My husband and I recently moved to Alaska and then he deployed. Two months ago, I confided in a coworker that I was having marital troubles. She suggested I tell my manager so he’d be aware I had things weighing on my mind.
I did and he asked me a lot of questions, some of which I felt embarrassed answering. After that, he asked me for “updates” every couple of days. Then, he asked me out to dinner. I thought he was just being kind because he knew I was new to the state and going through a hard time. But when he told me he’d made reservations at the Crow’s Nest and insisted that he’d pick me up at my apartment, I got nervous. I thanked him for the offer, but told him I’d need to decline.
He asked “why?” and I said I was married and his picking me up at my apartment felt uncomfortable, but that I’d be okay if he’d take both my coworker and me out to dinner. He said he was disappointed and told me again about how great the food was at the restaurant. Later that day, he placed an expensive box of Modern Dwellers Chocolate Lounge truffles on my chair. I didn’t know what to do, so I thanked him.
Two weeks later, our company’s managers attended an anti-harassment seminar. My manager called me into his office and apologized for the dinner invitation and truffles. After that, he stopped speaking to me. It’s awkward because he relays all messages to me through my co-worker. I’m still within my first three months at my company and fear I might be fired.
I can’t go to HR because my manager and the head of HR golf every Saturday.
What did I do wrong and what do I do now? I’m scared I’ll be fired.
You didn’t do anything wrong. Your manager stepped over the line with his questions and invitation. He realized this when he attended the seminar.
He now acts inappropriately in ignoring one of his employees, potentially to demonstrate to others that he and you have no relationship should any rumors start. He may also be too embarrassed to interact with you. He may hope that, given a cold shoulder, you’ll quit so the problem he created goes away.
If he fires you, he’ll compound his mistake further, because he’ll have retaliated against you.
To protect yourself against retaliation, outline exactly what happened to your Human Resources officer or a senior manager, who can then initiate a neutral investigation, interviewing you and your manager.
Although you fear the HR manager will turn a blind eye to the evidence you provide, if you write your documentation convincingly, you may leave him no choice but to take your allegations seriously. You may also protect yourself by first going to a senior manager above your HR manager and explaining your concern about the golfing buddy relationship.
If you don’t get help in your company, you can present your complaint to the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission or the Alaska State Human Rights Commission. Although companies can terminate employees relatively easily during their probationary period, they can’t if the true reason starts with illegal sexual harassment.
Before you go forward to either the HR manager or a senior manager, develop your documentation. Effective documentation presents hard-core facts in objective, unemotional terms. If you need to present a subjective issue, describe what actually happened, without including your opinion or conclusions. The best documentation leads a neutral third party to reach the conclusion you’ve drawn.
Although you may worry you’ll have a he said/she said situation, few secrets exist in most workplaces. A good investigator can corroborate your story with what your coworker or other employees say and through thoughtful interviews and nonverbal observation of both you and your manager. Interviewees who tell the truth present themselves differently than do interviewees who shade the truth.
Alternatively, you can sit down with your manager and say, “You reached out to me and now you’re avoiding me. Can we start over and have a productive work relationship?” This approach gives your manager a way to save face. If you take this option, protect yourself by providing a third party the story prior to you potentially being fired, as you’ve done with me, so that if you’re unfairly terminated, you have information that shows the firing may be a cover-up to a managerial problem.
© Dr. Lynne Curry is author of ”Beating the Workplace Bully” and ”Solutions” as well as owner of the management/HR consulting/training firm The Growth Company Inc. Follow her on Twitter @lynnecury10 or at www.bullywhisperer.com.