Falsely Accused of Creating a Hostile Work Environment.

Question: I was recently terminated from my place of employment of four years on the accusation of hostile work environment. I was disqualified from unemployment benefits because of this. I have always treated my team with respect. given them praises on their work and given them incentives along with Christmas bonus. I believe this accusation arose because of my belief in maintaining and keeping a professional relationship with the team. I don’t engage in joking or becoming too chummy. When you try to correct them they feel that you are intimidating them. What should I do?

Response: I’m sorry this situation has developed. You signed your question, “Hurt and Frustrated” and I can well understand that those feelings would be uppermost in your mind right now. You ask what you can do, which I assume to mean, what can you do now and in the future, to avoid these situations and to move forward from the unpleasantness of this experience.

You may already have your next job lined up or plans made for your job search. (I’m very sorry about the unemployment benefit situation.) I used to think it would be a barrier if an applicant didn’t have a solidly positive reference, but I’ve found that many organizations are more interested in specific work skills and experiences than they are in opinions or star ratings—which is often what references are.

You may find it helpful to ask for reference letters from people from other businesses or fields who have interacted with you in your last job, as a way to show your effectiveness. Quite often people who have had a good relationship with you are empathetic to the challenges of your work and want to support you.

If you have access to counseling, an informal mentor or some focused conversation with a respected person, take advantage of one or more of those resources. Those people will be able to better evaluate your approach to communications and the impact that may have had on the specific situations in which you have been involved.

You have probably mentally gone over the events leading up to your dismissal and feel that your actions as a supervisor or manager were not understood or appreciated. It may be that you had a few employees who made life miserable for you, even though they claim the situation was the reverse. The claim of a hostile work environment, in which someone says they couldn’t work effectively because they felt intimidated, threatened or bullied and mistreated, is easy to make—and it’s not always easy to show that the accusation is false, especially if more than one or two employees make the same claim. Higher level managers may decide there must be at least some element of truth to that many accusations and they “exit out” the supervisor to bring peace to the team.

However, even in those cases, I have never seen a situation where there was absolutely no investigation and the supervisor went, in a few days, from thinking things were OK to being fired. In fact, in every case with which I’m familiar, in big organizations and small ones, there had been hints, counseling, evaluation comments, interviews and warnings, before the supervisor or manager was fired.

I investigated one case where the supervisor insisted she had no warnings and no chance to improve. However, after some conversation and after I showed her emails and evaluation comments, she admitted her boss had often told her of grumblings and complaints and asked her to see if she could find ways to improve morale. Her performance evaluations were filled with phrases like, “Should continue to work to improve relationships with her team.” (Which meant, “STILL hasn’t improved relationships with her team!”)  

Most higher level managers are busy with their own work (which they consider to be much more important than office conflicts.) So, instead of having a solid, significant conversation or coaching, they just hint—or they don’t say anything, until it’s too late. It’s always wise to listen and look for even slight indicators that we may be viewed as needing to improve or change some aspect of our behavior or performance. It’s also wise to ask at least twice a year, “Do you have any thoughts on ways I could be more effective?”

Another thing I have found when I have investigated cases that were being appealed, was that nearly always the supervisor could show that the complaining employee also had behavioral and performance problems. Therefore, to the supervisor, that employee wasn’t credible and shouldn’t be believed. In many cases, there was no doubt that the complaining employee was problematic. (In some cases the issue was completely the fault of the supervisor.) But, even when an employee is a problem to the supervisor or to the organization, they may be able to truthfully say they felt threatened by a supervisor’s tone of voice, facial expression or specific words or actions.

For example, one supervisor had a habit of walking rapidly from her area to the main office area and walking into the small cubicle area of an employee to talk to them about something that needed to be done or done differently. She would start the conversation with the name of the employee. “Carol, this report is a problem.” Or, “Bill, we have to talk.” Or, “Jan, what the heck is happening with that project? I thought it was done by now!” Or even something mild, “Barb, do you know why Chalmers hasn’t paid this invoice yet?”  

It was startling and unnerving to all of the employees. To the employees who didn’t much care of her anyway, it became a sinister threat. One employee said, “I have to look up to see her face and she’s crowding right next to me and looking down at me, or she’ll lean on my desk and hover over me, or she’ll just stand there blocking the light, so I feel like she has me in a prison!”

There have been similar reports in other businesses about the tone of emails or phone calls from a supervisor.

The third thing I have observed in these investigations is the understandable frustration of the supervisors. I hear phrases like, “Good grief, I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t!” “Nothing I could have done would have made her happy. She just doesn’t want to have a supervisor.” “99% of the employees like me and like working with me. But these three people are being given all the attention.” “I feel like I have to tip toe around the office and worry about every little thing I do or say.” “I’ve had bosses who treated me terribly, but I learned to work well with them and I certainly didn’t run and complain.”

I understand the frustration, because I’ve felt it myself. However, I have to honestly say that there were several ways I could have used better judgment or adjusted just a bit, to have avoided some issues. Fortunately, in several cases I did make those adjustments. Unfortunately, in some cases, once the damage was done, it became a handy excuse for the employee for a long time.

Here are some of the suggestions I have made to other supervisors:

1.) Supervisors need to be aware of the culture of the organization as well as the team. A supervisor also needs to know what each individual is expecting and wants from a supervisor. If the expectations are unreasonable, you may only be able to deliver 1/10th of it. But, that’s better than trying to treat everyone exactly the same.

If a group laughs, jokes, chats and is a social group as well as work group, a supervisor must be part of that regularly and often or he or she will be viewed as snooty and disagreeable. Further, participating in those activities reduces hostility when corrections take place. An employee is much less likely to feel intimidated—or say she feels intimidated—if the supervisor sits in the middle of the group at lunch, brings bagels and munches them with the group and puts a birthday card under a cupcake on the employee’s desk.

I tell every supervisor to budget for a few goodwill snacks and cards. A supervisor shouldn’t try to buy friendship or compliance, nor should they be excessive about bringing in food or providing perks for the group. But, it is facilitative to do a little something now and then. A package of sugarless gum, a couple of Hershey’s kisses or an apple, combined with a smiling greeting and questions about the family, vacation or whatever, smooths a lot of situations.

2.) One way to ensure that supervisory actions aren’t viewed as threatening or frightening, is to use the One Minute Manager concept, which involves letting employees talk and keeping things brief. It’s an old concept—and you may not wish to read the parable-style book by Ken Blanchard—but, check out some websites about it.

When employees are allowed to talk about their actions and tell their side of the story or their reasons for why they did something, in a relaxed way, the supervisor isn’t usually viewed as being arbitrary, demeaning or threatening. The employee might not like to change what they were doing and they may think the supervisor is wrong or being a jerk or whatever, but they can’t easily allege that the supervisor browbeat them into submission.

3.) If a supervisor knows that his or her personality is likely to be viewed as lacking in warmth or seeming to be aloof, it is their responsibility to communicate in ways that will reduce that likelihood. For example, a supervisor who was disliked by every employee, was considered demoralizing and threatening, even though she gave good evaluations and never acted angry or specifically demeaning. Employees had taken their complaints to her manager, who documented several counseling interviews and the fact that she had been sent to several supervisory skills classes. She never made any changes at all, nor did she seem to make an effort to change. I was asked to do a final investigation, to let higher levels decide whether to dismiss her or to keep trying to work with her to help her improve.

When I asked each of the ten employees to describe her actions, they all said she never smiled and she acted like all she had time for was business. They said she acted impatient with their concerns and snapped answers as though she resented talking to them. A very pleasant employee, who seemed to be trying to find excuses for her, said maybe she had some trauma in her life that made her anti-social.

Later, when I talked to the supervisor, she looked sour and unfriendly. As I asked her questions, she was concise to the point of rudeness. Finally I stopped and brought all of those things to her attention and told her how they made me feel and the attitude she seemed to conveying. She said, exasperatedly, “Oh my goodness! That’s so ridiculous! Anyone who knows me knows that I have a good sense of humor. I just don’t grin and I don’t have a mobile face, so I come across as being in a bad mood even when I’m fine. I don’t want to waste people’s time or mine either, so I don’t ramble and I get to get to the point with my comments, but I think that’s a positive, not a negative. I think you’re judging me on very superficial issues, rather than on the quality of my work as a supervisor.”

Unfortunately, people are rarely engaged by someone who has no facial expression and who talks in clipped tones or who seems so business-like that it discourages small-talk. Further, employees don’t know a supervisor like a good friend might, so if we want them to view us as approachable, we have to approach them and encourage them to approach us. People at work don’t have the time or inclination to get to know the real us—so the surface us has to be as warm and engaging as we can make it. (Incidentally, her refusal to try to change her communications style lost her the support of her own manager and soon after that, she was fired.)

4.)  Even supervisors who are doing the right things in every other way, will always have problems if they expect employees to respond as they would in similar situations. Most supervisors and managers are in their positions because they are considered to have a Big Picture view of the work, they are willing to take the initiative in tasks, and they accept responsibility. Many line-level employees have those qualities, but there are some employees who will never be offered a position of leadership, because they simply do not possess the knowledge, skills and traits required. As a result, most supervisors find it helpful to communicate with all employees using the approach of a friendly coach who communicates often—not always about work—rather than the attitude of an overseer who alternates between praise and correction. Almost all employees –even those who lack some emotional maturity or interpersonal skills—will respond acceptably to the friendly coach approach.

All of the above are just thoughts I wanted to share. I don’t know anything about your specific situation and it would be unfair for me to make judgments or give suggestions based on only a few sentences. However, perhaps you can adjust these generic thoughts to be helpful. If you care about people and want to be a respected and well-liked supervisor, there may be some changes you will need to make. I have met many supervisors who were oblivious to how awful they treated people, so I don’t make the assumption that the fault is always with the employees. In fact, some of the most intelligent, work-oriented supervisors I’ve met, were arrogant about their knowledge and skills and talked down to employees and peers or treated them in other ways that made everyone celebrate when the supervisor left or was fired. I’m hoping that’s not like you!

On the other hand, I’ve been in many offices where the employees seemed to be an attacking army, out to get the supervisor. I could always see where the supervisor left the gate open for the attack, but still, I felt the problem was more with the employees than with the supervisor.

My wish for you is that you will find a job where the work, the employees and the culture are a great fit for you, so you can be successful and help employees be successful too.

If you have the time and want to do so, let us know what develops.
Tina Lewis Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors

Update: After the supervisor received our response, she communicated with more details and we responded with more specific advice. Her last communication to us said: ” Good morning. I just wanted to say thank you for all of your advice. I won my case and I am now receiving my benefits!!!!! Thank you again and have a great day!!!”

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.