How to Deal

Co-Worker Conflict: Try Talking it Through First

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By Lily Garcia
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, March 18, 2008; 11:04 AM

I think I'm getting bullied here at my small nonprofit. I work with two men of a different race, who will pull me into the office and tell me that things are "not the same" since I started, essentially I messed up their setup, making them look bad. Just yesterday, there was another "come to Jesus" meeting where one accused me of racism towards him, which is not true. It's so messed up. The director of the agency is not on-site, believes everything these two tell her and I don't know what to do. I want to have a witness present for when they decide to pull me into these clear-the-air meetings so I can remember all the things they say to me.

If you think that you are possibly being discriminated against because of your race or your sex, you should complain to the appropriate internal contact as specified in your organization's EEO policy. If you do not have such a policy in place, which would not be unusual for a very small organization, you should bring your concerns to your manager, the director, or your human resources contact. Even if a single person is playing all three of these roles, I recommend the same course of action.

Also remember that you have a choice about whether to participate in these meetings. If you feel like the meetings are unproductive or belittling, you can refuse them or take measures to control the interactions. For example, ask for an agenda or propose agenda items of your own. As well, you can terminate the meeting at any point if it makes you uncomfortable.

I agree that you should be documenting your interactions in some way. But I think that bringing a witness with you would be an overly confrontational way of accomplishing this. Try making contemporaneous notes while in the meeting. If you feel overwhelmed and unable to write everything down, take some time immediately after the meeting to quickly memorialize anything you might have missed.

I must also mention that it might be helpful for you to ask these co-workers about their motivations before escalating the matter any further. It may be implicit from your note that this approach has failed you, or that you think it would be futile. You may find, however, that you are able to significantly diffuse the tension with these two simply by calling them on what they are doing.

Who knows? They might be surprised to learn that you experience their behavior in this way. You do, after all, work in a small nonprofit environment. The beauty of such an environment is its potential for intimacy and the camaraderie that can only develop in pursuit of a common cause. The downside is the potential for ego-driven conflict. Before you give up on the situation, you owe it to yourself and to your co-workers to try talking it through.

Join Lily Garcia on Tuesday, March 25 at 11 a.m. ET for How to Deal Live.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail hradvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered. The information contained in this column is not intended to be legal advice.


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