How to deal with a bullying consultant?
March 30, 2011 6:13 PM   Subscribe

A consultant who works closely with my department hates me. He's not going anywhere. How do I deal?

My department works very closely with a consultant ("Harry"). Harry is old, crochety, and irreplaceable. He does not work at my company, nor does he work on-site with us. No one likes him very much, but his specific knowledge and skillset is rare and necessary right now.

My department came into existence a year ago, and I'm one of the logistics / admin support people. I joined the company to join this department. I generally enjoy, and succeed at, my job. I like my small team, and my work has been prasied (I got a raise and a new title at my last review).

Harry strongly dislikes me, and feels like he has the authority to boss me around. I am young, female, and far less experienced in the industry. I also have to triage support requests from dozens of people. Sometimes, I do not prioritize Harry. Harry responds to any less-than-perfect situation involving me with abusive emails, showing up randomly, yelling at me in the lobby (in front of several others), and other bullying tactics. He sends me rude emails and tells me not to tell my boss; he sends my boss itemized emails about everything I'm doing wrong.

I have discussed the situation with my manager and director. They are working to shield me from Harry, and have told him directly that all contact should go through the director. Harry emails me anyway (and shows up at my desk unannounced, although he does not work at the company) and continues to berate me. I get 1-5 emails, phone calls, or visits from him per day.

I know the right answer is, "haters to the left", but I can't really take it. How do I deal with this man? How do I not come in each day dreading everything?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (28 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Document everything and talk to your HR department. You are being harassed and your manager isn't doing enough. HR should recognize that this is a lawsuit waiting to happen and take steps to rectify the situation. Maintain all of your documentation just in case the rectification involves your termination.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 6:18 PM on March 30, 2011 [16 favorites]

Your manager and director need to do more than shield you from Harry. They need to tell him that his behaviour is unacceptable and ask him to stop it. And they need to do so effectively.

Cat Pie Hurts has it right. Make sure that you document everything. Go back to your manager and tell them that whatever they are doing, it's not working.

If they don't fix the situation, you may have to go to HR, but it should be a last resort. Going to HR will inevitably annoy your manager.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:21 PM on March 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

A formal complaint is about his unprofessionalism is in order, now. Start documenting his behavior, and his further refusal to follow direction from his superiors. Yelling at you in the lobby is simply unacceptable. Report any and all incidents like this immediately.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 6:21 PM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

What CPH said, plus get a lawyer. This may well end up turning into "Harry is more important than some newbie, so let's trump up something to get rid of her so she doesn't sue us for not getting rid of the old asshole," and if they know you have a lawyer just itching to file, they might hesitate.
posted by Etrigan at 6:23 PM on March 30, 2011

This needs to get escalated by your higher ups ASAP. It's extremely bad for everyone involved.
posted by mleigh at 6:27 PM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I do agree with all of the above, BUT to end this you are going to have to plant your feet, look Harry in the eye, and say "I will only respond to you when you act in a professional manner." When he arrives in your office, say this and deal with him professionally but as soon as he crosses the line, get up and leave. Answer any questionable emails with just that sentence and keep sending one-line responses every time it's necessary. Every time you respond, make sure your manager and director are copied on the response.
posted by raisingsand at 6:32 PM on March 30, 2011 [9 favorites]

I'm confused as to why you are keeping the abusive emails to yourself, if you have been. Especially any email that contains the directive, "Don't Tell Your Boss." I would fwd every last one of them as they showed up in my inbox, in real time.

But I am a bully myself, so I don't take that shit lying down.

My advice to immediately fwd every nasty email to the manager and director might not be politically savvy. Just pointing out that Harry as shown you a weakness. He wants to keep abusing you as long as it is in private.

I wouldn't keep his communications private. Abusers hate the light of exposure.

Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 6:57 PM on March 30, 2011 [13 favorites]

1. Good job! You've informed your manager and director.

2. Give them notice before you escalate the issue and forward all of his e-mails to them.

3. Figure out a verbal device to use with Harry. "Harry, thanks for your input. Unfortunately, I'm doing exactly what I'm supposed to in accordance with direction with my manager. If you have an issue, please direct it to my manager or director. I can't change anything."

I face stuff like this occasionally, and while it really bugs the crap out of me at the onslaught, I usually just pass people like this on to my boss. You've already alerted your boss to the situation, so it won't be unexpected and shouldn't get you into any kind of trouble.

On preview, yea, what those guys said!
posted by snsranch at 7:00 PM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

While I agree that his behavior is clearly unacceptable, and also agree with Cat Pie Hurts' advice here, I feel the need to point out one thing: In your message here, you refer to Harry as being old and crotchety. Be very, VERY careful about using words like that. If this guy decides to bring an age discrimination lawsuit against your organization at some point, you could find yourself in a world of shit for using explicitly "age-ist" language like that.
posted by deadmessenger at 7:03 PM on March 30, 2011

It will also behoove you to get a small personal recoding device and record every conversation you have with Harry. A good one can be concealed in a pocket, has several hours of recording time, is sensitive enough to pick up all voices in a confined space like a hallway or office, and will timestamp the recordings . You will also want to learn how to reliably activate it when it is in a pocket.

Of course you will need to know if your state is a one-party or two-party consent state when it comes to recording conversations. "One-party consent" means that you can record conversations you participate in without others knowing, and those recordings can be admissible in court. Most states are, but not all.

This, your saved/printed stack of harassing emails, and detailed (date,time,witnesses) records of conversations, will be a suitable collection of evidence for a court case. Of course the likelihood you'll take this to court is low, but if you threaten legal action you won't be bluffing.
posted by clarknova at 7:11 PM on March 30, 2011

Just brainstorming here but have you ever tried ignoring him? He sends you a shitty email and you just dump it in the evidence folder and move on. And he emails again and you dump that one too? And he approaches you in the lobby to shout and you just swerve around him and continue on your way? And he shows up at your desk and you don't acknowledge him and just keep typing? And if you really have to respond, you respond pleasantly and efficiently as though you don't notice the nasty at all? I heard something about how misbehaving animals you're trying to train are fueled by any response at all, positive or negative, and that denying them any kind of response sometimes withers the problem behavior. If you know you're doing your job correctly and you know you have the support of your higher ups, you may be in a good position to simply confidently deny him the satisfaction of any kind of response when he is just being shitty to be shitty. If he can't get that satisfaction, maybe he'll have to seek it elsewhere. I have never been in this situation, so I don't know if it will work, but I'd love it if it did.
posted by Askr at 7:56 PM on March 30, 2011

I don't know. I say go to HR. It's harassment.

In reality, if it were me, I would be nasty (sarcastic) right back to him.
Although that depends, I also have befriended the nasty older people at previous jobs and became good pals with them. It's sort of like a challenge for me.
posted by KogeLiz at 7:57 PM on March 30, 2011

Don't be bullied. "Harry" only thinks he can get away with this because he thinks 1) he's irreplaceable and 2) you'll take it.

Don't engage with Harry.

Document obsessively. If he yelled at you in the lobby, get someone to confirm it. Communicate with your management regularly. Communicate with HR regularly.

Lacking details, I dunno what Harrys skill is. But in my experience, most people with "irreplaceable" skills 1) can be replaced for the right amount of money, and 2) are desperately afraid they'll be replaced. Make it clear to HR it's a hostile work environment, and see how fast someone decides that maybe they don't need Harry.
posted by kjs3 at 7:58 PM on March 30, 2011

I wonder, a little bit, if this is a problem because you want people to like you (Harry, but also your management, etc). I know this feeling and when an asshole berates me, it feels terrible, even though I don't like him. I still don't like to be unliked.

Here's the thing though: Harry is never going to like you. Ever. So you might as well try to take some steps to keep away from him. The above is some good advice. Document, forward emails, disengage from him. He's not your boss, you are not required to listen to his bullshit in the lobby, or at your desk.
posted by RustyBrooks at 8:02 PM on March 30, 2011

He's not even an employee, he's a consultant. I have no additional advice beyond what others have said, but for those giving specific answers, the detail that he's a consultant is surely important.
posted by elpea at 8:04 PM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

It would be wonderful if the next time he starts his dog and pony show you just start laughing.
Because, this man is being totally ridiculous!
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:04 PM on March 30, 2011

The above advice about documentation is correct, but here are a few scripts you can use when Harry does his thing:

Abusive emails: "Harry, {Boss} has requested that you send requests to me through her from now on, so I am copying this message to her. Please follow up with {Boss} to determine a timeline for this request." CC your boss on this reply. Repeat as necessary.

Showing up randomly: "Harry, I am busy right now. If you need something, I will get to it faster if you put your request in an email." Then go back to what you are doing. Ignore.

Yelling at you in front of others: "Wow, I can't believe you're yelling at me in the workplace." "I don't know why you think it's appropriate to yell at me." "If you need to let off some steam, let me go ahead and call HR." Practice these in front of a mirror.

As to the wider issue here, your description falls under "Hostile Work Environment." You need to take your discussions with your manager up a notch and inform him or her that you appreciate the work that's being done to shield you from Harry, but that you believe it is time to bring in HR to help you both understand how you are protected under the law. With all the emails you've been getting, you have plenty of documentation.

If things are bad enough that you feel threatened at work, you need to march to HR right now and tell them that you feel threatened enough to want to seek a civil restraining order against Harry. He's not a fellow employee, and HR will take you very very seriously if you take yourself very very seriously.
posted by juniperesque at 8:14 PM on March 30, 2011 [11 favorites]

@elpea: You hit what I meant but didn't say. Fuck this guy...he's not an employee; he doesn't have the right to shit on you.
posted by kjs3 at 8:18 PM on March 30, 2011

I would suggest saying the following to your manager/higher ups tomorrow morning - try to include an HR rep if you can:

"You all know that Harry has a problem. I'm not sure if it's with all younger women or if it's just me but it needs to stop. I appreciate your support and direction but it is not getting any better. Despite your very clear instructions, Harry continues his campaign of harassment.

Starting today, I am going to set up my email so all messages from Harry are forwarded to each of you and those messages will also be marked as read by my email program and stored in a folder that I'm not going to bother reading without instructions from one of you. If you like, I will have a reply message set up for Harry's email that will remind him that all communication should go through one of you but really, I think that's unnecessary at this point since you've told him that's how it should be done.

The next time Harry approaches me in person and says anything beyond social chit chat, I will say to him: 'Harry, you're rude, unprofessional and out of line. Stop talking to me immediately. Direct all communication to my boss because I'm done with you.' I'll then walk away from him and into one of your offices (or into the ladies' room or out of the building) because I shouldn't have to put up with this behavior from a coworker especially after you've told him to knock it off. I will continue to walk away from him any time he tries to engage in this inappropriate behavior. This has gone on long enough and I can't play his little games any more."

I would also recommend that you document everything to the point of forwarding his emails to your personal email address (direct them into a folder so you won't have to deal with them on a daily basis) so you have evidence stored outside the company.

This is a really sucky situation. Sorry you have to deal with this.
posted by jaimystery at 8:29 PM on March 30, 2011 [5 favorites]

"Harry? You need to fuck off. Now. My directors have made it perfectly clear to you that you're supposed to deal with them, and so I have no intention whatsoever of dealing with you directly. You're good at what you do, Harry. I get that. But you're also an asshole, and I don't talk to assholes, only grown-ups."
posted by obiwanwasabi at 8:35 PM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

and have told him directly that all contact should go through the director.,

Then any emails he sends you should be forwarded to the director and ignored (even better if you can set your email up to forward them automatically and then delete them so you never have to see them). If he calls you, if you can put him on hold and transfer the call to your director, do that - otherwise calmly tell him that all requests must go via director and hang up. Same thing if he shows up in person - calmly tell him that he needs to talk to director and then leave - personally I'd go to the ladies room just in case he tries to follow you. If he follows you in there then go in to a stall, wait a few minutes, flush and then wash your hands. Leave the bathroom and go straight to HR if you have one or to your director's office.
posted by missmagenta at 12:01 AM on March 31, 2011 [3 favorites]

I wonder if this is a manifestation of the yeller/talker dichotomy.

You can sometimes see this pattern in relationships: one party is used to solving problems by mutual yelling, but the other always wants to go away, cool down and discuss things later. The yelling partner only sees a refusal to engage, gets more angry, chases the other person down and yells more. Presto, a vicious, nasty and almost unstoppable cycle of escalating yelling and running away. Two yellers or two talkers might have solved the same problem in five minutes!

If you're a young university educated woman and he's an older man who worked his way through the ranks, that makes it pretty plausible that he comes from a yelling background and you from a talking one.

If this is the kind of problem you have, and if your workplace tacitly acknowledges this, then standing up for yourself and giving this guy both barrels of what-for may turn the situation on its head - BAM! just like that - and the guy will immediately start to treat you like a respected member of the team.

Clearly this is a somewhat risky strategy and only you can make a reasonable assessment of whether it might be worth a shot!
posted by emilyw at 3:31 AM on March 31, 2011

Another ex-HR perspective. Do what jaimystery said. Your managers' actions so far have not made him stop this bullying behaviour and they need to step up to resolve the issue. As others have said, failure to take action will open them up to a harassment lawsuit; they have a duty of care to provide a safe environment free from harassment, and they are currently failing to do this.

Good luck!
posted by arcticseal at 6:42 AM on March 31, 2011

Forgot to mention, not sure where you live, but in the UK my sister has found the Citizens Advice Bureau to be a good resource in a situation like this. They're useful if you can't afford a lawyer or want a simple sanity check on what people on the internet tell you.
posted by arcticseal at 6:44 AM on March 31, 2011

Perhaps I'm reading too much into Harry based on your description, but it sounds to me like he's one of those contractors who can't estimate their own time. It can be frustrating when they're on the horn pushing you for something when you have a million other things to do.

The mindset of people like this is that you're "causing problems" because you won't furnish them with what they need in time for them to do their work in a timely manner. The reality is, they themselves cannot estimate their time adequately, and need someone to blame when the shit hits the fan. Witness the amount of time he spends berating you, when he should goddamn well be doing his work.

You are his CYA strategy, and I suspect the bosses know this. Hence them saying they are trying to "shield" you from him. What they're essentially saying is, "yes, we know he's a grade-A asshole, and that he's blaming you for everything under the sun, but we're going to assume he's in the wrong and you're in the right. When performance review time rolls around, these complaints will not come up".

I wouldn't be rude to him, but do as others have suggested, and continually remind Harry that he's been instructed to speak directly to your boss. Forward everything to the boss, and stand your ground if Harry confronts you. But honestly, if there's any way you can know ahead of time that Harry is coming, I'd pick that exact time for a coffee/smoke/powder-your-nose break.
posted by LN at 8:23 AM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just a thought, and I don't know that I could do this myself, but when he yells at you, I say just keep a straight face and say, "I'm sorry you feel that way." It's technically true, it's puts him in his place - you're not the problem, his feelings are the problem - and it's the type of infuriating thing I hate being told. Good luck - this sucks!
posted by kat518 at 9:01 AM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

re: obiwanwasabi's advice: Don't swear at work. Bad idea.
posted by Riverine at 2:24 PM on March 31, 2011

Get an air horn and when he starts to act up, either on the phone or in person, blow it at him. I had an idea to get some custom air horns made and labeled as "shut up spray".

Seriously though, I think that there are a few things you should do (that other people suggested above):
1. Warn him that if he doesn't behave professionally, you won't talk to him. Then when he violates that, terminate the conversation or walk away. If he prevents you from leaving, call the police. If he calls you back immediately, send the call to voicemail.

2. Insist on having witnesses to your conversations with him. My wife and I had to pull this with her parents when we were getting married. They really bullied us about the whole process and we decided that it would be best to only talk to them together. It really helped, along with the other suggestions here.

3. Filter / forward all emails and voicemails from him to your boss.

4. Save all emails and voicemails that he sends you. Save them in a non-company account / place.

5. Go to HR and report him. Tell your boss that you're doing this.

I am sure that he only thinks that he's not replaceable. Everyone is replaceable. It may hurt, but the company is hurting itself more by allowing him to behave that way.

This is a really hard situation. I was dealing with something like this where the lead developer at my job is a bully. But the problem is that my boss is as well. The company is small enough that there is no HR and no real management practice. And my boss is one of the owners of the company. So, I quit, was lucky enough to find a new job which I'm starting on Monday.

Good luck.
posted by reddot at 10:55 AM on April 1, 2011

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