Facing a harasser at work
October 3, 2020 12:06 AM   Subscribe

I've been harassed off and on by a colleague from my workplace for the past 5 months. This person has been off-site, but will be returning to work in a few weeks and I can't bear facing them. What do I do?

[First things first, I will be seeing a therapist regarding this soon.]

I have to be vague with the details so as not to "out" myself. I have a colleague who has been on a leave of absence for the past year. I was hired to fill-in for them until they return from their leave. Due to a bit of funky scheduling, we have a month over-lap coming up. They will return to their position and I will be re-assigned to help another department for a month.

This person has made it clear that they are not "impressed" with any of the work I'm doing. At first it started with suggestions to other coworkers to tell me that they'd like me to do X, Y, Z, like they would have. Whatever, I took it in stride. Eventually, it evolved into online "harassment" (I'm not sure if that would be the correct term). An "anonymous" complaint was sent about me to our boss, it was regarding a question I asked about our industry on a well-known Facebook page for our specific area of knowledge. It was evident to everyone who saw this complaint who it was from. But it didn't end. This person kept posting vague complaints about me and used a sockpuppet Facebook account to basically agree with them. Everything was vague enough that it can't be proven the "complainer" was that colleague, but... it's very likely. Certain details in their complaints were very, very, very specific. It continued here and there throughout the summer.

The administration at our organization can't do much about this because there isn't a lot of 100% hard evidence, but I've been documenting and passing along everything. Our boss is pissed that the harassment wasn't worse or more obvious so this person can be disciplined.

This person returns to work shortly and my anxiety levels are increasing.

What bothers me the most is that due to the lack of evidence, I'm pretty much supposed to act like this person DIDN'T DO THIS to me. all. summer? HOW? I feel like I have to be "the bigger person" to leave this place with a good reference/not destroy my career. I don't know if I'm strong enough.

I am extremely angry at this person. They've been criticizing the work I've been doing throughout a fucking PANDEMIC, which changed the day-to-day tasks significantly. I am also scared of them? It's significantly changed the way I go about using social media, personally. I know that if I so much as BLOCK this person on Facebook (which I originally did) the harassment will rear its head again. I'm planning on blocking them across all social media platforms the day after I'm finished.

What also pisses me off that the harasser, on paper, has a life I'm very envious of. It fucks with my mind to think, wow, this person has a great life and is getting their rocks off by submitting unsubstantiated complaints about me to our workplace. Huh? Obviously they didn't accomplish their goal, because everyone who knows about it thinks they're the asshole. This person has a great life, a great job, etc. and just gets to keep that, despite being awful. (Okay look at the president, people don't always get what they deserve, fine) It just rubs salt in the wound.

I also feel RIDICULOUS for being so affected by this. Since this has happened, every bullet point in this list about the "Consequences of Harassment" has been a way I've felt at one point or another during the past five months. It's significantly affected my job search, to the point where a) I often regret choosing this field and b) feel like I'm horrible and shitty, so why bother applying to jobs?

In short, I am pretty frightened to imagine being around this person for a month. We won't be working together, or even working in the same workspace, but I am scared. I am scared that this person will do.. god knows what. I'm afraid that I'll react poorly, or get upset with this person, if they try to confront me. I'm just... afraid. How do I manage for the next month? I have a few weeks to prepare, but what should I do?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Please ask this at askamanager.org - they'll have good answers for you there.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:40 AM on October 3, 2020 [9 favorites]

Look, you may not see this because they have you freaked out but this person is so threatened by you it’s not funny. That nice life of theirs you’re so envious of? They’re afraid that you’ll take their job and it’ll all come crashing down. And the thing is, they’re right to be afraid. Because their boss has it in for them too!

You’ve already said everyone knows they’re doing this and administration and bosses are looking for hard evidence so they can be disciplined. I wouldn’t be afraid of this jerk, I’d be downright SMUG. Because soon, very soon, they’re going to go just a little bit too far and get their ass shitcanned. I can guarantee you’re not the only one who has an issue with them. Document everything and you might be the hero that gives the company what it needs to get rid of this jerk once and for all. Hang in there, it will probably be all over soon. Then you can take their job and walk right into their nice life. Karma’s a bitch.
posted by Jubey at 2:48 AM on October 3, 2020 [38 favorites]

So I wouldn't normally recommend this, but: if they really are going to be fired if there is hard evidence, I would block them everywhere and let the harassment escalate so they out themselves.

That's a hard thing to do and may not work for you mental-health wise. Being more self-protective is also good!
posted by medusa at 4:09 AM on October 3, 2020 [23 favorites]

Let’s frame this in terms of disability justice. The harassment has made you *ill* and the illness has made it so sharing space with him is not *accessible* to you. As reasonable accommodation, your workplace needs to protect you from exposure to him, the same way that they would protect someone with a nut allergy from being exposed to nuts. Nothing moral, no judgment, nothing personal, just access accommodation. Consult a disability campaigning org or a disability lawyer in your jurisdiction to make everything extra water tight legally.
posted by The Last Sockpuppet at 4:26 AM on October 3, 2020

Yeah, I think Jubey has it. I completely get why this person has your head so twisted around that you're not seeing it. It sounds horrible. But from an outside perspective: this person is fucking terrified of you and, given that their boss has told you they're trying to make a case, they've got reason to be.

I think you need to talk this over with your therapist and get their take. It's tempting to say just block them - and honestly, I think it might work - but increasing the odds of their stepping over enough lines to get fired probably isn't worth the cost to your mental health.
posted by pie ninja at 5:52 AM on October 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Do you have a support network (in addition to your therapist) to help you get through this month?

Because it sounds like you're mainly afraid you're going to lose your composure because of him. And Jubey is right - it seems this guy is pretty much making an ass of himself, and much like Biden at the last debate, your main job is looking like a normal human being while the bizarre other guy demonstrates to his coworkers and bosses why he should be fired.

So if you cry, don't worry, it won't make you look bad. If you lose your temper, it's probably not the end of the world, but it's a better look for you (and a much, much worse look for him) if he's the only one acting unprofessionally.

If you have people you can talk to about it every day, who you know will celebrate you at the end of the day for being able to keep your cool around him all day, that might make it easier.

There's a good chance that once he's back he'll just go back to his usual routine instead of going out of his way to harass you. To be prepared, though, it might also help to practice brief, calm responses to some scenarios, or at least practice taking a good minute (or two, or three) to respond to him. And if he does start hounding you, your boss will hopefully have your back and get on his case for you. This isn't something you should need to fight yourself.

And if it's at all helpful, feel sorry for this sorry man. Just think, he squandered his own leave time obsessing about his position at work. However good his life seems to be on the surface, it seems likely he doesn't know how to enjoy it or appreciate what he's got. And he's coming back to a work environment where his social and professional standing are now far from what they were, and he won't be able to understand why.

You're going to be okay.
posted by trig at 8:11 AM on October 3, 2020 [5 favorites]

Mod note: Quick note, genders aren't stated in the question so let's not add them in. Thanks.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 8:43 AM on October 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Block them now on every possible site. Many people are shutting down their social accounts right now so they have no reason to suspect you are still active. You are already showing everyone that you are better then this person by rising above it. You don't need to defend yourself against any of this person's lies. If you see them face-to-face, you just greet them as you would any other distant coworker. In a large enough group, you don't have to greet them at all, but if you are alone in a room it would be odd not to say hi. You don't have to say anything more.

I'm afraid that I'll react poorly, or get upset with this person, if they try to confront me.
Even if you run from the room crying, you aren't ruining all the good work you have done in this job. You need to make sure you don't make any physical contact or yell/scream insults at them. Other than that, any reaction you have to this bully is okay. If I saw a confrontation between coworkers and one left crying, I would tend to side with them before knowing anything else. Practice asking them to leave or to leave you alone or get out of your way.
posted by soelo at 8:57 AM on October 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

The grey rock strategy might help you get through the month.
The basic strategy is to be as boring and unresponsive as possible.
My suggestion is to find a friend, if you can, to help you think through likely scenarios and plan how to respond. Even if you get upset or startled and don't keep to the plan, that's fine - the main thing is have a plan in the first place so when you start to worry "what about..." you can remind yourself that you know what you'll do.

The second is to think about what is worst that this person can do. Insult your work in public and make you break down and cry? OK - that's pretty bad but then what happens. You feel bad about yourself - well that is in your control - you might not be able to keep from breaking down but you have a choice about how you think about it. Other people will see? Then what? They will believe him and think less of you? Is that true? Is that true for everyone - it sounds like many people will see it as the other person being a bully, not you being incompetent. Will you use your job? Get fired and unemployed and broke and miserable for the rest of your life? I don't think so. The idea is to really confront what you are scared of and see that it is bad but manageable. That will give you more confidence even when things get tough.
posted by metahawk at 10:53 AM on October 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

A few thoughts:

1. It kinda sounds like you are a temp or a contractor. If that's the case, is your agency aware that this person has been harassing you and could you inquire if instead of finishing the month out, someone else could take that month and you could move to another assignment?

2. It also sounds like all of this is happening via social media. Can you go on a social media blackout? Ask your friends and colleagues to not share if they see this person active? It's easier said than done, but the "out of sight, out of mind" might help on a day to day level since a lot of your anxiety is anticipatory.

3. Sorta related to the second point, if you are not working together and not sharing a workspace, how do you think that this person will be able to confront you? First -- is this a valid concern, or is this your anxiety spinning up? Second -- Could you work through some scenarios and come up with some scripted responses? This would be a good exercise to do with a therapist, but I think you could also do it alone or with a supportive person.
posted by sm1tten at 11:04 AM on October 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

Does an employment lawyer agree that there's no case to be made?
posted by slidell at 4:52 PM on October 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

I honestly think the "this person is terrified of you" read is completely baseless. I went through childhood hearing "oh, the bully feels bad about themselves and they're just acting out, they'll stop if you're nice to them!" and it's complete and utter nonsense. This person gets off on being mean. Their success in life is probably due in significant part to being willing (and happy) to treat other people poorly, take credit for their work, rip them off, and know that this strategy has worked for them. Don't assume that they're scared of you: assume they're getting off on scaring you. It's gross, it's inappropriate. Ask your boss for an accommodation, based on the anxiety they're inducing: even if you can't prove in court that it's them, you and your boss know it's them and can take action to protect you - your boss can do this if they want.

Do what it takes to take care of yourself. Do not be alone with this person. Avoid contact. When you find yourself thinking of the life this person has built, remember that it's built on lies and abuse and you are far, far from their first target - this person probably has a number of sockpuppet accounts from abusing other people, their home life probably isn't as good as you're imagining because they're a petty tyrant, etc.

Also, consider blocking your abuser on social media and giving all documentation to your boss as it comes up - you said this would make it worse, and what I read from that is that it might give you the evidence your boss needs.

I wish you the best of luck. Just please don't fall for the line about bullies feeling bad about themselves.
posted by bile and syntax at 9:54 AM on October 4, 2020 [6 favorites]

Definitely document every in-person interaction with this person in the month you have to work together. They can't hide behind an avatar in person, at least, which is simultaneously helpful and more scary due to possibility of more direct confrontation, I know.
posted by eviemath at 6:18 AM on October 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm also disappointed though not surprised that your employer thinks they can't do anything about the harassment you're experiencing. Employers (and many other people) often seem to forget that there is a large middle ground between formal/legal action and doing nothing against bullying or harassment. Someone with an official social media account could express support for you on the posts where you are being harassed. Someone could speak to the harasser and put them on notice, eg. "wow, someone seems to be really harassing your temp replacement online. It's good for whoever that is that we don't know their identity yet, because if that were a co-worker, their behavior would definitely get a write up for workplace harassment." If your employer has an IT department, there are other supports they could offer to specifically help you with the online stuff. At the least, they should have been helping you make a plan to keep you safe from any fallout of blocking the person on social media - that shouldn't be only on you and your privately hired therapist.
posted by eviemath at 7:49 AM on October 5, 2020 [4 favorites]

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