Hateful Co-worker

Question:

I have been working for this company for 4 yrs. and have recently been promoted to a full time sub-foreman position for evening maintenance. I work with an older gentleman who is sub-foreman for the production department. On more than one occasion he has blown up at me when things don’t go his way and is very abusive verbally. I have talked to my supervisor about it without getting any results. I understand he has 20+ years experience at what he is doing and try to give him the respect he deserves but it doesn’t seem to matter.

My boss says I am doing very good with my new job and my new responsibilities. I try to be cooperative and professional in my dealings with the other sub-foreman, but to no avail. I have talked to other people including his supervisor about his attitude and they say that nothing can be done. This is not the first time, nor am I the only person he does this to. Do you think I should stand up to him? I don’t want to feel like I am lowering myself to his level,or get a reputation for being hotheaded and uncooperative.

We have a H.R. department but I hesitate to report him for fear of causing myself unnecessary grief. I like my new job and all my crew and my supervisor and I don’t want to go backwards in my career. I am 44 yrs. old and have worked hard to get where I am at today.Any suggestions will be greatly apprecciated!!

Signed,

Trying To Get Along


Answer:

Dear Trying To Get Along:

You have a wonderful opportunity to show your abilities in a tough situation, as well as being a model for others about how to be effective, even when there is conflict. Take advantage of this to build your positive reputation.

I become very frustrated and even angry, when I hear supervisors and managers say there is nothing that can be done about rude, disruptive people. After 20+ years it wouldn’t be EASY to make a change–but certainly it would be possible. By now, supervisors and managers are probably just holding on for his retirement in ten years or more. Isn’t that a shame?

You’ve apparently tried to handle it through supervisory channels and nothing will be done that way at this point. But, maybe you can handle it on your own, at least well enough that you’ll be able to work within the situation.

“Blowing up” at you and being verbally abusive, could mean different things to different people. If he raises his voice and uses mild swear words that is one thing. If he calls you obscene names and makes it personally threatening to you, or makes gender-based or racial slurs, that’s something else. (In those cases you should make a written complaint to your manager, and route it through your supervisor. That is illegal activity and no organization wants to risk the liability of that kind of behavior.)

I would imagine he just throws a temper tantrum, as he does with many others, and has done for years. People wince, but then shrug and tolerate it. You don’t want to do that for days, weeks, months and years! On the other hand, you aren’t his supervisor and aren’t responsible for changing his behavior overall, only with you. So, you have a very narrow focus for your efforts. You want to get your work done, while preventing and avoiding hostility when possible, and calming it down if it occurs, as well as finding a way to deal with it, if it is inevitable.

If he is an internal client of your section, as may be the case, you will also need to talk to your supervisor on an ongoing basis, about the sub-foreman’s concerns. It may be there are some processes and procedures that need to be changed to make things work better from his perspective.

If he is not really a client, but rather only an angry person, you will still want to ensure you keep your supervisor informed about any unusual occurrences. Try your best to do this without becoming a broken record about the subject! You don’t want it to be viewed as an ongoing saga between the two of you. Keep the tone that you are focused on achieving the work the right way, and trying to work with a difficult person to do it. If there a good things to report about the working relationship, do that as well.

Consider these thoughts, as you develop a plan of action:

1. You are an assistant supervisor. Your job is to do your own work, and to work with and through those you supervise, to accomplish the tasks of your assignment, for the organization. You report to a foreman, who reports up the chain of responsibility. Focus on doing your work well, and in a way that solves problems for the company rather than creates problems. That will keep you from personalizing some of this. Try your best to take your emotion and ego out of it.

I would also advice this, though: Think of yourself, always, as the peer of the problem sub-foreman, NOT as his junior, or his subordinate, or anything else that gives him authority over you. If he is to be viewed as your client and your job is to satisfy his requirements, that may require an understanding between your supervisor and his, about how far that goes.

But, if he is not to be viewed as a client you need only think of him as a co-worker with whom you want to build cooperation and courtesy. His tenure isn’t THAT impressive. He’s not a venerable elder statesman or anything like that! He’s just a person with your same job title, who has been around longer, probably through no great deeds of his own.

I admire your willingness to want to show respect to his status. But really, that only applies in areas where he has more knowledge and skill than you do. Not in areas where he clearly has less skill than you do–which is the case about his communications skills! Avoid acting or being intimidated by him. Just as you are not his boss, he is not yours. In fact, a good way to think of it, is this: How would you want those you supervise to deal with those of their same general organizational level, in other sections? You would want them to work together, but you would not want them to feel they were less important, or that the other person had the right to treat them badly.

2. There are two times you will need to deal with his behavior–before he becomes angry, and while he is angry. It isn’t as easy to be angry with someone with whom you have recently had a civil conversation. See if you can find ways to have conversations with him about neutral matters related to work. You might even be able to have conversations related to more personal issues–hobbies, families and so forth. But, you may find you want to stick to work issues, if for no other reason, than to keep you from being insincere in your friendliness!

If the causes of hostility can be prevented, the time to do so is before he becomes angry. Perhaps the two of you can trouble-shoot some problem areas and find ways to work together. I don’t know the nature of his work compared to yours, but it would seem likely you and your staff are viewed as interfering with his work in some way. Look for ways to avoid drawing lines in the dirt about any issue. He’s the kind of person who will never hesitate to step over the line! I’m not suggesting that you give in to his demands, just that you pick your battles before the war starts! Let me also mention this: I don’t know what role your crew plays in these situations, but I do know they won’t be as caring about it as you are, most likely. Be certain they are not doing and saying things that unnecessarily create hostility. I once spent months bearing the brunt of management anger caused by the ongoing hostility between a couple of members of my group, and a couple of members of another group. It occurred to me that perhaps my solution was to stop the actions of my subordinates, rather than trying to stop the anger of someone over whom I had no control! And frankly, I got tired of trying to defend them, when I could see that they were part of the problem!

There are many things that we can mentally justify saying and doing–based on technicalities about work. But, often there would have been other ways to achieve the same things. Don’t let yourself get caught in those technically correct actions that could have just as easily been done differently and without causing anger.

So, your first step is to do all you can do to develop and maintain a civil, if not cordial relationship, apart from the major conflict times. I know you have tried that already–but you will do well to continue. One day you will be the foreman, with sub-foremen working with you. How would you advise them to build positive relationships? Apply that to yourself.

3. When something happens that you know is going to create anger, try to stay away from the scene when possible, for a few minutes. You may be required to talk to him. But, I have found that if I don’t run to the scene of a verbal fire it burns out somewhat before I get there. On occasion it’s all over by the time I arrive! Sometimes we think if someone is upset we have to try to jump in and explain the situation immediately. That may not be the case always.

In addition, when the other sub-foreman is angry, what seems to add fuel to the flame? Here are my experiences: It makes people more angry to tell them to calm down, to smile and act as though the situation and their behavior is rather amusing, to talk soothingly, as though they are children, to accuse them of being the cause of the problem. It’s easy to make someone MORE angry! Those are all temptations though! So, you will want to find ways to defuse some of the immediate anger to allow you to begin to communicate. You won’t be able to communicate while he is under the influence of his temper and ego. 4. Try the approach mentioned before, about giving the burst of anger time to calm down a bit, before you confront the person, if that is possible. If you are present when the burst occurs, see if you can get away a bit, by saying you need to find out what happened–then leave. Or, listen for a few minutes and say you’ll be back after you’ve looked into it. Or, anything else that will give you both breathing room. I have even said, “Hey, I want to talk to you about this, but give me a few minutes to go to the bathroom!”

Stop language or volume that is inappropriate. Step back and say in a friendly tone, “Don! Turn down the volume some!” If he continues, be stern and firm, “Don, I can’t even think when someone is talking so loudly. Stop.” I often use “someone” rather than “you”, as a way to keep it from further irritating an out of control person.

I have found the single word, “Stop” to be a very useful tool. It can be said with a smile, with a frown, with a stern tone or a pleading tone. But it does send a message. If you have to say it more than two or three times, giving a few minutes for it to sink in, you might need to say, “I’ll be back later.” Then leave. Tough to do! When you come back, you don’t need to refer to that situation unless he brings it up. Just work on the problem.

Focus on investigating the source of his anger. Take notes if possible, in a notebook you carry with you. I have often found it slows people down a bit when they are being asked appropriate questions, and notes are being taken. You don’t want to be extreme, but it might be helpful for many reasons.

If he is angry about something that is justified, apologize immediately and say you will investigate it and take action to keep it from happening again. Saying you’re sorry is sometimes the least stressful thing to do. Just make sure you really do something about the problem.

If he is angry about things that you and your crew were required to do, make an effort to explain it in detail, rather than just saying that’s your job. You might have documents about it, procedures or rules for example. Show him a copy and suggest he talk about it with his supervisor. Maybe you can tell him you’ll write to yours, so they will both know about the concern.

If he is angry simply because he doesn’t like a situation, you may need to say something like, “That’s not something I see I can do anything about. But, I’ll invetigate it. Would you like to try to get together with someone higher up to talk about it?”

Work at finding out what he would have preferred to have happen. It may be that what he would have preferred would have been possible, and can be done differently next time. If what he preferred is clearly not what you could have done, at least you will know that, and will have something to let your own supervisor know about.

5. There may come a time when you have to stand your ground. If you do, be as calm as you can be, but don’t worry if YOU sound a bit stern too.

You might say, “Don, I want to work with you on this, but I don’t want to be yelled at. Stop, and we can talk.”

If it becomes so bad you really do have to get up and leave, you certainly will want to write a memo for your supervisor about it.

At some point you may need to put your concerns in writing anyway, and submit them to your supervisor, asking that it be forwarded to the manager. But hopefully it won’t come to that. I agree that it would cause tremendous upset, and likely wouldn’t change much either. But, it’s not something to completely avoid at all costs.

The bottom line for you is to ask yourself what you will need to do to make things better, even if he does nothing to cooperate. There may be a price to pay for that! If so, how far are you willing to go?

I would think, knowing work situations like this, that you will need to learn to tolerate some irritants and frustrations from him, and teach your crew to do the same. As long as work can be done, that’s the important thing. But when his demeanor and conversation gets in the way of you and your crew working effectively, then it needs to be stopped by those at a higher level than you.

In the meantime, keep that image of the role-model in mind. If you were being video-taped in every situation with him and about him, how would you be seen? You don’t need to be a saint who tolerates any level of rudeness. You just need to be a confident sub-foreman who knows the job and how it should be done–then does it, while working with challenging people. Best wishes as you develop your plan and implement it. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know the results as time goes on.

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.