update: I have to train an aggressive man when I have a trauma history

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

There will be more posts than usual this week, so keep checking back throughout the day.

Remember the letter-writer who had to train an aggressive man when she had a trauma history? Here’s the update.

I booked a meeting with my manager to go through the training plan and as part of this discussion I brought up the mouse-throwing incident so we could make a plan to manage similar behavior if it came up in training. I basically said if anyone (not just Derek) acts with hostility or aggression in training, I would ask them to leave and if they wouldn’t, then I would. I wanted assurance from my manager I would have his full support if this happened, which he gave me. Thankfully I didn’t end up asking anyone to leave but it gave me confidence knowing I could take action if I need to.

If this isn’t too long, here are some other things I did to manage the situation:
– I wrote out what I would say if asking someone to leave and practiced saying it.
– I asked my manager (a department director) to ask the other directors to remind their team they need to engage in training and any hostility would not be tolerated. This instruction had more impact coming from their chain of command rather than our team.
– At the beginning of each training session, as part of housekeeping, I reminded everyone that we would be respectful towards each other in training. This was helpful as it called out possible bad behavior without singling anyone out.

Training was offsite and over multiple days with different teams. Generally my manager wouldn’t be at the offsite location all day but I did end up asking him to work from the training location on the day Derek was there. I really struggled with this, I didn’t want to undermine myself or make my manager feel I couldn’t handle the training but ultimately I think it was the right decision. My manager didn’t actively participate in training but worked quietly in the background with the rest of the project team. Derek is exclusively hostile to women or those below him in the hierarchy, so I do think having my manager visibly there made him rein in his behavior.

In training, Derek was clearly frustrated but he didn’t do anything inappropriate. He did ask a lot of sly, challenging, critical questions trying to pick holes in the system but that was easy for me to manage since I know the system inside and out and always had a good answer. After training, someone in the office heard him talk about how he tried to give me a hard time. Which is gross but also made me laugh since nothing he said was actually hard for me to answer!

Since we launched, he semi-frequently sends emails just toeing the line of unprofessionalism, complaining about the system, usually cc’ing in as many managers as possible. Unfortunately for him, his issues are either user error or a deliberate choice made by higher-ups that he doesn’t understand or agree with so he mostly ends up looking stupid when I (very professionally with a minimal amount of glee) explain that his problem is not actually a problem. He also didn’t log into the system until three weeks after we launched which is wild because the only way he can do his job is by using the system so I have no idea what he was doing in that time.

He is currently very polite to me in person but continues to be awful to others in the office. Most recently he had a go at a younger woman in an admin role, and another staff member had to step in and tell him to back off. I didn’t see this happen and I find it very frustrating when those who see it don’t escalate it or formally report it to HR. Everything I’ve witnessed was pre-training so I feel like it’s too old or not bad enough on its own for me to report. I’m keeping an eye out now and will report it if anything comes up.

As an aside, after training I received many glowing emails about how informative and well run it was. I’ve also been complimented several times on how I can answer any questions thrown at me! I’m so proud of the system I helped build and the work I’ve done to launch and embed it. I really do love my job.

I didn’t end up talking about my history because you were right when you said this behavior wasn’t okay regardless of that. After my email to you and my initial panic wore off, I was really pleased to find that once I’d calmed down I was able to handle it very well. I put together a plan and acted assertively to make sure it was followed. And I was fine!

{ 71 comments… read them below }

    1. ariel*

      Yes! OP, you did a great job anticipating, planning for, and executing in a challenging setting and dealing with an ongoingly problematic person. I can only imagine how good it feels to know that the next time this comes up, you’ll be able to handle it and ask for help. I’m so glad you sought your manager’s support and physical presence – sometimes Dereks require that, as you point out!

      1. Kelly*

        Last time I went to HR at a large hospital with a harassment complaint I got transferred to another location and the perpetrators told who reported them. I imagine many of these women are terrified of retribution.

      2. Chickadee*

        If everyone has a problem with him and nothing has been done, that may be part of the problem.

        During a particularly nasty internship, I had to contend with a Derek (monthly angry meltdowns) and a supervisor with a long history of sexual harassment and sleeping with interns. One of the main reasons I never reported them to HR is that *everyone already knew* and not only did nothing to stop them or protect the interns, they joked about it and expressed sympathy for the second guy.

        While I doubt LW’s workplace is as toxic as that internship, I do see parallels: management knows Derek threw a mouse at someone and hasn’t fired him. Documenting things for HR is the right move, but I don’t blame staff for feeling powerless.

      3. Web of Pies*

        The Derek in our office gets constantly reported, but management loves him so the blame always gets shifted to the victim for not ‘handling him’ correctly. It is outrageous.

        Please keep reporting Derek though! The pressure needs to stay on, even if only to let the victims know this is not OK, even if your management’s actions are conveying that it is. Back them up.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          I wonder how much they’ll love him when this becomes a tangible and immediate legal liability. Because the potential is there.

    1. Pastor Petty Labelle*

      Agreed. Everyone knows about the behavior but just deals with it in the moment then goes on. His manager needs to say, no more or else you are gone.

      What WAS he doing for 3 weeks and no one noticed?

      1. Sienna*

        I worked for a large corporation where one of the critical departments was a boys club. Their area of focus was part of a general industry which in itself was a boys club. Very traditional setup, very few women (less than 5 among approx 30 people), and they even had a different chain of command to separate them from reporting to the female CEO. Some of these people were nice, others are Dereks. In any workplace the good and the ugly often comes from the top leadership. In this case, it came from the board. I think that answers your question.

      2. Web of Pies*

        Ours constantly love-bombs the CEO, so even though he’s middling at best in terms of job performance, the CEO thinks he’s amazing and critical to keep, and brushes the many reports of harassment under the rug.

    2. MonteCristo*

      I truly don’t understand why workplaces tolerate people like this. Sometimes we call it missing stair, but there is always one (or more) people who everyone knows is a major problem, but nothing is done. It one of the many reasons I ended up taking myself out of the workforce.

  1. Dasein9 (he/him)*

    Oh, good for you!

    If you’re not already doing this, you might want to keep a journal of all these incidents that just “toe the line.” Establishing a pattern may be just what’s needed to get Derek away from your workplace. I use my personal email for this; the date stamps help me remember everything.

    1. Sparkles McFadden*

      I second this and suggest adding notes on who else was present at the time of the incident. While most people won’t go to HR if they witness something like Derek screaming at someone (as many people are wary of HR – and some for good reason), they will often respond to an HR inquiry honestly.

  2. Ms. Afleet Alex*

    You may be a better person than I am, but I am going to admit that I am delighted that you not only did such a great job BUT that you also managed to drive Derek absolutely nuts for the entirety of the training and beyond because everything he does to try to ‘get to you’ fails. Frustrating the Dereks of this world brings me joy. Great job, OP!

    1. JSPA*

      Thanks (but no actual thanks) to Derek for highlighting the LW’s complete control and fluency, by being such a jagoff.

  3. LCH*

    “very professionally with a minimal amount of glee”

    i mean, i hope there is some secret glee. he sounds like a horrible jerk. i hope your workplace loses him soon.

      1. Lydia*

        That’s when you are typing out the email with the most professional tone, hit send, and then smile to yourself and say out loud, “hehehe.” It feels really good, actually! :D

    1. Festively Dressed Earl*

      There’s an entire secret glee club covertly singing praises whenever Derek grabs some more rope to hang himself with.

  4. TeapotNinja*

    I think Derek should be shown a new job as a men’s restroom attendant, preferably a good distance from women’s restrooms. That way he wouldn’t be forced to deal with women, ever.

    1. Portia*

      He also bullies anyone he perceives to be below him, so he’d have to do his attendant job all by himself. That might work out for everyone! (Assuming Derek is capable of being civil with the public.)

  5. Myrin*

    Oh OP, you sound like you managed this whole situation in an absolutely excellent manner! I have to say I especially like the steps you took in preparation and described here because honestly, these just sound like good rules for trainings even without the added challenge of an aggressive participant. Really well done!

    1. MissMeghan*

      Agreed! I’m so happy for you OP that you were able to shine in your duties and that Derek’s awful behavior didn’t overshadow a significant work achievement for you.

  6. Festively Dressed Earl*

    Is there such a thing as weaponized competence? If so, OP, you mastered it! Glad to hear this turned out for you.

  7. That's Not How You Spell That*

    Thanks for the update. Setting boundaries and having a boss back you up with them is a win. Also, you practicing what you would say is great. Hoping your workplace starts holding Derek more accountable for his ickiness/rudeness to women and those below him.

  8. SeluciaMD*

    OP, this is the best kind of update! Kudos to you for handling everything with such aplomb, grace and professionalism, and letting Derek hoist himself with his own petard of awfulness.

  9. Blueberry Coffee*

    So proud of you, LW! I hope if I’m ever in a similar situation that I’ll handle it as well as you did.

  10. Observer*

    OP, it sounds like you handled things really, really well. And given what an absolute jerk this guy is, asking your manager to be around when you knew that you had to deal with Derek was a very good way to handle things. It’s smart, not a sign of weakness, to know when to call on someone’s authority, just it’s smart to go to the doctor when you have symptoms that need to be treated.

    But this?

    Derek is exclusively hostile to women or those below him in the hierarchy
    Most recently he had a go at a younger woman in an admin role, and another staff member had to step in and tell him to back off

    He also didn’t log into the system until three weeks after we launched which is wild because the only way he can do his job is by using the system

    How does this guy still have a job? Don’t assume that no one escalated or reported this. Because HR must be aware of some of this. And you did, presumably, mention to your chain of command the whole mouse throwing incident, which means that management *is* on notice. And his manager must know that he wasn’t doing his job either.

    Everything I’ve witnessed was pre-training so I feel like it’s too old or not bad enough on its own for me to report. I’m keeping an eye out now and will report it if anything comes up.

    I think that you could report all of this anyway. Even if HR really could not do anything about it, it’s indicative of a pattern that should make it clear to them that they really need to act with urgency. But if you’re not up for it, document everything you’ve seen, everything you’ve heard from reliable witnesses (including who you heard it from) and submit that information along with a report when something you see (even if the misbehavior was not directed at you) that you feel can be reported.

    This guy is a menace, not just to you but to your company. The fact that management / HR has apparently not seen fit to deal with this is a real problem.

    1. Sara without an H*

      My question is: where is Derek’s manager in all this? Because that manager isn’t doing their job.

      1. Artemesia*

        I would consider sitting down with his manager with the frame of ‘I don’t know if you are aware of this pattern’ and share the blow up at the admin, the failure to log in for three weeks etc. ‘You might want to be extra alert to this sort of behavior.’ Obviously doing this is a judgment call but men like this who are allowed to continue brushing up against the line are just waiting till they get a misogynist manager and can release the krakken again.

        1. RVA Cat*

          The line needs to be an electric fence so the Dereks of the world can get zapped “marking their territory” on it.

  11. ChemistryChick*

    Great job, OP! So glad this worked out for you.

    I am incredibly disappointed and annoyed that Derek continues to remain employed, though. He needs to be gone ages ago and it’s sad that his behavior continues to be allowed.

  12. Lola*

    Lol – me having to go back to the original letter to figure out the mouse-throwing incident involved a computer, not an animal.

    Congrats, LW. And yes, Derek should’ve been fired awhile ago.

  13. SJ*

    Amazing job OP!!!! You handled this with such aplomb. Well done and thank you for sharing the update so we can all learn by example.

  14. Honey Badger just don't care*

    OP – it is NOT too old of an incident to report to HR. Derek is still displaying the very same disturbing behavior as he showed to you with the mouse throwing incident which was only a few months ago. You can (and should) report it to HR and let them know that you have heard of several incidents of similar nature going on. HR may or may not investigate at this time but they will have the documentation started if he does it again to you or in your presence.

    1. Mo*

      There really needs to be a way of reporting things so that they go on the record contemporaneously, but aren’t necessarily acted on unless further reports come in. Or that they remain anonymous until there are X complaints.

      LW – this is also a sign that your company has a disfunctional HR department. People should feel safe reporting this behavior and knowing it will be dealt with.

    2. Jules the First*

      Please do report this to HR! I had a situation where I reported something to HR via an off the record conversation where I explained that I could handle Sven if this was a one-off behaviour, but that if it turned out it wasn’t a one-off, I would be happy to be the cover story for a formal investigation if his other victims were uncomfortable being the face of it. HR very quietly thanked me for my openness and Sven was terminated a matter of weeks later.

      1. Sally Rhubarb*

        May Derek always get stuck behind driving a bus when he’s trying to get home and really has to pee

      2. GreyjoyGardens*

        May Derek step in pet barf after he stubs his toe.

        May Derek bark his shin on furniture after stubbing his toe and stepping in pet barf.

        1. AnonORama*

          May Derek step on a lego, a plug, and cat barf, and develop a permanent case of itchy boils on his bum.

          1. Hot Flash Gordon*

            May Derek get a paper cut every day of his life.

            May Derek get an eyelash all the way underneath his eyelid.

            May all of Derek’s shorts continually ride up his butt and drag his pant cuffs through dirty, oily puddles.

  15. Not today satan!*

    Wow, you did an amazing job handling this. Your list of steps you took is something I’ll save for myself in case I need it at some point. It’s insane that this guy is still employed there.

  16. Anontoday*

    You’re amazing OP, I agreed with commenters in the original post who said you’d have been well within your rights to refuse to train Derek. The fact that you did shows real strength and smart planning in advance. Clearly his continued behavior shows he’s still an ass. I’m glad there weren’t any incidents and I hope you buy yourself a cupcake or something bc you didn’t have to do that for him and you got praised for how well you did!!

  17. 2 Cents*

    Bravo, OP! And Derek sucks, regardless of a person’s background (I’m not discounting your experience.) I would’ve felt similarly about having him in a session. I like how you wrote out possible ways you’d reply if pressed and how you thought through the best ways to tackle everyone’s frustrations, as his negativity could’ve encouraged others.

  18. GreyjoyGardens*

    OP, you did a super job with this! You win the Scout “Be Prepared” award, and your preparation and painstaking care paid off. I feel confident in saying we’re all very proud of you – and you are an example to follow for others in that kind of difficult spot.

    Now the question is, how does Derek still have his job?! Maybe he’s on a PIP that only his managers know about, but he sounds like he’s a lot more trouble than he’s worth. Your management might want to watch out that Derek’s behavior does not drive away other, better employees and give your department (or company) a bad reputation as being toxic.

    It’s possible he has irreplaceable skills, or it’s some kind of nepotism situation with a higher-up. But unless he has some *really* niche, hard to come by skills, I don’t see the payoff for retaining Derek when he could poison the atmosphere of the whole team.

    1. Observer*

      It’s possible he has irreplaceable skills,

      Highly unlikely, based on the OP’s description of the person and events. And even if he really did have unique skills, they still need to replace him. Like if he were walking into work a every couple of weeks proceeding to smash up the most delicate, expensive, and hard to replace equipment in the place.

      or it’s some kind of nepotism situation with a higher-up.

      That’s far more likely. Either that, someone has themselves convinced that he will ~~gasp~~~ SUE them and cause endless problems (which really is silly catastrophising, to be clear), or he knows where the bodies are buried, so to speak.

      1. GreyjoyGardens*

        I agree it’s more likely to be some kind of nepotism situation, or even just sheer laziness on the part of the higher-ups. (Unless Derek is on a confidential PIP.)

        Agreed that in the real world no one is irreplaceable, but sometimes organizations really don’t want to replace someone if it’s going to be haaaard (because Problem Employee has a niche skill) or expensive (because Problem Employee is a bargain – ever wonder why he is that much of a bargain…?). Cheap, good, respectful – pick two.

        There is also a mentality at companies that admin staff is a dime a dozen, so if the admin quits because of Daryl, well, she can be replaced. Which isn’t true, or at least when it comes to good and skilled people.

        All in all, I hope Daryl is history next year.

        1. GreyjoyGardens*

          Derek. Too many letters with a “Dar-“ pseudonym lately. Where is Larry when you need him?

  19. rollyex*

    ” I find it very frustrating when those who see it don’t escalate it or formally report it to HR.”

    This annoys me a lot.

    Also, when i think of this guy the word “stoopid” pops into my mind.

  20. edda ed*

    I didn’t remember the original letter, so I didn’t know there was a sexism component until I read through the update, but good gravy, Derek is a poison unto the workplace. It must be invigorating for LW to reply-all to all the managers Derek CC’s.

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