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Susan M. Heathfield

Deal With Coworker's Harassing Behavior

By November 10, 2011

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Reader Question:

"I'm sorry to write to your email, but I am very desperate for advice. One of my co-workers dictates to me what to do. She's been timing my breaks, counts how many times I've been out to have a cigarette, and I feel like she's setting me up to fail.

"She always has her eyes glued to my computer screen while I'm working on paper work. She is not any more superior than I am when it comes to ranks. She talks bad things about me behind my back and she's condescending. I haven't said anything to my boss only because I think it will back fire on me, but my boss has made me aware that this co-worker's after my hours at work because she works a later shift, and she's also told me that the same woman is trying to complain about me taking breaks all the time.

"Currently, we are on a flex break schedule, but my boss is thinking about throwing all of us on a set schedule only because of what this co-worker has said. I haven't had any input but I can't keep quiet for too much longer. Are my co-worker's actions considered harassment? I've worked with HR before but it's been about 6 months since I've had any contact with them because I quit my job. I want to make sure I'm in "the right" about this. Could you give me any tips if it is..."

My Response:

I'm going to post this on my blog and see what my readers say. Each work situation, such as you describe, is different but you have to be able to talk about it with your boss and Human Resources. You may have a formal complaint process in place in your company, too. But, you would need to tell the coworker to stop; that's the first step. Tell the coworker that if the actions don't stop, you plan to go to HR.

I'm sorry your boss doesn't appear to be all that interested in helping. That is troubling to me. I hope my readers have additional advice for you. In many ways your coworker qualifies as a bully and should be treated that way in your efforts to deal with the situation.

Your assistance with this reader's question is appreciated, as always.

Image © Dieter Spears

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October 21, 2008 at 8:27 am
(1) garry says:

hi there, the reader question about her colleague watch evey move etc, i have dealt with this before and you are correct about confronting the colleague unless there is a fear of safety, it would come under the heading of intimidation and bullying/harrassment, her employer is fully responsible to protect EVERY employee in the workplace, My employee contact myself directly and i raised a grievance with the other person. as a neutral in the case, i heard both sides of the story during and informal chat and we were able to comptomise to suit all parties, i did however make it clear that it wouldnt be tolerated and if the other person thought that they would get the promotion or in this case hours, then the best way forward would be to prove your worth, the best way that i could recommend would be to document dates, times , statements and incidents for a period of 1 month. in the meantime watch our back, it is dog eat dog out there and remember you are innocent in all of this. So – Document everything, get a diary of events, if your strong enough talk to the individual if not go to your boss. he is legally obliged to help you in this matter, if he isnt capable then go above him. hope it helps.

October 21, 2008 at 8:59 am
(2) tonyS says:

2 things need to happen here. 1:) your boss needs to be reprimanded/removed/fired for allowing this situation to occur. He/she is well aware of the facts, but does nothing. 2:) after the boss is removed, the offending employee needs to be reprimanded/removed/fired, and told exactly why this is happening. It may not be “harassment” per se, but it’s certainly a bad work environment that is apparently tolerated (for now) by management.

October 21, 2008 at 9:12 am
(3) Bans says:

These types of employees are too common. They are rarely promoted or praised for this behavior.
Sometimes, a hint to your boss that you are taking this further can kick the lazy manager into conflict resolution tactics but you need to confront the spy with your boss to show a united front if that is possible.
You lead the direction of the discussion. Also, I would keep a journal and document EVERYTHING. Each time you are watched, when you approach your boss for advise, what transpired and what was recommended as the solution.

October 21, 2008 at 9:14 am
(4) Lola says:

I agree with a lot of what the previous person said about bullying behavior. I’ve delt with this many times in my 30 years of work. Definitely defend yourself, but don’t ruin your reputation while you’re doing it b/c these feelings you are having will build up, since you think you may be taking the comments in stride, but the reality is that it’s building up and you’ll either find yourself breaking down or lashing out, or worse, lashing out at the wrong person. Simply be diplomatic, take the high road. Say something like “why does everything I do seem to upset you?” and you’ll see her back-pedal. If she takes that as a confrontation, simply state “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to offend you, but I am simply doing my job and I truly don’t care for confrontations at work” (or something similar, most important, don’t use accusatory language, since that would put the co-worker on the defensive. If she comes around your desk, simply smile and say, “oh hello, can I help you? and if she has nothing intelligent to say, simply excuse yourself and tell her that you’re busy with your projects. This may not make her stop, but at least you’ll feel better that you’re doing better. The issue with set breaks may help you in the long-run, so don’t be offended by that, especially since your boss doesn’t know your side of the story. But, you MUST go to your boss and talk about it, maybe even update your resume if you feel truly hopeless about the situation, However, based upon the boss’ reaction, you may have a decision to make, if the information causes reprocussions, then you probably will do better to move on anyway and take your skills elsewhere. Good luck to you and I hope that with peace of mind you will cut back on the smoking too and you’ll be healthier and happier for it.

October 21, 2008 at 10:15 am
(5) Ginny says:

Another way to handle the situation if you are not comfortable with trying to talk to your boss again, is e-mail, copy to HR and include the previous conversation(s) you have had with your boss regarding this situation, along with dates if possible. You can take the non-accusatory route and request help or counseling to learn to deal with co-workers like this. Good luck to you!

October 21, 2008 at 11:06 am
(6) Melusi Ndaba says:

In response to a question the boss needs to be consulted regarding these incidences, in addition to what has been said on comments, should there be any ignorance then I’m sure that that there is still a superior or the CEO of the company as we cannot say is the management who does not attend to the issue since this is an individual manager. The matter can also be taken to A person senior than the supervisor and the copies will be sent to the employee union and human resources.

October 21, 2008 at 11:27 am
(7) JoJo says:

I’m sorry it upsets you but I also watch my co-workers and it bothers me greatly to see how some people think they have a right to many breaks because they are smokers, so I don’t smoke, I should keep working and these same people have no respect for the time they should be applying to their work day. If the boss doesn’t see it, shame on him, but I am reporting it when the time comes to downsize, smokers should go first.

October 21, 2008 at 12:05 pm
(8) Karen says:

Why must people turn this around to be a smoking issue??? If reasonable breaks are taken then I would request help from my supervisor to resolve this situation. I work at a place where there are several people, non-smokers, that abuse break time. When we have complained we have been told to keep our eyes on ourselves only.

October 21, 2008 at 12:51 pm
(9) Cherry says:

First of all, document everything! Since this has been happening for some time obviously your co-worker is intimidating. The only way to deal with this is head on. Bullies don’t like confrontation. Make eye contact whenever she comes around. Call a meeting with her and your boss and discuss it openly and calmly. Take notes while at the meeting. Don’t get drawn into a petty situation, if your boss knows of the situation and won’t deal with it, let your boss know, in writing, you aren’t going to just take it and will pursue some resolution even if it means going above his/her head. If you are fired for doing that you have a pretty good lawsuit. The labor board and/or Employment Development Dept has free resources.

October 21, 2008 at 1:16 pm
(10) Lola says:

I agree that this is more serious than a “smoking” issue (unless this was exacerbated by the abuse of taking breaks, but that behavior isn’t just from smokers, as we see posted above. People who take advantage of the system need to be reprimanded too no matter who they are). What concerns me is that the Manager has informed you about the competitive stance that this employee has taken against you and as you seems to approve of the behavior. This type of Manager seems to be adding to the already bad situation and I guess that’s why the co-worker feels justified in her actions. There’s nothing worse than a bad Manager who likes to pit people against each-other, refer to the “bad bosses” article, this may help you too. Keep this fact in mind as you deal with this Co-Worker as well as the Manager b/c it seems that there’s unscrupulous behavior on each count. However, as I said before, let the Manager be aware of the situation from your point of view and see if he or she handles this, don’t be afraid to speak up, but do it professionally. If your complaint isn’t taken seriously, take it to the next step, as suggested in other postings (HR, CEO, etc.) if you truly want to fight this in this way, overall, definitely have your complaint documented. If no one seems to care about what’s going on, this simply may not be the right environment for you. Also, if you feel depressed or have trouble coping, I agree to seek personal counseling. No matter what you do, protect your reputation, keep working hard and know that while there may not be a perfect job or work environment, there may be a better place for you.

October 22, 2008 at 10:48 pm
(11) Magdalena says:

Hi! I have a staff who is like that, who has all her time watching over other’s moves, etc. What i did was, i called my other staff and asked her, then i let the other staff come to my office and the three of us would talk before it gets worst. You can also talk straight to person and tell her that you are not comfortable with what she’s doing, if doesn’t listen, go to HR and submit your letter of complaint. Thank you.

October 29, 2008 at 4:41 pm
(12) GilmoreGirls1 says:

I have also worked with a coworker like this and I hated the experience. Every time I think about this person it makes me angry. People like this are frustrating because in a lot of cases, there isn’t a way to stop them unless you go to management and make a complaint. I also think that it is a form of harassment. People who behave like this like to see how far they can push the “target” employee before the person breaks down or finally lashes out and creates a scene. The one I worked with liked to “torment” me. My only objective of going to work was to actually do my assigned work and pick up my paycheck at the end of the week. But in addition to that, I felt like I had to deal with someone who was extremely nosy and overly opinionated. This individual and I got along well at the beginning, but I started to notice her critical attitude and after awhile, I just didn’t feel comfortable around her. I did ended up lashing out at this individual because I felt like there was no escape from her nosiness.

June 30, 2011 at 11:35 pm
(13) merino says:

OMG i totlly have the exact situation happening to me at work but now instead of just one person doing it. the supervisoior has taeken on a pet and now when the supervisoir is not there (THE BULLY)and the Bullys pet takes over. its like a domino effect. i am about ready to crack! but i know thats what there game is to push me out. the alinence gets bigger, with the people who all hang out together. People like this need to get a life and quit messing with everyone elses. These people need to realize there are biuisness to be ran not soap oppra’s to be lived.

September 4, 2010 at 11:31 pm
(14) hrm says:

Firstly, it would be good for us to stop throwing around the “harassment” term. That’s a legal term and I doubt that this would qualify. Is it intimidation and inappropriate, sure. But not harassment. (Sorry, pet peeve)

As for the co-worker… it is really frustrating to people who feel like they work hard to see co-workers taking extra breaks or doing less work (perception) and getting by with it. Even though it’s frustrating, it’s the supervisor/manager’s job to address it. Chances are, if this individual is as caught up with monitoring your behavior as you say, then her work isn’t up to the appropriate level either.

My suggestion is the same as one of the earlier commentors – take the direct approach and tell the co-worker that it feels like she’s monitoring your work and schedule and that you’d appreciate it if she stop. Once this is done, leave it. If it continues, then go to the Manager and/or HR. It would be good to document all of this – emails would be better (to yourself) because they have a date/time stamp, which carries more weight than hand written notes. In the meantime, make sure you’re getting your work done and not taking excessive breaks as he/she claims.

September 7, 2010 at 2:44 pm
(15) Kathy says:

I can relate. We have an employee who makes comments about the comings and goings of every person in the department. Her purpose seems to be to raise other’s suspicions. For example, “She is printing material that doesn’t look like company reports to me”, or “I think she has been gone longer than 1 hr for lunch”, or “She NEVER cares about cleaning up around the coffee pot, I’m the ONLY one who cares”. I’ve learned that this type of behavior is meant to draw attention away from herself by making people look at the supposed transgressions of others. It is impossible to make a case against this type of person. Reporting this situation could make the harassee look like a whiner. It is best to ignore this person and continue to be the best employee you can be.

November 9, 2011 at 1:45 pm
(16) CORY THOMES says:

Hi I have that problem with my ex work place & I decide to quit that job & I tryed to talk to some people about it & it did not help verry much. I am going back to school to learn some things before I get in to the college classes at a college where I live now. I am getting some help with VOC REHAB

November 10, 2011 at 10:33 am
(17) Teri says:

I feel bad for you. I suggest that you make sure you document everything that is said & done. I worked with someone like this. I would hear them on the phone saying well you know T F’ed that up I would go to HR, I had word in HR before taking this job anyway they knew what she was like a BULLY, however I was the one put on probation. She also still has a job I was the one that when cutbacks came that got it. So time your breaks write down everything she says to you CYA. I don’t ever want to see others go through what I did. Now I’m looking for a job

November 26, 2011 at 9:33 pm
(18) Clay says:

These sort of people are control freaks. They love control and use manipulative techniques to gain control. An example of this would be if you were walking over to a paper shredder to shred outdated documents. A control freak would interrupt you in the middle of what you were doing and say “you need to shred those documents”, when you full well knew that you were going to do it and didn’t need to be told to do it.
I have been in this situation. I told the guy to shut-up and that he wasn’t my supervisor. Then I did the same thing to him that he did to me. He didn’t like.
You have to get mean with these sort of people. Niceness doesn’t work. There are all kinds of tricks for being nasty back to someone that is being nasty to you.
Sometimes I think the media and “friendly” community tries to make it sound as if you are supposed to be kind and warm to everyone. This doesn’t work with idiots!!!!! You have to be mean every once in awhile. I have done it and it works.

August 10, 2012 at 5:54 pm
(19) NikkDawg says:

While I understand that people who feel as though they “work hard and get angry at other people abusing the system”… I find it hard to believe that you’re working as hard as you say. If you were working that hard, you wouldn’t have time to make these types of comments on a blog WHEN YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE WORKING. Second, if you’re working THAT HARD, WHY do you have so much time to notice what your co-workers are doing? I’m just saying.

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