#1294: “I work with an Angry Yelling Man and it’s triggering my PTSD.”

Hey Cap!

I feel like this could go here or to Ask A Manager but I thought here might be better because a lot of this stuff is both personal and professional? Who knows.

Because of COVID, I’ve been transferred temporarily to a different assignment in my company. I’ve been working on this for several months and I still have a few more to go but I’m at my wit’s end.

My team is about 10 people and 1 supervisor. This is not an easy team — the people who tend to be good at the super-niche work that we do also tend to be control freaks, stubborn, and detail-oriented to the point of decision paralysis. (And yeah, I’m one of them — I’ve just got about 15 years more experience than the rest of the team and a lot of therapy, so I’m aware of my neuroses and try to navigate that stuff, which has somehow led to me becoming the Team Diplomat.)

Anyway. I am a domestic violence survivor, which I think is important for context, and I have a Very Loud, Entitled, Angry Man on my team. Angry Man believes he’s better at my job than I am and that I’m not as smart — and it’s true I’m not the brains of the operation, but that’s not why I was chosen for this, they picked me because I’m focused and good at getting stuff done, whereas with a lot of the rest of the team (ESPECIALLY Angry Man), they don’t actually finish anything because we spend hours and hours bickering about philosophical details that don’t actually matter to the work.

Anyway, Angry Man is really, well, angry about the fact that I was asked to be in charge of some aspects of this project that fit with my career expertise and really believes that he deserves that job and can bully me out of it by just being really mean and critical of me all the time and making it clear he thinks I’m incompetent. (Our corporate culture is much improved from when I started, but some people still attach a LOT of importance to being able to claim “I am in charge of a thing.”) He undermines me constantly — like, redoing my work behind my back when I have a day off and presenting it to our boss as the “finished product” when actually his version broke a bunch of things that were perfectly fine before.

My boss is a very mild-mannered person who I do not think knew he was going to be in charge of a team — I’ve known him professionally for many years and, much like me, he’s not the kind of person who seeks out leadership positions and feels very uncomfortable telling people what to do. My team walks ALL OVER HIM.

At least 4-5 times in the last two weeks, Angry Man has screamed at or been overtly hostile to me in front of our entire team as well as in smaller meetings for things that were like… nothing, we’re talking “I asked him for clarification about something to make sure I understood and he yelled at me and accused me of trying to undermine him in front of the entire team.” My boss’s response was to say “hey this doesn’t have to be contentious,” but he has never told my coworker or anyone else that it’s not okay to act like that. Angry Man apologized to me *once* after he screamed at me in front of 10 people, but he insisted on doing it in private on the phone so there would be no record that he acknowledged having done anything wrong.

I feel sick. I don’t want to be on the team anymore because I’m afraid of him. (Bonus: I’m trans and various people on the team misgender me at least twice a week no matter how many times I correct them but I think a lot of that is the environment — when people can only hear my voice, they make assumptions, so I get it, but it still stresses me.) I had a brain injury a few months ago that required me to get enough rest so that my brain can function but I can’t sleep because I’m so scared of my inbox and how messed-up it’ll be in the morning. But I love my temp boss and I love the work I’m doing and some of my teammates are great and also I keep telling myself it’s only a few more months.

I’m thinking about approaching my regular boss about going back to my old job if I can — my regular boss and I are very close, he’s a mentor to me, so even if that’s not an option at this point, he might have good advice. But if I leave the team early, I blow my only chance of getting promoted for the first time in like 9 years (tldr office politics in my regular department) and boy do I need the money.

I feel like I need to stay for my own career but I also need to protect myself and I don’t know how. My boss doesn’t help, even though I’ve explicitly said that I feel unsafe and that I can’t communicate with Angry Man, especially when we disagree (which is a lot, because the way he feels about me seems to be that I could say “water is wet” and he would aggressively get in my face and tell me I was wrong and stupid about something so obvious). I feel like if I go above my temp boss to his bosses, things are going to get worse for my boss and not necessarily better for the team. I would cheerfully let Angry Man be in charge of my processes and fuck them up all on his own if he wasn’t being such a bully about it and constantly implying that I’m too stupid to be in charge of anything — I care about getting shit done, not the ego boost of being in charge.

I guess what I’m asking is how do I survive the next few months? How do I protect myself, given that it’s very unlikely that any of the bosses will do anything about it? I’m at the point where I can’t sleep from the sheer anxiety and my brain can’t heal fully because of it. I’m normally really good at compartmentalizing but COVID and being home all the time means I can’t separate work life from home life at all.

Literally any advice would be so much appreciated. I feel totally lost and I have no backup for what’s happening.

Thanks so much,

Fucking Sick of Angry Men

Dear Fucking Sick,

I bet Alison has some strategies for “managing up” and around a horrible team member, but I’ll do my best!

The first thing I want you to do is to institute some self-care rituals and support:

Don’t go it alone. Loop in a therapist or counselor, blow up the phones of your employer’s Employee Assistance Line, and/or ask a good friend to be your work-feelings-buddy, whatever it takes to get someone in your life who knows your confidential history of abuse and medical issues and who can help you manage the ongoing stress of dealing with this. You need a friendly voice that says, consistently: “This behavior is not okay, this is not your fault, it’s not fair that you have to bear the brunt,” as well as someone who can help you make a safety plan and also plan for staying on track with your career. 

Don’t “tough it out.” Talk to your medical team. This is harming your health, take it seriously! (This is code for: I am not a doctor but I know that there are meds that help people sleep and manage anxiety spikes, maybe your doctors can advise you about that.)

-Yes, a safety plan. This isn’t a domestic or relationship issue, but several readers have mentioned getting assistance with workplace stalkers and bullies via hotlines in the past. From what I can tell, all your interactions now are over the phone or the computer, which is fortunate, but online abuse is real abuse, and it’s extra-worrying to me that he is escalating his tirades and singling you out. Given that the Venn diagram of “Work Screaming Guy” and “Guns Are My Soulmate Guy” has some overlapping circles, talking through some worst case scenarios and what you might do about them can be a way of regaining a sense of agency, even if (hopefully) you never have to use them. Above all, pay attention to your gut, pay attention to where anxiety and stress become actual fear, and let your self-protective instincts do their job of caring for you. Others may paint your caution as overreaction, so when you start to doubt yourself, please come back here and re-read this: You are reacting to a hostile, volatile man who is targeting you, who obviously does not care about social norms like “grownups + work = no screaming?,” and who is savvy and in-control enough to use the phone to avoid creating digital records. If this seems like an overreaction, please remember that you get to react when someone showers you with hostility. 

Protect your time and attention. Think about creating a filter for ol’ Stabby McForkineye’s messages and emails, where they bypass your main inbox and go to their own special folder, which you check once or twice a day, at set intervals. You cannot control his bad behavior, but it can sometimes help regain a sense of control to set a timer and intentionally engage for 10 minutes, get it over with, then take a planned break to regroup, and work all of that into the flow of your workday when it suits you rather than living in dread because you don’t know when or how the interruption will come.

Protect your time and space. You are working from home because of the pandemic, and if you’re like most people, this means you’re probably working more and longer than you did when you had to factor in commute times and when work had a physical location. Working from home + verbal abuse at work = verbal abuse coming home with you. No wonder you don’t feel safe and can’t sleep! 

Do whatever you can to leave work at work and reclaim your evenings and weekends for yourself. Make clear start and end times for yourself, don’t look at work communications after hours, and create some decompression rituals to transition yourself from work-time to you-time at the end of each day: Get out of your work chair, and maybe don’t sit in it again until tomorrow. Sing a song while you turn off all your notifications and close your browser tabs for the day. Change your shoes and cardigan, like Mr. Rogers. 

You may feel tempted to alert your boss or your team to this development, and explain your boundaries and plans to set expectations, but in my experience, this is a trap. Reset expectations by doing what you need to do. They might not even notice, and if they do, “Oh, I was busy, but I’m here now, what’s up?” needs to be good enough. 

Consider all your options. I recommend anyone experiencing ongoing job issues to take a little time this weekend to update your resume and materials, make a list of all your professional contacts, look at what other positions are out there at competitors, and make a stab at a contingency plan for leaving this place in your dust. Sometimes economic realities mean the devil we know is the devil we’ve got to dance with for now, but not always. Lovely Letter Writer, you are a seasoned professional who is good at your job, and maybe someplace else will let you DO your job instead of unfucking a thorny H.R. nuisance for them. 

Yes? Good? Take care of you. Now I’m going to switch into Business Mode. 

So, congrats? I guess? on being the Team Diplomat. People often tell me that I’m diplomatic, and it’s true; I trained as a diplomat at War Criminal Finishing School (where apparently Kirstjen Nielsen committing serial crimes against humanity gets her euphemized as “prominent” on the home page). Being diplomatic doesn’t mean “peaceful” or “good at human-ing,” it means  understanding the levers of power and how to most effectively yank on them, and it means approaching problems from a perspective of what is the most strategic, efficient, and least expensive way to get what you need, and if that turns out to be the most peaceful way, great!  Strategic communication also applies in art school, where there’s a difference between showing ten hours of raw real-time documentary footage of an event or a complete recitation of everything that happened versus crafting an edited story that distills the facts and creates the case for what’s most interesting, important, and true.

I try to use my diplomacy powers for good, unless I’m playing Ultimate Werewolf, and I think this is one of the times it’s the right fit for the job. All the ways this guy’s behavior intersects with your history as an abuse survivor are true, but true is not the same as convincing. The convincing corporate case for yeeting this guy into [the sun’s cleansing fire][the WholeManDisposal van][the unemployment line][someone else’s problem in someone else’s department] involves drawing a direct parallel between enabling volatile, abusive, hostile behavior in the workplace and losing money. 

Isn’t this what all the “The #MeToo movement has gone too far”/”Cancel Culture is the REAL oppression” stuff where prominent, famous people sign embarrassing open letters about how they are being “silenced” is really about? A bunch of media companies and personalities are in the process of realizing, hey, it used to be cheaper for us to keep “talented” assholes around, quietly fire all their victims, and punish anyone who spoke up for being “difficult,” but if audiences decide to rudely stop paying money to be entertained by  assholes, and talented, bankable, non-asshole creators decide to rudely stop accepting the pact where having a career means spending  90+ hours/week surrounded by assholes,  it might eventually affect the bottom line. It was always wrong  to enable bigotry, misogyny, and serial abuse in the workplace, but now it threatens to be expensive, maybe downright unprofitable, and the people who feel entitled to stay permanently rich and serially abusive are huge mad about it. 

Re-traumatizing abuse survivors and jeopardizing their recovery from serious medical conditions by letting abusive coworkers scream at them (and misgender them!) without interruption should bother your company and should be enough on its own for them to want to do something about it, but in my experience, the case that this aggressive behavior is affecting your mental and physical health or reminding you of past trauma isn’t persuasive to the same minds who brought us “the pre-existing condition” as a macabre way to offload responsibility of care for people by blaming everything that happens to them on who and what they are. You say to them, “I’m an abuse survivor,” and they automatically think “Biased! Too emotional!” and you say to them “I’m recovering from a serious injury” and they think “Are you even supposed to BE here?” I know and you know that that’s bullshit, ableist bullshit, and that your survivor-early-warning system is an asset, not a liability, but in diplomacy, perceptions of power can matter as much as actual power. Besides, you’ve told your boss how this is affecting your health and your productivity, and nothing’s changed, so it’s time to try a different way, to temporarily and strategically locate your power elsewhere.

A toxic coworker like yours, Letter Writer, is costing you sleep, but he’s also costing your employer time and money, and that’s where you build your case. Everyone who buys into the “Guy who throws tantrums on the regular is obviously a genius rock star who gets to treat other people like shit, don’t be so emotional about it” calculus fails to calculate what else is lost – the brains drained, the time sucked, and that’s before we get even to the costs of stuff like lawsuits, severance packages, enforcing NDAs, and recruiting and replacing your staff every time they flee the toxic culture. If your company wants to roll out a Welcome, Assholes! banner, that’s their decision, but maybe you can help them reckon the cost. 

With this in mind, whether or not you submit real timesheets, I want you to create an unofficial separate time sheet for yourself at work, and in addition to stuff like “billable hours” and “admin,” I want you to track exactly how much of your working time is consumed with a) strategizing how to work around, placate, and appease this coworker b) redoing and correcting his bad work c) listening to him “philosophize” about the work d) listening to him scream at you and then suffering through his non-apologies and d) having your day hijacked by the stress of all of the above. 

I also want you to create a document to track his scary yelling outbursts, including the ones from the past few weeks. Keep it brief, factual, and corporate-friendly: Date, time, context (“Weekly strategy meeting”), what did he say and do, who else was there, what did they do or say in response. Add the attempts you’ve made so far to discuss this with your manager, same deal: When, who was there, what was said or done. Screencap and save copies of hostile communications, and make sure your written replies to him are professional and pristine. 

Now,  I want you to take the data from the timesheet as well as the energy from the timesheet into future interactions with this guy and future interactions with your managers and mentors about this guy. He’s not “hurting your feelings,” he’s not keeping you up at nights, he’s not triggering your PTSD  – I mean, he obviously is, but for work purposes, for diplomacy purposes, if it turns out that “an estimated twenty percent of your productive time and your team’s time” every week is spent fixing one guy’s recurring, avoidable mistakes and managing his unprofessional behavior, that’s expensive.

It’s annoying and stressful when he hijacks your work, ruins it, and presents it as his, but if every time he does this it means that you lose 2-3 days or “x number of (hu)man-hours” scrambling to document and fix the errors and rebuild what he broke, that’s something that can be quantified and accounted for in your team’s project management system, and it can be the thing that turns discussions with your manager away from “mediating a ‘contentious’ personality conflict” and toward “mitigating a serious and quantifiable performance issue.” For even better results, you can re-allocate the costs of keeping Angry Guy around to specific line items that micro-target your manager’s pressure points. Is he under pressure to curb overtime and keep projects under budget? If so, maybe every time Angry Guy fucks up, it’s a “Welp, who’s going to approve the overtime to get this done?” problem. Not you! Above your pay grade! Is your manager, or better yet, his manager, a stickler for deadlines? Then your Angry Guy is their scheduling problem, where every time he “redoes” your work or sucks one year of your life away in the daily scream-scrum, that seems like an obvious “If this keeps up, we are going to miss our release date, you know, the one we told everyone in the whole world about, the one that everyone’s bonuses depend on meeting?” issue to me.

And a lot of that information can be handled in writing, as you email your boss or post in the Slack channel, which creates a record, and a lot of it can be handled in your role as team lead for certain aspects of the work, as in, “We were scheduled to deliver X deliverable on Y date, but until the bugs that [Problem Coworker]’s last update created are resolved, we can’t move to the next stage. Manager, can you tell the client we’ll be late, and [Problem Coworker], can you get to work on making a, b, and c changes and let me know when they’re ready for me to review? If you need help, I guess we can pull [Bystander 1] and [Bystander 2] in to help you, since we can’t move ahead with [Deliverable A] until this is fixed. Thank you!” 

That’s honest, professional, and constructive on paper, but everyone can see the “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, specifically you, wait, not you” between the lines, and that’s perfectly ok. He IS screwing up and slowing all of you down. Maybe if every time he does it ends up in writing, and if he is assigned to clean up his own shitpile, he’ll be more “detail-oriented” about his work instead of crawling up your ass at every opportunity. 

I know, I know, it’s “probably just easier if you fix it yourself” and since you know he’s going to be an asshole about it, why antagonize him further, but seriously, what if you didn’t fix it every single time? What if he had to fix it, what if your whole team had stop what they’re doing to fix it with him, what if every delay he caused was rolled right back to his doorstep where it belongs?

You’re a team leader, for certain parts of this project, so use those powers! He’s going to rage and undermine you no matter what you do, so you might as well antagonize him in a way that works better for you. Think: Stricter version control and approval protocols, where files are secured while you’re on leave so he can’t alter them, and if he squawks about it, you shrug and say, “Let’s try it my way this time. See you next week!” Think: Working it out with your manager that nothing that comes from him is ever, ever final, so when he tries this again, your manager can say “Oh, thanks, but I only want to see things after Letter Writer has approved them, so until they’re back from leave, why don’t you focus on [YOUR ACTUAL WORK]. Thanks so much!” 

I’m going to get to meetings in a moment, but I don’t think you should talk on the phone with this man anymore, especially not without witnesses. If you absolutely must speak on the phone for work purposes, try, “Oh, let me loop [manager or colleague] in real quick so we don’t have to say it twice.” Otherwise, put all of your instructions and necessary info in writing and direct him to respond the same way, so you can engage at your convenience and not at Mr. Flying-Spittle-Is-Just-How-I-Share-My-Logical-Thoughts’s mood. 

Great, let’s talk about meetings. My strong opinion is that if someone is screaming at work while other people have to listen to and or watch them scream, that’s a very bad work meeting, and whoever is running the meeting is very, very bad at their job. It’s also a sign that y’all are probably having too many meetings that are too long and too unstructured, and that future meetings need a clear time window and moderator with authority to say  “Interesting point, Gregothy, but that’s not on our agenda.”

It is your manager’s job, their literal job, to interrupt this shit, communicate clearly that it’s unacceptable, check in with the people being yelled at to see if they are okay and make sure they know it’s unacceptable, and document it for HR. Everyone’s always so worried about possibly overreacting to bad behavior, when the problem is that they fail to react to it at all, letting it escalate from a small, fixable problem into an unmanageable, unsafe one. Honestly, the very first time this guy Hulked out at work it should have required a whole series of annoying and tedious conversations with various supervisors in the vein of, “We’re very concerned about you, are you all right? You’re behaving so strangely. Also, hey, while we’re here, let’s review some company policies and expectations around professional behavior. Oh, by the way, I’ve signed you up for this 10-part coaching series on effective communication, and oh yes, it is extremely fucking mandatory. Also, before I forget, definitely please copy me when you send an apology to [everyone you screamed at] so I can add it to the file, and I’d appreciate it if you make a habit of double-checking your work before you pass it on for review, it really wastes time when we have to backtrack.” 

 You may be limited in how much you can control how your team’s meetings go, but it may be worth a try with your boss. “Can we try to limit meetings to 20 minutes, stick to an agenda, and stop enabling, um, ‘strong personalities’ to hijack them?” is a reasonable request to make of your manager. 

If your boss is no help (a likely scenario) what if there were ways you could limit your exposure to Yelling Guy without asking for anyone’s permission or counting on them to intervene? 

I want you to close your eyes and imagine your usual meeting situation, on video chat or conference call, where the recent yelling incidents have occurred. Take some deep breaths, and imagine that the next time Angry Guy starts screaming at you, you’re allowed to just...leave. 

You could say something, first, like, “Oh, you’ll have to excuse me for a moment” or “You seem pretty worked up, why don’t you send me an email when you’ve had a chance to calm down and organize your thoughts” or “Let me stop you there – Bystander Coworker didn’t get to finish their thought, please continue, Bystander!” 

But you don’t have to say anything, you don’t have to confront him or even alert him. Mute yourself, then mute the audio and/or video so you can’t hear him while you stand up, and GO. Go get some water, check the mail, move the laundry from the washer to the dryer, cuddle the dog, do some stretches and squats, water your plants, text your best friend, scroll your Twitter, do some of the actual work that’s piling up, or do any number of things that are not “sit there and let an adult man scream at you for what we are pretending are work purposes.” 

I know it’s scary/”rude,” but is it really impossible? Will you receive electric shocks or a spanking or have to go without dinner if you get up from your work-chair? Is he saying anything that’s important to getting work done? Is he saying literally anything that couldn’t be resolved by you checking back in 20 minutes to see if he’s still ranting, at which time you could say, “Oh, sorry Jim-bastian, I had to step away for a moment, can somebody catch me up real quick or is it time to move on to [next agenda item]?” 

On a really bad day, make a game of it: “Sorry, I didn’t catch that. Say again?” and see how many times you can get him to repeat his nonsense. His behavior is absurd, so let it get as absurd as he insists on making it. As long as you double-check that your video is off, probably no one will ever know if one day you take your lumpiest, least functional sock from the reject pile, glue some googly eyes on it, and have it mime his rants while he’s talking. 

If you’re thinking, “oh, I couldn’t possibly do that,” I understand. On a personal level, when someone is screaming at us, and we have a history of getting screamed at, it’s really hard, and really scary, to break through the “freeze” impulse and switch into “flight” mode. Plus, you’re technically at work, where we’re conditioned over a lifetime to “be professional,” which sometimes means “silently comply with abusive behavior for the sake of the shareholders, and collectively pretend that really weird shit isn’t actually happening for the sake of the abstract concept of politeness, a thing we totally value, except when That Guy is talking.” 

But what if you can actually…leave? Disconnect? Disengage? Go on a series of mini-wildcat strikes until morale improves? My internet connection dies four times a day, my apartment absorbs all cell phone signal, my cat Daniel loves to jump on my laptop during a Zoom and show all the nice people his butthole right before he accidentally disconnects me or closes my browser, or I have to get up for a second and buzz a delivery person in since they all know that I work from home and will let them into the lobby even if the package isn’t mine. You’re human, humans need bathroom breaks or to sign for their neighbor’s Fedex package or to find out what that crash was when the cat knocked something over, and if your coworkers notice that your connection gets dodgy or your bladder gets full consistently every single time Angry Guy has one of his turns, so what? 

They won’t call him out for behaving like a toddler without a juice box, so why would they call you out for your mysterious and convenient connection interruptions? Oh, they don’t like sitting there and being expected to pay attention during someone’s tantrum? And Angry Guy doesn’t like lip-boxing with your empty chair? Weird, maybe somebody should do something about that, oh crap, sorry, your neighbor’s knocking and she usually doesn’t knock so maybe there’s an emergency, her dad’s been getting confused and wandering off lately, and you can’t remember what you did with your mask, anyway, you’ll be right back and you’re excited to hear what creative solutions they’ve come up with. 

If your manager, who won’t go to bat for you with an obvious bad actor, is going to call you out, make him do it. DARE HIM to do it. This too is diplomacy, the part where cards go on the table, and in your hand are things like:

  • “Oh yes, I’m definitely tapping out of meetings whenever he screams, is it that obvious? But…surely you don’t expect people to sit still for verbal abuse at work?” 
  • “You should know, I’ve started documenting Angry Guy’s outbursts for H.R. I’d rather not have to waste time with all that, but if he’s not going to stop on his own, and you’re sure your hands are tied, it’s probably time to kick this up a pay grade or two, wouldn’t you agree? Especially since this month alone he’s set us back at least a week, if not more, from meeting our deadlines.” Your manager is very nice, I know, you like him, I know, but he is failing you, big time. If you go this route, think of it less as “getting him in trouble” and more as “giving him one last opportunity to do the right thing for a change.” 
  • Depending on the laws where you live (a mixed bag, sadly), it’s pretty interesting that Angry Guy is repeatedly targeting the transgender person on your team, and incredibly interesting that your manager is allowing him to do that unchecked, and also quite intriguing that your other coworkers also just let it happen. What are the words I’m looking for? “Hostile work environment?” Expensive words!

Look, I don’t know if any of these things will make things better, you might just get “differently awful,” in which case, definitely get in touch with your former boss and your old team and see what you can work out and how expensive you can make it for the company so that you can eat nice things. But also, for your own safety, health, sanity, stress level, and career, please find ways to stop complying with, excusing, and subjecting yourself to this man’s bad behavior within the parameters you’ve got now. He’s a villain, but he’s not a SUPER-villain, he’s a mean, sad, small man and chances really are that you won’t melt or die if you tune him the fuck out 90% of the time, squeeze out whatever 10% of usefulness he’s got where you can, and generally get on with your days. 

❤ and luck to you.