Hostile Environment!

Ask the Workplace Doctors about a COO who gossips about me and staff who scream:

The CEO of the agency I work for is my aunt. A coworker, recently promoted to COO, who never liked me, has talked about my character to staff I supervise. I have been under investigation by the state 2 times and each time the allegations were unsubstantiated.

I have 10 years of perfect audits. I recently directed my manager to write a counseling memo (not an employee’s warning) about a situation that could be an incident and she began yelling and screaming at me! I asked for a meeting with both staff and got the same result. They began yelling at me saying, I’m picking on them. They both were confident there was not a need to do a counseling memo.Later I found out that he and the COO had spoken to them and told them it wasn’t a need for a counseling memo. HR and the COO staff split and talk about people not the work.

I believe they are accusing me of creating a hostile work environment but it’s them that are creating a hostile work environment for me.

Signed–It’s Them

Dear It’s Them:

Working within a hostile environment is miserable and that can carry over to your life outside the workplace. Occasionally, some coworkers, particularly those promoted, target someone they dislike. Demeaning becomes a habitual  form of asserting their authority, as apparently is the case in your situation. Weathering a hostile work environment is difficult and not always possible. I expect you have considered seeking work elsewhere. I see that as a realistic solution.

Two investigations and audits are stressful. Unsubstantiated allegations and ten years of perfect audits are evidence that you are competent and should be able to easily find another workplace, but it isn’t fair that you should have to do that to cope with hostility. No superior should gossip about anyone. No one should scream at another within his/her workplace.

Other than biting your tongue and continuing on as you have, your options of what to do are limited when a top executive is hostile. I see options as: 1. Introspection 2. Confrontation 3. Engagement and 4. Seek organizational advice from some outside firm. Perhaps my discussion of these will prompt you to modify or combine them or design one uniquely suited to your particular situation.

  1. Introspection. Undoubtedly you have looked in the mirror and sought to see yourself as the COO and the manager see, the one you asked to write a counseling memo and also how the staff sees. You might have asked yourself if they feel you failed to show them respect, if you failed to give recognition for the good they do, and if they feel you pressured those you manage unduly. Introspection is a way to reflect on what prompted your COO to talk with staff you supervise and a manager and staff to scream. The point of looking in the mirror is to think like others think and to feel like others feel about you.

Look in the mirror but don’t beat yourself up. Don’t hesitate to honestly commend yourself for how well you do. Prefect audits is one major example. Other times you should feel good are specific incidents when you praised those you supervise and/or when you acknowledged the COO for something good she did well. If the count of feel good incidents is low, you will need to ask why and how to increase them. If you find that you have one or more feel goods a day, I predict you will say that outweighs the occasional feel bad incidents.

  1. Confrontation. You say “HR and the COO staff split and talk about people not the work.” Somehow you have learned of this and it frustrates you. Have you asked either HR or the COO how they assess you? If you have not already discussed the memo incident, is it not past time to confront them–asking what they think prompted explosive resistance to your request of a counseling memo and how they advise you should proceed now? I don’t know what is the process of performance review in your agency, but it should be a time to be candidly confronted by those who do the appraisal and for you to talk straight about your job environment. Remember you don’t have to forgo a conversation about how it is going for your until an annual review, especially an uncomfortable one, to confront when things aren’t going smoothly.

Perhaps such a conversation will enable you to better understand how HR and the COO see you and they in turn will understand how disarming it feels to be a subject gossip rather than to be extended support. Learning what is best for your agency should be foremost. Such a conversation should focus on pleasing internal and external customers. Bypassing your COO by discussing your situation with whom the CEO, your aunt, is something you might feel is unacceptable. However I also am sure what matters to her is productivity. Anything that is less that, such as a hostile work environment, is unacceptable.

  1. Engagement. The sports metaphor includes such terms as skull session, study of player interaction, and team play. The workplace has adopted these terms and coined words such as quality circles and self-management. The trust of quality improvement is putting into practice the sport metaphor. You must have heard them such as Just in Time, Six Sigma –black belt certification and coaching. Has your company joined any of these kind of engagement efforts. I’ve worked with company-wide team building. Is not engagement talk the kind you should have with your staff? Should not your staff regularly deliberate about what goes wrong and how to improve quality? Team building enlists a work group to adding value as individuals and as a group. Since you didn’t mention group sessions focused on cutting wasted supplies, wasted time, wasted energy, and money, I assume staff sessions are not really a regular practice in your agency. Not incidentally skull sessions wisely spell out do and don’t rules about communication.
  2. Seek organizational advice. Your question indicates you see the need for outside advice. When sick, we go the doctor. Insurance companies are firmly committed to annual checkups and many have no copay for going to a primary physician anytime. My associate workplace doctor, Tina Lewis Rowe, has advised dozens of police departments in their operations and hundreds of places of worship in safety. If you scan her answers to questions submitted that she answers, I predict you will see no one who can be candidly practical and empathetic. She’s the kind of outside counsel that would benefit any organization.

Please let me know if any of these thoughts make sense and if you can adapt them to your situation. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS.