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Dear ReWorker,

A long term employee (Jane) said that a new hire (Karen) threatened her, and that Jane now feels unsafe at work. She wants Karen fired.

Here's the problem. No one has seen any bad behavior out of Karen, and Karen denies saying anything. Jane has been a good employee and I have no reason to doubt her, but I can't just fire Karen, right?

Sincerely,

Serious About Safety

___________________________________________________________________________________

Dear Serious,

This is a tough situation, with a lot of forces at play.

First, did Karen really threaten Jane? Right now, the only evidence you have is Jane's word.

Second, what if Jane said something that you wouldn't think of as a threat, but still made Karen feel uncomfortable? It's entirely possible that both Jane and Karen are telling the truth—Karen didn't threaten Jane, but Jane felt threatened anyway. This could be a simple misunderstanding, or it could have deeper roots.

Third, it's critical that everyone feels safe at work, and now you're in a situation where at least one, possibly two, people no longer feel safe at work. This is unacceptable. Period.

So what should you do? To start, follow up with Jane. Explain that you trust and value her as an employee, but there just isn't enough evidence to support disciplining Karen—yet. I presume you've already asked for details about exactly what happened but if not, make sure you're clear on that. Here are two things to look for:

  • Is there animosity between Karen and Jane that began before Karen started working here? Do they know each other from a previous relationship?
  • Could there be a racial/ethnic/other group conflict?
  • Does either Karen or Jane have reason to feel threatened by the other's presence? For instance, was Jane up for a promotion, but you decided to hire Karen instead? Was Karen hired with the understanding that she'd be Jane's boss but now she's her peer?

If you've figured out where the problem originates, you can try to solve it. If not, you need to focus on safety. Jane gets the benefit of the doubt because she has been there a long time and is the victim, so you'll want to keep an eye on Karen and be transparent about it.

If possible, see if you can adjust their schedules so that Karen and Jane don't work alone together. If this is not entirely possible, have someone check in on them regularly. What you want to ensure is that neither has the opportunity to say or do anything stupid or mean. If something happens, you'll want to correct it immediately.

The last thing you want is for a problem to fester, or for Jane to feel like she hasn't been heard and that you don't take safety seriously. If Karen truly is a problem employee, careful monitoring will catch it.

Sincerely,

Your ReWorker

Suzanne Lucas, Evil HR Lady

Photo: Creative Commons