I get a lot of email from people who find themselves in dreadful work environments. Last week, however, I got a rather unusual email from a woman who has pretty much resigned herself to a bad work environment and has managed to survive the resident tyrant. Her issue is: What can she do about tyrannical behavior that she sees being inflicted on others?

Here’s the upshot of the email (hold on to your hats, this is quite a ride):

I have worked at the same small finance company for almost 20 years. For about 18 years, another woman (I’ll call her “Alice”) has worked here as the head of Accounting.  We both report to the same person, which makes her my co-worker.  Over the years, I have managed to negotiate a “treaty” with her, i.e., I let her know that if she continued to try to micro-manage me, she would get more trouble than she could handle.  As a result, she has backed off with me.

However, any time I have to go into her department, I am faced with the brutal micromanaging that she practices on her employees.  I am in charge of the computers.  When I go into her department to work on one that is broken, Alice charges out of her office at me, demanding to know what I am doing there.  She admits to me that she wishes people were robots.

She continually threatens to fire employees at management meetings, and she always has what she thinks is a good reason, but she never does it. Alice complains that she has an extreme absenteeism problem in her department, but then says “don’t you dare say it’s MY fault!”

She tells her employees when they can take bathroom breaks.  She leaves work at 4 pm, and then spends hours in the evening on the phone every day making all her department report back to her everything they do, minute-by-minute.

My problem is this: I think of myself as an ethical person.  Since I do not report to Alice, nor does she report to me, it would probably be argued by most that my duty is to keep out of things, and keep my mouth shut.  But it is intensely painful to go into her department day after day, and have to witness the way she treats her employees.  Never mind what it does to undermine company resources and productivity…what about the human cost?

Oh, and I guess I should tell you: Alice is the HR person in our company.  The only one.

My response:

You know what’s worse than reading an account of a very troubled person wreaking havoc on the workplace? Finding out that person is the HR department.

I have to say that I greatly admire you for attempting to deal with Alice and being relatively successful at lessening her effect on your working life. Much of the time, workplace behaviors can be tamed or altered just by having them pointed out to a person, but honestly, I don’t think it would matter in this case, especially given the way she reacts to comments she only perceives as criticisms. And if she’s in HR, she almost certainly understands what constitutes a hostile work environment, but she obviously doesn’t care.

Couple of things, though: I’m wondering why the other employee asked, in the event of her firing, if you would report Alice as a workplace bully? Why doesn’t she report her herself? (Other than the obvious reason that she fears being assaulted.)

What is the physical proximity of your mutual boss and any other people further up in the company? Can they not see and hear this behavior themselves? My guess is that they can, and they are too afraid to do anything or are perhaps benefiting from extra productivity due to her kooky micromanagement.

I, like you, would be disturbed by what you see secondhand going on with Alice and her existing employees. Even being a witness to that constitutes a hostile work environment, so you would be within your bounds to say something. But that wouldn’t be nearly as effective as one of her own employees doing it. Do you have the kind of relationship with your mutual boss where you could “throw it out there” and see how he reacts?

When I emailed my response to the original email sender, she replied:

I have a formal medical diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome.  That is sometimes referred to as “high-functioning autism.”  We don’t keep statistics in the U.S. but in Great Britain, where autistic spectrum disorders are much better known and understood, the employment rate for adults diagnosed with spectrum disorders is 11%.  Notice I said “employment rate”, not “unemployment rate”.  I’m a rare bird, and I’ve spent my entire adult life hanging on by the skin of my teeth.  This is why I can’t just get up and leave.

Alice had an autistic brother, and from the way her parents treated her, it’s possible they might have fallen somewhere on the autistic spectrum.  Her behavior could also be the result of being somewhere on the autistic spectrum.  That is probably why she can read information about harassment, but can’t see it and/or can’t understand it when she, herself, is doing it.

As to why others in the company are not noticing the dysfunction of Alice, the writer explained that it’s because they have plenty of their own dysfunction going on, including one manager being sued for sexual harassment (he told one woman she had to sleep with him or she’d lose her job) and a VP with anger control issues. The VP once left our writer 10 screaming voice mail messages at night asking why his computer wasn’t working, and was discovered writing porn about one of his employees and kept it on a file server accessible to the whole company. He was not fired for either infraction.

So, apparently, help from the execs is out of the question. Our writer stresses that she has faced so many employment obstacles due to the Asperger’s syndrome that she does not want to leave this place. Her only concern is easing her conscience of the guilt of witnessing a fellow employee being abused by Alice.

If leaving is out, then I’m not sure good will come of taking action on behalf of another person. We can be 99% sure that it will not do your career any good at that madhouse, and it may end up with that employee (and you) getting fired anyway. Maybe you can counsel the other employee in the ways you’ve developed in order to deal with the people in that House of Hell?

My primary advice would be to consult a lawyer. In the U.S., we have the Americans with Disabilities Act that offers resources for people in your situation. I’m not sure what Great Britain has, though here is an Employment Fact Sheet that might help. You may want to consult an employment or disabilities lawyer just to see what other options you have. In my fantasy world, you would be able to sue them and retire on the settlement.

My readers have a wealth of experience, so I will open this up to them and see what suggestions they can give you.

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