Question:

Our newest accounting employee works in a giant cubicle area with the accounting manager and one other employee. To comply with our six-feet-apart protocol and create a sense of space for each of them, we set up the area with each desk facing a wall. A door bisects the fourth wall; we placed the accounting office’s filing cabinets there.

Yesterday the accounting manager came to me and asked if the new employee could share an office with me. I have the largest office in our company, however, because I have regular client meetings in my office. I also need privacy when I have employee discussions.

When I asked what the problem was, the manager said the new employee jumps and yelps when others come into the office or walk to the file cabinets. Apparently, she can handle anyone walking behind her back. The employee shared with the manager that she has post-traumatic stress disorder. That seemed odd to me, as this employee didn’t serve in the military.

I decided to question her about the situation in the presence of her manager. During questioning, the employee teared up. She said she’d been the victim of severe bullying by a powerful senior manager in her last job. She claimed the manager used to come up behind her, squeeze her shoulders and put his hand, paper clips and other items down her blouse. She never protested because she feared losing her job.

According to her, after another employee blew the whistle on this manager, HR investigated the situation, and the senior manager was fired.  The employee said she was so traumatized by the manager’s actions that she resigned several weeks later and took three months off before applying for our job.

The accounting manager wants to keep this employee on his team. He feels sorry for her and considers her talented. He’s also known for being soft on employees. That makes me especially worried about his keeping a drama queen on his team.

I don’t want to share my office. The only other option, allowing this woman to telecommute, would create morale problems because other employees want to work from home. They wouldn’t understand why a new employee is allowed that perk and they’re not.

Is there any problem with terminating an employee who isn’t a fit for working in the office space we have available?

Answer:

While she might not be a fit for how you’ve arranged the current office space, please realize the Americans with Disabilities Act may protect her. Although we commonly consider PTSD a war wound or link it with the extreme trauma of a sexual assault, it’s an anxiety disorder resulting from a traumatic environment in which the individual senses she has little or no control. Severe bullying can create PTSD. If your employee has PTSD, you’re required to try to find a viable, reasonable accommodation for her.

While I never suggest an employer keep a drama queen on board, please realize that if you haven’t personally experienced a situation in you felt powerless to stand up for yourself, you may lack empathy. Before you dismiss this woman’s story, call her former company’s HR and asking if there was a senior manager who exited shortly before this employee resigned.  While the HR officer will want to maintain discretion, the way in which you’ve worded this question will allow the officer to provide you clues with her answer without violating confidentiality.

Meanwhile, can you re-engineer the office space to allow this employee to feel more protected—for example, by turning her desk so her back is to the wall? Although her desk might jut out into the center space, it might eliminate the problem and maintain your six-foot spacing.  Because she’ll sit with her back to the wall, she may even be more distant from her cubicle mates. Or you can house her in a less congested cubicle or allow her to work from home? If you’re asked how come she gets this perk, you can answer that an unusual issue led to your decision without explaining what the issue was.

Next, although some employees falsely allege PTSD for a variety of reasons, the fact that she resigned, took three months off and now yelps when others walk behind her suggests she’s telling you the truth. If you suspect she’s fabricating, you can have your own professional evaluate her and the situation.  Finally, if you keep her on board, please give her a fair shot.

© 2020, Lynne Curry

Lynne Curry is the author of “Beating the Workplace Bully” (AMACOM, 2016, https://amzn.to/30V5JO6) and “Solutions”, https://amzn.to/2GYlnAN (both books are rated 4.8 out of 5 stars on Amazon.com). Send your questions to her at lynnewriter10@gmail.com, visit her @ www.communicationworks.net or follow her on twitter @lynnecurry10.

3 thoughts on “PTSD and Bullying

  1. I have PTSD from a horrific childhood. I HATE surprises. I would be uncomfortable with people walking up behind me, too.

    I also hate being stereotyped by people who refuse to see beyond their own experience.

  2. Thank you for a short but direct example of both a triggered employee and an unsympathetic manager. While I cannot comment on the story with no direct experience with them, I share many of this PTSD victim’s characteristics. I am able to manage most of my signs. By making light of my excessive and consistently exaggerated startle reflex when others notice, as well as a gradual de-sensitizing to my co-workers in my safe work environment, we all get along well. My experience has been that no matter how profound one’s PTSD experiences, it generally elicits neither sympathy nor compassion in today’s employment environment. Lawsuits seem likely the only way to get the support and fair dealing that is justified under ADA. If this employee can work consistently and productively from home and a more suitable work environment in the office is not possible, sending her home to work in her safe environment seems like a win-win. My warning to her would be not to assume that any union intervention on her behalf will be to her advantage. My own union dealt me right out of a million-dollar lawsuit settlement with their inept intervention that addressed only their own obligations of representation.

  3. Thank you for these comments! Yes, a person can have PTSD without having been in the military. Domestic abuse and workplace bullying certainly are two big contributors to other kinds of PTSD cases. To me, simply reorienting the employee’s desk so her back is to the wall rather than the other way round seems like the simplest and most reasonable accommodation. As you stated, given that the employee took three months off before seeking another job [and the observed behaviors] would incline me to believe her. Thanks for shedding light on PTSD and on reasonable ways of accommodating it at work.

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