I’m caught in the middle of an investigation at work

A reader writes:

This is not the first time that this has happened to me and I can’t help but feel icky about it and I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing. I have been in a new job that I love for about two months. Recently two coworkers (not people on my team or that I work with regularly, let’s call them Frank and Joe) got into a verbal altercation in the office. Frank was upset with Joe for “touching his work.” Joe was trying to explain why he did what he did, and Frank just kept cutting him off, getting pretty animated in the process. At one point Joe looks him dead in the eye and says, “Are you high right now?” Frank totally loses it then, says a few things along the lines of “I can’t f***ing believe you said that to me” and so forth. I sit one set of cubicles away from them, so I heard a large portion of what happened.

Twice in past jobs I have been pulled in as a “witness” to things that have happened both in and out of the workplace, and in both cases at least one person in question lost their job. One was a friend and one was someone who the entire team loved and I desperately tried to keep it hidden that I had given testimony that contributed to the firing because they were so upset. I want to stay out of it, but the way I handled it in those cases was to try to dispassionately give the facts of what I saw and leave it at that. I’m not going to lie to my employer and/or been seen as uncooperative when it comes to something they are obviously taking very seriously.

This week I got called into a meeting to give my “testimony” of what happened because they knew I witnessed all this. I did the same thing and tried to just give the facts, but also tried to add in that I thought both people in the incident were good people and hard workers, and while I recognized that their behavior was unprofessional, it was just an unfortunate incident around the holidays when people be crazy. Then they started asking questions about bullying behavior, whether comments were made about age and appearance, things like that. No! “Bullying” in particular is a serious buzzword and despite being new I have never seen anything indicating that this type of behavior is normal for them or that either would be considered a bully. I don’t think ageism or anything like that was a part of it. They even asked if I felt unsafe or felt that it might turn violent! No. Seriously, I described it as a “nerd fight” to my boyfriend.

I am scared that one or both will be disciplined or lose their job and I will be a contributing factor, once again, and my new coworkers will know it. I know it’s not my fault that they acted like children, and I can’t think of any “better” way to handle it when my employer asks me to take part in an investigation, but I also just feel scummy about the whole idea of potentially impacting someone’s livelihood.

I guess my question is whether or not there is actually a better way to handle this type of thing. At one point in the altercation, someone else stepped in and told them to cut it out, and then another coworker tried to facilitate a civil conversation, which did seem to take place (and I included that in my testimony). I hate being in the middle and I don’t want my new coworkers to think I’m a tattletale or blame me if one of these well liked people gets disciplined. Could I have refused to participate in the investigation without looking bad to my bosses? If I had known them better or had been here longer, I perhaps I would have stepped in during the incident. Perhaps I should have despite my status here to try and head this whole thing off?

The thing is, if someone gets disciplined or even fired over something you witnessed, you’re not the one who caused that to happen — they are. And any reasonable coworkers will know that.

And really, if Frank or Joe gets fired for what you saw, it’s probably because they’ve done this before and it’s part of a pattern of behavior. Otherwise that type of altercation isn’t likely to rise to the level of firing anyone. A serious talk, yes. Firing, no. (Again, unless it’s part of.an ongoing pattern.)

That doesn’t mean it’s not awkward, though. It is.

The best way to handle it is exactly what you’ve been doing — be as objective as possible, just recount the facts, and cultivate a tone (with HR and with your coworkers) of “I have no stake in this.” But refusing to participate isn’t really an option; doing that would indeed be a huge red flag to your employer and will come across as “I’m not willing to make myself even slightly uncomfortable for a larger good” or as if you see management as the enemy (and that you see it so much that way that you think you can be flagrant about it).

Keep in mind that employers rely on people being willing to share what they witnessed in order to deal effectively with serious problems. It’s rare for someone to be called in as a witness over something truly minor. Often if you’re being asked to share what you saw, it’s because the issues touch on bullying, harassment, discrimination, or other serious issues that we want employers to address. (Sometimes they investigate and find those things weren’t happening, of course! But it’s important that they ask the questions when they see something troubling. When companies don’t do that, you end up with really terrible problems that no one is addressing.)

If we want employers to take problems seriously, people need to be willing to participate in investigations of those problems. Otherwise employers would only be able to address things they see or hear personally, and that’s not good for anyone.

Of course, the calculation changes if you’re working somewhere known to be dysfunctional in this regard — somewhere with a track record of twisting people’s words, or shooting the messenger, or violating confidentiality, or protecting people who shouldn’t be protected, or targeting people who don’t deserve it. But otherwise — give them the help they need to make your workplace a decent place to be.

As for whether you should have stepped in during the altercation between Frank and Joe: No. You’re new, and you don’t know either of them well. You don’t know if either of them has a history of anger or irrational grudges. You aren’t obligated to insert yourself into the middle of two adults acting like children.

{ 155 comments… read them below }

      1. Lil Fidget*

        I was also surprised that this has happened two prior times to OP. In ten years I’ve never been involved in a real investigation in my field. Maybe they’re in a field where emotions run high or in a very regulated industry where formal investigations are the norm.

        1. Detective Amy Santiago*

          I’m going to guess some kind of call center/customer service atmosphere. When I worked in a cube farm like that, this type of thing was not infrequent.

          1. OP*

            It did happen twice when I worked in a call center environment, and that was years ago, but this time is a professional environment and in IT. We are in cubes but not tightly crammed together and overall the atmosphere here is super positive, unlike the call center environment.

            1. Cassandra*

              #notallnerds by any means, but the stereotype of IT folks not having learned the world’s greatest people skills can be unfortunately close to the truth.

              (I’m not straight-up IT, but I’ve often been IT-adjacent.)

            2. Project Manager*

              I wouldn’t call it an “investigation,” but I also work in IT, witnessed an altercation between employees, and was asked to report on what happened by upper management. I’ve also worked in and adjacent to call center environments. It doesn’t shock me that you’ve witnessed altercations in either environment! With IT, it seems like tempers tend to run particularly high in my experience.

              It sounds like you handled it great with your management and you took the right approach. Now just avoid getting into any gossip over what happened if possible and you should be golden.

            3. Wintermute*

              call centers are pressure cookers, that doesn’t surprise me at all. Combination of incredible stress, a lot of entry-level employees which means they have less at stake to lose if they act badly, and just the general environment of call centers can be incredibly toxic.

      2. The New Wanderer*

        I think it has so much to do with the office dynamic. The only time in 20 years I was called in as a witness to confirm an employee’s bad behavior was in a small family business with a very back-stabby culture. I did feel like I was being made to tattle on someone but that was my reaction to the office manager’s affinity for power plays and not the fact that the employee showed up late yet again and lied about it (she did, they caught her out, she was let go).

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Meh. I’ve seen it frequently in manufacturing and production facilities. Pack in a lot of personalities and egos, things go boom.

      At least she’s never had a sheriff show up to get the testimony :|

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          Fist fights at work. We didn’t need to talk to witnesses, we all saw it unfold. The one who started it got mad he was fired immediately and wanted a second opinion. The sheriff was not impressed by him, needless to say.

          1. I Work on a Hellmouth*

            Ah. Yeah, I could actually see something playing out like that at a few places where I’ve worked.

  1. Aveline*

    If either of the two men has a history of inappropriate behavior and loses their job over this, remember

    (1) Your testimony isn’t the cause. Their action(s) were.
    (2) They aren’t being unduly punished. They are suffering consequences of actions.
    (3) In order for the world to (attempt to) be a good and true and just place, sometimes people have to suffer negative consequences for actions. There is no such thing as a world where there is any modicum of justice or piece without consequences.
    (4) It’s great that you have the impulse to want everyone to have a good outcome here. But in addition to that not being possible, it’s also not your place to decide that nor your place to ensure it happens.

    I sense you really want to be a good person here and help others. You can do that best by giving a factual account of what you know – and only what you know- followed by staying out of the decision process.

    1. Lil Fidget*

      I often have to ask myself, is the person responsible spending even a FRACTION of the time worrying about this that I am?? The answer is almost always no.

      1. Aveline*

        Yep. There are some people who have a natural impulse to try and fix the world or to try and make sure everyone’s happy. Or they’ve been socialized to do so.

        So they expend a ton of emotional energy on things that others don’t. Or they carry the load so someone else doesn’t have to.

        Worrying about the fairness of outcome is what Joe and Frank should be doing.

        There’s a lot of daylight between being mean and carrying someone else’s water while you go thirsty.

        1. RUKidding*

          I’d like to second this! Particularly as OP is a woman and women are *always* carrying the emotional labor, usually for a male, and in this case two males.

          OP if you are still reading this thread…you don’t have to do that. In this situation or any other. Let people do their own emotional labor.

  2. Lady Phoenix*

    To OP,

    “Snitches get stitches” and “tattle telling” are ways to silence victory ims and allow bad behavior to go rampant.

    Also people are not permanently “good” or “bad”. Some days, bad people can do a nice thing and still spend the rest of their days being a giant jerkbag. Meanwhile, a good person can have one bad day and they accidentally take it out on one person that won’t them be, so they apologize and both people move on.

    So honestly, be honest. Tell them dude A started acting super belligerent and guy b might have said the wrongn things and escalated it. This wishy washy “but guy a and guy b are good guys” just makes YOU look bad because it shows you try to minimize things that might be a big deal. Let management and HR figure out if A and B are truly “good people”.

    1. Lil Fidget*

      It sounds like OP is unusually sensitive to the thought of somebody being displeased with her. We’re all like this to an extent but it can definitely be taken too far … I had to come to terms with it as I progressed through my career. You’re not always going to be able to make everybody happy.

      1. AnonEMoose*

        I would take that a little further: You Will Never Make Everyone Happy. That’s not a problem, that’s just life.

        Literally no matter what you do or do not do, however kind you try to be to everyone, someone, somewhere is going to have a problem with it. And as long as you acted ethically, taking into account as many perspectives as possible, etc. – that’s actually ok. Learning to (mostly) accept that has greatly improved my life in many ways.

        1. g*

          Exactly, your own principles should tell you whether an action is okay, not other people’s feelings about it.
          I see this so often, people trying to design-by-committee their own moral decisions. Just because those around you told you something was okay doesn’t make it so.

      2. Marthooh*

        Eh, I think this has more to do with the OP’s particular experiences around work discipline. Seeing two good people get fired, and now seeing two more coworkers almost accused of bullying, is bringing out their protective instinct. Nothing wrong with that, it’s just not very useful here.

      3. OP*

        I wouldn’t say I’m unusually sensitive. In this case it was more worrisome to me because I’m so new here and still developing relationships with people, both personal and professional. In a workplace that you’ve become established in you have a better read on whether or not people will hold this type of thing against you (those are places I don’t want to work, for sure, but it’s also a fact of life). And while I suppose that by me adding my commentary of “I think these guys just had a bad day” could definitely be potentially minimizing of the incident, I guess that was due to my previous experience where people lost their jobs where I didn’t add any sort of commentary. In those incidents, I agreed that the terminations were justified from a company point of view, but one was someone who was a friend which made it hard and the other was someone extremely well liked (a manager and when the team was told he was fired people cried and there were serious conversations trying to figure out who “got” him fired with plans of retaliation).

        I will say I stuck to the facts in my interview and added a few sentences onto the end about my observations of their work and workplace interactions in general not being congruent with this one incident. I don’t entirely feel that that was the wrong thing to do, because if this were all being reviewed by people who didn’t know them and didn’t interact with them regularly, they could take a single incident out of context, but it’s true that minimizing the incident, when it may have been a much bigger deal for someone else, may not be the right thing either. I guess there are the facts and then there are the feelings.

        And that’s why I wrote to Alison!

        1. Jasnah*

          Honestly if this seems out of character for them (as far as you know, being new), I don’t think it is minimizing to say that. You stated the facts, you said you had not observed any -isms or bullying behavior besides that, and it seemed unusual for them to act this way considering what you’ve seen so far. I think you minimized it more in your tale to Alison than in your recounting to your employer.

          Any sensible investigator is not going to take your words as The Objective And Only Truth because you are only one eye witness and don’t know the full story. Plus, once they get the story, the people who bear responsibility for this are the employer who made the call, and Frank & Joe themselves. I think you did nothing wrong here.

        2. cactus lady*

          Hi OP! Just my two cents, but if there were a new person in the office who was caught in the middle of something like this, I would think much more highly of them if they gave a factual account of what happened with a healthy amount of distance – it demonstrates a lot of integrity. Hopefully that’s something your office culture values! Regardless, after some time passes you can recount how awkward it was for you to be caught in the middle of this investigation when you were so new, and people will probably be more sympathetic than you realize. It’s a crappy thing to deal with early on in a job!

          1. Approval is optional*

            So, you’d think that a new employee who was anything other than ‘just the facts’ in a similar situation lacked integrity? You wouldn’t consider that they perhaps were unsure of what they were supposed to tell you, or that they were just a ‘nice’ person or one of many other possible reasons they’d stray from just the facts or fail to be totally dispassionate about the incident? I have to say in all the investigations I’ve done, the only ‘completely stick to the facts’ people I interviewed were either police officers or lawyers: because of their experience in court no doubt. And how do you define ‘healthy distance’ – pretty subjective thing surely. When does the employee become not ‘new’ anymore and become able to give more than the facts and still demonstrate their integrity? Things to consider if you ever have to conduct an investigation perhaps.
            OP – I was a Government Investigator for the Ombudsman for a number of years (investigating complaints against public sector agencies and employees), and it seems to me like you did just fine. And it’s really OK to say ‘irrelevant’ stuff, including feelings, – it just gets ignored in the decision making process, it doesn’t get used to judge you (usual caveat about incredibly toxic environments being the exception).

            1. Wintermute*

              Not the original commenter but from my perspective, I wouldn’t think less of them if they were unsure of themselves or was evasive, being new. But not thinking poorly of someone after a situation is different from thing “wow, that person really has it together, they were in an awkward position and handled it like a champ”.

              It’s an opportunity to prove your professionalism and loyalty to the company, not a pass/fail test.

    2. Aveline*

      Not only is LW attempting to minimize it, she’s trying to tell management what decision they should make. While her intent is good, that can come across as overstepping.

      As you rightly point out, she’s also minimizing. So they might assume she’s an unreliable narrator in future.

      Finally, she doesn’t have any background info on these dudes b/c she’s new. Maybe one of them is a serial bully. Maybe the other is on a PIP for past behavior like this.

      She doesn’t have enough facts in evidence to decide what they deserve. Even if it were her place to do so.

      I get she wants to assume the best about them and have a happy outcome. That’s a good thing. But it’s misplaced here.

      1. Elspeth*

        No, I don’t think management will assume that OP is an unreliable narrator. OP did state the facts and after stating the facts gave his/her opinion. That’s all. I’m sure the other witnesses will also attest to what happened.

        1. ArmchairPsychologist*

          Management should assume OP is an unreliable narrator- eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable because our memories are unreliable especially when there are emotions involved. They should never take any single piece of eyewitness testimony as the “truth”- although if there are lots of witnesses then hopefully they can build an accurate picture of what happened.

    3. CheeryO*

      Yeah, the editorializing about good guys being stressed around the holidays is not at all objective and might work against OP if they do end up being disciplined. I’m about as conflict avoidant as they come, so I get it, but you really have to stick to the facts in a case like this.

    4. That Girl From Quinn's House*

      It might also mean that OP worked in a workplace where a) testimony wasn’t kept confidential and b) criticizing people was taboo.

      It’s very easy to say in a meeting, “Oh yes Joe said Would you like some coffee and then Frank started yelling at him, of course I would like some coffee you idiot!” and have that turned into, “OP snitched on Joe and Frank and said Joe is an idiot,” and now OP is in the firing line.

      Especially if OP is a woman, saying anything negative about a coworker can come back to bite her later.

    5. TootsNYC*

      I don’t think one should say “super belligerent” or “might have said the wrong things.”

      Report the words, report or reproduce the tone if you can.

      Then it’s not yours anymore; the next steps belong to other people.

  3. fposte*

    I am sad to hear the Hardy Boys have stooped to this.

    But seriously, OP, this really isn’t on you, and your wondering if you should have stepped in may indicate that you take more on yourself than is really merited. People gonna dumbass, work’s going to smack them when they do, and that’s appropriate management. If you read AAM regularly, you’ve encountered a few posters working in places with conspiracies of silence about bad behavior, and you really don’t want to work for a place like that.

      1. College Career Counselor*

        Was really hoping easy-going Chet would have come by in his jalopy to take everyone out for ice creams!

  4. Lala*

    I would just be grateful you work at a place that takes these issues seriously, and wants input from people besides just the two involved. Too many places don’t.

    1. OP*

      Alison’s response really highlighted that for me. The atmosphere here is generally very positive, so I should take it as a wonderful thing that they handle this type of thing so seriously, because the fact that they do is what likely keeps it positive. They don’t let this kind of BS fly. Thinking of it that way definitely makes me feel better.

  5. The Original Stellaaaaa*

    The questions about bullying and protected classes makes me think that one or both of your coworkers have treated in those territories in the past and that your employer wants to see if this recent fight falls into a worse pattern.

    1. Interviewer*

      Actually the investigators are supposed to ask questions like this. Yes, they’re investigating the incident, but they’re trying to find out if this is a larger pattern that’s not being reported until now, or if it’s a routine thing that gets reported and the company turns a blind eye. Sometimes they ask leading questions to see if other coworkers have had nerd fights, and what was done in those incidents. Good investigations turn over all the rocks.

      Don’t worry about the questions they asked or the answers you gave. You were objective and truthful. That’s all you need to be.

      1. Wintermute*

        This. The purpose of HR is to protect the company, to protect the company they need to know two things: first, if this implicates any legal obligations and second, if anyone is creating a legally hostile workplace. They’re doing what they have to do to ensure the company is protected. Because if the answer to both of those is ‘no’ then they have leeway to be more forgiving, but if either is ‘yes’ there is a defined process that must be followed regardless of the circumstances.

    2. Kathleen_A*

      That, or maybe they just always ask about bullying when it’s a question of in-the-office belligerence.

    3. The New Wanderer*

      It does seem like it falls into both buckets – 1) the investigators are supposed to do due diligence and ask about all of these things (if they don’t and it turns out to involve a protected class or similar it could blow up). And 2) there is a past history with one or both people and the investigators are building a case by showing repeated bad behavior of a particular type(s).

    4. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

      There could also be an accusation from either Frank or Joe.

  6. Lynn Marie*

    It sounds like OP is not the only person to witness the altercation since others stepped in, so regardless of the outcome, she should not worry about being responsible for anyone’s getting fired. It sounds like the investigators are just gathering information from everyone who witnessed the scene, which is what they should do, since descriptions and interpretations may vary from one person to another. If the descriptions pretty much line up from all those present then they will have a decent handle on what actually happened and be better able to decide on the course to take.

  7. Snark*

    OP, you are not a snitch or a tattletale or scummy for affecting their livelihood or branding them bullies or defending them as good guys or looking good or looking bad or defending their job or getting them fired. All of those are value judgments that are rooted in a weirdly familial, personal interpretation of events and your role in them that strikes me as childlike – not that I wish to be insulting, but the language you’re adopting evokes an insecure middle child trying to mediate a blowup between older brothers so they don’t get in trouble with mom and dad. And I think that’s worth interrogating!

    You were a witness to an interation that had no place in a functional workplace, and your bosses asked you questions to determine how severe it was and how much of a liability it represents to the business. You were asked about bullying because that can lead to significant legal and security risks for an employer. You were asked to provide your testimony so they could understand what happened, not to trap you into casting judgment on their character or defending them from same. All you needed was to respond honestly, fairly and factually, without editorializing. And what happens after your honest, fair and factual response? Not your job to decide or try to influence.

    1. OP*

      So funny; yes, I am a middle child and I think you hit the nail on the head, trying to mitigate a blow out between siblings so that they don’t get in trouble with the parents. It’s an interesting thought that I reacted that way.

      1. Snark*

        And like I said – I didn’t mean that to be insulting, and I’m glad you seemed not to take it that way! I hope it’s a useful consideration. I just know it’s super common to rehash old scripts in weird ways, and I sure spend a lot of time coaching myself not to repeat mine.

        1. OP*

          No, I didn’t take it as insulting at all! You’re correct. We have patterns we repeat and you need to be self aware in order to prevent that repetition. Pointing it out is extremely useful.

      2. Bulbasaur*

        For what it’s worth, I think you handled this just fine. After your description of the first incident I was going to say that there is room to give your personal opinions as long as you don’t let it interfere with giving a clear picture of the facts, but it sounds like you already reached that conclusion on your own and did so in the second case. I have no other suggestions and I think you did great. The one thing you possibly do need to work on, as Snark suggests, is feeling responsible for things that aren’t your job. Nothing you said in the post suggests to me that your employer can’t be trusted to reach a fair resolution on this, so you just need to give them space to do it. Your coworkers are grown-ups and sometimes that means facing the consequences of their actions.

      3. CM*

        This is interesting.

        My reading of your question is that maybe you feel conflicted because you don’t believe either of them SHOULD get in trouble for what happened, so you feel weird about cooperating with a line of questioning that seems to be leading to trouble. I would feel weird about that, too.

        If that’s what’s happening, I think the best thing to do is probably cooperate with the factual questions and then just come right out and say, “I feel really weird about making a statement like this because, from where I was sitting, it didn’t seem like a serious issue, and I’m worried that people will get in trouble for momentarily losing their tempers.” It doesn’t address the question of whether people will call you a Judas afterward, but it might make you feel less guilty if you come right out and say that you feel conflicted. It might also let management know that people feel weird about the way they handle conflict and prompt them to be more transparent about it.

        1. Tinker*

          It’s also potentially relevant data, because it speaks to the subtle aspects of how the interaction appeared in the moment — depending on your impression of how the person reads things.

          I was in a somewhat similar situation at work one time, except it was somewhat the reverse — the interaction itself was intemperate but in a way where coldly described it might have seemed merely like… not a desirable thing, unprofessional, not to be permitted to happen again. But there were things about the way it played out, in the context of the day and the person, that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up — I came away from it thinking that the question of safety issues was on the table.

          Turns out that in that case there was more to it than just what I saw, and my impressions weren’t necessary — but also, the “more to it” aspects, when I found out about them, very much confirmed that my intuitive impression was pretty aligned with the nature of the problem.

          1. Jasnah*

            Agreed, your general impression of the situation gives indications to tone which can’t be conveyed just by “he said–“.

        2. Indie*

          Yeah I think there’s definitely room for the OP to say ‘The situation didn’t appear to be that big a deal in the moment”; if they are asking for her opinions about that moment. The key thing is to remember that she doesnt know the entire context and giving a big picture opinion isn’t really her job.

  8. Qwerty*

    OP, you seem alarmed by the line of questioning related to bullying/ageism/violence, but there a plenty of reasons for this to come up. Off the top of my head:

    1) Frank and/or Joe is using bullying/discrimination as defense or said they thought the other person would turn violent
    2) One of the witnesses felt unsafe during the argument or indicated there may be deeper cultural issues on the team
    3) Your employer is being proactive in verifying that you have a safe environment to work in

    If people are calling you a tattletale for giving honest testimony in a workplace investigation, then that would be a red flag on the possibility of bullying witnesses into silence. I can’t tell from your letter if you are being called one or if it is just a hold-over from childhood. But typically the term “tattletale” is a way of pressuring people into not speaking up when there are problems.

    1. Wintermute*

      I’d add in 4) HR is there to protect the company from a legal perspective. Knowing if a situation is at risk of creating a legally hostile workplace is the first thing they need to do, because if so, they must follow specific policies and best practices to mitigate any legal liability on the company’s part. If the incident doesn’t implicate legal protections then they have much more freedom to work with.

  9. LinesInTheSand*

    OP, I’ve been where you are. At some point, I went from fear of a potentially punitive process that I had no control over (HR investigation) to a total lack of patience with people who put me in a bad spot because of their bad behavior. You too can look forward to this dubious milestone of emotional development.

    Another thing to remember is that hiring and firing people is expensive. Companies don’t generally want to do it if they can help it. As Allison says, barring mitigating circumstances such as the presence of a client, this sounds like behavior that warrants a talking to, not a firing. So if this person does get fired, it wasn’t just for this.

  10. That Girl From Quinn's House*

    It might be a good thing that you’re being involved in these investigations, OP! I suspect that means that the bosses think you are a trustworthy source of information, and are likely to tell the truth in a professional way, rather than lie or exaggerate things one way or another.

    1. Snark*

      But that impression will evaporate if OP is seen as trying to defend their jobs or otherwise insert herself into the decisionmaking process, so.

      1. Marthooh*

        This seems like needless catastrophizing. It’s hard to imagine the higher-ups thinking “How dare OP try to defend their coworkers!”

      2. Kyrielle*

        Enh, maybe, maybe not. OP gave them a factual account of what happened, and then made those minimizing noises. To me, that reads is “this person can be relied on for truthful relay of what happened, even if they’re not comfortable with it” and then they can decide whether the opinion-based read on the situation is useful or not.

      3. Doodle*

        Eh, I don’t think her observation that the fight seemed out of character for these two guys is going to make her look bad, not is editorializing as someone else said. If that’s what’s she’s actually observed, then it’s reasonable and appropriate for her to say so.

  11. Temperance*

    LW, at my first job, and at my current job, I have had a part in firings by reporting bad behavior.

    My first job was at a movie theater, and this pretty unpopular manager dropped an F bomb, loudly, in front of a birthday part. As soon as she left, I called my manager and reported what had happened, because I did not want it to come back to me. Well, she was fired (party parents were understandably very mad, and complained), and she blamed another of our colleagues for reporting her. Oops.

    At my most recent job, I complained multiple times about one of our caterers, and he was fired. I wasn’t the only person to complain – he was amazingly terrible at his job, and was super lazy about fixing his many mistakes – but still, it’s clear that my issue was his last straw.

    Just tell the truth, and don’t let your personal feelings be part of it.

    1. Wintermute*

      I would like to point out that this is a brilliant example of the idea that you didn’t “get them” fired. They got themselves fired by their unprofessional behavior. Generating customer complaints is one of the surest ways to get fired in a service job, and being lazy and making mistakes is one of the surest ways to get fired anyplace. All you did was inform management of a situation that was impacting the business– information a manager has a right to know, and information a good manager should actively seek!

  12. MissDisplaced*

    Best you can do is to factually describe what you saw and heard without providing any additional qualifiers or speculation (they’re good guys, nerd fight, etc.).
    But seriously you’re not at fault here. You’re also fairly new, so don’t really have background on their past working relationship. Something kind of in your favor on this.

  13. Gerald*

    OP: Keep in mind that there were numerous witnesses (at least two more than you, if someone stepped between and another facilitated a discussion). So being dispassionate and accurate will be beneficial to you, as being too dismissive (“Oh, it was nothing! I won’t even bother giving you the details”) could make you appear unreliable. If your memory is bad then it could be fair to say “I was so surprised by the discussion that I don’t remember much of what was said”, but Alison is totally correct that your comments aren’t going to be the cause for any disciplinary action – their behaviour is the problem – so you should be honest.

    The fact that one person asked if the other is high suggests that this is likely not a new topic. It seems like a weird thing to randomly bring up in an argument.

    The fact that fellow colleagues tried to do conflict management is interesting – that usually speaks to a workplace with better-than-average social skills.

    1. Wintermute*

      I read the “are you high?!” not as a serious accusation “I think you are on mood-altering substances right now” but, especially in an IT context, as “Your line of thought on this topic is so irrational that only someone who is in an altered mental state would think that!” It’s not a literal suggestion it’s a statement of incredulity.

  14. SusanIvanova*

    ‘Frank was upset with Joe for “touching his work.” ‘

    And that is probably why this got escalated from just a simple case of two people having a difference of opinion very loudly and publicly. I used to have very animated discussions with a coworker over the right way to do things – as in, you could hear us all the way down the hall – but it was over actual technical details, not childish behavior like that.

    If you’re in a collaborative environment, and it’s not a matter of someone breaking your stuff, your co-workers are allowed to “touch” it and getting upset is a sign you should re-visit kindergarten lessons.

    1. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

      I think it depends on the ‘touching’. Not to defend workplace blow ups, but I did once get a call from one of my employees at a different location in tears because a different (and former) manger was trying to physically remove work that my employee was responsible for to give to someone else (there was literally nobody else in the company that knew how to do the work so what this manager thought she was going to do with it was beyond me).

      My employee held firm that it was hers and she was responsible for it and it was physically going to stay on her desk. From all reports there was some paper tugging going on.

      Honestly I backed my employee 100% and had a ‘particular’ discussion with the crazy pants former manager about to reinforce the new reporting structure and to tell her it was never ok to try and physically remove something from an employee. I also reported the incident to our shared manager. Mostly because I figured crazy pants was going to do it first if none of the other witnesses didn’t beat her to it.

      So I’ll concede that yes, it seems like the no touching rule shouldn’t have to be reinforced, but sometimes the touchee is not the problem!

    2. Jennifer*

      I was thinking the same thing. I have heard people have differences of opinion, very loudly, several times at different employers. This is a very childish thing to get into an argument about, but I don’t see how it equals “bullying.” UNLESS there are other things going on behind the scenes that the OP isn’t aware of. Sounds like an overzealous HR department.

      I’ve worked at places where HR seemed to get involved in every minor skirmish and it was a nightmare.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Hmmm. Yeah, raising voices and being loud is frowned upon in a lot of places. We don’t allow that here.

        It turns into bullying when only one person is intimidating another with aggression\raising their voice.

        If there are no machines to scream over. Keep it in the correct volume. Walk away before you yell. Yelling is toxic behavior.

        1. Jennifer*

          You’re absolutely right. I don’t like that either and they should definitely be reprimanded. I don’t get why HR is doing an investigation.

    3. Wintermute*

      It really depends on whether the work was Joe’s to touch to begin with. There are times when it’s not appropriate to mess with something someone else has done. Maybe you’re the subject-matter expert and they don’t know what they’re doing. In my line of work sometimes you’ve had to acknowledge personal responsibility for work output that has executive visibility or even legal ramifications, in that case someone else touching it is a **big deal** because you’re now legally or highly visibly responsible for work you can’t completely vouch for. If I’ve signed off that all SOX-significant files are in the proper directories and someone else starts moving files, it’s ME that might end up talking to the FTC.

      It’s hard to say without knowing specifics.

  15. kittymommy*

    I’m pretty dang impressed that the workplace is taking this seriously – kudos to them (and even following up to make sure they felt safe). I can see how the LW is sensitive to this, but two grown people got into a verbal altercation significant enough that two other people tried to intervene!! And over something as mundane as “touching my stuff”!! Seriously, is he 3?!?!

    If one or both get fired that’s on them. Perhaps they should stop acting like idiots. And I’m also thinking that if the company is taking this seriously there may have been issues with them in the past.

  16. animaniactoo*

    OP, one thing that’s good to remember: Without the witness testimony, HR might very well decide that they don’t have enough info and to be on the safe side, both people should be phased out as soon as possible. Or something similarly unfair to a person who was not in the wrong, or only minorly in the wrong while defending themselves.

    So… your testimony isn’t just what might help HR to let someone go. It’s also what might help them decide to keep someone. So don’t panic about the outcome or the types of questions until you have a better handle on how HR works in your new company. Just calmly “just the facts” answer their questions.

    1. Lilysparrow*

      This is similar to what I was going to say. You gave them an accurate picture of the situation,which they needed.

      It’s entirely possible that the investigation was triggered by a false or distorted complaint. If level-headed people don’t share their take on the incident, someone could be disciplined or fired wrongly.

  17. Anon for this*

    OP, please understand that you did the right thing, and please continue to always do the right thing.

    A personal story:
    In a former job, I investigated fraud among the company’s customers. On occasion, an employee would be found knowingly or unknowingly facilitating fraud. I came across one such employee and had to escalate the issue to management who conducted a full investigation. Full investigation results were then turned over to HR. In the end, the employee was terminated. This person was caught up in a social engineering scam, and argued he was not aware he was facilitating fraud. Ignorance isn’t always bliss. However, even if taken at his word, this person still did some unethical things that were explicitly against company policy. I don’t know what the legal outcome was of this incident – I was not privy to that info. But I know that a person, who appeared to their peers to be a great performer, was fired after several years with the company. Honestly, it didn’t feel good. It also raised some eyebrows among those who weren’t in the know. But, this employee helped facilitate a scam that was defrauding customers out of a lot of money. It wasn’t ok. Looking back, I’m glad I did the right thing in reporting it, and I’m glad the company did the right thing as well. Fast forward several years, and I don’t feel this incident burned any bridges for me in my career. If anything, my reputation is better for it.

  18. Roscoe*

    I empathize with OP. I very much am a “stay out of it type person”. If it was a place that I had been a while, I’d probably ask to not be involved at all. However, being new, you probably don’t have the ability to do that. Even if its not your fault, per se, that someone got fired, I still wouldn’t want anything I said contributing to it. In this situation, there definitely seemed to be some leading questions though. Its like they were trying to put words in your mouth and get you to agree that a certain thing happened.

    1. pancakes*

      You couldn’t very well ask to not be involved if you were involved, though. If other people knew you were a witness to whatever happened, it would be ridiculous to lie about that in an effort to avoid conflict.

      I don’t see any reason to believe the investigators’ questions here were leading. They weren’t present when the incident happened and it’s their job to learn what happened. It isn’t out of bounds to ask, in an investigation of a workplace conflict, what the nature of the conflict was.

      1. Unpopular opinion*

        “You couldn’t very well ask to not be involved if you were involved, though.”

        Of course you can. “I’m so sorry, I heard a commotion, but didn’t see what happened” (or “I’m so sorry, it all happened so quickly that I couldn’t process who did what”).

        1. Anonymiss*

          That isn’t asking not to be involved, that’s lying about the fact that you saw something… and I would say that lying wouldn’t look good…

    2. Wintermute*

      you call them leading questions, I call them HR doing their legal due diligence. HR needs to know in any situation if their legal obligations under equal employment opportunity or other related laws are implicated, if they don’t ask then they could be found complicit in creating a hostile workplace environment. So they ask the question if bullying happened or if protected classes were implicated so they can’t be accused of turning a blind eye.

    3. Tobias Funke*

      Leading question: And then Joe used a racial slur, right?
      Non leading question: Were any racial slurs used?

  19. BethRA*

    All of the above, OP, and if it helps, remember that if you’ve been called in as a witness for an investigation, it’s because someone ELSE filed a complaint of some kind. Which means other people in your office found their behavior problematic and/or, this is indeed part of a larger pattern for both of them.

    And to repeat, if either of them get disciplined for this, tit’s on Frank and Joe, not you or anyone else.

  20. TeapotDetective*

    OP, you’re not being a ‘tattletale’ or ‘getting [people] fired’. You’re answering questions, put to you by your employers. As long as you’re answering them truthfully, you have nothing to feel bad about. After all, you weren’t the one yelling at your coworker in front of the rest of the team…. and from the questions about bullying/insults based on protected classes, this is unlikely to be the first rodeo for one or both of these guys, and the company’s looking for patterns.

    And from someone else who has given testimony/statements that I know got a coworker fired – it feels odd, yeah, knowing that my words were part of what led to the empty desk two down from mine. My words were part of the file and evidence that got someone I considered a friend fired.
    But my words were “Two of us were conducting a required monthly audit, in dual-control and under cameras, of this coworker’s cash box. We found it to be three thousand dollars short, with the difference between our detail count and his last count before vacation being in large bills. We searched the entire building, down to and including the recycling bins and long-term document storage, and were unable to locate the funds.”

    His choice was to pocket company funds before a vacation. My choice was to report the facts as I found them. Your coworkers chose to behave badly, and you chose to speak honestly. Only one party in each of these situations chose poorly, and it wasn’t us.

  21. TootsNYC*

    Our OP wrote:
    ” also tried to add in that I thought both people in the incident were good people and hard workers, and while I recognized that their behavior was unprofessional, it was just an unfortunate incident around the holidays when people be crazy.”

    OP, you are trying to control the outcome here. That’s not dispassionately reporting the facts.

    Try to let go. Teport what people said, and do not try to shape how people view those facts, or what their judgments about people are.

    They tried to pressure you to make such judgments, so resist that as well.

    If you can let go, it will be so much easier for you.

  22. Dust Bunny*

    Continue to just give the facts.

    One, it’s the right path to take. Period.

    Two, you haven’t been at this job that long and you don’t actually know how good either of these guys are, at their jobs or otherwise. Don’t compromise yourself by “vouching” for two people whom your employers know better than you do.

    None of this is your fault/responsibility. If these two are in trouble, it’s on them for their work quality/showing up stoned/fighting at work/general drama/whatever. It’s not your job to spin it to protect them. If they need their jobs, it’s on them to *act* like they need their jobs.

  23. GingerHR*

    OP, you’ve done the right thing. Don’t fret too much about the subjective element – I investigate this stuff a lot, and wouldn’t think you were trying to control the outcome. Very little of this kind of thing is as objective as we like to think. The words they said are fact. Everything else is subjective – what you consider a nerd fight, I might consider bullying. Neither of us would be right or wrong. Report the facts you can, and if you genuinely think they are both nice guys and stressed, you can say that. It’s up to the investigator to decide how much weight to put on that.

    As others have said, any outcomes are on Frank or Joe, not you. Maybe when you’ve been there a while, you’d have a better sense of whether you should intervene, but as things stand, you did the right thing. Two months doesn’t give you a good enough handle on workplace interactions to make that call when you are talking about co-workers.

    1. OP*

      Thank you. I feel like having a little bit of human commentary shouldn’t be held as a mark against me. They can decide if my general observations are factors to be considered or not, and it was just what I added when they asked at the end of the interview if I had anything else to add. I just know I wouldn’t want to be judged based on one bad day I’ve had, if that’s what it is. And if my general observations were that I saw these two having blow outs every other week I would assume that would be relevant factors also to be taken into account.

      Thank you again.

      1. pamela voorhees*

        You’ve done the right thing in a very difficult situation – both times! I can’t imagine how stressful it would be to go through this twice, and I know what it’s like to have anxiety around interpersonal situations that manifests as “but what if I get in trouble too?” I can’t imagine that a good HR would be upset with you for adding your own opinions (we’re all human! we all add our own opinions all the time!), and as hard as it sounds, just like GingerHR and a lot of others have said, don’t carry the weight of what happens to Frank and Joe on your shoulders. It’s natural to care about people around you, but at the end of the day, you can’t (and shouldn’t!) be responsible for them.

    2. tangerineRose*

      “if you genuinely think they are both nice guys and stressed, you can say that. ” Yeah, this. I don’t think there was anything wrong with saying that.

  24. Anon in TX*

    This situation is near spot on to an issue I got myself into at work with last month – only with me as “Joe”! No cussing was exchanged, and I didn’t call anyone high- however, it was heated. The gist of the argument was similar in nature, Frank was upset I touched his work and I tried to explain myself as to why that wasn’t the case. After that he further said I was throwing the team under the bus. My words verbatim in tears were “that’s unfair. That’s a complete mis-characterization of my work.” I would also characterize this as a nerd disagreement.

    Don’t sweat being an observer and sharing the details! It is what it is. If I get let go over this sort of thing I would be upset with the company not you.

    My only question for the group would be how to handle these “heat of the moment” issues. Of course I would love to say I’m a saint and would NEVER be characterized as someone who makes a fuss [sarcasm…LOTS of it] – in the normal course of things I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to firmly set boundaries that I have a hard time communicating. Especially on the fly and in a difficult conversation. Thoughts on how other people do this would be great.

    1. Anon in TX*

      And just to add really the only person I should be upset with is myself. I’m an adult and I recognize that these sort of things happen.

    2. Jennifer Thneed*

      Two things: I think you can name the issue. “I’m having a hard time thinking clearly right now, please give me a moment.” (And then be silent a moment. If someone talks, turn away or walk a few steps away.)

      And there’s always “Feelings are running high right now. I’m going to visit the restroom/get coffee and when I return I’ll be able to discuss this more calmly.” (And then you walk out — no waiting for permission.)

      And never forget the power of apologizing in the moment. “I’m sorry, that was sarcastic and unhelpful. What I should have said was xyz.”

      (Basically, how would you handle this at home? If you’ve got a good method, adapt it to the workplace. Me, I often need a moment to calm down, and I’ll say so. Needing to visit the bathroom is unquestionable.)

  25. Anon for this*

    OP – I am an HR person and part of my job is to investigate concerns like this. If the company is taking this seriously enough that they are doing an investigation, there are good reasons which may not be immediately obvious. All we ask is for people to be honest and tell us what they saw/heard, so we can figure out what the right course of action is going forward. It is never my goal to terminate someone’s employment, but sometimes, that is the most appropriate outcome. Someone who ordinarily is a great employee might decide to do something really wacky like bring drugs or a gun to work, and even though they’re a great employee, that is not okay. Someone who’s a really bad employee might be the victim of someone who’s even worse. It’s all about assessing what happened, and making the best decision going forward. What really puts me off, though, is the employee witness whom I *know* is not being honest with me because they “don’t want to get involved” or “don’t want to get anyone in trouble” – that says to me that they just don’t care what happens. So just be honest and realize that in these situations, people are doing this to themselves; all you are doing is relating what you saw or heard.

    1. Same Boat*

      Yes. Thank you for this.

      I replied below, but when I was second-guessing myself on whether to complain about a coworker, HR put me completely at ease and basically said what you said. I felt so much more comfortable telling my story.

    2. Bagpuss*

      Yes. People who ‘don’t want to get involved’ or ‘don’t want to say anything formally’can make it really hard to address issues. We used to have an employee who other employees would complain about but no-one was willing to make a formal complaint or say anything ‘on the record’, which basically meant that (unless a manager actually witnessed something) meant it was impossible for us to have deal with it as a disciplinary issue, as it would not have been a fair process if it was based on (in effect) anonymous allegations with the employee not being able to give their side of the story because they didn’t know what the ‘story’ was. (we did explain this, very clearly, to the person grumbling, BTW)
      I realise this may not be as true in the US as there are fewer protections for employees, so the legal implications of not following appropriate processes won’t be such an issue, but I would expect a well-run HR dept to *want* to use fair processes in considering disciplinary action

      1. Wintermute*

        Just an FYI in the US not following company policy can create an issue. The degree to which it is an issue varies by state. Basically the law does not obligate you to have a process before you fire someone, however if you should choose to have a process, and then disregard it, that can come back to bite you, especially if the ex-employee claims the real reason for firing was forbidden by law. In that case the fact you did not follow your own internal practices can be used as evidence the stated reason for termination was a pretext for an illegal reason.

  26. LCL*

    Ahem. I’m not advising the following, but I’ve seen it. A lot. When asked about something, you say I don’t remember or I can’t recall.

    1. Just Employed Here*

      I wouldn’t advise this either!

      What I would advise, though, is (depending on the situation, or course, and whether it’s possible) is to consider getting up and going to get a cup of coffee or a glass of water or something next time some storm like this seems to be brewing.

      That way, you save yourself from having to listen to the stupid argument as well as being asked about it later. If you only witness a small part of it, you’re probably not going to be asked about it. Also, I just don’t have the patience to listen to grown up kids squabbling in the first place.

    2. Bostonian*

      To be honest, this approach is a know-your-place-and-the-situation kind of stance. At my last job, on my FIRST DAY in a new department with 3 of us total, the other 2 got into a huge blowout fight. Both of them were pretty nasty, and there was swearing, and one of them ended up walking out.

      Naturally, since I was the only uninvolved witness, management asked me if I heard anything, to which I said “no” (more like: I heard fighting, but couldn’t make anything out…). I don’t regret it, because knowing what I do now, nothing I could have said would have helped, and I had no idea at the time what the blowback from my testimony would have been. Especially since the coworker who stayed (mind you, I’m alone in the department with this person now) was a miserable, petty, vindictive person.

    3. pancakes*

      I’ve seen people say things along those lines in depositions. They’re generally hurting their own credibility, and they’re generally not effectively shielding whoever they’re trying to shield, either.

  27. Same Boat*

    I’ve been in a similar situation to you; I’ve had to go to HR twice, at different jobs.

    The first time, I was extremely confident in my decision to talk to HR. A 50-something coworker complimented a 20-something coworker’s ass in front of a group. “Best ass in all of [company name]!” Was it awkward to see my coworker—who was on my team!—every day after I complained? Yes. But in the end, I knew I did the right thing.

    The second time at CurrentJob was a little harder. First of all, the coworker apologized to me the day after the incident, even though it was not directed at me. Also, I just met him, and wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. I ended up going to HR a week later, just to feel it out; I explained what happened without giving names. (Selfishly, one of the reasons why I didn’t want to “tattle” is because I was the only witness from our company; that person would 100% know it was me who complained.) After telling them an abbreviated story, HR told me, “Um, so this is a really big deal and we would really appreciate if you gave us a name.” Hearing that made me feel a lot better and I ended up telling them everything.

    Anyway, all I’m saying is: I completely understand not wanting to get people in trouble or not wanting people mad at you. But you did the right thing.

  28. Jennifer*

    Not wanting to get involved or be exposed as a witness is a legitimate fear. People have been retaliated against for reporting incidents in the workplace or for giving testimony. Similar to how in the non-work world, people are reluctant to report certain types of crimes or give testimony. Then you just have the general animus from the people you work with who didn’t want their favorite coworker fired. That can be very difficult.

    Just want you to know I understand how you feel, OP. Do you have a decent, professional HR department that would protect your confidentiality? If not, you might want to rethink how you handle this.

    1. Observer*

      Interesting point. OP, are you worried about your coworkers being unreasonable or are you worried that you actually mishandled the situation. But, if it’s the latter, you were fine.

      1. Roscoe*

        Not OP. But I think you can not worry about retaliation and still not want to be involved. Some people just like to keep their head down, not make waves, do their job and leave. And they definitely don’t want to be involved in someone else’s interpersonal drama.

        1. Jennifer*

          I agree. If this were a more serious issue it would be different but I don’t think there’s anything with not wanting to be involved. And then with serious issues like sexual harassment, racial discrimination, etc., there’s a higher chance of retaliation, especially depending on who is involved.

      2. OP*

        I was worried that I actually mishandled the situation. I don’t know anyone else who has ever had to be involved in these types of things so often, and the first 2 times I’ve been pulled into something like this I ended up feeling guilty because of the consequences the parties suffered (losing their jobs). Even if I rationally know that it wasn’t my fault that they behaved the way they did, it didn’t change that feeling. What I said ultimately assisted HR in deciding to terminate their employment (both times I actually agreed that their termination was justified, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have empathy for someone who is unexpectedly out of work and now financially in a bad place). So in this most recent go ’round, I just wasn’t sure if I should be handling things differently than I had in the past.

        1. Jennifer*

          Ok cool. I was just making sure retaliation (from your colleagues or management) wasn’t something you were concerned about. Best wishes!

        2. Observer*

          It’s good that you have empathy. Nevertheless, you handled the situation correctly.

          Think about this. You say that in the past situations, as bad as it was, the firings were warranted. Would you ave felt better about these people sticking around and continuing to victimize others? Which s to say that when you think about the outcomes of what you do, you should not just think about the people being investigated, but all of the (alleged) victims and potential victims.

          1. Jennifer*

            IF you can report and maintain your employment, safety, and sanity, I agree with you. I don’t agree with shaming people for not reporting or giving testimony when those things are at stake.

          2. OP*

            You’re right, it’s really helpful to think of it this way. If I had witnessed all of this happening and then nothing came of it, then it would feel like management condoned the behavior and I work someplace where screaming at each other is acceptable. The fact that they took the incident seriously is a good thing. Unfortunately that comes along with the side effect of investigations and things having to take place, which can be uncomfortable, but it is necessary for the system to work. If someone flipped out and screamed at me and my management did nothing about it, I would surely be incredibly unhappy about it.

        3. pancakes*

          It isn’t unexpected that people who seriously misbehave at work will be fired for it, though!

  29. Observer*

    OP, as Allison said, it was not your place to step in between these workers. If you knew them better and thy knew you, then MAYBE – it really depends on the specifics.

    Also, being purely factual is the perfect way to handle something like this – it’s not “tattling” or “snitching.” It is being a witness. What I don’t understand is why you put the word in quotes.

    Also, while I get the impulse to editorialize, it was a mistake. For one thing, once you go from factual to advocate, it lends some legitimacy to the idea that you might have some responsibility for any negative outcome. That’s silly – you are not responsible if there is a negative outcome for either of them here, but by inserting yourself by providing your opinion it looks like you think that you are.

    For another, your attempts to downplay might actually backfire – someone listening might figure that you are trying SO hard to defend these guys that you are not telling the whole story. Not what you are aiming for.

    Lastly, you actually do not know if what you said is true. This is an issue in any case, but especially in this situation where you have not been there long, so you don’t really know the players. So stick to the stuff that you DO know – you know what you saw – and leave the rest.

    1. Doodle*

      “Editorializing” is wrong in this case only if the “editorial “ isn’t true. If these guys had in fact never behaved like this that the OP saw, then that’s not an editorial, it’s factual and while the OP did not have to say it, there’s nothing wrong at all with having said so. OP’s motive may have been to soften, but if it’s factual that does not matter.
      Think of the opposite case. Suppose OP disliked these guys. Even if she gave testimony in hopes that they got fired, if she reported the facts, it doesn’t matter what her motive was, as long as she was telling the truth

      1. Observer*

        I’m not worried about the motive, but if the people she is talking to think that she is biased, they may treat her testimony differently.

        Some of what the OP said can be factual – eg “This is the first time either one has behaved this way in my hearing” is a factual statement. “I think they were just under stress” speaks to the OP’s feelings not objective facts about people’s behavior. That’s the kind of thing I was referring to.

  30. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    You’re doing the best thing by being neutral and giving your unbiased observation. You are not to blame if someone blows a gasket and gets themselves fired. You have to remove yourself from the equation. They goofed. They must face the consequences!

    You’re in the unlucky spot to witness bad behavior. They’re not victims. They’re both aggressors.

  31. Detective Right-All-The-Time*

    As someone who occasionally has to take part in conducting these sorts of investigations, “dispassionately stating the facts” is honestly the best possible way to handle this, and it might be why you kept being called on – because HR/Management could trust that you would be straightforward and not twist things to suit whatever narrative you wanted them to see.

  32. Free Meerkats*

    I look at this the same way I look at jury duty; in case you ever need a jury in the future, you need to be willing to serve on one now. If you ever need HR to properly investigate anything that involves you in the future, you need to tell the truth now (as you did.)

    To do otherwise means you are freeloading on the system.

  33. Hallowflame*

    OP, I have been exactly where you are, and I can relate to how you’re feeling.
    At my last job, I worked in a shared office with “Amy” and “Kate”. Amy was consulting with Boss on a particular task at her desk and looking for guidance from Boss on what do. Kate overheard the conversation and attempted to hijack the conversation, shifting the topic to some higher-level issues that, while related, had no bearing on the question at hand. This was a pattern for Kate, and Amy was often the victim. In this instance, Amy tried to steer the conversation back to her question, Kate talked over her, Amy talked over Kate, Kate ignored her and continued to push her own agenda with Boss, and Amy finally lost her cool and shouted at Kate. All while Boss just stood there and watched. And I was sitting at my desk five feet away, hearing every word and wishing desperately I was somewhere else.
    I was called into a conference room by HR a couple of hours later and asked to describe what had happened, and that’s what I did. Kate behaved rudely toward Amy as part of a pattern, and Amy allowed herself to be provoked in spectacular fashion. And Boss completely failed to take control of the situation before it got completely out of hand (I was very careful to phrase my observations on Boss much more delicately).
    All of this is to say, you have handled yourself appropriately, and any consequences that befall your coworkers are their responsibilities.

      1. Hallowflame*

        Amy was given some kind of reprimand, but nothing else beyond documenting was done, as far as I know.

  34. Indie*

    OP, I’m wondering if those past workplaces passed on some toxic messages about secrecy and distrust, because the word ‘tattle tale’ genuinely shocked me. Like there was a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality where you couldn’t trust them with basic honesty and facts. An abuse of power differential where you felt like kids.

    Hopefully, in this workplace you are just adults getting to the bottom of something. It is not possible for a bystander to be a ‘contributing factor’ to a firing. The employee decides how to behave, the employer decides whether the behaviour is accepable. An accurate report of the behaviour simply removes errors and poor assumptions (like it being violent when it wasn’t). It still might not be ok behaviour by your employers standards but thats their call to make.

    1. OP*

      Uh, yes. Those past workplaces were extremely dysfunctional in a multitude of ways. To a certain extent every company suffers from these things. Even the best places I’ve worked have had some crappy people who like to stir up drama or who hold weird personal grudges or accuse people of installing cameras in the hallway (yep, that was a fun one). But yes, multiple places I’ve worked I’ve had situations where we felt we had to protect each other from certain aspects of management in some weird way, so this could very much be a holdover from that. And just being new and not knowing exactly what the culture was like yet made me nervous and wondering if I was handling things right. Especially since twice I’ve been involved in these things people ended up getting fired, I wondered if perhaps I was being unfair by only presenting the facts and not giving any sort of information about context or things as a whole. I would hate to be judged on one bad thing I had done, and so I wondered if by only reporting exactly what I saw in this narrow scope, it was maybe unfair to my coworkers.

      But ultimately the advice Alison gave and the commenters here have made me feel like I handled it correctly. It’s a good thing that management here does not consider this type of behavior acceptable and that they take it seriously enough to want to make sure they get to the bottom of this type of incident. While it is uncomfortable, it’s a process that needs to take place to keep a positive and functional working atmosphere, and I do appreciate that.

      1. Indie*

        Hugs to you! That all sounds very stressful and like you had natural reactions to untrustworthy bosses.

  35. Four lights*

    You did the right thing. If a coworker tries to ask you about it or get on your case you could say something like, “HR asked me what happened because I was there. If you want to know why Frank/Joe was/wasn’t fired you’ll have to ask them. I’m not in charge of that.”

  36. DeepThoughts*

    My advice: There might not be many folks that know about the exchange if neither party is fired. If a party is fired, then there will be speculation and the rumor mill will go into turbo blast, turn on the after burners drive and you may be asked about the firing. You may wish to direct the person to HR. If an employee questions you about the exchange between the two parties knowing that you were present/in the area and may have overheard, you may wish to say I don’t really remember the details and then change the subject. If they press you, you may wish to say I really don’t remember and then say you were in and out of meetings (or whatever) that day and you wish you could be of more help. Just shut it down. You did nothing wrong. I am sorry that you are dealing with this. They will likely move on to someone else who was there and would be so happy to tell them all the juicy…..

  37. Lynne879*

    OP, if you’re coworkers get fired it’s because of THEIR behavior, not because of you. Your former coworkers got fired because bad actions have consequences, and in their cases, they got fired. If your current coworkers didn’t want to get in trouble with their bosses, they shouldn’t have yelled at each other like children.

  38. Tangerina Warbleworth*

    An important thing to keep in mind: they’re not necessarily asking certain questions because they suspect a “yes” answer and just need you to confirm. They might well have a standard playbook of questions developed by HR and/or the company attorney, just to cover all of the cases. In other words, if they ask “do you feel unsafe?” and you say “no”, they record that answer and work with it as is. Having been through a few investigations and seen others, from my perspective it’s just information-gathering, not collecting evidence in order to fire. They can only make a determination on what to do after they get all of the info.

    1. Bagpuss*

      People don’t always volunteer information, especially if they are under stress. Asking questions like that may well be standard because they don’t want to overlook a potential issue .

      It may also be in the case because the people involved in the altercation said (in effect) “yes, we raised our voices but it wasn’t aggressive” , and they are trying to judge if that’s accurate or not.

    2. Wintermute*

      You hit the nail on the head. HR can be in REAL, legal trouble if they’re found turning a blind eye to actions that create a legally-significant hostile workplace. One CYA measure is to *always ask* those questions, every investigation, every situation. By doing so you prove that you are not sweeping anything under the rug or willfully ignoring anything. If an employee ever does file suit claiming a hostile workplace you have years of investigation records to go to and submit as evidence that you’ve asked 50 different employees, you always ask, and they all said ‘no’.

  39. RG*

    Completely off-topic, but when Joe asked Frank “Are you high right now?” I kinda wanted Frank to respond “Do you ever get nervous?”

  40. Beth*

    OP, it sounds like you were surprised that they asked about things like bullying behavior, whether comments were made about age and appearance, whether you felt unsafe, etc. I actually think these are good questions for them to be asking in any investigation like this! Even if they fully expect the answer to be no, it’s just good sense to confirm that instead of just assuming someone would mention it if it happened.

    It might even help take some pressure off the employee(s) being investigated. If everyone who witnessed the incident actively agrees that this was a one-off thing that’s very unlike them, that’s a totally different situation to manage than if this is a repeat behavior for them.

  41. EvilQueenRegina*

    As someone who is currently a witness into an allegation of bullying at work, I can say that if anyone does get fired it won’t be on you. Chances are others who were present will also be asked about it, so whatever decision is made in the end will be based on all statements. At this stage they’re just trying to ascertain exactly what happened.

    When I gave my evidence in this case (Manager Umbridge trying to ask Coworker Minerva to do this one particular piece of work, Minerva feeling she hadn’t got the time with the hours she is contracted for and Umbridge trying to bully her into it, but there is a lot more to it) it was made clear to me that lots of people were being asked, nothing would be specifically attributed to me. I just gave the facts and examples of this type of behaviour from Umbridge. The honest answer is that in this particular situation I do believe there is validity to the complaint about her and in the time that I have been supervised by another team, things have improved. If the outcome is that she is removed from being our manager, it’s because of the way she manages, not because of anything I said. Truth is that might be the best outcome.

    If one of those guys is asked to leave, it’ll be based on what everyone said, and really it was down to them for having that fight in the first place. If you haven’t been there that long there could be any number of things in their history that you don’t know about that might be taken into account.

  42. Doodle*

    You are likely not the only witness. At a minimum they’re also interviewing the person who intervened.

  43. LadyCop*

    I’ll never understand why people feel this way. Just like Alison said, you aren’t getting them fired -they- are getting themselves fired. And frankly, even though this situation sounds pretty mild…imagine it was something bigger, and you were on the receiving end of bullying or harassment etc. You sure as hell would want someone who saw it happening to back you up and say something!

  44. Scott M*

    This is sooo weird! Does this happen a lot? I’ve been in a professional position for 30 years and have never, not once, been in the middle of such drama. Am I just lucky?

  45. The Rafters*

    Having been through couple HR investigations and one much larger investigation (as a witness!) over the last 20+ years, I can say: if HR is involved, this is not the first rodeo for these 2 clowns. HR would likely not get involved in a “nerd fight” that included only raised voices and some name-calling or talk of being high if that was the case. I think you did fine. If either one or both of these guys are fired as a result, it was not because of your truthful statements. It was a result of their continuing behavior. As far as coworkers questioning you about what you might have said, I managed to keep it very non-committal. Then again, the only ones who ever asked me were the guilty parties.

  46. Amethystmoon*

    Regarding blood donations, I have occasional tried to donate at work and got turned down to having low iron. So there are definitely medical reasons to not being able to donate blood.

  47. rudster*

    Another reason to give for not donating – having lived in Europe and/or the UK for a specified time during the mad cow disease scare. Both criteria apply to me, so I am unable to donate in the US. I wonder where the Europeans get their blood then… I guess the the authorities there figure if the risk of the recipient is already the same as that of the donor anyway, then there’s no harm, and otherwise there’d be no blood at all.

  48. stitchinthyme*

    Coming in a bit late (catching up after a trip), but…this reminds me of the time my boss was investigated for sexual harassment by HR. They asked me if he’d ever said or done anything inappropriate to me, and I (truthfully) replied that he hadn’t. I did wonder at the time whether I should mention that a coworker had told me that this boss had a habit of looking down her shirt. In the end, I didn’t say anything because it was hearsay, and because they talked to her as well and it would be better if she was the one to tell them. I didn’t like this boss and I thought he was kind of a slimeball, but as I had nothing concrete to base that opinion on, and he’d never said or done anything offensive to me personally, I didn’t say anything. I have no idea how the investigation ended up, although our group did get a new boss shortly after that.

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