Peer said

Question:

After my co-worker thought I was being ‘snippy’ when I tried to explain a problem, she stormed into the boss’s office and then came back calling me into her space with the boss in tow.

The boss had us follow him to his office because another employee was present. On the way to the office, she looked at me in the eye with a mean look and said, “You’re Dead”.

The boss dismissed it saying my co-worker did not mean it as a threat. Nothing ever happened, except many months later I was asked by HR if I felt my life was in danger when I came to work every day. I said not my life but my health and well-being because I don’t know what is going to happen next.

What should have happened in order for me to be supported after this attack?

Signed,

Threatened And Not Protected


Answer:

Dear Threatened And Not Protected:

It’s difficult to know what should or should not have been done since any decision should have been, perhaps was, based on the totality of the situation. Certainly it seems some sanction should have taken place–a disciplinary action and supervisory observation for the coworker and conversations and reassurance to you for follow up.

Such words, no matter how they were meant, show very poor judgment and extremely poor verbal self-control on the part of the person saying them. They are rude, not intended to solve a problem and clearly meant to intimidate you, even if there was no intent to actually kill you or harm you. (It’s even scary to write it, I realize.)

So, one issue to consider is what happened to the person making that statement. If she was strongly disciplined about it or about other things in addition to that and warned that she would lose her job if it happened again, the organization is probably covered from the viewpoint of “doing something.” Firing someone for an angry outburst may have been considered excessive if the coworker were to appeal it. (Assuming your organization is large enough to have that kind of hierarchy.) Still, even with that, it would have been a good thing for your supervisor to work with you to reassure you about what you should do if you felt threatened again. It could be that there was a perception that you had been discourteous to the coworker so they factored that in as mitigation. (That may not have been the case, I’m just suggesting it as part of their thought processes.) But even that would not negate the need to work with you to see how you felt and what could be done to ensure both of you were able to work together without such hostility being expressed.

Another issue is, what do you want to have happen now that time has gone by and apparently things have calmed down? What would make it right at this point?

I don’t think most organizations would come in now and fire the employee, even if that seems to be the best way to resolve your concerns.

Your real grievance now is with your supervisor and with the representative from HR who waited months to ask you how you felt about it.

Consider these as ways you might want to deal with it now:

1. Consider asking an attorney for advice about your options. You may be able to get a free over-the-phone consultation to at least let you know your standing. You’d be able to describe the full circumstances and what has happened since then, and get a more up-close opinion. You don’t have to do that to get a resolution at work, but I like to advise it since we are not attorneys and may miss something civil or legal that could help you.

2. Along with that legal advice or instead of it, document anything that has happened since the incident that makes you think there may still be anger festering within the coworker. And/Or, document what steps you are required to take to avoid dealing with the coworker or upsetting her. Be able to explain the negative affect of all that occurred and the negative impact it is having on you. If the coworker has had to make no adjustments that you know of, put that in your list of concerns.

3. Consider what would solve the situation or at least make it more tolerable. I think you might as well figure that the coworker will keep her job now that time has elapsed. But, is there another place for you to do your work? Another shift? Another position or job title that would protect you from her better simply because of job status or location? Is there anything that would increase your feelings of safety and security? If so, ask for the accommodations that would help you most or present a list of options for your organization to consider. Be clear that your purpose is not to elevate yourself or be treated in a special way for a self-serving motive, but rather to make you feel that you can come to work and not be fearful.

4. Emphasize that had the situation been handled better at the outset this might not now be necessary, but you felt abandoned by your supervisor when he shrugged off the complaint. (I’m assuming that is what happened, based on your statement. If he did work with you over time, you would want to acknowledge that, even if you don’t feel it was enough.)

5. Be prepared to respond to questions about why you are just now asking for these accommodations or adjustments. Explain that you have always felt concerned, but recently you have started being even more anxious, worried, stressful and unable to focus on your work because of the continual worry about what the coworker might do.

HR and others will realize that often stressful situations don’t show their full impact until weeks, months or even years later.

6. In the letter in which you have documented what you have had to do to reduce the potential for violence, how worried you currently are about it, and what would make things better in your mind and emotions, say that you would like to have the matter considered at the highest levels of HR and your management chain of authority–at least as high as you think is appropriate to go. If there is someone above your supervisor, send the letter there first. If there is someone higher you want to have know about it, ask that it be forwarded there. The same goes for HR.

7. Put a timeline on it to ensure response in a reasonable amount of time…about a week. That’s long enough for them to at least acknowledge the letter. It will take longer to work things out.

8. If you talk to an attorney tell him or her your plans along this line. An attorney will likely want to get involved to approve the letter. That’s up to you and if you want to or have the resources to spend money on the issue. You don’t need an attorney to send the letter. The attorney is in case there are details you didn’t share here that clearly point to something much more serious that should have been acted upon.

Keep in mind that once you’ve done this your supervisor will probably feel unhappy with you and may feel that you have been disloyal to him when he tried to resolve things at the time. That’s unfortunate, but if you’re still feeling so unsettled and you were never talked to about how to deal with the situation, you were let down. (If, on the other hand, a lot of time was spent with you and it seemed you were satisfied at the time, it may be that none of this will go anywhere. So, be certain in your mind that you weren’t supported fully.)

You know your situation best. I wouldn’t want you to do anything that would jeopardize your job or your future in your organization. But, you seem to feel as though things can’t continue much longer as they are, so at least this might be a catalyst for action.

It may be that instead of a letter you would like to talk to your supervisor directly and ask for some help to change your situation. Or, you may want to talk to HR and your manager together rather than putting everything in writing. Consider all that you know about your standing, your organization, what happened and what is likely to happen now. All of those things should be part of your decision-making process.

I wish there was a magic answer to provide to you, but that is rarely the case as you know. I’m just hoping that you can mix and match some ideas and develop a plan of action that will work for you and your needs. Consider talking to someone at your workplace who you trust and who might be able to advise you as well. Best wishes with this. If you have the time to do so, let us know what happens.

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.