A reader writes:
I’m part of a project team creating and launching a new online system, which will mean significant changes in the way employees do their job. There’s some resistance to this change within the organization and one department in particular that is deeply opposed to the new system. We have been on a massive change management journey and this resistance unfortunately hasn’t gone away. It has gotten better as the project went along, but it hasn’t left altogether. The next step of the project is formal training on how to use the new system, which I am running.
One staff member, Derek, is especially anxious and combative regarding the new system. For example, he frequently complains he has not seen aspects of the system that relate to his job (he absolutely has) and that he disagrees with how the system is configured (even though he has been asked for and has given input along the way). I know his anxiety comes from not knowing how he will do his job and even that his job might become redundant (not likely but not impossible).
Recently he was part of a group testing the system and it didn’t go well. Aside from his general dislike of the system, he got frustrated and threw his mouse at another staff member. While I’ve never seen him do something like this, it isn’t really a surprise to me and tracks with his previous behavior. I wasn’t in the room when this happened, so I’m not sure why it wasn’t dealt with in the moment and I’m not sure how it has been managed since or if he has been spoken to about his behavior, although I know my manager was told. I’m not a manager in my team, nor is Derek part of my team or someone I work with day to day.
I’m now supposed to be training Derek. And I don’t think I can do it.
In one of my previous jobs, a man hit me in the face because I was “bossy” (his justification — I am a woman in my 20s) so I have some real trauma and fear of confrontation in the workplace. This doesn’t usually affect me because the people I work with now are sane, rational people who would never throw things or act violently at work. I handle confrontation and disagreements fine as long as no one is throwing fists. I have not felt unable to do my job or work with certain people because of this trauma until now. I’ve had therapy for this, but obviously being put in this situation is terrifying to me.
I don’t know how I will react if he acts like this in training (e.g. yelling, slamming his fists on the desk, or THROWING THINGS, even if it’s not directed at me). I don’t know what to do. Before training starts (in about a month) I need to speak to my manager to make a plan for if he does act like this but I don’t know what to say. Am I allowed to kick him out? If so, how? Will my manager step in to remove him? If so, when? Can I just leave? I don’t know how to communicate that if I can’t remove him, I will need to leave. I cannot and will not be in another room where a man is acting violently. I don’t know how to explain that to my manager. I also don’t know how to advocate for myself and be taken seriously and not be brushed off as overthinking when I’m trying to come up with a plan.
I’m also going to speak to my therapist about this but I would love and appreciate some advice about how to come at this from a work angle.
Sometimes when you know you have a really strong reaction to something due to trauma, it can be easy to forget that even people without that trauma might have a strong reaction to it too.
And that’s the case here. Many, many people without the history you have would be deeply alarmed by an employee who threw office equipment at a colleague in frustration, and would want to go into any training with him with a plan for how to handle any similar display of anger in case it happens again. That’s not to say that their alarm would be the same intensity or the same experience as yours, of course — just that it’s not odd or unusual for someone to hear what you heard and want a plan in place before working with Derek again.
So even if you didn’t have any history around this kind of thing, it would be reasonable and unremarkable to go to your manager and say, “I’m really concerned by what we heard about Derek throwing things at a coworker in that meeting, especially in light of how combative he’s been with us previously. I’d like a plan in place for how to handle it if he does that when I’m training him. Specifically, I’d like to know that I can choose to discontinue the training if he’s being aggressive, yelling, or throwing things, or seems headed to that point, and I want to talk with you about the logistics of what that would look like.” If your manager will be in the training (it sounds like maybe she will be?), you could say, “Can I rely on you to step in if he starts to go in that direction? As well as get your blessing to do it myself if I feel I need to?”
This isn’t you overthinking or being excessively cautious — it’s just smart business practice to have a plan in place for this kind of thing once you’ve seen signs it might be needed.
I think you might be thinking of it as “I need to disclose my unusually strong reaction to aggressive men in order to address this,” but I’d be encouraging you to do this even if you hadn’t mentioned your history or your responses in your letter to me! If you’d just described Derek’s behavior and nothing else, my advice would still be to use exactly the script above.
That said, you certainly can disclose it if you want to and feel like it would help. You just don’t need to, because this is a reasonable thing to address either way.