Low key workplace bullying documentation
January 27, 2019 11:44 PM   Subscribe

Any time someone is having interpersonal issues at work the advice is to "document" and "create a paper trail". What's the best way to do that and JUST that. I just want a record of what happened from my point of view without alerting anyone that I'm doing this. I DON'T want the narrative to be "bleep went to HR! Now we have an HR problem! Bleep is a problem!" Is that possible?

What's going on is a weird and subtle bullying that I believe constitutes a hostile work environment but is way more subtle than the usual sexual harassment stuff. I just got a talking to that was really worrying to me. My supervisor told me that these "miscommunications" tend to "follow me around" and even though he doesn't know why and can't point to anything I should do differently (besides be better at reading minds - apparently I should know when someone is subtly hinting to drop a proposal and it's my fault when people are mad at me for not doing that) he thinks that I will not succeed here until I find a way to make them stop. I don't think the bullying is coming from him but from his superiors who are not my direct supervisors.

OK. So I wrote out everything that happened from my point of view. Is there a way to make it "official" without triggering a whole bunch of alarm on their part that I'm "documenting" now? I guess I just want timestamps for when they try to fire me. I dunno am I doing this right at all? Yes I'm looking for another job but it's really hard.
posted by bleep to Work & Money (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh PS I wrote this question quickly and left out a lot of details. Please just focus on my core question and not questioning the details or whether or not it's truly hostile or whatever.
posted by bleep at 11:46 PM on January 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you're recording these occurrences in Google Docs / the Office 365 equivalent, there should be a timestamping ("view document history") feature, and I hope that's good enough for HR, but will (un)happily be told otherwise by folks who know more.

For your manager specifically, it may be helpful to start keeping minutes of your talks. This shouldn't set off any alarm bells -- having agendas for 1:1s is a recommended practice, it's common to put notes into the agenda (we wanted to talk about something, we discussed various things, AI(bleep): do a thing), and ad hoc talks could also go into general bleep : manager notes!

You could also email yourself things if there's no other easy way to timestamp. [yes, everything is readable by IT if there's enough reason to, but there shouldn't be reason to]
posted by batter_my_heart at 11:58 PM on January 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

From what I can gather, people are expecting you to do/say/produce something without being clear about the expectations/goals/timeline. They complained to your supervisor, who brought the vague complaints to you and when you asked for more specifics, your supervisor was unable to provide them to you.

So what I think you need to document is the fact that you are requesting feedback/clarification and aren't getting anything specific or actionable in return. If your boss says something to you in the hall, then send an email saying something like...

Thanks for bringing it to my attention that there is X concern. I want to make sure that my work is meeting all expectations. Can you give me some specific examples of when X concern has come up? Do you have any specific suggestions for how I can address these concerns? Thanks!

That way you are either forcing people to be direct with you and you can adjust or you will have documentation that you aren't getting the specific, actionable feedback you need to improve.
posted by brookeb at 12:13 AM on January 28, 2019 [14 favorites]

Write down everything that happens, as soon as it happens, with a date at the top. If you're really concerned, there are online services that aid in the creation of contemporaneous notes.

You can support your notes by following up via email when you have a reason to do so--I think that it'd look weird if you started following up about every interaction, but "Hi, [boss], I've been thinking about our conversation yesterday, and wanted to follow up" once in a while seems like a reasonable compromise.

Additionally, keep copies of anything that's sent to you, including emails and memos. I'd keep the digital copy, and also print them out and put them somewhere offsite, just in case.
posted by mishafletch at 12:54 AM on January 28, 2019

You can start an email thread to yourself to document things.
posted by rockindata at 4:37 AM on January 28, 2019

Yes, anything on a work computer, such as a Word document or an email that you only send to yourself would work for documenting what you're describing.

I would add that you want to also document your own actions. Try to find something reasonable and tangible that you can do to show that you're taking action in response to the "talking to," and document that, too.

If all you have to go on is that there have been miscommunications, and you're supposed to find a way to make them stop, can you spend a couple of lunch hours at your work computer doing free webinars on improving workplace communications? If there's a Word document on your computer with the notes you took during the webinars...this is one way to start a paper trail showing that you are willing to take feedback and improve your performance.

You might mention it in passing to your boss, in a really positive way. Next time you meet, take a minute to thank him for his feedback about miscommunications, and tell him you've been watching some webinars that are full of good reminders about listening and tone of voice and following-up, so you are glad you took the time to do them. That way, the next time there is a complaint about miscommunications, your boss won't automatically blame you, because he'll know you are trying.

Please don't think I'm trying to say you're at fault here. I believe you that the other person was expecting you to be a mind reader. I'm just trying to help give you something to document.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 4:44 AM on January 28, 2019

Any conversation that you have off the record (ie not on email or backed up by, say, a written review or an email from your boss), you should follow up with an email like brookeb suggests--"good talk we had about X," where X is a very detailed summary. Send it to your boss and bcc your non-work email account.

For other interactions that you want to document (weird conversations with other people, being treated coldly at a strange moment), describe the incident in an email that you send straight from your work account to your personal account.

Yes, they'll find it if they go looking, but you're just writing honest facts, no editorializing. And if they delete your work email, you'll still have the copy in your personal email account.
posted by gideonfrog at 5:09 AM on January 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Documenting and creating a paper trail are actually two different things.

Documenting what happens is just so that you don't forget the important details. You can do this in any way that works best for you. After every interaction you have with someone whom you think is part of the bullying you're experiencing, just write down the date, the facts of what happened/what was discussed, and also your thoughts, how they made you feel.

This is not necessarily something you will provide to HR if you need to file a complaint of some kind. It is so you have a record of what actually happened (the when, the objective what, and the objective reality of the impact it had on you). These things tend to change over time, your memory of certain interactions will be clouded by the things that happen afterward, or your feelings about what was said over time. So the point of documenting things is so that you have a firm record of what took place.

Creating a paper trail is different. That is creating an objective thing to point to as evidence to back up whatever claim you might have. The example of sending a follow up email to create a record of what was discussed is a good one.

It sounds like right now you don't know exactly what the problem is. So the complaint you would be bringing to HR is not yet known, if you have one at all.

I will say that the conversation that you had with your manager sounds absolutely toxic and incredibly stress inducing. Does it rise to the level of hostile work environment? Possibly. Does it rise to the level of illegally hostile work environment? That's the hard standard to prove (assuming you are in the US). You have to have some proof that you are part of a protected class, and that they are deliberately being hostile toward you because of your membership in that class. Involving HR is probably only useful if you are afraid that you might have a lawsuit that could cost them money. So if you bring them clear cut evidence of such a thing, they have to show that they did something to alleviate the problem. They are probably not equipped to actually fix anything, beyond moving you to another department or possibly firing your manager. If the problem is coming from *above* your manager it's likely a cultural problem with the company which will be very hard to fix.

That said, it does sound like there is a cultural problem at the company. It may not rise to the level of illegal harassment, so getting outside forces (like the legal system) involved is not necessarily going to solve anything. But it is also reasonable to give feedback to the people in the company who are responsible for the culture, if you have the right way of approaching the problem with them. Or perhaps just a way to have an effective conversation with your manager about getting better guidance.

I think you should start keeping a journal. Use it to track what's going on to see if you can find patterns - in the things people say to you, and in your responses to them. Then see if there are places in the company where these things don't tend to happen. Learn about what the realistic outcomes for change actually are. Can you transfer to a different department? Or find a senior ally to better protect you? Or is it time to cut bait and find a new job?
posted by pazazygeek at 5:32 AM on January 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

Seconding mishafletch, if you're ever shown the door over this, you'll no longer have access to your work computer. Print out your documents and take them home. An alternative would be to copy all communications to your personal email, but in some security-conscious companies that would attract IT's attention and create another, separate issue.
posted by JimN2TAW at 9:30 AM on January 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Whenever your supervisor meets with you about this, he's documenting it. You can and should do the same. It shouldn't trigger alarms because it's what a conscientious employee will do to make sure s/he understands what the supervisor said, and what the supervisor expects.

So - after the meeting or encounter, you follow up with a "per our conversation" email back to the supervisor:

"Jack - per our conversation this morning, you said that you'd prefer I be a little more pro-active in approaching other staff for input on my current tasks. I'd like to brainstorm a few possible approaches and, after we come up with an approach that you meets your approval, incorporate this into my weekly schedule. Could we meet again later this week to discuss this?"

"Jack - I appreciated your meeting with me today to let me know about these issues where my performance needs improvement. Now that we've discussed the basic issues, I'd be very appreciative if you would work with me to outline a specific plan that would meet your expectations. Can we meet again later this week to discuss this?"

That's your official documentation back to your boss, which encapsulates what you heard your boss say, and what you're saying back as your goal for improving your performance. It tells your boss that you are committed to doing what he wants you to do - and that he, as your boss, has to tell you what those expectations are.

After you send these emails to your boss, forward a copy of each mail to a personal, non-work-related email account that you control.

Private documentation: as soon as possible after each encounter, write down detailed notes - the who, what, when, where, and why stuff. Each encounter gets its own document and/or email to your personal account. That's important to date/time stamp each specific interaction.

Warning: the employer owns your work and work tools. If you use your employer-provided computer and software to create and store your private documentation, the employer could seize it at any time. That's why it's important to keep personal copies off-site. Personally, I'd bring in a laptop or tablet and use that for documentation purposes, but at the very least, copy any documents onto a flash drive and take it home with you. Don't keep anything you don't want your employer to have access to at work - no paper files, nothing stored on your pc. Again, they have a right to take it, and yes, that does happen.

Personal anecdote: I was once in the crosshairs after a person with klout began harassing my entire chain of command on a weekly basis, complaining about everything I did or didn't do. I finally requested a meeting with my immediate supervisor and his boss. The problem: some of the things she demanded I do were in conflict with our policies. I called for the meeting to force my bosses to go on the record: "If I don't do what she wants, she will continue to complain to you about me. But if I do do what she wants, I'm breaking our policy and could be disciplined for doing so. Please - just tell me what you want me to do here. I will do exactly what you tell me to do."

After a lot of uncomfortable shifting in their seats, they told me to just keep her happy. Okay! So I sent the "per our conversation" email to both of them outlining specifically what she wanted me to do, and their decision that I should do it. Simple CYA.
posted by Lunaloon at 9:35 AM on January 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

I do this by emailing myself emails to/from the same personal email account on my own device (usually a phone). Don't use your company email or systems, virtually all companies have the right to look at their own systems to see what you're doing and you won't be notified. The other option is to get a notebook and write all your notes there. This option has the disadvantage of having to keep a physical object secure. I include date and time of each incident and a description of what happened.
posted by quince at 10:52 AM on January 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

« Older cast iron enameled or stainless steel for frozen...   |   Should I run for City Council this year, or wait... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.