What Must My Employer Do About an Abusive Coworker?

Introduction

Not all the problems we face in the workplace are the result of our supervisors and managers. Sometimes a workplace becomes intolerable because of the actions of an abusive coworker. Perhaps a coworker is gossiping about you, telling others about your personal business and problems. Or perhaps that same coworker is saying hurtful, untrue, or “mean” statements about you. Or still, the coworker may be verbally or physically aggressive toward you and may make you feel threatened or intimidated. Do employers have any obligations to address or correct this type of behavior? As it turns out, the answer is “yes.”

Employer’s Obligations Regarding Troublesome or Abusive Coworker

abusive coworkerAn employer has a general obligation to provide a safe and harassment-free workplace for all of its workers. This means that an employer should not engage in any abusive or harassing behavior toward any of its workers. In addition, employers must take reasonable actions to protect workers from abusive or harassing behavior committed by other workers. Failure to follow this general principle can result in the employer being accused of fostering a hostile work environment. To avoid this, the employer should consider:

  • Creating clear expectations for employee behavior:

    Employers should have clear expectations regarding how they expect their employees to behave while on the job. These expectations can be contained in an employee handbook or other writing that is made available to employees. It is better that these expectations are clear and specific – simply stating that employees should not “harass” one another (without defining the term or providing examples) may not be sufficiently specific to alert employees as to the type of behavior the employer finds unacceptable.

  • Investigate employee complaints promptly and fairly:

    An employer cannot simply “bury its head in the sand” and ignore an employee’s reports of harassment or abusive behavior committed by a coworker. Employers should have established protocols for responding to these complaints in a prompt and appropriate manner. Complaints of abusive or harassing behavior should be investigated according to the employer’s policy. Each employee should be treated fairly and according to the employer’s policy – the employer should not make exceptions to its policy or investigate a claim of harassment by one employee less intensely than a claim made by another employee.

  • Applying the employer’s disciplinary policy equally:

    When the employer determines that an employee has violated the employer’s expectations of employee conduct through abusive or harassing behavior, the employer should impose discipline according to its policy in a fair and equitable manner. If the employer’s policy calls for the termination of the abusive or harassing employee under the particular circumstances, the employer should not shrink from imposing such discipline. Failing to follow its own policies can lead to claims of discriminatory or disparate treatment.

What Can I Do If I Am Being Abused or Harassed by a Coworker?

If you are the abused or harassed employee and you cannot resolve your differences with the abusing or harassing coworker, you should keep an accurate record (a written record is best) of how you have been abused or harassed and when each incident of harassment or abuse occurs. Submit this information to your immediate supervisor or the person designated by your employer’s policy. Make note of the date you submit this information to your supervisor, detail any actions your supervisor promises to take, and note whether the supervisor follows through on these promises. By keeping detailed records like these, you may eventually be able to support a lawsuit or claim against your employer if your employer fails to take appropriate action on your claim of harassment or abuse.