Fed Up With Tag Along Co-worker!

Question:

There is this co-worker who is not even a certified staff member in the school I work in. He is only in his 20’s and he is a computer tech person. I am a school counselor. He is always lingering around my office and the secretary’s office. He is a gossip and has way too much time on his hands. I will be talking with a teacher about a student in confidence and he will be like a shark lingering around and then asking about the student. I have talked with the principal but he is so laid back that he will not say anything to him. The other problem is that he has now formed this gossip click in the secretary’s office and it feels like high school every time I have to go in there and have the secretary do something for me. I will be going to do a classroom lesson and he will be following me down the hallway trying to make conversation. IT is so annoying!!! I don’t know how to handle this?

Signed,

Fed Up


Answer:

Dear Fed Up:

The person you describe certainly does sound annoying! However–say I’m suspicious, but I think there is much more than an annoyance issue to consider. On the other hand, it may be that I am viewing it more seriously than the facts merit. Whatever the seriousness, if you are truly fed up, there are things you can do that will help. Think about the following as you decide your plan of action:

1. This first series of questions is designed to have you do a quick check of the situation. The answers will allow you to decide how best to structure the request for assistance you will make about this matter.

*Can you document more than one time when he has lingered around your office and/or asked questions about students? *How long has he worked there and how long has this been going on? *What is his demeanor and personality like generally? Is he youthful and puppy-dog friendly or mature acting and overly familiar–or something in between? *Does he seem to have a personal interest in you or is his behavior directed at everyone? *Has this distracted you or made it difficult for you to focus on your own work? *Has he had a legitimate reason to be in your office to begin with or did he purposely come there without a reason and without your encouragement? *Was the nature of his questions about students or other issues, personal or general? *Did he ask more about females than males? *Did he sound concerned when he asked about the students, merely curious, or snoopy to the point of being inappropriate? *Given your training, does any aspect of this concern you for reasons other than his being a pest? *How do you know he is engaged in a gossip session with the secretary? *Who and what are they gossiping about? *Can you document what you have heard and how many times you have observed him doing that? *Have these sessions ever made it difficult for you to do the work you need to do? Why is that? *Does he spend a lot of time with other teachers? Is he generally popular with the teachers and thus a welcome visitor or have others expressed your same concerns? Would they be wiling to support your statements.

You can see that his behavior could be harmless or it could have the potential for problems. That needs to be considered further and a decision made about the nature of his actions. If my questions allow you to see that the matter is not so serious as it sounded to me, then that might guide your next actions. If they point out concerns you hadn’t considered, then you will have a place to start your responses about the situation.

2. This next series of questions will be some that you can bet you’ll be asked at some point, so you might as well have the answers now.

*Have you ever asked him not to linger around your office? What was his response? If you have not asked him to stop, why not? *Have you had a friendly relationship with him and thus he might feel encouraged to linger in your office? *Have you ever participated with him and the secretary in the gossip sessions? *How did you approach the principal about this? Was it just in passing or have you submitted a formal request or had a focused interview about it? What was his response? Did you follow-up on it at that point? *Are you willing to follow this through, even if the secretary or others resents it or get angry?

3. If he has lingered in your office without having business there and has asked questions about students–or if he has listened in to conversations you’re having about students–that sounds inappropriate. If it is, it should be stopped immediately. Not only might that make students and others uncomfortable if they knew about it–it has a tremendous liability potential should something occur and it became known that there had been reasons for concern but nothing was done about it. Convey that to whomever you report this to, and you will get more attention than otherwise. And remember that you have a responsibility to your clients, the other students and the school–as well as a liability risk if you don’t take action in serious situations.

The gossip sessions may be viewed as less of a problem than his behavior involving the business of your office. However, if those sessions take away from the focus on your work or the work of others, that should stop as well. This will likely be more difficult since the secretary may come to his defense. On the other hand, hopefully someone will see that it is all part of a larger picture of an employee who is not using his time well—and wasting the time of others.

4. To whom does he report? It is likely that he is part of an IT section for the school system, reporting not only to the principal, for on-site direction–but also to a person with overall IT responsibilities. If talking to the principal again does not get serious action, consider contacting that IT director. You would be covered organizationally if you could document that you expressed concerns that were not heeded. If the principal and the IT director don’t take action and you sincerely have concerns, go to HR. If that doesn’t work, go to school system attorneys. You are really only limited by how serious you think the matter is.

5. Now, look at it from his perspective. He is young and involved in a line of work that involves some stereotyping about the nature of people attracted to it. That may be for a reason! If he hasn’t been supervised effectively, hasn’t been told what he can and can’t do or hasn’t been told to stop what he’s doing that is annoying, he may think he’s only being friendly. He may like to feel part of the professional world that he works around. He may have felt he has been encouraged about his behavior. Often a lack of supervision is more to blame for employee issues than the employees themselves, if they had no way to know that their behavior was a problem.

6. Given all of that, consider this course of action: Write your concerns in an email to the principal. You may want to start by saying that although you’ve mentioned this before, and you want to ensure that you are clear about your concerns. That will both put him on the spot and give him an out for not taking action earlier.

You will know best how to word it, but you will need to establish the link to your work effectiveness as well as to liability issues related to confidentiality of information and the inappropriateness of the IT employee’s behavior and manner. Mention the details of his behavior. You can decide if you want to focus on the lurking around your office or if you want to mention both that and the gossiping.

You may want to say that you feel that more is needed than for you to tell him to stop. If he is unaware of the inappropriateness of his actions, he needs to be counseled about it in a way that lets him know the risks to the school and to himself if he does or says something that might present a liability concern. Close the email by saying you are available to provide further information or discussion. In the last paragraph re-emphasize that you are concerned and want to ensure that the situation doesn’t continue or get worse.

Then, wait to see what happens. In the meantime, you will do both the IT person and yourself a favor by stopping him when he goes over the line. If he’s hanging around your office, pick up the phone and say, “I need to make a confidential call, so you’ll have to leave.” Or, “I’m expecting a call and need to get some work done, so I’ll have to get to that now.” Then usher him to the door or turn away and start working. If he continues to stand there or tries to wait outside, be more pointed: “David, we have to be very careful in this office that it doesn’t look like anyone is hanging around who doesn’t need to be here. Lawsuits and that kind of thing, you know. So, you should only be in here if you have IT business.”

When you walk down the hall, have something in your hand so you can be busy. Answer briefly. If he’s talking about your work, say you can’t do that. If he’s only being more friendly than you want, you may have to hurt his feelings to stop him. Try saying, “Dave, you always seem to follow me down the hall like this. Is there something you need to say and just can’t say it or what?” That will probably startle him so much he will stop! If he says no, he just was having a conversation, you can say, “I’m sorry, but I’m collecting my thoughts between meetings so I don’t have time to talk.” Or, the second he walks up, point to your paper and say, “Sorry David, I don’t have time to talk.” If you don’t want to be put on the spot like that, consider turning around and walking the other way. If he follows you, you certainly can say something about that!

I hope these thoughts will give you some ideas of your own or reinforce what you were thinking about doing. One thing is for sure: Every day that he does this type of thing is another day of reinforcement for him. If you want it to stop you need to take decisive action. It probably won’t be pleasant but it will likely be worth it.

If you have the time and wish to do so, keep us informed about what develops.

Creating a professional climate sometimes means being too busy to be distracted. Thinking WEGO means coping with those who don’t have a sense of what is appropriate.

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.