Social Enterprise

How do I deal with a hostile coworker?

A Builder.com member is troubled by a senior person with a penchant for yelling. Our HR specialist offers tips for dealing with this problematic coworker--and making sure the employee's job performance doesn't contribute to the problem.

This article originally appeared on Builder.com’s sister site, TechRepublic.com.

Let human resources manager and technical recruiter Tim Heard find the answers to your HR questions. Tim shares hints and tips on a host of HR issues in this Q&A format.

Q. I have to work with a senior person who occasionally gets upset and curses and yells at me. The second time it happened, I contacted my boss’s boss (my boss was on vacation).

I have had difficulty sleeping since the third incident. Now, because of the yeller's complaining, I have a plan for improvement (PIP) that includes a threat to fire me if I don't improve. I responded to my boss and the PIP asking for specifics on what I could have done differently for the four things I need to improve. We all work very hard, and I don't think I would have done anything differently with the knowledge I had when the events transpired. I don't know how to improve. Experience will make my work better, of course, but I'm convinced that the yeller will find something more to complain about.

I'm wondering how a “hostile work environment” is defined. What kind of evidence do I need for a lawsuit?

Working with the ill-tempered
A. I can relate to your situation. I have worked with the occasional jerk in the past. Unfortunately, the law doesn’t protect us from working with jerks. The “hostile work environment” that you mention is generally applied to situations in which some form of sexual harassment exists. I suppose it could equally apply to situations in which a hostile environment has been created for other protected groups, such as ethnic groups or people who hold certain religious views, but it is not a reference to ill-tempered coworkers.

As I consider your situation, I think your boss dropped the ball by not going to the HR department about the situation. Regardless of the level of the employee, shouting at you should not be tolerated.

I have two suggestions for you. First, you need to reconsider your response to the PIP. You have had two senior-level employees tell you that your performance needs improving, and if you’re serious about wanting to stay with your present employer, you’ll do whatever possible to see to it that your performance improves. In that regard, I would suggest that you informally sit down with your boss again and earnestly ask how you might improve. Try to avoid making excuses, and avoid bringing up the shouting incident. The two things are unrelated.

Next, if you feel you can trust your HR manager, go to that person to discuss the shouting incident. Again, make it clear that you aren’t questioning whether your performance was a problem, but share how the shouting has affected your sleep and the quality of your work. If the HR manager is good and has enough power within the company, you might see some things change. However, you also need to understand that in the corporate world, some people can be jerks all they want because they’re powerful and they know they can get away with it. Things may not change.

Ultimately, you’re going to have to learn how to survive in such an environment or go elsewhere. Perhaps if enough people leave as a result of this person’s behavior, the situation may change over time. On the other hand, you also need to ask yourself whether you’re going to be the type of person who runs from adversity. At a minimum, you need to do what you can to improve your part of the situation before cutting your losses and going elsewhere.
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