Annoying Co-workers and Dangerous Co-workers – Part 2

Part I, which appeared in the previous issue and is available online, dealt with annoying co-workers (ACs) in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. Face it, we all have to put up with co-workers that get under our skin and oftentimes, laughter is still the best medicine.

If you’re looking for a breezy sequel, don’t expect to find it on these pages.

This time, we’re dealing with dangerous co-workers (DCs) and there’s not one thing funny about them. Sexual harassers, racists/haters and physically violent predators are a small, but very real threat not only to your career, but also to your physical and mental well-being—or even to your life.

Violence on the Job

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), homicide is the second leading cause of death on the job, surpassed only by motor vehicle accidents. However, according to the NIOSH, fellow employees do not commit the vast majority of workplace murders; current or former coworkers commit only nine percent of these homicides. Nearly three-quarters of workplace homicides are robbery related.

However, non-fatal physical violence and verbal violence between co-workers is a much more statistically significant problem. According to a U.S. Department of Justice study, 26% of physical attacks in the workplace are perpetrated by current employees (and three percent by former employees). The study reported that there were two million victims of workplace violence per year, comprised of 1.5 million simple assaults (no weapons) as well as nearly 400,000 assaults involving weapons.

This corresponds to more than 500,000 incidents of worker-to-worker violence.

What can you do to protect yourself and others? According to the Workplace Violence Headquarters, a training/consulting firm, 85% of co-workers that commit on-the-job acts of violence exhibit clear warning signs before committing a violent act. These warning signs include things such as hostility, drastic changes in behavior or physical appearance, emotional problems including substance abuse, job performance problems, increased problems with co-workers and threats of suicide.

Trust your instincts: If something just “seems wrong” with one of your co-workers and you can back up your suspicions with specific incidents (and especially if other co-workers have expressed similar concerns), you owe it to yourself and others to take the appropriate steps necessary to prevent a potentially dangerous act. If you don’t know your employer’s specific policies for dealing with such matters, ask your supervisor or human resources contact.

If there is no formal written policy, then set up a private meeting with the appropriate employer representative(s) and request that the matters discussed are documented.

Hate Speak

Non-physical workplace violence, in the form of threats, intimidation and harassment, affects millions of workers every year. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, there are more than six million incidents of this each year, ranging from racial and sexual slurs to threats of physical violence. With so much attention focused on “political correctness” and enlightenment about hate crimes, one would expect that inappropriate remarks in the workplace including ethnic and racial slurs would be on the decline. Yet, according to the results of an annual survey conducted by Boston-based Novations/J. Howard & Associates regarding workplace insults, there has been little change in the last several years. Among their findings:

  • Racial slurs were overheard by 30% of employees in 2004, 27% in 2003 and 29% in 2002.
  • Slurs relating to sexual orientation were overheard by 20% of employees in 2004 and 2003; down from 24% in 2002.
  • Five percent of employees overheard slurs regarding a disability in 2004, up from three percent in 2003 but down from seven percent in 2002.

In 1999 the California Supreme Court (Aguilar v. Avis Rent-a-Car) upheld an injunction barring a manager from referring to his Latino workers with offensive terms such as “wetback” and “mother[expletive deleted].”

A lower court had ruled that since the employer had permitted the use of racial slurs directed at employees, it had created a hostile work environment and thereby violated a California employment act.

Some analysts and judges, including controversial California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown—a dissenter in this very case—argue that racist speech is constitutionally protected under the First Amendment, even if it takes place at work and even if it violates federal antidiscrimination laws. Clearly, the issues of protected free speech vs. employees’ rights to work in an environment free of racial hostility will continue to be debated. It’s also clear that employers need to have specific written policies addressing all forms of verbal harassment…and they must enforce them, lest they be subject to expensive court battles and potentially even more costly damages.

Sexual Harassment

There are many misconceptions regarding sexual harassment in the workplace. The Web site of the National Women’s Law Center is an excellent resource for finding answers to the most frequently asked questions about sexual harassment.

Briefly defined, sexual harassment is unwelcome behavior that you are subjected to specifically because of your gender. It can take the form of specific requests of a sexual nature, unwelcome sexual advances, and physical and/or verbal conduct of a sexual nature. In order to meet the legal definition of sexual harassment, the conduct must either be severe enough to constitute a hostile or offensive work environment (potentially tough to prove) or when the submission to—or rejection of—sexual advances is used as a basis for employment decisions or as a condition of employment.

Here are a few other facts about sexual harassment:

  • Sexual harassment can be male-to-female, female-to-female, or male-to-male. However, harassing someone because of their sexual orientation is not generally considered sexual harassment and would fall under a different set of laws (or is not protected at all in many locales). For instance, if a female supervisor made an unwelcome sexual advance at a female subordinate and indicated that it would be detrimental to her career if she didn’t cooperate, it would be considered sexual harassment. If that same supervisor addressed a subordinate with a derogatory term for a homosexual, it would not be considered sexual harassment…although it could have other legal implications, depending on the laws of that location.
  • There is a common misconception that in order for sexual harassment to meet the legal definition, the harasser must be your work superior. Actually, it is the employer’s responsibility to keep the workplace free of any sexual harassment—whether it comes from your boss, your equal, your subordinate…even from non-employees such as clients.
  • If the harassment isn’t explicitly of a sexual nature, but still singles you out based on your gender, it still can constitute sexual harassment as defined by law. For instance, you may have a legitimate claim of sexual harassment if your supervisor constantly says that men aren’t sensitive enough to be good health care providers or continually assigns unpleasant tasks because “it’s something for a man to do.”

Educate yourself about your employer’s official policies and procedures regarding sexual harassment. If you feel you’re being sexually harassed at work, the best three words of advice are: document, document and document. Keep a journal or file where you can keep a log of every instance of harassment—include dates, times, names of witnesses and whatever additional information you want to add. Keep copies of any correspondence related to the harassment—including memos to and from your human resources contact or manger, as well as any correspondence to and from your harasser. For your protection, don’t keep this “evidence file” at work—store it at home or in another safe location.

If your employer is unable or unwilling to deal with your harassment claim effectively, you should file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Read Part One of the series.

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