I’m being framed by a vengeful coworker who hit on me.
I’m the newly hired dispatcher for a local tech company. It’s my first job. Soon after I was hired, two of the tech guys came on to me. I’m used to guys hitting on me in bars, and I’ve learned to slap them down hard and fast or they’ll not get the hint.
One didn’t accept “no” but asked me out several more times. I think he saw me as a challenge. He sent me suggestive texts. He walked behind my desk, trailing his hands over my neck and shoulders.
After several weeks of not responding to his texts, and saying, “Don’t touch me,” in a voice that meant business, I told him if he kept it up, I’d report him. The texts and touching stopped. I thought that was the end of it.
Shortly after that, my supervisor said that there had been several complaints about the way I was taking customer messages. She said I needed to be more careful. I know I have the ability to snap at people, but I’ve really careful with customer. Still, I apologized.
Two weeks later, she pulled me in again. She said a tech told her I had several times given incomplete, misleading messages, resulting in the ball being dropped, and a customer almost lost.
I asked for details and was told that who reported it to her didn’t matter, but that she was putting me on notice. She said one more problem would result in my being terminated, as I was still in my probationary period.
This morning, one of the women in accounting pulled me aside. She said, “You’ve made an enemy.” When I asked her what she meant, she said she didn’t want to get drawn into it, but to watch my back.
That afternoon, when I handed the tech who’d come on to me and then texted me information about his afternoon assignment, he gave me a smarmy look. Everything suddenly made sense.
What do I do? I can’t go to my supervisor because she thinks I shouldn’t be asking who complained about me. I don’t want to lose this job.
Act now before you’re fired
If you don’t do anything, you may be out the door within the week. You’re a new employee and your supervisor has reason to believe you’re not handling your job. If you’re not being as careful as you think with customers, or you’re giving the techs incomplete messages, clean up your act immediately.
If you’re hit on at work
If you’re correct that you’re being framed, you need to tell your supervisor or HR the rest of the story.
You seem savvy about handling men who come on to you in bars. Workplace sexual harassment, which is often about power, requires deft handling because it involves coworkers, and prompt reporting before you slap someone down hard.
You don’t need to be “nice” when a coworker comes on to you. When you’re too nice, you risk encouraging inappropriate behavior that might even escalate.
You don’t, however, have to be “jerk in a bar” mean to let someone know you’re not interested. You can say, “hey, I appreciate the compliment, but I’m not interested,” or “you’re making me uncomfortable”.
What you need to do NOW
Visit your company’s human resources officer. Ask that HR investigate what lurks below the surface of the complaints about you. Say you believe you might be the victim of “cat’s paw” discrimination.
Sexual harassment revenge: “cat’s paw”
Cat’s paw describes a situation in which an individual uses misleading information to get a management decision-maker to take a negative employment action against a co-worker. The phrase originated in an Aesop fable in which a monkey duped a cat into stealing chestnuts from a fire, resulting in damage to the cat and chestnuts for the monkey.
Cat’s paw cases have come before the U.S. Supreme Court and several lower federal courts. In 2016, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a sexual harasser framed an employee and got her fired (Vasquez v. Empress Ambulance Serv., Inc.).
In this case, an employee sent his co-worker, Andrea Vasquez, obscene photos and text messages and then doctored the text exchanges to make it appear two had a romantic relationship and that Vasquez had sent him a racy photo. A
lthough Vasquez was the harassed employee and not the woman in the photo, she got fired. The court ruled for Vasquez, noting that employers take on liability when an employee with a discriminatory or retaliatory motive manipulates the employer into making an adverse employment decision action.
In Staub v. Proctor Hospital, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that employers may be liable for unlawful discrimination if they fire an employee after being manipulated by a manager who has a discriminatory motive, even if the employer’s senior management was unbiased when it made the decision.
In this case, an employee who had military leave rights worked for a manager with an anti-military bias who lied about the employee’s performance in order to fire him. The employer lost this case because it didn’t adequately investigate the supervising manager’s claims.
The bottom line
For you: Act now. You put up with bad behavior for weeks. After you threatened to report him, you assumed the problem was over. Coworker problems often fester beneath the surface. When a continuing problem involves sexual harassment, you need to involve HR.
For your employer: Employers take a risk when hastily rubber-stamping an employee’s termination based on coworker reports. If you put your employer on notice that your co-worker manipulated your supervisor due to a retaliatory or discriminatory motive, your employer needs to impartially investigate the situation so they don’t get their paws burned.
© 2020, Lynne Curry
Lynne Curry, Ph.D., SPHR, 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 Ask a Coach at www.workplacecoachblog.com or firstname.lastname@example.org or www.communicationworks.net or follower her on twitter @lynnecurry10.