Workplace Harassment
December 21, 2008 9:48 AM   Subscribe

How do I respond to a physical threat from my supervisor?

I made a mistake at work and my supervisor responded by saying, "I could stab you in the face right now." This was said in an angry and threatening tone while making eye contact with me. This was done near other employees who may or may not have heard. If it makes any difference, I work in a kitchen where knives are readily available.

I would like advice on what to say to my supervisor and his supervisor, who is the owner/general manager, to express my discomfort and hope that something like this never happens again.

There is no HR department, my supervisor reports to the owner/general manager.

I have read this thread and plan to document everything and will consider speaking to a lawyer.

To the people who will say, "find a new job," I like my job, I like the people I work with, and the owner. I don't think I should have to rearrange my life to accommodate my supervisor's shortcomings.

If anyone wants to communicate by email, respond to
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Holy crap. Before I even had a chance to read the (more info) bit of your question, I was screaming 'HRHRHRHRHRHRHRHR' in my head. Without an HR department to run to, I actually have little to no idea how I'd handle that. I suppose if you have a good rapport with the owner, I'd have a meeting with him asap to let him know what happened and how it made you feel. Chances are, you're going to end up in some sort of three-way meeting with your supervisor and the owner. You should probably ask any co-workers you think might have been present if they saw/heard the comment so you know that it's not just your word vs. your boss.
posted by Bageena at 10:02 AM on December 21, 2008

I have read this thread and plan to document everything and will consider speaking to a lawyer.

That is exactly what you need to do. Any other advice offered here would be superfluous, apart from: be sure to not let yourself be alone with this person for the foreseeable future, and don't get backed up against a wall.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 10:05 AM on December 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

Definitely talk to the owner. That's the only recourse you have. You can always call the police as well.
You might want to think about making a police report so everyone knows you are taking this seriously, and that it is documented in case anything else ever happens.
posted by FergieBelle at 10:06 AM on December 21, 2008

What's the relationship like between your supervisor and his supervisor? If they are very good friends, and there's no neutral 3rd party (HR) available, I don't think you'll get far by going to the top.

If the two of them are friends, and you reallly want to keep this job, then meet with both of them and say how sorry you are that you made the mistake that started the incident. Offer to make amends somehow. Get on their good side. It will buy you some time.

Then start looking for another job before this hot-head hurts you.
posted by tizzie at 10:15 AM on December 21, 2008

Don't hesitate regarding the discussion. Do it as quickly as possible.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:16 AM on December 21, 2008

To the people who will say, "find a new job," I like my job, I like the people I work with, and the owner. I don't think I should have to rearrange my life to accommodate my supervisor's shortcomings.

I don't like that I have to lock my doors, drive defensively, or go to the dentist every year. Some of things we do offend our sense of justice and fairness, but the alternatives are significantly worse.
posted by ellF at 10:30 AM on December 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

Unless you have very good rapport with the owner, and the supervisor has a history of doing this sort of thing, or you have witnesses who can back you up, the odds are that this will become a (s)he said/(s)he said thing that will go nowhere.

In short, I would recommend that you search for another job. That doesn't mean you shouldn't talk to the owner or a lawyer, but only that you should have another job lined up just in case.
posted by zippy at 10:41 AM on December 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

You don't tell us what the culture thinks of your supervisor. Does everyone think he's a rat bastard? Does everyone think he's a rat bastard BUT he does a great job/brings in lots of cash/saves the company money/is best friends with the VP of Advertising?

Even if you had a HR department AND an employee hotline, from a practical perspective, you will probably need to find a new job. Unless there's a general consensus that the supervisor is a horrible person who gets his just desserts, you will end up being The Guy Who Narc'd.

No disagreement here that that was inappropriate. But unless there were half a dozen other people there who are willing to back you up (not likely, I'd assume), then it's going to be your word against his, he'll say it was a joke, someone will tell you to lighten up, and now the supervisor hates you even more because you made a big deal out of it.

Just trying to be practical here.

Document it in writing for yourself, start keeping a log of his threatening acts against you. If it gets worse, leave and sue them. IANAL, but I think you'd have a case if this was a consistent pattern of behavior.
posted by micawber at 10:55 AM on December 21, 2008

I would like advice on what to say to my supervisor and his supervisor, who is the owner/general manager, to express my discomfort and hope that something like this never happens again.

Write down exactly what happened before, during and after the incident. Take this with you to the meeting between the three of you, and basically reiterate that too them. Explain that this behaviour is in no way acceptable and that it will not be tolerated in future. If you can, get written statements from your colleagues, attesting to the truth of the matter. Have all this ready before you meet with your boss.

The problem lies with the fact that you're bluffing. If the guy went so far as to make a clear statement of intent like that, chances are he will do it again if this all comes to nothing. So, seeing as you want to keep your job, you're going to have to come to the terms with the fact that this guy doesn't react well when angry, and will probably do something similar (or worse) again. This is where the bluffing part comes in. You can say that you wont tolerate it but unless you leave, you will be tolerating it if it happens again.

Short of getting the guy fired, you don't have much security that this won't happen again.
posted by Solomon at 11:01 AM on December 21, 2008

How unusual is this kind of threat? My understanding is kitchens can get pretty rough. Has he said this kind of thing before?
(I have worked in environments where this kind of threat is considered par for the course and to be cheerfully ignored, or replied to with something worse.)
posted by CunningLinguist at 11:01 AM on December 21, 2008 [7 favorites]

Do you honestly feel threatened, or is it possible the guy was just blowing off steam, however inappropriately?

My tendency, if you have an otherwise civil working relationship with your supervisor and enjoy the job, would be to just let it go. If this is a one time event where the guy blew his top, maybe you should just grow a thicker skin, ignore it and move forward. If it becomes a pattern, then I'd worry.
posted by MegoSteve at 11:05 AM on December 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

It's been a long time since I worked in food services, but I have vivid memories of it being filled with bullying jackasses who prey on those they perceive as weak.

While his behavior is totally wrong and inexcusable, I doubt you have to fear for your physical safety. Your sanity and piece of mind while working might be another story though. Because right now, it sounds like he has you where he wants you, scared and isolated. Well fuck that. Talk your co-workers and ask them how this guy is. They may tell similar stories or just wave it of as "Oh him? He's always mouthing off, ignore him."

If this guy is a bully, you can't back down, but neither do you have to be as aggressive as he is. Turn the situation into a humorous one, such as responding with "Stab me in the eye? Man, the health department is going be all over ass for that." or "Really? Well don't use (crazy cook's name here)'s knives you know how pick he is about his tools." Then, let everyone casually know, in a joking manner, what he just said, while in his presence "Ooops, better move this pots or X will stab me in the eye! What do I mean? Oh, he was slapping my hand over this mistake I made and was joking about stabbing me in the eye. Tell me that ain't motivator, huh?"

The goal with all of this is quietly let the supervisor and everyone else know what transpired and that you're not afraid of him and that you are not so isolated gazelle he can toy with.

Yes, document everything, but save the nuclear option of doing something official for last. The guy is likely a harmless asshole. If you go nuclear and his boss slaps him around, he has a thousand ways he can make your life miserable. By showing you can't be fucked with, he won't mess with you.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:13 AM on December 21, 2008 [3 favorites]

Having worked in a number of restaurants, I'm no stranger to threats of physical violence coming from the kitchen staff. I understand that this is in no way appropriate, but it kind of seems to come with the territory in my experience.

I agree with Brandon Blatcher. Document it, but I wouldn't go running to a lawyer or even to the owner at this juncture.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 11:22 AM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Are you really sure this was an actual threat of physical violence, or was he just angry and blowing off steam? I ask this because I spent a long, long time working in kitchens, and have been on the receiving end of many such "threats" as this, and I know that I have made them as well. Kitchens are very stressful environments, tempers flare, and in the heat of battle things get said that might sound threatening. As I said, I've been there, and I've done that. And once the rush was over, everyone usually went back to being on good terms again. What you're taking as a threat might just be this person's management style. He might have come up working for people who acted like that and might not realize that someone else would perceive his remarks as threatening. He was simply unhappy with you, and let you know this in the only way he knew how. I know it took me a few years of working with people who were very much not like the person you're describing to undo the years of working for people who were exactly like the person you're describing. Your early training can be hard to unlearn.

All that being said, do document this incident, even if only for yourself. And watch this person very carefully. What someone actually does tells you more about them that what they actually say. He simply may be a hot-head that can only really express himself in this manner, but might have a lot to teach you if you can get past that. I worked for many of them in my kitchen career, and at one point I could have been justifiably accused of being one myself. But, if he not only says threatening things but actually acts in a physically threatening manner, then everything I said above is moot, and you'll need to look for another job. I would bet most anything that the owner is very much aware of this supervisor's behavior, and I would also bet most anything that if you put the owner in a position of choosing between his supervisor or you, you'll be the one looking for a new job.

On preview, a lot of good advice from Brandon Blatcher and solipsophistocracy also. Probably said more succinctly than I did too.
posted by ralan at 11:26 AM on December 21, 2008

Is there any chance he was kidding? THe "stab you in the face" bit is so over the top, it makes me think that if you had a different rapport with your supervisor this would be a busy-kitchen-adrenalin-over-the-top letting off steam kind of thing.

Maybe it's just because I don't think I've ever worked at a place with a HR department, but I don't see a real threat - in a kitchen with others around. Yeah there was eye contact and emotion, but do you really think that stabbing was imminent? I think the proper response at the time might have been "Hey, I'm sorry - what do you want me to do?"

Next step should be to talk to the supervisor himself, giving him the chance to apologise. Maybe a lead in like - "I'm sure you didn't mean to come off as a potential murderer, but that kind of talk really makes me uncomfortable".

My boss often says off the wall things "I will pound your head in with this phone", where the proper response is, "DO NOT FUCK WITH ME TODAY". We are volatile, but it diffuses tension.
Have you been there long? Some work places differ widely in acceptable behavior, and I always thought that restaurants were bastions of free flowing emotions. You can and should make clear, though, what is acceptable to you.
posted by readery at 11:32 AM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

This is hard for us to evaluate. My first instinct is to err on the side of taking it with a grain of salt simply because it's so outlandish. On the other hand, the specificity of the threat is much more worrisome than if he'd just said "I could kill you!" which is a common expression. If he repeats it when he's not steamed, I would take it very seriously indeed, and especially if there are conditions attached.

You may want to check out Gavin de Becker's The Gift of Fear to gain some insight into personal safety issues, which is something that could save your life at some unrelated point in the future, as well as help you here. In short, de Becker outlines ways in which attackers approach victims and how you can recognize this before it escalates to violence. He also discusses his threat assessment techniques, now enshrined in the MOSAIC software used by private and public security agencies worldwide including Homeland Security. Celebrities and politicians may receive hundreds of threats every year, but only a tiny fraction are ever carried out. De Becker's job is to figure out which ones to worry about.

As I said, this is potentially worrying. I'd see if you can look up criminal records online and see if he has a history of violence -- anything from disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct on up. The boss might not even know about it.

Meantime, I'd exercise some appropriate precautions such as limiting the time you're alone with him and maximizing your awareness of escape routes. Don't get cornered. When I was a victim of a violent crime, I let myself get cornered, and it was my biggest mistake. I also didn't believe it was really possible that someone would use violence against me for the grievance in question. I was wrong -- he used a weapon and I am very lucky I wasn't killed.
posted by dhartung at 11:44 AM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

It is illegal to threaten someone. You have a right to report it to the police if you don't get satisfaction elsewhere. So, when you talk to the owner, keep in mind that you have recourse, and that police reports are public record.
posted by theora55 at 12:28 PM on December 21, 2008

I agree with others above who were saying to take this with a big grain of salt if you like your job that much. Kitchens are stressful, some people are just assholes.

That being said, if it continues, this is called "hostile work environment" and you don't have to put up with that shit.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 1:30 PM on December 21, 2008

I just quickly read through all these replies and whilst i agree there are diplomatic ways to solve this and that every situation is different. Did this guy just say it to blow off steam? or did he mean it? if the first just take it with a pinch of salt..if the second situation then it depends on his relationship with your boss...personally either way i'd stand up to the guy and tell him to back off..some things you just have to do..walking away from a job because of someone else is just taking the easy route...if the bullying continues then i'd contact my boss..and just go from have at least stand up for yourself..
posted by defsix at 2:06 PM on December 21, 2008

I like my job, I like the people I work with, and the owner. I don't think I should have to rearrange my life to accommodate my supervisor's shortcomings.

Do you like your job, the people, and the owner enough to die by puncture wound to the front of your head? If not, you should probably consider finding a new kitchen to work in. You know, before "murder" becomes another one of your supervisor's shortcomings.
posted by allkindsoftime at 3:37 PM on December 21, 2008

Maybe completely out of line, but "I could stab you in the face" doesn't sound threatening so much to me anymore than "I'd keelhaul you, had I a schooner!", just because...well...who threatens to stab someone in the face? Punch you in the face? Sure. Kick you in the ass? All right. But...stab you in the face? I'm probably completely misjudging here but based on your statement that you'll consult a lawyer over 1 statement sort of makes you sound like you're gold digging me at least.

Although, the fact that you apparently feel threatened by it is the key factor. Speak to the owner, tell him you felt threatened, let him/her deal with it. Shouldn't happen again.

In the past while fooling with my employees I've told them that I might skewer them with the forklift, or stab them in the eye with a blunt pencil, stuff them in my briefcase...etc. Always said with a straight face...and then we all had a good giggle. Probably inappropriate, but not a big deal...of course that's because they didn't feel threatened.

But really, speak to the owner, be specific that you felt threatened. Next time don't be afraid to stand up for yourself enough to either say A) "Man that's a really fucked up thing to say dude, ya'll hear that?" or B) "Oh really? Well I could take a power trimmer to your mothers rosebushes" and break the tension a little bit.
posted by TomMelee at 3:45 PM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

I often say "I'll stab him/her in the eye!" when I'm angry - and it's so over-the-top and ludicrously violent that it always cheers me up. I think you're being a huge drama queen about this.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 5:44 PM on December 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

TomMelee made some good points above. It's highly unlikely this person will physically harm you. Those that truly might won't talk about it, particularly not that way. I also doubt your case will get the attention of an attorney or the police. It's unfortunate this sort of thing happens frequently. It's frustrating and the best you can do is find a way of working through it without it pissing you off, collecting assault charges, getting wrapped up in silly politics, competing for alpha status, letting it pick at your self -esteem, and so on.

Don't go looking for another round. But if it this occurs again my personal, non-legal, "grown up", post tough-guy advice is this:

Repeat the threat verbally for clarification "stab me in the face?" making eye contact but no display of emotion, and note "you realize the consequences for that would be severe right? Then that's just silly." At this point just walk away, don't get involved in a conversation. At some point later get clarification on the mistake. Do be sincere about wanting to transcend any carelessness. Don't engage in argument on this.

You must make a point of not tolerating any resemblance of a threat while also not engaging in silly alpha status bullshit. This is a very fine skill requiring significant time and great patience to develop.

And lastly... while this may be very true "To the people who will say, "find a new job," I like my job, I like the people I work with, and the owner. I don't think I should have to rearrange my life to accommodate my supervisor's shortcomings." Maybe there is a dialogue you can have with the owner, but I doubt anyone is going to invest much energy on this.

Ultimately, you will probably need to find better people to work with.
posted by ezekieldas at 6:36 PM on December 21, 2008

wait, i didn't see that this happened in a kitchen.

the rules of the kitchen are completely and totally different than an office, retail, or real life in general.

have you read kitchen confidential? I hate Bourdain, but every friend who works in a kitchen (and also hates Bourdain) swears on this thing like it is the Rosetta Stone. He tells stories that make your threat seem like a declaration of love.

Complaining about this would be kind of like complaining about rough language in a truck stop.
posted by micawber at 7:48 PM on December 21, 2008

Our office has a project for the employment problems of people affected by violence (DV, violence in the workplace, sexual assault, etc.). You can call 415-864-8848 and ask for Anya Lakner. If you need an 800 number email me I'll find it.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:13 PM on December 21, 2008

What did you do? It is a somewhat pertinent detail... You left it out so I'm assuming it was a major fuck up and he was merely expressing his displeasure in a restrained manner while showing you the courtesy of not stabbing you in the face.

That being said in the same situation I would've... responded to that comment. Don't be a dick - pick a suitable moment to discuss what went wrong and how to avoid it in the future if that's appropriate? Otherwise explain how you have rectified the problem within yourself and apologise. Maybe discuss that if another problem should occur - how best to handle it. This actually serves another purpose, if he can behave like a person when things are calm you'll be ok. Maybe he was just having a fuck of a day? It happens. Maybe he's a power tripping jackass? You'll then need to handle this appropriately. If you don't want to speak to him at all go to the owner and say while you accept you fucked up and you understand his anger. These days you just never know.. he was just angry right?? Whatever you do don't be a dick about it - you will loose your job.

The guy might hate you? but I doubt you're in any danger. It's counterproductive to tell you if he really intended to do it. He's more likely to have just hoped to scare you into taking more care.
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 10:49 PM on December 21, 2008

Sounds like the guy's a hothead who isn't in very good control of his mouth. It's surprising that a person with such a temperament has been put in a supervisory position, but I guess real meritocracies are hard to come by, and seniority is often over-appreciated.

Your tactic should be determined by your desired outcome. If you just want to put the guy in check and be sure that he contains himself at your place of employment, go to the owner and tell him the story. If the owner's a good guy (it sounds like you think he is) he'll have a word with your supervisor, and then will probably make him give you some sort of apology. You'll probably never have a comfortable relationship with him again, though you probably won't ever no matter what.

If you want to vice-grip him out of a job, or otherwise put the owner in a position of having no choice but to fire the guy, then the lawyer's the option - probably after informing the owner that you're hiring one. Not really my personal style, but it could suit you better than me. (I would be afraid of getting labeled as the employee you have to walk on eggshells around because they'll sue and get you fired.)

So, in a nutshell...

If you're looking for a straightforward way to let the guy know that he went too far, with minimal impact on your relationship with your place of employment: go to the owner.

If you really want to get the guy: go to the owner, and inform them that you're seeking legal counsel, and you can't work for this supervisor any more.

Either way, you need to speak to the owner.
posted by stewiethegreat at 11:54 PM on December 21, 2008

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