Overheard Verbal Abuse of Coworker

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about verbal abuse:

I overheard a male coworker using profanity and a loud, angry tone with a female coworker who is very meek. I spoke to her to let her know that I had overheard his outbursts and was concerned. She said he had not apologized. Should I speak to the abuser directly, or ask a supervisor to handle it. I am female, but not meek. Maybe gender shouldn’t matter, but it seems to. I have never heard it, but this male coworker would probably speak like that to a meek male as well. He is often nice on the phone, but hollers and swears once he’s hung up. We are a small company, about 35 people. Should I send an email to the company officers to let them know that I have documented this incident? Should I speak to the male coworker directly? Should I send him an email? He’s not a terrible person, but he was terribly out of line. Thanks for helping.

Signed, Undecided      Dear Undecided:

If this situation involved an employee angrily yelling at a coworker and using profanity, not just profanity used in the course of a conversation, you should go to a supervisor about it rather than talking to the employee yourself. I advise that for a couple of reasons:

1. What the employee did was severe enough that his behavior needs to be stopped and sanctioned. At least a supervisor should warn him not to do it again. In this case, the employee should be told to stop using angry profanity in the office, no matter what the situation.

2. The supervisor may have already warned the employee about this at some time and needs to know that it has happened again.

3. If you talk to the employee there is no documentation of the event and what was said.

4. I’ll bet employees have hinted to this person before, that the bad language was unwelcome. I doubt he takes coworker complaints to him seriously.

5. It’s not only important for a supervisor to stop the profanity but also may be important to know about what caused it in the first place. Further, if the supervisor finds out about this, he or she has an obligation to talk to the employee anyway. That would only duplicate what you have said and might create more animosity.When you talk to a supervisor tell him what was said, in accurate detail. Then ask that other angry profanity be stopped as well. Make it clear that you aren’t just venting, you really expect that the behavior will change.Be prepared for your coworker to not be fully supportive. You may need to encourage her through the process.Give the supervisor a chance to take care of this before you go higher in the organization. If you go higher, the first question they’ll ask is, “Did you talk to your supervisor?” So, let the supervisor know and see what happens. If the employee comes to you and asks why you didn’t talk to him directly, tell him the truth, which is: When someone uses profanity at a coworker, especially someone known to be less aggressive, it’s not like he didn’t know it was wrong. Of course he knew it was wrong, just like he knows his angry temper tantrums when he gets off the phone is wrong. So, what good would it do for another employee to ask him to stop it? You felt the only way to deal with it was to go to someone who has the authority to make him stop.You can use that time to tell him that he has a lot of good qualities, but that one is so hurtful and disruptive that it just has to be stopped.I’m hoping this can be handled quickly and the office will improve without a great deal of upset about it. If you have the time, let us know what happens, in case we can use the experience to help others. 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.