If you haven’t worked with someone you would describe as mean or out to get you, count yourself lucky. Most of us have had experience with stressful relationships in the workplace, but it all comes down to looking at just what degree of stress we are talking about. As a workplace coach, I hear plenty about behavior that is dysfunctional at best, and some that truly crosses the line and could be construed as bullying or even a hostile work environment.
Depending on ego and personality type, a co-worker might imagine or even act out what they’d like to do to people at work they are mad at or don’t like. From sarcasm, to ill-intended gossip the stress and hurtfulness is abundant. Immature power plays that include setting people up for embarrassment or baiting a co-worker with hateful comments or downright defiance can destroy job satisfaction and morale.
If you are a manager, you are obligated to create a safe workplace. That includes setting boundaries, educating and encouraging cooperative behavior, stressing that courtesy and kindness is expected by and to everyone – not just the customer.
When employees struggle to get along, encourage communication – to talk it out, stay as neutral as you can while coaching each one involved to self-evaluate what they do that contributes to the problem and what they are willing to do differently.
Don’t focus on blame and old history. Focus on what is acceptable and unacceptable. If you are in a service business explain that the same courtesy that is ALWAYS expected to be extended to the customer is expected among the team. Don’t set up situations that cause resentment, confusion and distrust. When the evidence is clear that an employee is bullying, spreading cruel gossip and openly defiant to those they work with – move on it! The employee must be told that the behavior is not acceptable; it must cease, and will be a cause for serious consequences. Document the discussion, follow-up, follow through. When a situation is seriously escalated and then addressed it must be followed up.
Recently, I was coaching a high-level executive assistant who was given added responsibilities. The new tasks included training and supervising the company’s receptionist. This change was prompted by ongoing disappointment with regard to how the receptionist performed.
While the EA was given the new responsibility, the lines of authority were blurred and confusing. Dual reporting was part of the structure, the receptionist would report to her existing manager and to the EA. The EA, who had an entirely different manager, was expected to coach and supervise a highly resistant employee that wasn’t doing her job correctly, actually refusing to do certain tasks expected, misusing time off and deliberately defying certain procedures.
The EA was excited about the challenge but had to do the job with her hands tied behind her back. It was a disaster. The receptionist chose to ignore the coaching and training, and instead worked hard to spread gossip and sabotage the EA. Ultimately, the receptionist lost her job. She wasn’t the only casualty. Others on the team watched and saw how the top of the company set up a good employee to fail.
Probably with the best of intentions, leadership ignored all the warning signs and tolerated all the deviance, flagrant misbehaving and cruelty to go on far too long – “hoping it would just go away”. It will take time for the staff to restore confidence and trust after an event like this.
Here is a first-hand account of the aftermath: “Gossip is dangerous, hurtful and toxic. When you are the target you feel violated, helpless and angry. I think part of the motivation of gossip is to provoke the target to emotional overload. You have to hang tough because forfeiting professional maturity can do serious harm to your reputation. Though I was seriously challenged by my co-worker I wasn’t willing to act out but I came close, lost sleep and was highly stressed. Glad I had an outsider supporting me.”
“Hopefully, I would feel like I could decline if ever asked to supervise someone who would be reporting to two people. Instead of respecting me, my co-worker resented me and saw me as interfering and chose to try to get even with me. The retaliation created an unpleasant circumstance for a lot of people. This is the first time I have ever experienced bullying. In the end, the right thing prevailed but it went on too long. As stressful as this was for me, I learned that I have to keep my side of the street clean. Personal integrity and accountability for my behavior is where I had to keep coming back to. Now, my focus is to restore my job satisfaction and to heal from the side effects that come with working with a co-worker from hell.”