Someone I know once had an argument with a colleague. The colleague was technically also my friend’s manager/supervisor. The argument was about an intellectual problem and was not personal. But it did get heated. They were sitting on opposite sides of a desk. At one point, the colleague threw a book at my friend. To be more accurate, the colleague picked up a big heavy book, and threw it across the desk in the general direction of my friend. The book bounced on the desk, skidded across the remaining surface of the desk, and landed on the floor.
This is where I am pretty sure I would have cried. Maybe I would have cried and run out of the room. Maybe I would have cried and run out of the room and felt crappy.
But that is not what my friend did. He looked at the book, looked at his colleague, and did not move. He waited for his colleague to get up, go around the desk, pick up the book, return it to the desk, and sit back down to continue the discussion.
I think a lot about that story because I want to remember that, should anyone at work decide to throw a book at me, I should resist the urge to cry and run out of the room. I should stand my ground.
This post is about bad behaviour. By bad behaviour, I am not euphemistically referring to behaviour that is criminal and/or in violation of various campus codes of conduct. I am talking about things that are unacceptable, but not illegal. You know what I’m talking about. It’s the kind of thing that I find especially shocking in the workplace because it is not the kind of behaviour that I expect from generally polite, educated, and typically nice people. But it happens. I have now seen plenty of it. And, I admit, I am shocked every time.
And then I remember that I have to resist the urge to cry and run out the room. I have to wait for the other person to pick that book up off the floor. I have to maintain my dignity and hold my ground. It is really hard to do.
But, over the years, I’ve learned a few things. They are not the complete solution. But they have helped me. Here are five steps for handling bad behaviour in the workplace.
1. Recognize that it is bad behaviour, and that such behaviour is unacceptable.
This is harder than you might think. I am usually so busy being shocked that it takes me a long while to realize what’s happening. But it’s important to just see it for what it is. Sometimes, when someone is being awful, I have found it helpful just to say to myself, over and over again in my head, that is bad behaviour. It becomes a kind of mantra. I find it sort of grounding.
2. Do not engage by reciprocating.
No point in going down to their level. Make them come up to yours. Engaging with bad behaviour – let’s say yelling at the person who is yelling at you – only reinforces it.
3. Remember that the best response is often a silent one.
Sometimes, totally hypothetically, it might be that, as one of two Asian faculty members in your workplace, you might be mistaken for each other. You might have someone ask you about her recent book. You might have someone ask you about that great course she taught. You might be in a meeting and have someone ask for response when she is not on the committee and not in the room. Here, silence, sometimes even a bemused and quizzical silence, is golden.
4. Document, document, document.
Sometimes this stuff happens so fast it’s hard to remember that it even happened. Or it is so fast and so egregious that you wonder if it happened at all. Write it down. Write an email to a colleague. Maybe write to that person. Identify specifically what happened. It might make you feel better. It might not. But it might help you identify patterns of behaviour. And, if things ever get worse, it’s good to have, however one-sided, a record of events.
5. Take up physical space.
Breathe. Stand or sit up straight. Keep your chin up.