Harassing and Incompetent Co-Worker

Question:

My co-worker fits the definition of a problem employee! She has had several write-ups about her work and she is very unpleasant to work with, which creates stress and makes work more difficult. She constantly harasses me about personal issues related to my appearance, weight and other things that are none of her business. She is sarcastic and seems to enjoy mocking me or taking something I’ve said and making fun of it over and over, being purposely irritating. She also violates many of our office rules. To make matters worse, she doesn’t do her work well and I have to re-do her work to fix mistakes and do mine too.

Right now she is still in her training phase and could be dismissed, but she will have full tenure in a few weeks, after which dismissal won’t be as easy. My boss, who did the write-ups, knows about all of this and tells me to keep him informed and he will do something about it soon. But so far, nothing has changed.

I once loved my job and I don’t want to change jobs. I have excellent benefits, and my job is convenient for many reasons. I have never been written up or disciplined in any way in the time I have been here. But this situation is ruining all of that.

I am so stressed that my doctor wants to put me on anti-depressant medication. Is there anything I can do to solve this problem without quitting my job? Thank you!

Signed,

Depressed Over Problem Employee


Answer:

Dear Depressed Over Problem Employee:

I can imagine how frustrating this is to you. And sadly, it sounds as though it is getting down to the wire on time. It may be that your boss doesn’t want to take on the hassles of removing someone before their training phase is over. But, as you know, this employee will almost certainly be much worse later on!

My response to you assumes that what you say is exactly true and that this is more than a minor personality conflict. Thus, I will not advise trying to talk to the other employee to resolve the conflict, or to find out why she is the way she is. I will assume that the goal is to get the boss to take action while he can. If your boss sees the whole thing in a completely different way than you do, your responses may not make a difference. But having you nudge him may be just what he needs.

You really have only one option, if you want to have a decent work environment: Make your complaints formal and be firm about requesting support from your manager and the organization.

You don’t say the size of your organization, but it seems to have enough employees to warrant an HR section. You will absolutely need their support. But, it might make your manager angry for you to actively solicit their help. If you know someone there, they might be able to advise you. OR, your boss may welcome a suggestion from you to forward your message to HR. That might take him off the hook for the decision.

Here are some key elements of your letter to your boss: 1. It must show that her actions would be inappropriate in any setting and with other employees–maybe even customers. If it only sounds as though you and she don’t get along, that might be brushed aside as unimportant. The bottom line on any business is the work product–if you can show work has suffered, or that you are not able to do your work as well because of her, or that her work is so bad as to cause problems when you are no longer around to bail her out, that is a key point. 2. You need several specifics, just as you outlined with us. Even if you’ve already reported them, you need to report them again. Don’t worry about being considered a “snitch” or anything else she might call you. What you are doing is reporting wrong actions and rudeness to you personally. You have a right to do that. In fact, it’s far more honest to do that than to complain about it but never say anything. Make a point of mentioning her remarks about your weight and fitness. Say that you consider that to be very harassing on her part and offensive in the extreme. That might get their attention when other things would not. I don’t know if you DO have a weight issue! But the fact that she repeatedly talks about your personal characteristics is wrong and could be considered harassing. Be sure and use those words, linked with her comments about you personally.

3. You need to show that she has been talked to about her behavior, but it hasn’t changed. THAT IS IMPORTANT. You can then say that after her training time is over she would have any less reason to respect what she is told by managers. So, it is probable she will continue to disregard her boss and not do good work. 4. Be very, very strong about the effect on you, and cite your lack of any problems up until now. Mention that you are so distraught over it that you have been seeking medical care and counseling about it. If I were you, I’d say that I didn’t know if I’d be able to continue working there in the kind of unpleasant work environment she has caused. That might be an empty threat–but actually the time might come when you would rather work elsewhere to avoid her. If you have been a good worker, they won’t want to lose you.

5. You don’t mention if others have had problems with her or not. If they have, consider giving their names as possible people to interview about it.

6. This last is where you have to think like a supervisor and give your boss the words he needs to write up his own letter about the problem employee. You can use your own words, to fit your own situation, but a good closing for your letter would be something like this: “My understanding of the training time here is that it is not only a time to train new employees, it is a time during which an employee’s ability and willingness to do a job is tested, and during which their suitability for the specific work is decided. In Mary’s case, she has shown that she lacks the ability to do the job effectively, based on the even the few of many examples I’ve listed here. She has shown that she is not willing to conform to our work standards and our office courtesy by the few of many examples I’ve also listed. She has shown disregard for management directions and has never shown any effort to improve her actions or to be a better employee.

“If, while in her training phase, she harasses employees, does not do her work correctly, violates policies and does other things that harm the work environment and affect work product, it is clear that she would do the same things and much worse, if she is hired permanently.

“I am not a supervisor, but my experience here, and my closeness to the work situation, allows me to observe more than a supervisor might be able to see. I am convinced that Mary is not able or willing to do the work and that she is not suitable for the kind of workplace this organization expects and needs.

“As I have mentioned, I have been personally mistreated and mentally abused by Mary, over and over, in spite of efforts to make her stop. I have had to re-do her work and have had my own work hampered because of problems she has caused. I am so concerned that she will be allowed to pass her training phase, in spite of her deficiencies, that I am writing this letter–something that is not comfortable for me to do.

“I have never caused problems for anyone and have always focused on my work. The fact that I would write something like this should show how bad the situation has become in the short time Mary has worked here.

“I am available for further discussion about this and can cite other examples if needed. I would be very willing to talk to HR so they are aware of the problems. I am asking for your support in making sure we find an employee who will do the job we need to have done, but who will do it in a way that is appropriate and non-harassing of other employees. Mary is not the employee we need.”

You can’t get much more blunt than that! And, I would imagine it would be difficult for you to write that. But the alternative is worse!

You need to act right away. Time is running out. It takes time to make all of this happen and every day wasted is another day closer to her being retained permanently.

I should mention something else too: Your boss may suggest that you and Mary talk it out. Be adamant that talking it out won’t change her lack of ability. Focus on her lack of skills and her lack of ability to do the job, communicate effectively, use interpersonal sensitivity and all the other things that are needed at work. Don’t let him make this a one-one-one conflict, when it is much more than that!

The reason I am writing so strongly about this, is because I see this happening all the time. People who don’t perform well during a training or probationary phase, are hired with the hope that they’ll be so grateful for the job they will do better. If they really wanted to do better, the time to do it is while they are in the workplace honeymoon! Your next step, after the letter, is to ensure that you are civil, but do not do any work of hers that is not yours to do. Don’t help her when it is not your responsiblity to do it. If it is your responsibility, help her, then document it so you can show what she is still not capable of doing. Document every time she creates a work problem.

If she says something that is rude, say, “Stop. You’ve made your point about that before and I want you to stop now.” If she doesn’t, send an email to your manager, citing this as another example of her behavior. Just make sure you are appropriate in your own actions and that you continue to focus on doing good work. If your boss starts thinking you are causing her to do things, or leading her into problems, that won’t look good. But it sounds as though she does plenty on her own!

I hope this advice has helped you. Please let us know how it turns out. You CAN make a difference if you act right away and are strong about it.

Best wishes!

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.