How to deal with strange co-worker?
January 24, 2013 1:58 PM   Subscribe

One of my relatives got a strange note from one of her co-workers. She was minding her own business when this guy comes by and gives her a note that says, "I'm sometimes suicidal. My niece makes me feel better, maybe you can make me feel better too." Should she tell HR? Call the cops? What does that crazy note even mean? More details below...

I don't want to get too specific but this firm prepares chemical solutions. She's one of the professionals with an advanced degree and this guy is a lab technician in his early 20's; she doesn't know much about him besides his name. She went to him later and told him she couldn't really help him and gave him the number to a suicide prevention hotline. She hoped that was the end of it but the guy seems to have taken that as a sign of affection and is trying to get more friendly with her.

I told her to talk to HR but she's scared that if they reprimand or fire him he'll blame her and come after her. Sometimes she works late and is alone in the building so she doesn't want to make any enemies. She's really freaked out at this point, what should she do and how can I convince her to do it?
posted by exhilaration to Human Relations (55 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
HR and cops.
posted by ellF at 1:59 PM on January 24, 2013 [58 favorites]

Best answer: HR, this isn't normal, or right and he's wildly inappropriate.

If she's working late and alone, then the company needs to do whatever it takes to keep her safe.

Also, she needs to tell this young man, "I am very uncomfortable with your note, and I would prefer it if you keep your communication with me to topics that are professional only."

Because HR is for sure going to ask her if she's told him not to talk to her.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:02 PM on January 24, 2013 [35 favorites]

This is way crazy and not something to mess with. I would be very uncomfortable continuing to work with someone like that on site. I'd start with HR and also consider talking to the police. This sounds unsafe to me, and something the employer should take care of and handle immediately.
posted by alms at 2:03 PM on January 24, 2013

Inform her supervisor immediately. Send it up the chain of command and let them call in security, the police, etc.
posted by Pudhoho at 2:03 PM on January 24, 2013 [6 favorites]

HR first, then maybe the cops. The note and his behavior is majorly crossing a line - mental illness on his part? drugs? Who knows, but you should involve those whose job it is to find out.
posted by zug at 2:04 PM on January 24, 2013

(Am I the only one now wondering how old the niece is, and if she is safe too?)

Yes, HR.
posted by taff at 2:07 PM on January 24, 2013 [53 favorites]

HR, HR, HR. Immediately. This is super, super inappropriate behavior from a coworker.
posted by erst at 2:07 PM on January 24, 2013

she's scared that if they reprimand or fire him he'll blame her and come after her.

I understand her concern, but she needs to understand that there are no magic words that she can say to this man to fix the situation (i.e., to make him leave her along and guarantee her safety while doing so). Speaking to HR, and possibly the cops, are the only options here.
posted by scody at 2:07 PM on January 24, 2013 [34 favorites]

The fact that "Notify HR" and "Call Cops" were questions you asked after the initial breakdown of what happened should signal that you should tell her to, in fact, notify HR and call the cops. Immediately. I'd call the cops now.
posted by MMALR at 2:09 PM on January 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Also, no further contact with the author of the note. Do not provoke this individual.
posted by Pudhoho at 2:09 PM on January 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: What does that crazy note even mean?

That the dude is bad at normal human interaction. Could mean he's just desperate for human contact and trying hamhandedly to get some. Could mean he's obsessed with your friend and trying to get her attention in a way he thinks is un-ignorable. Either way's not great, really, and she should let HR know and tell him in so many words that the note was creepy. But bear in mind that it may simply be the first case --- he might just be bad at people and your friend comes across as a nice person. I wouldn't necessarily jump to the conclusion that he's violent based on the note alone. But she should definitely trust her instincts --- she's the one who's in the guy's presence, if she's getting bad vibes then take it to HR and make them accommodate her need to get her work done in some way.
posted by Diablevert at 2:11 PM on January 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Holy fuck.

If this man is in his early twenties that niece is very probably not an adult, and from the tone, aggressive cluelessness, and profound creepiness of the note possibly in serious danger. I would encourage your relative to think of this note primarily as evidence of possible child abuse and go strait to HR but only to cover her ass on your way to the cops. There needs to be social workers investigating this dude with the note in hand yesterday.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:14 PM on January 24, 2013 [13 favorites]

Jeez, of COURSE she should go to HR and the cops, without hesitation. Bluntly speaking, what makes her think that he'll only come after her if she tells? She may be in danger right now.
posted by Wordwoman at 2:16 PM on January 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

I am not normally one to jump right to notifying the authorities, but this note is beyond the pale of what I would recommend dealing with oneself. Ask him not to speak to her outside of professional requirements, contact HR, and notify the police.
posted by Rock Steady at 2:16 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Tell her that when she talks to HR to communicate her worries clearly, as she already has to you: "I don't know what to do. I'm really freaked out at this point. I'm scared that if you reprimand or fire him he'll blame me and come after me. Sometimes I work late and am alone in the building and I don't want to make any enemies."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 2:20 PM on January 24, 2013 [17 favorites]

Contact the police? Are you people for real?

Its just a vaguely worded note. What if this guy is just depressed and maybe his niece tells funny jokes? Maybe his niece looks like the relative? Maybe hes just some lonely miserable depressed person desperately crying out for help? Maybe English isn't his first language?

OR maybe hes a pedophile / rapist / murderer trying to manipulate your relative.

The truth is, we are a bunch of strangers on the internet, and none of us know the first thing about this situation other than the couple of vague sentences you posted in your ask.

Have some compassion people, not everyone is a rapist / pedophile / murderer just because they are depressed and clueless about social interactions.

Your relative should IMMEDIATELY talk to HR, they will know much better than any of us how to deal with this.

If your relative is without a shadow of a doubt worried about imminent danger, then sure she can try to call the police, but what can they really do here? Its just a strange note and a weird person, but before this guy gets railroaded out of a job and potentially suffers other hardships, perhaps due diligence is warranted rather than fear mongering.
posted by jalitt at 2:38 PM on January 24, 2013 [19 favorites]

I don't see the basis for all the fear here. I do see a situation that needs to be managed, but carefully, not with hobnailed boots. I am concerned that this man is being judged as dangerous with very little (no?) evidence. There is evidence that he needs help, but for what, and how seriously, it is not possible to judge.

Does the workplace have a staff support provider, a counselling service for staff who have difficulties of one sort or another? That would be a good start for him. I would worry that HR may not be the gateway to him getting the support/reatment that he may require, and an over-reaction by her/HR may exacerbate whatever problems he may have.

What does her gut say about this guy now (not what might happen if she reports it)? If she doesn't feel good about talking to him, then she should respect that and avoid him.
posted by GeeEmm at 2:44 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I understand her being scared that he'd harass her if he was reprimanded or even fired; the thing is, he would earn that reprimand or firing because of his own actions, not because of anything she had done. And, too, what would likely happen if she didn't notify her supervisor and HR? Oh yeah: he'll continue to harass her on company time and company property.

She has nothing whatsoever to lose by telling her boss and HR about this, and giving them that note (but keeping a copy for herself, too).
posted by easily confused at 2:44 PM on January 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

Holy shit. Yeah, HR first and then cops. Make scans/photocopies of the note, put it into an envelope and seal it, take it to HR first thing in the morning.
posted by Elly Vortex at 2:50 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

While I understand that compassion and understanding is usually a great first stop, when someone is this completely out of left field and inappropriate, you just honestly have no idea where they stand. He clearly doesn't have any idea of normal social and emotional boundaries, where do his physical and sexual boundaries lie? I can't imagine giving a co-worker a note like that out of no where, receiving it would terrify me!

Even if all he needs is a hug and a warm coco, your relative is under no obligation to provide that for him. If his strange behaviour does escalate, having spoken to HR and potentially the police will have laid a paper trail down.
posted by Dynex at 3:19 PM on January 24, 2013 [13 favorites]

jalitt: If he's a nice man with horrendously awkward tendencies that just so happen to overlap with sociopathic approaches to women, then HR and the police will sort that out. They're pretty good at what they do.
posted by ellF at 3:37 PM on January 24, 2013 [10 favorites]

That is an incredibly creepy, inappropriate and downright worrying thing for him to have done. I will also say this one needs immediate HR intervention and very possibly a word with the law, too.
posted by Decani at 3:40 PM on January 24, 2013

At an absolute minimum she needs to go to HR, now. He's already managed to manipulate her into a bit of caretaking behavior (giving him the number to a suicide hotline without routing it through and it sounds like it will only get worse. She can confer with them about calling the cops if she is afraid of that part.

And yes, if there is a niece she also needs an intervention, stat, though I wouldn't be surprised if he made her up.
posted by ziggly at 3:49 PM on January 24, 2013

Compassion for him? What about compassion for this poor woman who's been scared out of her wits by this incredibly inappropriate and extremely manipulative behaviour?

If her gut is telling her that he might come after her, she should listen to it.

I would encourage her not to talk to this guy anymore, even if it's to tell him that she no longer wants to talk to him. Gavin de Becker would say that any communication, even 'negative' communication, in this scenario would only encourage further attention.

She should go directly to HR to inform them of the situation, and demand that she is provided with security while she is in the office alone, or that her hours are changed so that she is never alone on the premises. If the company has any sense, they will do whatever it takes to avoid anything happening to her.
posted by RubyScarlet at 3:52 PM on January 24, 2013 [35 favorites]

HR, absolutely, and police, absolutely. That note is deeply creepy and unsettling.
posted by sarcasticah at 4:01 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Have some compassion people, not everyone is a rapist / pedophile / murderer just because they are depressed and clueless about social interactions.

Setting appropriate boundaries is compassionate behavior.
posted by scody at 4:12 PM on January 24, 2013 [51 favorites]

HR and her supervisor (your friend's supervisor). Don't forget to inform the supervisor.
Not safe, remember the story about the student at Yale who was murdered by an unstable lab tech? Be careful!
posted by kellybird at 4:16 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Good lord my skin just about crawled off. HR and cops, yes. If he is truly just an awkward dude who has truly made it to this age without understanding how far beyond the pale of normal this is, then he needs the blunt instrument of the big guns being involved to make it clear to him. This is not behavior that deserves to be excused.
posted by KathrynT at 4:29 PM on January 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

I know several people who are the same age as or even older than their aunt/uncle. It isn't uncommon in larger families. Maybe focusing on potential child abuse is clouding the issue.

HR. They may have gotten reports about the note guy in the past. This might not be his first note. It is also your relative's responsibility to help ensure safety in the work place. If she doesn't inform HR of this, she could -possibly, maybe- be endangering her co-workers. Why take that kind of risk?
posted by Brody's chum at 4:31 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I will put the 20th "give it to HR" suggestion in right here.

Don't get involved any further than you are with this. It is not anything to mess with by yourself or at all unless it is an emergency situation. And even then, it would be a 911 call.
posted by lampshade at 4:39 PM on January 24, 2013

Make it 21.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:31 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

jalitt: he might have mental problems, but what about her?

If it were not too ableist to use the phrase "pants-crappingly insane," I would do so in regards to this communication.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:34 PM on January 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

Yea, I hope people don't think I was saying this guy is harmless. I was simply pointing out that we don't know even know if English is this persons first language. We are all seeing our own worst nightmares here with no evidence as to what is actually going on.

I was also disturbed by that note, but then I took a step back and realized I actually have no idea what this note even really says(or if it is even verbatim).

Which is to say the relevant people (ex's relative, hr, possibly also later this potentially disturbed person and /or the authorities) need to meet and sort this out, and ideally escalation should only occur if there is actual evidence of wrongdoings.

Writing an unintentionally creepy note - not a crime, correctable. Continuously making a coworker uncomfortable - pretty bad, deserves to be fired. Sexual abuse of minors - unthinkably terrible.

There is a whole lot of room for this to go anyway, I guess I was just making a plea to do the right thing but to do it with all the facts and a cool head.
posted by jalitt at 5:54 PM on January 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

He doesn't have to be a serial killer or rapist, she's totally within her rights to not want anything to do with him purely because he's weird and awkward. I sure as hell wouldn't be "nice" to him.
posted by fshgrl at 6:05 PM on January 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

Mod note: Folks, let's not pursue this derail; nobody has suggested that she needs to be nice to him, and this isn't about generalized differences in how social awkwardness is perceived in men vs women.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 6:19 PM on January 24, 2013

Nthing HR. As fshgrl said, she is within her rights to not want to have anything to do with anyone who acts inappropriately at work. She is presumably there to work.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:19 PM on January 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

I hope your sister has contacted HR; it's their job to deal with this. Please let us know how things turned out.
posted by theora55 at 6:22 PM on January 24, 2013

Him being suicidal could possibly involve him doing something at work where someone else could get injured. You don't know if his tendencies are just limited to him, or if he might intend it for anyone else.

I'd say that note is really creepy. It's the way he did it and the fact that he doesn't even know the person he gave it to. All in all, this person really needs help and should get it. Tell HR as soon a you can, let them find him some help or figure out how to handle the situation. At the very least it's a cry for help and he's not going to get much if you just ignore it. What would one expect if they did that to a stranger?

Just big, red flag. Take care of it so that nothing life threatening happens to him, or anyone else (in the building, out of the building, etc.). One never knows.
posted by readygo at 6:22 PM on January 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

She should call in sick to work until he is removed from the premises.

Security should be in place to protect her and everyone else.

It sounds like she works someplace with dangerous materials present. This isn't just about her safety.

I am not a mental health professional, but I am concerned that any note at my work place that starts off, "I'm sometimes suicidal..." means everyone and everything at that workplace is at serious risk of harm.

I would take the note as an announcement of intent that the writer plans to hurt themselves or others.

HR should good practices in place and have the building inspected, review security tapes, etc.

Yes, the niece sounds like she is in danger, whoever she is.

Your relative might not be the only person to have been approached, but even if she was, she is NOT a mental health professnal. All steps possible should be taken to protect this person from self-harm, and all workers and clients from harm, as well.

This is above your relative's pay grade and expertise. She needs to escalate this IMMEDIATELY. Like, call supervisors at home and such if it is after the work day has ended.

I pray everryone remains safe.

I'm so sorry this person is in pain. Don't let them harm themselves or anyone else.

Sometimes people have a mental health crisis and they require immediate intervention. Reaching out to a near-stranger in this fashion strongly signals this is one of those times that only trained professionals can help.

Please update. Let us know everyone is safe!
posted by jbenben at 6:50 PM on January 24, 2013 [15 favorites]

Either he is suicidal, or a dangerous creeper, or a harmless creeper, or someone clueless in risk of losing his job down the line for cluelessness.

Either way, an intervention is in order: she absolutely must contact HR.
posted by vivid postcard at 6:53 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Make a photocopy of the note before taking it to HR. Maybe I'm jaded by HR people that haven't done much about real concerns in the past, but I think your relative needs to keep her own evidence of what has happened just in case this escalates.
posted by hazyjane at 10:22 PM on January 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

Yep. HR. It's deeply creepy.

Of course, if he is creepy his co-workers will probably have flagged something beforehand. That might just be the push she needs.
posted by Mezentian at 10:41 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Make a photocopy of the note before taking it to HR. Maybe I'm jaded by HR people that haven't done much about real concerns in the past, but I think your relative needs to keep her own evidence of what has happened just in case this escalates.

That's why right after she calls HR she calls the cops and makes sure HR knows she's doing it.
posted by winna at 11:57 PM on January 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Seconding making a photocopy of the note and going to HR. Also, and I'm sorry to say this, but she needs to rehearse what she will do if he corners her as a result. I would tell her: Assume HR will fuck this up (you have to tell them in case there are others, but at most companies HR are amateurs who will blab your complaint all around the office or even right to him.) Calling the cops (making sure HR knows what you are doing) might keep them honest though they'll be pissed at you. Keep the original in case it comes to that.

I agree that the compassionate thing is to set boundaries, and the self-preserving thing is to know your game plan if your setting boundaries sets him off. Do you have a route of escape? Allies if you need assistance getting un-cornered? Friends or family who expect to hear from you at the end of each work day?

I speak from the experience of reporting a stalker to an HR twit who broke confidentiality before the day was over. Stalker threatened me in front of my manager, I was escorted to a new office in another building for my safety. This obviously stupid band-aid did nothing to help and I left shortly later. It took NINE MONTHS to fire him, and I was not the only one he was stalking. If this guy is truly just socially inept I hope his boss can help him find the support he needs. But if this turns into a thing your sister will need allies to keep her safe.
posted by SakuraK at 12:22 AM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Just addressing the concerns about the niece above: I'm not saying this guy is Jimmy Saville but just pointing out that people tend to prefer to live and let live in these situations which can allow them to rumble on for years. It's an observation of the reaction to Saville that allowed him to groom for so long, not saying the guy is a paedo. Our workplace has a child protection unit which advises in cases like this. The advice given is to report any suspicions immediately. Investigation will clear up any issues quickly and give people the chance to protect themselves against unfounded rumours. In this situation this may be as unkind to the note writer as to anyone else to leave it be.

People have a greater fear of getting another adult into trouble than protecting themselves or others and this is a bad (and in some cases dangerous) instinct to follow. At the very least this guy has indicated a desire for self harm and exhibits inappropriate behaviour which has scared your relative. Don't assume he is harmless because the intent is self directed. Best to overcome the fear of getting someone in trouble, nip this in the bud and go to HR. He needs professional help beyond the ability of your relative or her employer.
posted by BAKERSFIELD! at 2:18 AM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

As someone with bipolar disorder who can sometimes have suicidal ideations, at the very least if he is suidical he shouldn't be around chemicals that can be potentially dangerous if misused ie. taken to end someone's life. (There's a reason why medications for mental disorders are often only prescribed on short-term prescriptions.)

So HR need to know. The creepiness is a separate issue.
posted by mippy at 3:47 AM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would contact HR immediately, and I would contact the police. The niece aspect is extremely unsettling as far as I am concerned, and really should be investigated further. He also is suicidal. And like mippy points out, that he is working with chemicals (likely ones that could be misused in very dangerous ways) is intensely worrying.

None of this is okay. A lot of it is really disturbing and scary.

She wouldn't be getting him "in trouble". She could be getting him the help and invervention that he needs and that could save his life.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 5:49 AM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Tell HR.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:45 AM on January 25, 2013

To those suggesting the compassionate thing to do is not to call the cops, I say that even if you want to give him the benefit of the doubt that he's harmless to the OP's friend, he has indicated that he's quite possibly a danger to himself.

If someone you don't know suggests they are likely to commit suicide, what do you do? You call the cops so they can investigate the situation and get him admitted to the hospital if warranted.
posted by rocketpup at 6:54 AM on January 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

I was with the "call HR but why would you call the cops?" crowd until rocketpup.
Now I am on the "call the cops" side, but find the right person. The caps might brush you off, so I would actually physically go into the local station and outline your case, and if needed ask to speak to the officer-in-change, show them the note and you will get further than a phonecall.

If you get nowhere with that, ask for the the local 'community policing' officer (sorry, no idea what the US version would be). In my experience they will always offer to swing by and suss it out.
posted by Mezentian at 9:04 AM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

There was a comment about how the writer seemed "very lonely" which was deleted for whatever reason.

I can attest that, no, this goes beyond simply "lonely" for two reasons:
1. Suicide
2. Niece.
posted by Mezentian at 11:23 AM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Someone who threatens to commit suicide isn't always genuinely suicidal. Threatening to kill yourself can be a ploy to garner sympathy or guilt someone into behaving a particular way.

Abusive partners and stalkers love throwing out suicide threats, but they rarely intend to carry them through.

If the OP's relative feels that this guy is going to "come after her" I'd say that points to him using threats of suicide as a tool of aggression/manipulation, rather than a genuine cry for help.

Obviously we can't know, but I would encourage her to protect herself first before trying to help him.
posted by RubyScarlet at 9:02 PM on January 25, 2013

Jesus. HR absolutely, police too. She needs to get some pepper spray or her CPL.
posted by OneHermit at 12:30 AM on January 26, 2013

Response by poster: Here is the followup since people have asked:

I sent her a link to these answers the same day I posted this question. She took the note the HR, who had a meeting with the kid and his supervisor. The kid was offered support and told not to speak to her. They will not be scheduled to work together for the foreseeable future and she is to ask for an escort to her car. She is reasonably pleased with this outcome, she didn't really want to see him fired, she just wanted him to leave him alone.

Regarding the niece, I have to apologize for getting you guys worried. The contents of note had been relayed to me by my wife, who completely misunderstood it, and then I misunderstood it even further. The note was much longer and the part where he speaks about his niece was completely innocent and not creepy at all. Neither HR nor my relative considered calling the police.

So thank you all for your advice, the situation has been resolved, and sorry again for bringing up the suggestion of child abuse.
posted by exhilaration at 12:30 PM on January 30, 2013 [10 favorites]

Thanks for the update. Sounds like a good outcome for all.
posted by GeeEmm at 5:52 PM on January 31, 2013

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