Q: During a recent staff meeting, "Michael" suddenly stood up and began shouting insults and shaking his fist at our supervisor. Then he stormed out of the room. Nothing had happened to provoke this outburst, which was totally out of character. The rest of us were completely stunned.
Although Michael's behavior was clearly inappropriate, I was surprised by our supervisor's reaction. Instead of going to him and asking what was wrong, she became combative, telling everyone that she was scared of Michael and didn't want him in her office. She also began giving him extra work and expecting unrealistic results in an effort to get him fired.
After several months of this harassment, Michael is now taking early retirement. He told me in confidence that he doesn't want to leave, but feels the stress is affecting his health. We are losing a valuable, experienced employee because my egotistical boss never cared enough to try to help him. Although her superiors knew about the situation, they also did nothing.
I realize the workplace is not a social services agency, but management almost seems to encourage supervisors to be arrogant and obnoxious. Shouldn't they be expected to show some humanity? What do you think about this?
A: I think you should be careful about taking sides and jumping to conclusions. Although Michael's sudden tantrum was a shock to the staff, something obviously had to trigger all that anger, so the odds are good that more was going on behind the scenes.
It is actually quite possible that Michael has been having problems for some time. Co-workers seldom know the whole story about employee performance issues, because managers are expected to keep such information confidential. As a result, people only hear their colleague's version of events.
At this point, however, you would be wise to focus on your own attitude toward your supervisor, because you seem to be rather angry with her yourself. If you allow sympathy for Michael to poison that relationship, you will only be hurting your own career.
Sick co-worker freely spreads germs
Q: I have a co-worker who comes to work when she's sick. Even though she's coughing and blowing her nose, she uses my phone and other items on my desk. I've asked her to keep her distance, because I don't want to get sick before my upcoming vacation. But she continues to touch my things. What should I do?
A: You have already taken the first assertive step by explaining your desire to avoid sick people before your trip. Since your contagious colleague has ignored this request, go one step further and politely ask her not to handle your belongings while she has a cold. To be on the safe side, put smaller items in a drawer and clean your phone with antiseptic wipes.
Keep in mind that most sick employees aren't trying to infect anyone. They simply forget to modify their usual behaviors. So in the interest of general office wellness, ask your boss to remind everybody about proper hygiene habits.
Ignoring boss' gabfests may be best
Q: I was recently moved to a desk right outside my boss' office. Every day, he and two staff members have lengthy discussions about personal matters and company gossip. I also overhear them criticizing other employees in our group.
The person who sits next to me says I should just ignore these conversations, but this seems like very juvenile behavior for an office setting. Is there anything I can do about it?
A: Your boss is not only an incredibly immature manager, but also a dreadful role model. His daily gabfests send the message that it's okay to publicly criticize colleagues and use work time for lengthy gossip sessions. He is also demonstrating blatant favoritism and a complete disregard for confidentiality.
If your company has a professional human resources department, you might share these observations with an HR manager who can be trusted to protect your identity. But if this is a small business, follow your co-worker's advice to keep mum, because admonishing your boss will only get you added to the list of people he criticizes.
Marie G. McIntyre is a workplace coach and the author of "Secrets to Winning at Office Politics."