Dear Survival Guide:
I have a colleague who is making my life miserable. For years, we were close friends, with frequent family get-togethers. After I got an administrative post, our relationship changed. After several years, I finally asked him not to yell at me at work anymore. Since then, he no longer speaks to me. I try always to be professional, collegial and courteous to him (and to everyone). Nothing I do helps: he complains about me and my work to other faculty colleagues, our department head, human resources and even the dean, provost and president. Then, he began to spread rumors about me until our department head finally met with him and asked him to cut it out. He creates a hostile work environment in our department by yelling and intimidating staff members. (All the full-time staff members have signed statements asking for an intervention to stop his intimidating and frightening practices.) Now, he’s filed a grievance against me for “disrespectful e-mailing” and it’s taking all of my time and emotional energy to deal with it. Every time I respond, he files new charges and the ground shifts, but the charges are always amorphous and it’s hard to defend myself without specific charges. What can I do?
This sounds horrible and painful, especially since you used to be friends.
The first thing to do is step back and to realize that this might or might not be about you. This may be hard to accept since the grievance and gossip are so personal, taking your time and affecting your equilibrium.
Three things lead me to say this:, You describe how your colleague also yells at staff members in your department; the shifting nature of the grievances against you; and the timing of the original deterioration of your relationship.
While you’re at the center of a storm, it sounds like your colleague is difficult for a number of people to deal with — including, probably, the grievance committee. My point is that there might be more than one storm here. So, try to broaden your horizon and identify potential natural allies. If nothing else, having someone else to commiserate with might be a comfort.
For example, consider how unpleasant this situation likely is for your department head. Or for those receiving his complaints about you. Is he complaining about others as well during these sessions? For that matter, imagine what the job of the grievance committee members must be like if they cannot pin down a specific grievance to process.
Let me go off on a bit of a tangent here: the grievance filed against you, “disrespectful e-mailing,” seems remarkably vague. Did he provide at least one specific instance? Do those e-mails cross the boundary of civilized discourse? Would an objective third reader find them so?
E-mail, as we all know, is a terrible way to conduct any form of emotionally charged business, as its bandwidth is just too narrow. E-mail strips out all vocal tonal qualities, body language, facial expressions and ability to correct miscommunication in real time. Exchanges happen so quickly, it’s easy to overreact and for disputes to escalate. The rule here is not to respond in e-mail: walk down the hall or pick up the telephone and talk.
We’ve all gotten pretty horrid e-mails — or at least e-mails to which we have had a strong visceral reaction with the impulse to fire back. Most of us have at least an intellectual grasp on these concepts and unless your e-mail was really out there (as opposed simply to delivering an answer your colleague didn’t want), it’s unlikely you crossed the line into a sustainable grievance.
Ask someone wise and calm to look at your e-mails and let you know privately if they were out of line. If they were, even if they’re not sustainable grievances, take the high road and apologize for expressing yourself poorly. If they were not, then work on the concept that this is more about your colleague than it is about you, and act accordingly.
Stop and reflect about whether your colleague has “turned” on others who have accepted administrative posts. This is another dimension in which there’s at least the possibility, as you describe the situation, that the conduct you’re encountering might not be about you or anything specific you’ve done, so much as about the administrative post you’ve taken up. It is not unusual for new administrators to hear “jokes” about losing IQ points or crossing over to the dark side. Except they’re not always funny and often not jokes. Does your colleague target other administrators as well, or is all of his ire directed toward you?
As to what actions you can take in addition to working to adjust your perspective, your goal should be to conduct yourself as the personification of reason and get this grievance against you resolved or dismissed as quickly as possible. Cooperate with the committee. Accommodate their requests for meetings and/or information.
Do not assume the role of victim: simply stick to the facts, with a tone of sorrow (which I hear in your sadness about the loss of what once was a friendship), in a measured way. Bear in mind that you’re not the only one suffering from this unguarded conduct. By staying on the high road, you’ll improve your reputation and your colleague will come across to others as the difficult problem person he is.
Don’t lash out. Don’t assume you’re the only injured person in the situation — your colleague sounds like an equal opportunity verbal abuser. Let the contrast between the two of you emerge on its own. Allow your character to shine through. Find a good way to gain perspective and to keep this stressful, unpleasant situation from polluting the rest of your life and relationships.
Take reasonable precautions. Arrange your office and schedule, to the extent you can, so you do not encounter your colleague when you are alone. Make sure that you have witnesses to your encounters, especially while the grievance process is under way. If you are called upon to make decisions affecting your colleague, ask if there is someone else who can do that while the grievance is pending. If this is not possible, try to consult with appropriate others — and document that you did so — before taking the action. Keep good records of what you did, why and what process you used for arriving at the decision and implementing it.
Do what you can to take care of yourself: if the stress is getting to you, make sure you get enough exercise and follow other self-care strategies. We can talk later about strategies for after the grievance is resolved. The chances are very good that others also suffering will admire your professionalism and restraint and seek you out.
Questions for this column are welcome. Send e-mail to:firstname.lastname@example.org