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Course 720 - Preventing Workplace Violence

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Disruptive Behavior

The Incident

After workplace violence training was conducted at the agency, during which early intervention was emphasized, an employee called the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) member of the workplace violence team for advice on dealing with his senior coworker. He said the coworker, who had been hired at the GS-14 level six months earlier, was in the habit of shouting and making demeaning remarks to the other employees in the office. The senior coworker was skilled in twisting words around and manipulating situations to his advantage. For example, when employees would ask him for advice on a topic in his area of expertise, he would tell them to use their own common sense. Then when they finished the Exercise, he would make demeaning remarks about them and speak loudly about how they had done their work the wrong way. At other times, he would demand rudely in a loud voice that they drop whatever they were working on and help him with his project. The employee said he had attempted to speak with his supervisor about the situation, but was told not to make a mountain out of a mole hill.

Response

The EAP Counselor met with the employee who had reported the situation. The employee described feelings of being overwhelmed and helpless. The demeaning remarks were becoming intolerable. The employee believed that attempts to resolve the issue with the coworker were futile. The fact that the supervisor minimized the situation further discouraged the employee. By the end of the meeting with the counselor, however, the employee was able to recognize that not saying anything was not helping and was actually allowing a bad situation to get worse.

At a subsequent meeting, the EAP counselor and the employee explored skills to address the situation in a respectful, reasonable, and responsible manner with both his supervisor and the abusive coworker. The counselor suggested using language such as:

I don't like shouting. Please lower your voice.
I don't like it when you put me down in front of my peers.
It's demeaning when I am told that I am...
I don't like it when you point your finger at me.
I want to have a good working relationship with you.

The employee learned to focus on his personal professionalism and responsibility to establish and maintain reasonable boundaries and limits by using these types of firm and friendly "I statements," acknowledging that he heard and understood what the supervisor and coworker were saying, and repeating what he needed to communicate to them.

After practicing with the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counselor, the employee was able to discuss the situation again with his supervisor. He described the situation in non-blaming terms, and he expressed his intentions to work at improving the situation. The supervisor acknowledged that the shouting was annoying, but again asked the employee not to make a mountain out of a mole hill. The employee took a deep breath and said, It may be a mole hill, but nevertheless it is affecting my ability to get my work done efficiently. Finally, the supervisor stated that he did not realize how disruptive the situation had become and agreed to monitor the situation.

The next time the coworker raised his voice, the employee used his newly acquired assertiveness skills and stated in a calm and quiet voice, I don't like to be shouted at. Please lower your voice. When the coworker started shouting again, the employee restated in a calm voice, I don't like being shouted at. Please lower your voice. The coworker stormed away.

Meanwhile, the Supervisor began monitoring the situation. He noted that the abusive coworker's conduct had improved with the newly assertive employee, but continued to be rude and demeaning toward the other employees. The supervisor consulted with the EAP counselor and Employee Relations specialist. The counselor told him, Generally, people don't change unless they have a reason to change. The counselor added that the reasons people change can range from simple "I statements," such as those suggested above, to disciplinary actions. The employee relations specialist discussed possible disciplinary options with the supervisor.

The supervisor then met with the abusive coworker who blamed the altercations on the others in the office. The supervisor responded, I understand the others were stressed. I'm glad you understand that shouting, speaking in a demeaning manner, and rudely ordering people around is unprofessional and disrespectful. It is unacceptable behavior and will not be tolerated. During the meeting, he also referred the employee to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

The coworker continued his rude and demeaning behavior to the other employees in spite of the supervisor's efforts. The others, after observing the newly acquired confidence and calm of the employee who first raised the issue, requested similar training from the EAP. The supervisor met again with the EAP counselor and employee relations specialist to strategize next steps.

Resolution

When all of the employees in the office started using assertive statements, the abusive coworker became more cooperative. However, it took a written reprimand, a short suspension, and several counseling sessions with the EAP counselor before he ceased his shouting and rude behavior altogether.

Questions for the Agency Planning Group

  1. Does your workplace violence training include communication skills to put a stop to disruptive behavior early on (including skills for convincing reluctant supervisors to act)?

  2. How would your agency have proceeded with the case if the coworker had threatened the employee who spoke to him in an assertive way?

  3. What recourse would the employee have had if the supervisor had refused to intervene?