How do I manage inappropriate colleagues?
February 27, 2015 10:54 AM   Subscribe

I work in mental health crisis on a small team in a tight space. We recently lost 2 colleagues and hired a new one. We did a team interview and he frequently called women "girls" and would laugh to himself when no one else laughed. I expressed my concerns, but he was hired regardless. He started 6 months ago and is still unable to do his job without ongoing guidance.

He is disruptive as he interrupts my work with the assumption I am available for him during the 8 hour day, asks everyone on the team the same question as he "forgets" what the previous person said. He also can't manage an average case load. He has had complaints by referral sources and my supervisor has admitted he had poor judgement in a couple of situations. He always asks me if I am going to have babies, he tells inappropriate stories about animals dying, and references his sex life in conversations. He tells stories about how he orders his wife to do things. I tend to hold strict boundaries at work and am very private, so this makes me very uncomfortable. I am assertive and tell him I do not appreciate his actions and comments, but he doesn't get it. I feel cold towards him and am uncomfortable with him in the office. The issue is, my other colleagues seem to want to protect him! And my supervisor makes excuses for him. My supervisor has started to tease me, as well. She tells me I live in a "scary" area (urban versus suburban/rural). In fact, all of my colleagues tease me about where I live, though it's lovely and in a nice 'hood. I think they are afraid of poverty and diversity, which drives the comments. She also tells me I should have children soon or I will be too tired for it later on. She started bringing up "living in sin" and asking us whether or not we engaged in pre-marital sex. It's awful! I am the only person who appears to have a reaction. I hate going to work. Of course, each colleague has redeeming qualities, but I struggle to get past the negativity.

The kicker is that I am pregnant, in my first trimester. I am afraid to make waves, yet worry about the level of stress I am under. Also, I intend to stay until maternity leave, then look for another job. Any input/advice would be greatly appreciated.
posted by LinneaJC to Work & Money (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Use this line:

"That's inappropriate. Please stop."

early, late and often. Follow it with dead silence. Consistently. Don't change it with context of conversation or topic, just say the same thing.

To be consistent, when your awful coworker interrupts your work, say

"this is an inappropriate time".

and go back to what you were doing. Let him wonder about what that means. Be consistent wit your use of the term. And repetitive.

Then 1) document, document, document. Write down in a notebook every inappropriate thing he says, and the date, and witnesses if any. 2) HR. 3) Lawyer.
posted by Dashy at 11:04 AM on February 27, 2015 [8 favorites]


He always asks me if I am going to have babies, he tells inappropriate stories about animals dying, and references his sex life in conversations.

Does your workplace have an HR department? Because these actions are harassment. Even if he were not the New Guy, he would not have the right to create a hostile work environment for you.

Your supervisor, too has no right to inquire about your private life or opine that you're "living in sin." Sexual harassment can occur between people of the same gender.

If your office has an HR person, you should let them know at once. Include the fact that you asked him to change his actions and he did not. Document everything you can beforehand.

The bottom line -- and this is what companies should be looking out for -- is that these actions are liable to get the company sued, if not by you than by someone else sooner or later. It's in the company's own interest to shut these inappropriate antics down at once.
posted by Gelatin at 11:08 AM on February 27, 2015 [23 favorites]


I'd like to append to my previous answer -- despite the amount of space dedicated to it in my answer, and that your question was about how to manage inappropriate colleagues -- it is absolutely not your job to manage this behavior. It is your employer's responsibility to provide a harassment-free workplace. What you're experiencing sounds outlandish to me, and I'm sorry you're in it. But managing and solving the wildly inappropriate and illegal harassment needs to come from HR and these peoples' bosses ... the company, not you.

Use the 'inappropriate' responses, and catalog incidents, but -- it sounds like it will take you less than a week to accumulate a very, very actionable set of evidence, that you should take to HR and likely very soon to a lawyer.
posted by Dashy at 12:10 PM on February 27, 2015


he frequently called women "girls" sexual harassment
would laugh to himself when no one else laughed unprofessional conduct
He is disruptive as he interrupts my work with the assumption I am available for him during the 8 hour day unprofessional conduct
asks everyone on the team the same question as he "forgets" what the previous person said. unprofessional conduct - not your responsibility
can't manage an average case load. unprofessional conduct - not your responsibility
He has had complaints by referral sources unprofessional conduct - not your responsibility
my supervisor has admitted he had poor judgement in a couple of situations. unprofessional conduct - not your responsibility
He always asks me if I am going to have babies sexual harassment
he tells inappropriate stories about animals dying unprofessional conduct
references his sex life in conversations sexual harassment
He tells stories about how he orders his wife to do things. (possibly) sexual harassment

She tells me I live in a "scary" area (urban versus suburban/rural). unprofessional conduct
In fact, all of my colleagues tease me about where I live unprofessional conduct
She also tells me I should have children soon or I will be too tired for it later on. sexual harassment
She started bringing up "living in sin" and asking us whether or not we engaged in pre-marital sex. sexual harassment

Unless you supervise him, the weirdness and sub-competent work is not your responsibility. Ignore it. If he tell a gross story, leave the room and/or say I really don't like to hear gross stories When he interrupts you at work, say Please don't interrupt; if you need help, I can assist you after lunch/ after the staff meeting/ other precise time.

The behavior that is sexual harassment should be documented and taken to HR; it's simply unacceptable. Document by noting the behavior in a calendar, ideally a personal google or yahoo calendar. Or send yourself email from work to personal account. Keep it terse and specific. Lunchroom, during lunch "nasty sexual references" Requested that X not share sexual stories. The teasing about your neighborhood may contribute to a generally hostile work environment, but probably is not discrimination due to a protected category, and probably not actionable One of the things you talk to HR about is getting a good reference when you leave, despite harassment and reporting harassment.

IANAL
posted by theora55 at 12:23 PM on February 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


I noticed that you segued in your post from a discussion about a difficult colleague to a discussion about a seriously inappropriate supervisor. To me her behavior seems far more egregious and damaging to your mental health. And honestly, it puts you more in a bind; complaining about a supervisor to HR can lead to even more tension in the office. It's the right thing to do ... it's just that there are usually repercussions.

Also, I intend to stay until maternity leave, then look for another job.

Best choice.
posted by kanewai at 1:45 PM on February 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


[This is an answer from an anonymous commenter.]
I was in a situation very similar to this when I was pregnant. When I had no choice but to disclose my pregnancy, the talk grew to add subtle and unsubtle suggestion that I wouldn't be back after my maternity leave...and I was treated accordingly, even though I kept my actual plans to myself. Shortly after that began, my pregnancy moved into a high risk category, and I didn't have the bandwidth to deal with both things. I opted to blow off the inappropriateness at work. I had my baby, took my leave, quit the job, and spent years recovering -- economically, professionally, and personally.

One of my greatest regrets in life is that I didn't find a way to fight back.
posted by cortex (staff) at 2:34 PM on February 27, 2015


I wish there was an easy answer! I think deep down, I knew HR was the route, but I wanted an easy way to deal, like "visualize him as a sea monkey" sort of answer, or coping skills. Oh well. I will start a log and decided where to go. Maybe have a confidential conversation with HR. Though I realize the office is dysfunction and hostile, I feel stuck until maternity leave ends. I feel so lonely and a little crazy as the rest of my team members don't appear bothered.
posted by LinneaJC at 7:16 PM on February 27, 2015


Well, you can try visualizing him as a sea monkey. Not sure what that's gonna do, but I'm sure we'd all be interested to hear..
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:56 PM on February 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


*Screeching brakes*

Hold up, don't start with HR. Hopefully they'll help, but so much of what is going on is inappropriate that they might be part of the problem. And of course, their job is to protect the company. Your job is to protect the maternity leave (or the funds to support it) while minimizing your exposure to this stressful, inappropriate, and offensive environment.

Especially because you fear retributive action, I would not go to HR until you've started to document this. Plus, HR's first question will be whether you've told these people that all of this bothers you. So the next time Bob bothers you, speak up, then send him an email like "hi Bob, I just wanted to underscore what i said earlier this afternoon, and what i've told you at least three times over the last month -- I really do not want to hear about your sexual life. Thanks for not mentioning that around me again." Then turn around and forward that to your supervisor with a note about him talking about this repeatedly and making you feel uncomfortable. At a separate time, email your supervisor about your discomfort at her comments on your marital status and reproductive decisions. You don't have to throw around legal jargon; in fact, I wouldn't. The emails are for safekeeping in case of adversarial action, but try not to openly declare yourself their adversary if you can avoid it. People are still people, and the lawyers aren't involved yet. But get it on paper. Maybe that'll be the end of it. If not, I'd go to HR soon thereafter.

Honestly, if I was preparing to leave a job due to this kind of offensive environment, or feared losing my job due to an inability to stomach this, and if I had my maternity leave at stake, I'd probably do a (hopefully free?) initial consultation with an employment attorney. This stuff is complicated. You've got an offensive coworker, a manager who has been notified of the problem but isn't taking action and who meanwhile is herself harassing you about your sexual activity, marital life, and child-bearing status. Get as much documentation as you can and check in with an attorney if you can.

You sound like you're really at the end of your rope and like your job might be vulnerable. Document all this ASAP before anything happens.
posted by salvia at 8:14 PM on February 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


Visualize them as sea monkeys paying you an out-of-court settlement to drop your harassment lawsuit?
posted by salvia at 8:15 PM on February 27, 2015


I'm sorry you're in a difficult situation, but allow me to play devil's advocate for a minute. First, it is socially acceptable in some circles to call women girls; it's preferred, even (with 'women' or 'ladies' being seen as overly formal, or cold). Your co-worker may have exposure to such a social circle. He possibly was trying to fit in, to be friendly. Does your workplace have agreed upon terminology and does it have training in workplace behavior and has he had that training?

And laughing to himself, sounds like he was nervous.

Your supervisor telling you you live in a scary place... how is what teasing you? You may not agree with her opinion, but maybe she's trying to compliment you on being brave.

Inappropriate stories about animals dying, about his sex life, about his ordering his wife to do things... he doesn't think they're inappropriate. Could possibly be acceptable in a workplace; could be in mine; I'd have to have been there to decide for myself, and you and I might disagree. I'm just saying workplace harassment is problematic.

Ok, enough with the advocacy. Yeah, you need to train him. Make it clear to him that you consider his actions inappropriate. Shake your head 'no', interrupt him, change the subject, walk away, ask him to stop, declare that you and he need to talk to his supervisor, etc.

Manage his interruptions by setting up pre-determined times for him to ask you for help. Maybe 10:00 and 2:00; or maybe at :15 after each hour, depending on the size of the questions and the pace of the office.

As for his prying into your life, about your plans for children, etc. - maybe he's grasping for some way to relate to you. Does he have children that he likes to talk about? Find a topic that you and he can talk about - weather, a sports team, the construction project across the street, the variety of teabags in the breakroom.

And finally, take pity on him - he's trying to deal with his sucky little life and you're the brightest ray of hope to come into his life in a long time. Not that he'll be part of your life in away way, just that, like Audrey Hepburn, or Carol Burnett, or Zooey Deschanel, you're a great example of youthful hope and how some people can bring joy to life (totally winging it here, but sounds like he's reaching out to you in is own feeble way).
posted by at at 7:58 AM on February 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


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