Supervisor Got Too Little Punishment For Remarks

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about conflict and verbal abuse:

I am not sure whether to let this problem go or to take the problem further up the chain of command. I am a nurse at a county jail, and the problem involves a sergeant. The entire first shift had a meeting, and part of the meeting was about changes to the medical department, and how we would respond to medical emergencies. I had already talked to the jail administrator, as the new policy was not feasible. When that portion of the meeting came up, I stated that this part of the policy was probably going to change, since we would not be “responding to civilians in the court rooms.” The sergeant then stated, “well, for those of us who have to do what we’re told, the policy …..”

At this point, I said, “Well, that’s enough for me,” stood up and started to leave the meeting. When walking past him, I stated, “I do do what I am told.”

When I got out in the hallway, he came chasing after me, and was screaming about being a shift commander, and he would be treated as such. A lieutenant got in between us and stated that that was enough. He told the sgt. to go back into the meeting. I left work, and was so angry and shocked that I cried for quite a while. When I got to work the next day, the sgt. asked if he could talk to me. I stated yes. He apologized and then said that after he returned to the meeting, he “said something that he shouldn’t have said, and he felt really bad about it.” He said that he called me bitch. While I was shocked by this, I told him his apology was accepted, and we should just go on as though nothing happened.

The next day, the administrator called me into his office. I was then informed that several coworkers had come to him, and reported the incident. It seems as though he said many things other than bitch. He called me the “C” word, and stated over and over again that they needed new Fu*&%$# nurses, and who the fu*& did I think I was? This was done in front of 3 new employees, all of my day shift coworkers, and those that had come in a little bit early for 2nd shift. I was assured that he was going to get two days suspension, so I did not pursue anything further through the union.

Today (about a month after this happened) I find out that he whined and cried (not my words) and got the suspension lowered to one day. Now, I am angry all over again. I don’t know whether to just let everything ride, or to try to take things further. I have not talked to human resources or the sheriff. As a nurse, I have taken 20 years of verbal abuse from doctors and family members, but this was way over the line. I forgot to tell you, this sgt. is also our union president! Any advice is greatly appreciated.

Signed, Frustrated and Upset

Dear Frustrated and Upset:

I can certainly imagine you were upset when the original situation happened. Your frustration now though, is that you were told the sergeant would be suspended for two days, but he was suspended for one.Honestly, if the situation would have been handled correctly you would have been told that the matter would be investigated and the sheriff would decide the discipline. Then, when you heard the sergeant got a one day suspension (loss of pay for a day, probably several hundred dollars)you might have felt that justice was done.Consider this: In a disciplinary hearing your sheriff or his designee reviewed the investigation, the mitigation, recommendations, and the policy of the county and made the decision. Part of that decision-making would have involved reading about what happened, reading all the statements, taking the sergeant’s work history and other factors into account, and of course, letting the sergeant make a statement, which probably included a request for leniency with the promise that it wouldn’t happen again. You would want the same approach for yourself.

The sheriff may have been gullible or too lenient, and the sergeant may be unprofessional and inappropriate all the time. But, apparently the sheriff felt the punishment was appropriate and signed off on it. So, to complain to the sheriff would really be like criticizing him, which you may not want to do.From an EEOC perspective your organization handled things exactly the right way. Something wrong happened, the sergeant apologized, he was disciplined in fairly severe way. (In most organizations the progressive discipline continuum would be: No discipline, a counseling, a documented oral reprimand, a written reprimand or a loss of time off, before it got to the suspension level. So they went up about 6 steps on the progressive discipline continuum.) And, the case was handled quickly. It would seem the only way you would have a valid complaint would be if the sergeant only received a counseling. After that, any of the disciplinary actions could be considered appropriate for the offense.I think one thing is lacking in the process. There should also have been a direction from the sheriff that the overall issue that led up to this should be examined. What is the nature of communications between units in the jail? Are supervisors often not told about policy changes? How could policies be developed better? How should conflict of this nature be handled? How should a sergeant deal with an issue such as this?

All of that would address a much deeper issue than this one of someone shooting off their mouth and using gutter language out of anger. You don’t indicate that the sergeant talks this way to you or others the rest of the time, so it sounds as though it was a temper tantrum run amuck. It was wrong, no doubt about it. But there are other issues that the sheriff and jail administrator should be concerned about too. If the working relationships were good, the sergeant would never have said those things, but you would never have done what you did either.I hope, looking back on it, you can see that you might have used more courtesy, empathy and professionalism in the briefing. The sergeant was reading a policy he didn’t write and may not have even agreed with, although maybe he did. If the Jail Administrator intended to change it, all he had to do was pick up the phone and say, “Don’t read that, we’re going to change it.” But he didn’t, so the sergeant read it, not realizing, until you popped it on him in front of everyone, that the Jail Administrator had other ideas.There were many other things you could have done. You could have listened, then after briefing told the sergeant what you had heard. Or, you could have told the sergeant ahead of time. Or, you could have waited and let the Jail Administrator take care of it. But, for you to challenge a supervisor in that way was not appropriate. And for you to leave in that way was very inappropriate.It looked as though you wanted to take on the sergeant in front of others, including new employees who were just getting to know you, the sergeant and the team. Neither you or the sergeant showed yourselves to be effective in that situation. I don’t mean to sound unduly harsh, but I don’t think you want to present yourself that way to others.

If I were you, I’d be most upset with the Jail Administrator, if what you say is the case. First he tells you a policy will be cancelled, but he doesn’t do it. Then, he tells you about the two day suspension that was a personnel matter related to another employee. It also led you to believe something that wasn’t true and that the jail administrator had no control over. (And if the jail administrator DID have control over it, that tells you something else!)You can certainly complain if you wish, but I don’t think it will make a difference, and might bring up issues you would rather not deal with. Instead, I think it would be wise for both the sworn side and the medical staff to find ways to resolve these kind of conflicts without having contention, back-dooring each other, walking out of meetings or losing self-control. You are in the perfect position to start that kind of focus.

Think of how impressive it would be if you came forward to say that this recent situation highlights the need for better communications, and for talking to everyone involved before a policy is developed. You could urge people to talk to each other before they talk to those up the chain to resolve things. You could even extend the olive branch to the sergeant, if his other behavior is generally acceptable. Your goal for all of that should be to provide leadership in developing a more pleasant and more productive workplace. Clearly what happened detracted from the focus on safety, security, and taking care of the business of county corrections! You could help to put the focus back where it belongs.All of that would fulfill Dr. Gorden’s concept of WEGO, which is working together so that the entire team can feel positive, rather than making work an us vs them situation.Best wishes as you work through this challenge.

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.