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posted: 12/15/2013 6:02 AM

Work Advice: Co-worker danger zones

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You don't have to like your colleagues, but you shouldn't have to fear them. Two cases of disquieting co-workers, one concerning a reclusive and one that involves more aggressive interactions.

Q: I work at a large office where another employee is obviously mentally ill. She has always been withdrawn and uncommunicative, not even making eye contact in the hall. Lately, she appears almost catatonic, with no natural expressions or reactions. She looks like a ghost. She has worked there for at least a decade and is now the "elephant in the room."

How can I know that HR is addressing or assessing her problem? To what extent should it? "Had a history of mental illness" and "always kept to him-/herself" are quotes repeated in so many news stories about violent outbursts.

A: Maybe I'm overly protective of introverts, but I think it's a leap from a subdued personality to "mentally ill." I'd be more concerned about "violent outbursts" if you had mentioned red flags beyond her flat affect: manic states, threats, clashes with authority, poor performance.

Your colleague may be battling illness or depleted from caring for a sick relative. She could have a social phobia or be a victim of domestic abuse. Whatever the issue, she shouldn't have to be a suspected threat to her co-workers for her change in personality to merit concern.

Expressing that concern can be tricky, though. Employers have to "strike a balance between being helpful and not being intrusive," says Declan Leonard, managing partner at employment law firm Berenzweig Leonard. In particular, they must avoid "playing doctor" with off-the-cuff diagnoses such as "we think you might have depression," which recasts the conversation -- and any future actions -- through the lens of the Americans With Disabilities Act. A better approach, says Leonard, is for her manager to open a dialogue that focuses on performance, including interpersonal behavior: "I notice you seem detached or distracted lately, and I'm concerned about you. Is everything all right?" And then her manager should listen, maybe with the number of the company's employee assistance program handy.

Notice I said "her manager." So where does that leave you, her nervous co-worker? Leonard recommends you approach the manager: "Luna seems quieter than usual lately, and it worries me. I thought I should bring it to your attention." The manager should confirm that the matter is being or will be looked into. If not, you may want to contact HR -- but your stated focus should always be Luna's well-being.

Q: The assistant director of our association can be charming and humorous, but is also known for sending pointed, unpleasant emails, of which I have been the most frequent recipient (he copies other colleagues). Other employees have referred to him as a bully. Many months ago, he locked his eyes on mine as he walked by my office. It was unnerving, but I rationalized that he was lost in thought.

Since then, he has done this -- head cocked back a little, mouth slightly open, eyes drilled on me as if he has me "in his sights," turning his head back as he walks past -- at least half a dozen times with increasing regularity but never when others have been watching. The look on his face has made me wonder if he might do something to me when I leave at night.

I have not mentioned any of this to our director, but I think it might be time to do so in the hope that the assistant director will be told that his acts are not benign, are recognized as intimidation, have been documented and are unacceptable.

A: I can't tell how likely you are to be attacked -- but it's never a bad idea to exit the office at night with a trusted colleague or five.

Before you go to the boss, try one thing: Next time he gives you the Big Mouth Billy Bass treatment, stop what you're doing and ask pleasantly, but loudly, "Did you need something, Bill?" If he looks startled or denies it: "Oh, you looked as though you were about to ask me a question." This will 1) alert people nearby to his behavior, and 2) show him you're not fazed -- or 3) alert him to the fact that he suffers from chronic resting derp-face.

Meanwhile, start keeping a record of every uncomfortable encounter, along with copies of his nastygrams. If his behavior continues or escalates, you will have evidence of a pattern when you tell the director: "I get the impression Bill's angry at me. Every so often when he passes my office, he seems to glare at me. I find it uncomfortable."

It's your director's job to manage workplace conflicts and to take action when threats are involved. An employer can be held liable if an employee known to be a threat harms someone else. But the employer can't know what those threats might be, or take action against them, if the people who feel threatened don't speak up.

• Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office. You can find her on Twitter, @KarlaAtWork.

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