or without the angry coworker. Don’t just make threats. If you let you manager know that the coworker cornered you and was upset, it will give your manager something to verify what you have said and actually can be quite helpful. If all the coworker is doing is asking courteously about it, you can’t use that approach. But, I gather that probably isn’t what your coworker will do! 10.

Keep your goal in mind: To have a comfortable, professional workplace that serves its patients and that represents the organization well. If you have a good relationship with your manager, he or she will certainly want to support anything that improves those things. If you don’t have a good relationship with your manager, you’d probably better work on that first, so you can get his or her full support and assistance. Be ready to say what you want to have happen. Stick to the idea of what kind of workplace you want to have and what it will take to have it. It will take everyone treating everyone else with courtesy and respect. There is no room in it for angry outbursts and demeaning remarks. If there has been a time when things have been good, mention that time as a comparison. OR, if the coworker now and then is very good about how he communicates, mention that. That will let you show that your focus is on the workplace, not just on causing problems for the employee. I hope these ideas have been useful. I know it’s a long letter to read! But, your situation isn’t an easy one to deal with. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

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.