transcript of “The Angry Coworker” (Ask a Manager podcast episode 13) This is a transcription of the Ask a Manager podcast episode “The Angry Coworker.” Alison: Our guest this week has a coworker whose behavior is really disruptive and unsettling too. She’s already talked to her manager and HR about it, but the problem is continuing and she’s wondering where to go from here. This can be a tough situation when you’ve already brought something to the attention of people above you, but you’re not seeing the changes that you hoped you would. So let’s get into the letter and figure it out. Hi and welcome to the show. Guest: Hi, thanks for having me. Alison: Why don’t you start by reading the letter that you sent to me and then we’ll talk about it. Guest: All right. I work in a professional environment in which we all have our own offices. We recently moved office building and now I have a coworker, Chris, who sits in the office across the hallway. Most of our offices are staggered but in this instance I can see into his office. All other offices have doors. Chris is extremely disruptive. He frequently yells obscenities about work to himself, pounds on his desk, and paces around his office. I wrote down some of these conversations with himself and initially spoke with my supervisor. She reported that she had also witnessed Chris talking to himself in the hallway. My supervisor discussed my concerns with HR. The individual and the HR department requested that I monitor these conversations and alert them when they were occurring, so they could “catch them in the act.” Unfortunately, these were generally short outbursts and by the time this person had reached his office – and this is through two locked doors and down a hallway – he was generally done with his outburst. They were able to observe him once and then reported to me that they spoke to him about his behavior. Since that point, the volume has decreased, but his behavior continues. He now “whisper-yells” and attempts to hide behind his door and computer while engaging in this behavior, but still gesticulates wildly and hits his desk. I can see and hear him every day. He seemed very angry. He occasionally closes his door, but I can hear him through the door. I have told my supervisor and HR his behaviors have continued, but I don’t believe that this is concerning to HR as no one else is close enough to witness his behaviors unless they see or hear him in the hallway. Chris seems to be aware that his behavior is problematic, as he tries to hide when caught engaging in this behavior. What should I do next? I can’t concentrate and this behavior is creating a hostile environment. My only options are to keep my door closed all day, which cuts me off from my team. My team has joked that we need to be nice to Chris so that when he comes in with a weapon we’ll be spared. This seems like a horrible thing to joke about as workplace violence is a very real problem. I’m at my wits’ end. Alison: Wow. This has to be really unsettling, I’m guessing. Guest: Very. Alison: I mean at a minimum, it’s really unpleasant to be around someone who is spewing anger into your environment like that – you’re trying to work and there are these bursts of anger and negativity right near you, and that’s going to throw anyone off their game. But on top of that, are you feeling potentially unsafe as well? Guest: I would hope that he wouldn’t do anything, but he seemed fairly unpredictable and so I can’t be sure. It’s also concerning that somebody’s come to him and talked to him about his behavior and yet he can’t seem to control it. Alison: Yeah, that’s really unsettling. There’s an amazing book called The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker who is a security specialist, and he writes about how people often talk themselves into ignoring their instincts about danger because we’re socialized to not make a scene or to try to accommodate people, especially women. And he talks about how sometimes overriding those instincts gets people into really dangerous situations and how listening to your instincts can keep you safe. Anyway, he mentions at one point in something he’s written that in a lot of cases of actual workplace violence employees had made jokes earlier, like “Bob is going to come in with a weapon someday.” Because people pick up on someone being abnormally angry and volatile and they’re too uncomfortable to come out and say, ” I feel unsafe and we need to do something about this.” And so it comes out as jokes. I want to be really clear – I’m not saying that that is what is going on with your coworker. Odds are that it’s not. But there is a reason that people make jokes like that and it’s because they’re picking up on behavior that isn’t okay. And I’ll also say: the talking to himself in the hallway when you combine it with the rest of this has me really on edge. And combined especially with the fact that he knows now that he supposed to stop, but is still pretty out of control. The totality of that picture is pretty alarming – like you might be dealing with someone who isn’t stable. Is that your sense as well? Or am I getting the wrong idea? Guest: Oh, absolutely. Without giving too much into my background, I would definitely agree that he seems unstable and when I’ve talked to my supervisor about it, she also agrees. It’s especially concerning noting that I’ve reported this to HR and with the increasing concerns about workplace violence, if there would be some sort of report that indicated that I had made a statement of concern to HR and they hadn’t done anything about it, they could be in some serious trouble. Alison: Yeah. When you talked to them, did you get the sense that they took it seriously at first and then they thought it was handled, or were they just kind of casual about it? Guest: It seemed like they took me seriously at first with asking me to check in, and then it felt very scripted from that point forward – in the sense of, I would get an email, “Oh, how is your neighbor doing?” And it seemed as if, if you got two checkboxes in, “Well, his behavior has not gotten any worse, then okay, I’ve checked this box, I followed up with this person,” and then it seemed to drop off. And my supervisor still seems concerned. HR didn’t seem as concerned as I would hope they would be. Alison: And when you told them that it had continued, how did they respond to that? Guest: They basically told me to keep them in the loop of when he was engaging in that type of behavior. Alison: And so you’ve been keeping them in the loop and you’re just not really getting any action and response? Guest: To some point. Admittedly I would say that I have given up a little because I’ve said, “Oh, Chris talked to himself again all day today,” and they’d go, “Oh, okay.” And there’s only so many times that I felt like I would say that and then I just kind of gave up. Alison: How’s your HR generally? Do you have a sense of whether they’re generally pretty good or are they kind of crappy? Guest: We are split. We have several locations across the country and my office is one of the smallest, so we only have one individual who’s in our office full-time. So that’s really the only person that I end up interacting with – the rest of our HR staff is in another location. Alison: At this point I think you do need to go back and have a serious conversation again and stress that it is still a problem. It might be because you’ve dropped off with your reporting – and I totally understand why you have – it might be that that’s allowed them to think, “Oh, this isn’t really a big deal.” And it might be too, that if the latest reports they had from you were about the talking to himself, they might be brushing it off as, “Oh, that’s an annoying idiosyncrasy.” That part of it isn’t necessarily as alarming as the outbursts of anger. It is when you combine it with the outbursts of anger. But if they’re just focused on that part, maybe that’s allowing them to minimize it. So, I think go back and talk to that person. And I think you want to use words that really highlight the severity. Say something like, “It’s still happening. I get the sense that he tries to hide it when he realizes someone is seeing it, but he’s yelling and he’s hitting his desk. I can’t concentrate with it going on.” And I think you should say very, very clearly: “I don’t feel safe working next to this. I think it’s potentially a safety issue that we need to take seriously.” And you could even add, “I’ve heard people joking about the prospect of him committing an act of workplace violence and I think those jokes are rooted in real fears about his behavior,” because sometimes people will sit up and take notice if you don’t sugarcoat, if you deliver it very clearly and directly. And if you make it clear that you’re taking it really seriously, and if you put it in terms like safety and fear of violence, it’s going to be a lot harder to blow you off. Would you be comfortable saying something like that? Guest: I would. I’m usually a pretty direct person. I’ve been admittedly, like you mentioned at the beginning, have been perhaps a little reluctant to be too disruptive because there’s nobody else besides me witnessing this on a daily basis, so I get the feeling that it’s because I’m the only person really witnessing it – occasionally somebody comes across them in the hallway or this that and the next, but we’re pretty isolated in our own offices – I’ve gotten the feeling of, “Well, it’s only really been an issue with this person and this person only seems to be making a big deal.” That’s why I think I’ve been quieter about it, but I would agree that I need to be more direct and forceful. Alison: It might help to think of it like: if this were, say, sexual harassment, you might be the only person witnessing that too – because it often doesn’t happen in a big group, it’s often one on one. If you were reporting something like that, they presumably would investigate and act on that without insisting that they had to observe it firsthand, since that’s not always going to be possible. Just for your own sort of reframing it in your head, you might think of it that way. But also if they’re really stuck on that point – if for some reason you really feel like they want to observe it – I have no idea if this is a good idea or not, but I wonder if you could ask about just setting your phone to record in your office the next time he does it. Just from right at your desk so they can hear what you hear. You’d need to check your state laws on recording, and it’s smart to clear something like that with your HR person first too. But if they’re really hung up on hearing it firsthand, maybe that’s a way around that. Guest: That’s a good idea. I actually thought about that but have not been sure about the legality of it. But letting them know ahead of time and receiving permission, then I mean that’s on them. Alison: Check the state law, because it does vary from state to state, but yeah, you could check with HR ahead of time. And if they say “No, we don’t want you to do that,” well now it’s back on them to figure out what they are going to do. You’ve offered a possible solution, they’re rejecting it. But also, I wonder if you should be enlisting your boss more, because presumably your boss knows you and you have credibility with him or her and if they’re taking it seriously, maybe the two of you can kind of team up to really push this and say, “Something needs to be done here.” Guest: Yeah, I actually have an excellent supervisor who’s very much in my court. So that would probably be a good thing to be more insistent with her also. Alison: Yeah, use your manager. It’s it’s always good to have multiple voices in the mix, and if one of them is in management, all the better. I think too, if it’s still not being taken seriously, you can escalate this – you can go over that HR person’s head. I know they’re the only person assigned to your office, but there’s got to be another office with someone who has more authority than they do. And it doesn’t have to be like, “Oh, I’m going to tell on you that you’re not doing your job.” It doesn’t have to be that kind of thing. It can just be, “Hey, I’m really concerned about this and I feel like we haven’t found a good solution to it yet. Can you help?” Guest: Okay. Would you suggest that I include that other HR person when I reach out? Or should I reach out separately and just say, like you said, “This is very concerning and I’m not sure if we’ve come to a correct solution yet.” Alison: For this next contact, I think I would start with just your HR person again and give them the chance to handle it correctly. Lay it all out on the table. Say that you’re really concerned, explain that the yelling and the hitting the desk has continued. Give them a chance to handle it correctly before you go over their head, but if they don’t relatively quickly, you’ve got room in there to pull someone else in. And you could consult with your boss on that too – if there’s internal politics that you’ve got to navigate, your boss is probably going to be a good resource about that. Guest: Okay. Alison: And I would think too about what solutions you want here. I mean obviously we want them to have a serious sit down with this guy about what’s going on. But beyond that, does it feel like an option for you to move to another part of the office or for him to be moved? Guest: I have brought that up. It’s an option for either of us to move. There are several people on my team that I’m located near and all of his team members are located in different places. We have several open offices so it would be very easy for them to move him, which I think would of course solve part of the problem. I’m concerned of course that it doesn’t solve all of the problem – the fact that he seems to be angry, anxious, whatever you would like to call it – but I do think that that’s a viable solution. Alison: Yeah. You’re right that it doesn’t solve the whole problem at all, but if we can solve a piece of it, at least for you, let’s get that done. But yeah, I would keep pushing on the bigger issue too. I want to go back to something that I said earlier when I talked about giving the HR person a chance to handle it correctly before you go over her head. There is a really important caveat there which is: if you feel like anyone in your office is in danger, you do not need to follow the political steps of giving her a chance to handle it on her own first if she’s not doing that. I mean, if this seems like a serious safety situation, don’t worry about going over her head before you might optimally have done so. Guest: Sure. Alison: There’s two other things that I wanted to say as well. One is, sometimes when this kind of thing comes up, people are wondering: do I need to try talking to the person himself directly? I don’t think you’re questioning that, but I do want to say for people listening, I am normally a big proponent of talking to people directly when they’re doing something that is bothering you. I am not recommending it here because this guy scares me. I will say that I think maybe earlier on, maybe it would have been reasonable to talk to him if you wanted to – at an earlier stage, as the very first intervention here – to have tried saying, “Hey, it’s really hard to work when you’re yelling and you’re sounding so angry.” Who knows, some people respond to that. But at this point when he’s already been talked to by HR and he still isn’t stopping, I would not wade into that. I think the potential for blowback to you is too strong, and there’s no reason that you need to risk drawing his anger toward yourself. But I did want to address that because I know often people are like, “Why aren’t you talking to the person himself first?” Guest: Yes, and I’ve had multiple people say, “Well have you asked him to keep quiet?” And again, I’m a pretty direct person. I just don’t feel comfortable after, like you said, after HR have spoken with him to say, “Hey, you’re still bothering me,” because he does seem so unstable. Alison: It’s always nice to talk to people directly when you can. But there are some cases where it doesn’t make sense to do and I think this is probably one of them, or at least it’s certainly a reasonable choice to decide not to. The other thing I wanted to talk about too was how companies should handle this kind of thing – because yours isn’t quite getting it right yet, although hopefully they will. Ideally, they would sit down with this guy and ask him what’s going on, what has him so vocally angry all the time. Maybe there’s something concrete that can be addressed by his manager or by someone else. Not that there’s anything that would make what he’s doing okay. But it’s worth hearing him out and finding out what’s going on. And then from there, the message to him from the employer has to be: “We can’t let you do this. It’s too disruptive to other people, and whether you realize it or not, it’s scaring people.” And then from there they really need to stay on it. It’s not enough to just have the conversation and figure, okay, that’s solved, or to send you these perfunctory-sounding emails checking in. They’ve really got to do enough follow-up to know what’s going on. They should have come back to you and had a real conversation with you – not one that made you feel like they were just checking a box, but a real conversation about what was going on. And they should have talked to others, done their own observations – which it sounds like maybe they’ve tried to do – but then once they heard that it’s still happening, that’s a much more serious conversation with this guy at that point. At that point the conversation has to be, “This is prohibitive. It’s going to jeopardize your ability to continue working here. We don’t want that. What can we do?” And then they’ve got to follow through on it after that, meaning be open to letting him go over this if it keeps up after clear warnings. Because you can’t have someone who is routinely openly angry in your workplace. It’s corrosive and it’s really terrible for the rest of your staff. Who knows, it’s possible that your company will eventually end up handling it that way if you push it a little more, and let’s hope that they do, but that’s where I think they should be coming down on it. Guest: I would definitely agree. I feel like I’ve gotten an email or two emails: “We’ve talked to him, we told him that he needs to be quiet, he needs to keep his behavior to himself.” But it in my mind I’m going, well, why aren’t you referring him to an EAP? He’s clearly very angry. You can’t just tell him to be quiet – although yes, that would solve a lot of my problems, why is he so angry at work? I’ve never seen anybody that angry at their job. It’s a job. Alison: Yeah. It’s troubling. I think the two next action steps are talk to your manager: explain that you’re concerned, it has continued, nothing seems to be being done. Will she or he go and talk to HR with you and sort of lend his or her voice to strengthening yours? And then go have that serious conversation. Guest: Okay, that sounds like an excellent step forward. Alison: Good. Well thank you so much for coming on. This is such a tough situation and I hope this was helpful. Guest: It was. I appreciate it. Alison: Thanks for listening to the Ask a Manager podcast. If you’d like to ask a question on the show, email it to email@example.com. You can get more Ask a Manager at askamanager.org, or in my book Ask a Manager: Clueless Coworkers, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work. The Ask a Manager show is a partnership with How Stuff Works and is produced by Paul Dechant. If you liked what you heard, please take a minute to subscribe, rate, and review the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Play. I’m Alison Green and I’ll be back next week with another one of your questions. Transcript provided by MJ Brodie. You can see past podcast transcripts here.