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Abuse in the workplace? Pattie Hunt Sinacole talks about how to respond

How to address concerns, when managers ignore the behavior

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Q: My question is how does one handle seeing constant abuse of a fellow co-worker by her supervisor. Sometimes he threatens her, and I know she feels targeted. The managers just turn a cheek and it is out of control. Don’t say I should ignore it because that is not an option. There are others here who are aware of the situation and do nothing. This is going to have a detrimental effect on this woman who is being abused and in the workplace environment. It has become more of an issue now that we are working hybrid in the office.  I question whether he has behaved like this when we were working remotely too.

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A: This situation seems very upsetting.  Unfortunately, many employees feel trapped in abusive situations like this, especially if they are dependent upon a job, often for the benefits and/or income.  I commend you for asking the question on behalf of a co-worker.  I would never suggest that you ignore it, especially if it is abusive.  I agree with you that you, and others, may be negatively affected by seeing someone mistreated in the workplace.  Some questions and suggestions:

  1. Has a complaint ever been filed?  I understand that others are aware of the situation.  I would suggest contacting your HR representative.  Stopping into the HR office might be a good first step.  I would compile my notes in advance, and include examples and dates if you can.  If you feel comfortable, you can follow-up by email thanking the HR professional for their time.  If you send an email, then you will have a “date stamp,” so to speak, of when you notified HR of your concern.  Most employers have a “no retaliation” policy if an employee raises a concern within the workplace.  However, I understand that stepping forward is a risk.  Some companies may have a policy against retaliation, but whether they actually “live it” is sometimes a concern.
  2. Does your employer have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)?  Often an EAP can assist an employee (and you) with navigating stressful and abusive situations.  Depending upon your relationship with your co-worker, you could suggest that you co-worker contact your company’s EAP.    
  3. Does your employer have a harassment policy?  Or any policies related to bullying, respect in the workplace and/or a code of conduct?    I don’t have a lot of detailed information about what is occurring in your workplace, but it sounds like this may be worth exploring.
  4. More and more companies have workplace violence policies, which cover a wide range of abuse, harassment and other type of threatening behaviors.  Does your employer have one?   
  5. Supervisors and managers should be modeling appropriate and respectful behavior.  Some of this behavior may be unlawful.  While there are no Massachusetts laws addressing disrespectful behavior in the workplace, that does not prevent an employer from establishing policies around conduct in the workplace.  An employer can take action and address this supervisor’s behavior, if the behavior violates an internal policy.    
  6. If internal processes don’t improve your work environment, your colleague could contact an external resource.  An attorney is one option.  The Massachusetts Bar Association (www.massbar.org) is one resource which may help you find legal counsel to guide your co-worker. 

I would review any published policies or handbooks that might be available to you.  I applaud you for not passively accepting this behavior.   When employers accept this behavior, it sets the norm for behavior (vs. the policies which should set the standard).   

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