Should I Find Out The Problem Or Let It Go?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about an “altercation”.

There is a project officer at work who, when I started 2 months ago, was very friendly. About four weeks ago she asked for advice on a piece of work – she appeared quite stressed and kept asking the same question. I explained that I needed to provide context for her to understand the answer. She became quite flustered. She began to act strangely around me – cold and distant. I tried to ask her if there was anything we needed to discuss to ensure a good working relationship – and was constantly told no everything was fine.

Yesterday she came into my office to ask for advice and stopped mid-sentence and said “Oh wait. This was what we were talking about when we had our altercation.” I asked,”What altercation?” and she proceeded to say it was nothing, but that several people had approached her to say how sorry they were that she was treated that way. I asked what it was that I did that was of concern to ensure it didn’t happen again. To which she said if it happened again, I would know because there may be action taken and she didn’t want to break protocol.

She mentioned the code of ethics. She said that the HR manager, who sits in the office next to me, approached her about it after overhearing us. No one has approached me about anything or provided feedback on the “altercation”. I am a senior manager and apparently she said my manager knows nothing about it. My friends have said to just carry on normally and not ask anyone about anything. I am not sure if this is what I should do or if I should instead approach the HR manager (my peer)or my boss about it to get feedback and ensure whatever line I crossed I don’t cross again. What is the appropriate thing for me to do?

Signed, Wondering What I Did Wrong

Dear Wondering What I Did Wrong:

If you are a senior manager you know what you should do next–contrary to what your friend’s advice. You should immediately prepare an email or memo with the information you wrote to us (including other details that might be helpful) and send it to your manager, asking for input about the situation. Let him or her know that your plan is to contact the HR manager to find out her perspective and get this matter cleared up quickly.

At the same time you should contact the manager of the other employee to let that person know what is going on–or ask your manager to contact that person, according to managerial level involved. There are several possibilities about this:

1. You were inadvertently discourteous to the project officer and she is still upset about it–and is dealing with it ineffectively by using thinly veiled threats.You say you explained to her at the time that she needed to understand the context of your response to a question. It may be that you came across as condescending or demeaning in some way. You may have used a phrase or method of explaining that she took as an insult. She apparently was very upset already, so she may have over-reacted to something you said, or it may be that you over-answered her question and it was irritating to her. There is also the factor that you are new to the group (only two months) so there may be some group norm you didn’t follow. Maybe the senior manager prior to you would have responded to the project manager differently and she expected it from you.It may be that your style of communicating is not effective with the project officer. If that is the case, it could be a problem with others too, so you will want to find that out.

2. The second possibility is that you were not discourteous, but the employee has some interpersonal and work problems and is transferring those to you.The fact that she brought it up again in the way she did, indicates to me that she holds a grudge and is still wanting to get back at you for what she perceives as a discourtesy.She may habitually act in this way, but as a new employee you were not aware of it.

3. A third option is that you were inadvertently discourteous, the project officer lacks interpersonal skills, and both of those situations are made worse by a lack of direct communication in your work place.It seems you are quick to jump to the conclusion that you must have crossed over a line–and perhaps you did. (Although what you recounted here doesn’t sound like it.) You seem to not be confident about your own communication, so that might have contributed to this in some way.Also, the way you describe the employee makes her sound to me as though she is ineffective in her own communications.

The bottom line is that all of this can be cleared up easily by finding out if the HR manager actually heard you say something that was wrong (but failed to talk to you about it herself.)However, before you approach the HR manager you should inform your own manager about what is happening and see if he or she has anything to contribute about it. If it is discovered that the employee made this whole situation up, her behavior should be evaluated to find out if she has done this with others and what her motivation might be. She may be a problematic person who needs to be warned about causing this kind of disruption or she may have some other issue that needs to be dealt with.Don’t let this go with simply being told there is no problem.

There IS a problem, whether it involves the original issue or not. The employee obviously has some negative feelings about you and you apparently have some insecurities about your senior manager role and how to handle this type of situation.I think you would benefit from asking for some regular review of your work by your manager, including your interactions with others. If you had this active feedback going on already you would have been able to talk about the issue you had with the project manager and maybe it would have been resolved earlier.If it turns out there was a concern and the HR manager knew about it, you should ask for more honest communication in the future. Never should a manager know of a problem but not bring it out into the open, especially not with a peer, as you are.Best wishes to you with this. I would like to know what happens with it, so if you have the time and wish to do so, please get back in touch to let us know the result.

Tina Lewis Rowe