False Accusations of a Hostile Work Environment

Question:

My co-worker filed a complaint with Human Resources stating that I cause her work environment to be hostile. She stated a few incidents that occured between us and did not tell the truth about them. She lied about the details of each incident that occured.

I stated my side in my defense and I feel like I am not being believed. She is an older woman and I am half her age. I now feel like I am being looked upon as an angry employee.

When we all met together, she cried and went into dramatics about how hard it is for her. I do not believe this. I am not in any way making her work environment hostile. I do not know what I am to do about this. I feel like she is painting this horrible picture of me and it is false. How do I handle this and restore my good reputation?

Signed,

Worried


Answer:

Dear Worried:

I can imagine how frustrating it is to feel that you are not being believed about a complaint of this nature. It seems likely there was something else negative between the two of you anyway and whatever happened gave your coworker the reason or excuse she needed to create a problem for you. Let me clarify one thing though. A hostile work environment, as a workplace definition, refers to an offensive or intimidating environment based on harssment because of gender, race, age, etc. If she is saying you are intimidating her because of her age or gender, that is a different issue than if she is saying you are rude to her or offensive in a general sense.

She probably didn’t just make up something, so I assume something happened or was said…and she interpreted it differently than you intended. If you have never done or said anything even remotely negative to her, it would seem there would be witnesses to that fact. Or, if your overall demeanor is positive most of the time, it seems unlikely people would believe this of you. So, that might indicate your actions could be taken several ways, no matter how they are intended. I think you should approach it in a couple of ways. First, make sure your behavior around the coworker is courteous and professional all the time. Whatever she complained about you doing, don’t do it even if you don’t think it’s a problem. If you see a conflict developing, walk away rather than talk back to her. Then, go to your supervisor and explain what happened.

Ask for some input from your supervisor about how to handle the communication gap that apparently exists between you and your coworker.

If it is possible to do so, ask your manager if you can talk to him or her about this again. Or, write a letter or email. Say that you are worried that your reputation will be harmed and you want to know what you can do to rebuild it. Your manager knows better than I would or even you would, about that. He or she knows the big picture of your workplace and how serious this complaint is, as well as what has been said by others about it.

The final thing to do is to be the kind of person in your interactions with others that when an accusation like this occurs, people will know it can’t be true. Or, they will at least provide mitigation and say that they know you didn’t intend to be hurtful or intimidating.

You didn’t say you think you will lose your job or receive severe sanctions for this situation. So, I think it will probably go away as a big issue over time. Already there may be some who think your coworker was being overly dramatic, even if they think you might have pushed things a bit. Put your focus on your work and be as effective as possible. People will know you feel awkward but they will respect you for trying to stay positive anyway.

I’m confident you will work through it, but it might take a couple of weeks for the first uncomfortable feelings to diminish somewhat. It will take longer for you to feel as good as you may have before. But over time, this will become history and you will be able to show what kind of person you really are.

Best wishes with this situation. 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.