In every work environment, an occasional terse work directive, condescending remark or inappropriate statement might take place. Depending on the workplace culture, the size of the organization and the relationship among employees, some comments can be construed as abusive. If you're ever accused of workplace abuse, you should listen to how your co-workers view your interpersonal relationship skills and take an introspective look at how you interact with your co-workers.
Law that come close to the line of workplace abuse but never really define it include Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits unlawful harassment. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforces Title VII; however, the EEOC doesn't define "abuse." Some people consider harassment a form of abuse, but it's a subjective term. If you're accused of being abusive, it may not become an EEOC issue, but it's good to now what the EEOC considers harassment, since the two often are used interchangeably.
Within the context of unlawful workplace harassment, the EEOC only says that harassment becomes unlawful when a "reasonable person" believes she has been intimidated, treated in a hostile manner or abused. According to the EEOC, that standard varies, but it often involves the type of conduct that affects a reasonable person's psychological well-being.
A personality clash could lead an employee to believe you're being abusive. When someone accuses you of workplace abuse, try to understand why the employee might make these accusations. Don't chalk up the workplace comments to personality differences or different work styles. You could bear the burden of proof to justify your actions. Besides, a mere personality difference isn't the path to resolving complaints about abuse. If you're accused of being abusive at work, it's in your best interest to look at the way you sustain interpersonal relationships. Your employer may see your actions as a potential liability and consequently your job may be on the line for something that you could easily resolve through communication. Your first step is to ask for clarification of what the accuser means by abusive comments or behavior.
Mediation with the aid of an impartial party often helps two employees resolve conflict. If your HR leader comes to you, schedule a private meeting to discuss the accuser's complaints. Ask for specific instances where your accuser claims you've been abusive and get concrete information about each accusation. Look at the information as objectively as you can. Refrain from discussing the accuser's complaint with your peers at work; if you need another perspective, ask someone you don't work with to help you see things from the accuser's point of view.
Eventually, you, the accuser and the HR staffer will need to discuss the accusations. You should go to the meeting with solutions. Don't say, "Well, that's just my personality" to justify your comments or actions. Listen to HR and the accuser. Ask yourself if you could have phrased a work directive differently. On the other hand, if you believe the accuser is overly sensitive, explain your position and ask her to view things from your perspective. Communication is key to resolving workplace differences. Even if the meeting doesn't result in a solution, it should end with an understanding of what it takes to modify behaviors and interactions with co-workers based on diverse opinions and perceptions.
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Enforce Guidance on Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., No. 92-1168, Slip Opinion (Nov. 9, 1993)
- Fortney & Klingshirn: The Rights of the Accused in a Sexual Harassment Investigation
- Mediate.com: When Conflict inthe Workplace Escalates to Emotional Abuse
- Time: New Laws Target Workplace Bullying
- Allan Danahar/Digital Vision/Getty Images