Rewarded for Verbal Assault?

Question:

What is the recourse of a woman working in a male-dominated environment, who is cursed at and verbally assaulted in front of other employees by a contractor? The incident, three years ago, went on for 2-3 minutes at least. The perpetrator stopped and restarted the tirade. Afterward the employee left the room, she reported the incident to her superiors who failed to fire the contractor, instead they left the decision up to her.

Feeling intimidation and fearing retaliation she made it clear that the situation could never occur again and tried to live with being around the contractor for a period, every day being reminded of her humiliation at the very sound of his voice. She requested a transfer to avoid being around this contractor. The transfer was eventually granted. The contractor subsequently got assigned a supervisory position. This made it seem to the employee that the contractor’s behavior was being rewarded!

I contend that the responsibility to terminate that contractor should not have been given to the victimized employee.

Prior to this incident, the contractor in question had recounted stories of his incarceration within earshot of the victimized employee. How comfortable should she have felt in insisting that the contractor be terminated.

Recently, the contractor’s services were desired on a project with which that employee was involved. She voiced her discomfort about working with that contractor and was soon after taken off the project and transferred to another team.

How does this situation convey to a female employee that her employer has her best interest at heart and is willing to protect her from abuse and appropriately discipline anyone who does not adhere to company policy which should prohibit this inappropriate behavior instead of promoting what appears to be a boys-club approach to the situation?!!!

Signed,

Angry


Answer:

Dear Angry:

I don’t know the entire story of this situation, so my response will not reflect the details of which you are aware. However, they may offer some thoughts that will be helpful.

Actually, I think your questions were rhetorical and you mostly wanted affirmation. That is understandable when one is upset, either for oneself or on behalf of a friend or relative. This will give you another viewpoint to consider.

1. While it was undoubtedly miserable feeling to be yelled at in front of others in this situation three years ago, that is not an EEO violation on its face, nor is is a law violation of any other kind. It is discourtesy, rudeness and poor interpersonal skills, but it happens in many workplaces. Even if there was a gender reference, or swear words, one situation would not rise to the level of harassment or a hostile work environment. So, there was no EEO issue here that I can discern.

(There are many misunderstandings about that situation, and it’s important for people to know what is an EEO violation and what is rotten behavior, but not illegal.)

2. You didn’t explain the circumstances of the situation. Yelling isn’t appropriate any time, but there is a difference between yelling at someone because they stepped in your way or yelling at someone because they changed something you had done and created more work for you. There is a big difference between yelling at someone and calling them obscene sexual epithets, compared to yelling in anger but mostly focusing on something they did wrong.

Of course nothing justifies yelling and screaming, but an employer might consider the circumstances when they decide what to do about it and as they decide how much of a rules violation occurred.

3. You seem to feel that if the offending person wasn’t fired, he wasn’t punished and thus, when he was made a supervisor, he was rewarded. That isn’t necessarily the case here.

I agree that the employee shouldn’t have been involved in making a recommendation (more about that later). However, you can bet something happened. There may have been a letter of reprimand issued or the offender may have been required to go to training about anger or communications. He may have been on a probationary time where he knew one more offense meant firing. It may be his promotion was delayed or he may have missed out on some other opportunity you don’t know about. I doubt there were no repercussions at all. In fact, he may have felt severely punished for his outburst. You and I don’t know that because no one except the employer and that employee would have known.

Similarly, I often hear complaints that all it takes is for an employee to complain about treatment and her or she gets transfered to another work area, even though they are not the choice of the supervisor there, or other employees who were better qualified wanted to go there. In those cases, it seems that hyper-sensitive employees are rewarded while those who learn to deal with work get punished. But, in those cases as well, no one knows all of the situation.

4. It certainly would be frustrating to see one’s bitter enemy made a supervisor. However, time moves on and perhaps the person has improved and has never yelled or been rude again. Or, maybe he is well liked or accepted by others, in spite of his manner. Or, maybe the contractor’s employers were wrong to make him a supervisor and he still is obnoxious.

The only thing we can know for sure is that an employer can, in most cases, make any person who fulfills tenure or experience requirements, a supervisor, no matter what previous actions occurred. In fact, most of us would argue that one or even a few misdeeds should not be held against us forever and we should be allowed to improve and move forward.

The employer may feel that since the man didn’t commit a law violation and he hasn’t bothered the employee since then, he should not be held back forever because of one lapse of judgment.

5. The employers extended themselves to give the complaining employee a work situation in which she could be more comfortable. They haven’t forced her to work around the person who treated her wrongly three years ago. The employee apparently hasn’t been treated badly since then. She likes her work enough to keep working there where she knows she might come in contact with the person she dreads.

I don’t see that the employer would be faulted by any reviewing group at this point.

The only wrong action I see was the one in which the employee was asked if the offender should be fired. That would have been a wrong thing to do. It is wrong to place an employee in that situation, and it would be unfair to the employee being fired. Hiring and firing is a mangement decision and not up to employees.

Nevertheless, apart from that one situation, it seems to me the complaining employee has been treated fairly. Few employers would have continued to let her refuse to work with someone after this many months and several years.

My advice to the person involved is to focus on her own good work and move forward from this. The bottom line is that she was angrily yelled at by one person, for several minutes, three years ago. She was allowed to transfer to another location and has not been required to work with that person again. Her work life seems to be going fine. And, there is more to her life, I’m sure, than work.

Even when unfair things happen–as they often do to men and women in the workplace–at some point we have to decide how we are going to respond. The employee can let one or a few events blight her work life and she can feel negative about the employers forever. Or, she can decide there is a boys club in her work place and she can leave it–that is her option always. Or, she can look around at the friends there, at the work she does and at the opportunities she has, and decide she can be happy in spite of occasional unfairness. I hope she can do that!

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.