Your supervisor doesn’t have to stop your mean co-worker

I am having an issue at work with a coworker at work that I am hoping you can help me with.  This coworker is constantly coming to assumptions that I am doing my job wrong and blaming me for things.  Most of the time she is blaming me for things that are not my fault.  After I do my research about an incident she is blaming me for I find out I am not the one to blame.  She assumes the worst in people and is constantly blaming people for things without doing her due diligence.  Her accusations and rude comments are effecting my confidence at work. I emailed her and explained my thoughts to her and she apologized.  If she continues to create a hostile environment in my workplace, what should my next be? Is HR or my supervisor obligated to take corrective action if I file a formal complaint?

I could probably just let the title to this stand alone as the answer, but, alas, that would be too easy, and heaven knows I’m long winded. First, praise for you. You took this up directly with her and even got an apology. That? Awesome. I would give you an official EHRL gold star if I had such a thing, but I don’t. If I did, though, it would go to you.

So often people don’t deal directly with the problem person and instead expect someone else to fix it. You didn’t. You took it head on and she even apologized! Amazing. Now, to be clear, you would still be deserving of the gold star even if she had exploded that you’re mean to her and blah, blah, blah. The gold star comes from your actions, not your results.

If she starts in again on the negativity and accusations, first attempt the same thing over again. Remember, she’s been trained by other people for years that behaving this way gets her the results that she wants. So, you’ll have to re-train her. “Jane, you’re doing it again. Accusing me of not doing my job when I’m absolutely doing it. If there is an error, please let me know and I’ll fix it.” Repeated doses of this should solve the problem.

But, if it doesn’t and her apology was a mere anomaly, then yes you can go to your  manager and explain what is going on and ask for help in dealing with it. Your manager may refer you to your HR department. A good employee relations person can be invaluable here in coaching not only your co-worker on how to express concern, but you in how to deal with it. But, they aren’t required to do anything by law.

You used the term “hostile environment.” To most people hostile environment means just that–an unpleasant place with a mean person. However, in HR terms, it has a legal definition. Let’s go straight to the EEOC:

The question of liability arises only after there is a determination that unlawful harassment occurred. Harassment does not violate federal law unless it involves discriminatory treatment on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age of 40 or older, disability, or protected activity under the anti-discrimination statutes. Furthermore, the anti-discrimination statutes are not a “general civility code.”4 Thus federal law does not prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not “extremely serious.”5 Rather, the conduct must be “so objectively offensive as to alter the ‘conditions’ of the victim’s employment.”6The conditions of employment are altered only if the harassment culminated in a tangible employment action or was sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment.7 Existing Commission guidance on the standards for determining whether challenged conduct rises to the level of unlawful harassment remains in effect.

Okay, that’s boring and you skipped over it. I know you did. So, I’ll break it down. In order for there to be a true hostile environment (and a requirement for the company to act) the following must occur:

  • Harassment has to violate the law, which means your co-worker must be treating you this way because of your race, sex, etc. If she’s an equal opportunity jerk, she hasn’t broken the law.
  • It’s more than just teasing, or being rude. It has to be so severe that it affects your ability to do your job. In this case, her complaining, even if it was because she didn’t like your religion, wouldn’t be that severe. Because co-workers don’t have hire/fire power over you, it’s not normal that they can even be obnoxious enough (on their own) to create a hostile environment.
  • There is some tangible effect. For instance, she complained and lied and you got demoted.

All of these things have to come together. Since none of them did, it’s not illegal harassment. Obnoxious? Yes. Should your manager deal with it if you can’t resolve it on your own? Absolutely. Is she required by law to do so? Nope.

Related Posts

9 thoughts on “Your supervisor doesn’t have to stop your mean co-worker

  1. This sounds way too familiar, however the mean co-worker I was subjected to was an HR Manager….what then? In the last 2 years she has had at least 2 staff members leave the department because of her and has had numerous complaints from others. I took the direct approach and had a meeting with her where she was extremely contrite and felt badly that her behavior had created such an uncomfortable workplace. That lasted about a week and she was back at it. The director was been notified numerous times and claims that he has spoken to her. She is on the edge of losing another employee that has been a Godsend to the rest of the staff and is extremely well liked and respected. The Director is hesitant to take stronger action because the manager does not misbehave in his presence (although he has seen some of her behaviors) and feels that she is a truly caring person.

    The manager is very “black and white” with no room for any flexibility. There is no question that she is extremely intelligent, however she has absolutely no self awareness, is constantly negative, can be openly hostile, and treats everyone else like they couldn’t possibly have a brain in their head. When I left the department, I made it clear to the Director (who I reported directly to) why I was leaving. He was truly upset by my departure and vowed that he would ensure that the situation would improve. Sadly, it has not improved and now one of my former colleagues is ready to bail. Clearly, the manager does not think her behavior is a problem and has made little effort to improve. What will it take for the Director to make any kind of change?

    1. Denial runs deep in many people. Probably nothing will change and this will go on for years until one of them quits.

  2. “that’s boring and you skipped over it. I know you did.”

    Ha, you know your readers all too well. I did in fact skip over it; but, your “guilt trip” (is that what you were trying to do – guilt me in to going back to read it?) actually made me go back and read it.

    And you are spot on with your advice of training her. One place I worked at we had one employee who constantly complained about the poor work of others. Most managers would politely listen and do nothing. This employee continued to complain to those who would listen. I simply would ask him what did he expect me to do about – so and so wasn’t my employee and it wasn’t my place to say or do anything – and that he should take it up with that person directly if it was affecting him.

    After several weeks of this, he finally stammered “well, you just don’t care, do you?” He did continue to complain to other managers; but, he stopped saying such stuff to me.

    1. I know myself. I always skip over those long quotes!

      And good job at re-training your co-worker!

  3. In CA a law has just been passed employers with 50+ employees are required to provide ‘anti-bullying’ training along with the sexual harassment training already required. As expected the anti-bullying definition is rather vague — generally if the ‘reasonable person’ would feel demoralized, demeened, etc. by the act(s). It will be interesting to see how this will affect the workplace – in awareness, actions, and litigation. Tough time to be in ER in CA

  4. I have to disagree with the part about retraining a person. That is work for a professional therapist. What instead can be done is let them know YOU can’t be pushed around so they find someone weaker to go after. Unless of course this person is your boss. Then there is NOTHING you can do. These are personality issues WITHIN the individual, NOT work issues between two people–and it’s fruitless to think someone can mend someone else’s mental problems.

    It’s also unfortunate that US discrimination laws have also been twisted in such a way that only harassment against a protected class will result in taking action against the WACKOS on their workforce–and often worse, standing behind and further empowering certified sociopaths. I know many other countries have laws in place already to combat this and the comments above mentions that California just passed a similar law. That’s great news! All I can say is it’s about time.

    1. > I have to disagree with the part about retraining a person. That is work for a professional therapist.

      Captain Awkward tells us that you can’t change how a person acts, but you can change how they act *around you*. And I suspect that’s what was meant by “retraining”. ‘Cos honestly, I don’t want to try to fix the deeper problems of someone who isn’t my child or spouse, but I certainly want them to let me alone to do my work. Which means I need to teach (“train”) them that their methods won’t work with me. And if I’ve accidentally let someone establish a pattern that I need to break, then I’ll be re-training them.

      Think of it more like professional training, maybe?

  5. Years ago, I had an overnight supermarket job. Store was empty, and the place was full of loners, some of which were surly as heck. Although most of the guys were fine to me when I was the new guy, I had to deal with one jerk. After a couple weeks of dirty looks, harassment, etc, from this (non-supervisory) guy who was basically just busting my chops to test me, I verbally ripped him a new butthole in front of a couple other guys. He shut right up, and the problem was solved.

    Mind you, this workplace was like the Wild West. Supervisor usually meandered away and left us alone most of the shift, and no one was in the store (after hours) ever. Trust me, there was no sensitivity training, HR niceties, and most of the time, it was raucous and fun. More than anything else, it was a bunch of angry loners just trying to do their jobs.

  6. How about bringing up the topic camouflaged as “improving the culture”? Perhaps suggesting better task tracking, transparency in responsibilities and improved team communication would make your successes clearer to be seen by others?

Comments are closed.

Are you looking for a new HR job? Or are you trying to hire a new HR person? Either way, hop on over to Evil HR Jobs, and you'll find what you're looking for.