I have learned that several people in my office are extremely concerned about the erratic behavior of a colleague and no one is sure how to handle the situation. This colleague has a unique personality and in the 2-3 years he has been employed everyone has been sensitive to this and generally people do not discuss it; however, on a few occasions we have speculated that he may be on the autism spectrum. This seems important now because we are not sure whether his escalating behavior is benign or if it may be extreme even for him. A couple of months ago, a new person who has a supervisory role over him was hired, and they immediately had poor chemistry. She claims only to interact with him on a business level, disregarding his behavior, and he plainly is disrespectful to her and speaks to her in a condescending tone. On one occasion approximately six weeks ago, she told him he needs to behave in a professional manner and that she wouldn't allow him to speak disrespectfully any longer. He went to his desk and sent her an email telling her to be more professional and respectful and then told a colleague to handle a meeting he was supposed to staff because he was enraged and had to go home. Shortly thereafter he did not go to an annual out of town meeting that all staff are required to attend; the reasons behind this were handled confidentially and staff only have vague rumors as an explanation. Since returning there has been no discussion of it. Upon returning, the supervisor discussed above and another colleague received emailed "reprimands" from this man that told both to behave more professionally and respectfully. The other colleague had not been involved in the personal dispute prior and she has kept her distance from this man since she received the reprimand. (Both women are organizationally senior to the young man who "reprimanded" them.) Prior to the 2016 presidential election, the young man taped photos of one of the presidential candidates and Adolf Hitler to his office window facing out toward employees, which disturbed several people who previously had chosen to ignore his disruptive behavior. Following the election, he replaced the photos with five posters that illustrate the four horsemen of the apocalypse and satan in the center. He has reduced his socialization with staff overall but has escalated his aggression toward the two women discussed above during this period. The vice president in charge of his department evidently did ask him to take down the apocalyptic images after two weeks. She has privately disclosed to the CEO that she feels this employee could be a potential threat to her safety and to others', but she said she is concerned about retribution if she disciplines him because she is worried his mental health and his sexuality may be used as the basis for a discrimination claim should she dismiss him. His apparent emotional instability has become troubling enough that the supervisor with whom he has the greatest problems told the VP described above that her family advised her to abandon the job and not to return following Thanksgiving. She did return, but appears genuinely terrified and she and several colleages (who don't interact socially or professionally in the office) disclosed and discussed these feelings at a happy hour after work yesterday. I am largely removed from this situation, as I work in another department and hardly have any interaction with these colleagues aside from minor social interactions; however, the escalating behaviors have been discussed widely throughout the organization and a colleague did walk me to the "apocalypse" posters, which were peculiar for an office to say the least, even without experiencing the man's odd behavior. The woman who is most concerned for her well being told the VP of her department and, having seen no action, is ready to quit for her own safety. She told me she is afraid of the man receiving any consequences because she fears violent retaliation. I said that since at least four colleagues, who do not all work together or all have personal ill will toward the man, are worried for the security of the office, they should all call a confidential meeting with their VP, the CEO and the head of human resources (who is informal and generally "loose lipped" about all personnel matters--a great concern here) and formally state their grievances and ask for formal actions to be taken to ensure security for all staff. Importantly, the young man in question has displayed passively hostile behavior and, I would argue, intimidating behavior, but he has made no threats of violence. I am seeking professional advice about the appropriate measures. Despite the bad blood between the two individuals involved, everyone's concern is this young man's erratic behavior, which feels vaguely threatening and which has at least four women feeling fearful and "walking on eggshells" to avoid triggering potential violence, and no one has any interest in personally "getting back" at him. Again, the woman who has had the greatest challenges with him and who does admit to disliking the young man is weighing the consequences of abandoning the job for her personal safety, and she told the VP who supervises her that this is the case a week ago. I don't believe this is a personal dispute and following last night's conversation with colleagues I feel that action should be taken immediately but I am unsure how to proceed in everyone's best interest.
1 Answer from Attorneys
This is more a narrative than an actual question. You need to tell your employer to contact an employment attorney immediately. We both defend and prosecute civil cases related to EEO and reasonable accommodation issues. Have your manager contact us now. I should note that the person who is acting erratically can sue both the employer and the manager herself. Delicate situations like this require ironclad processes and response. The law does NOT require that you tolerate abusive or disruptive behavior. However, it DOES require that you ensure all procedural safeguards have been met before taking action.
Although I realize this is a generic response, it would be inappropriate to comment on your coworker here. If anything, that could be found later and used against you. The important step here is to get counsel and discuss this privately. Your employer and the manager (supervisor) in question should do this without delay.
I should also note that by NOT taking action, the employer may be creating a hostile working environment for the remaining employees -- especially the other employees that he is accusing of being rude, and otherwise making them feel very uncomfortable. You cannot ignore this type of conduct.
Give us a ring at 703-402-2723 or 1-800-579-9864. You can also email us at [email protected]
Sean R. Hanover, Esq.
(offices in DC and VA)