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How do I deal with an office bully (and my best friend who defends him)?

The question

My best friend and I are employed at the same workplace. She became good friends with a newly hired co-worker, who also started to pursue a friendship with me.

Although I initially thought him odd, I trusted my best friend's lead and reciprocated his friendship. Before long, he started to harass me verbally and over e-mail, even making discriminatory remarks to the point that I am strongly considering filing a formal harassment complaint. While my best friend agrees that this co-worker's behaviour is unacceptable, she attributes his behaviour to poor social skills. What disturbs me most is that my best friend told me she still likes him despite how he acted toward me and continues to be very friendly with him. I want to confront her about this, but do not wish to place her in a position of choosing between us. What should I do?

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The answer

I've always dipped in and out of the go-to-office work force.

Mostly, I work from home. (Or "from garage," really: I have an office in my garage – I'm like the garage band of writers.) It suits me. I'm a bit of an "urban hermit," I guess. Solitude nourishes me. If I don't get a daily dose of it, I start to feel like my house (the metaphorical house of my soul, but also my actual house) is in disarray.

But I like working with people, too. Lately I've been doing a bit of radio, and I've loved being part of a team. To have a photo-ID badge I wear around my neck, that I use to beep my way in and out of various security gizmos. To wear a different shirt every day. To make coffee in the break room, kibitz and shoot the … breeze with my newfound colleagues.

Them: "Hey, what's happening, Dave?"

Me: "Ah, same old same old. What about you? What're you doing on the weekend?"

I like it! There are lots of smart, interesting people there and who knows? Maybe some of them could become friends, come over to my house, barbecue, drink beers, etc.

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But here's the thing: you want to let a workplace friendship grow slowly, organically. Because if a workplace friendship, like a workplace romance, falls apart, you can't just walk away. You're stuck seeing that person every day for months, years, maybe even decades.

It sounds like you jumped into this one feet-first, with very little information, and without putting him through any hoops. Friendship-formation can be accelerated in an office environment, because of the daily contact. But you still have to put the person though all the usual tests – usually having to do with loyalty, but also hidden aggression and poor impulse control (even more true of romantic entanglements) – as you would with any other type of friendship.

Sure, you could go to HR with a formal complaint, but are you sure you want to start a war? Are you sure you'd win? You might be in the right, but as my grandmother used to say: "If you get hit and killed by a car, it doesn't matter if you had the right of way."

And this guy sounds like the type to fight viciously, like a cornered animal – especially since you'd be threatening his ability to put bread and meat on the table for himself and his family, if he has one.

The atmosphere in your office could go from unpleasant to genuinely toxic – soupy and hot and poisonous, like the atmosphere of Venus. I've seen it happen.

No, were I you, I would, first of all, keep a diary of all the nasty/abusive stuff he says. Mediators, HR types and their ilk are more impressed by something written down than by verbal testimony – even if it's you writing it! (The power of the written word: never underestimate it.)

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And certainly keep his e-mails. E-mails (we should all remember, all the time) are legal documents, and will hold up not only in mediation but court – should it come to that.

In the meantime, I'd try to defuse/de-escalate the situation with this nasty newbie. Something to the effect of, "Listen, let's just try to keep this professional" should suffice.

Followed by moonwalking back a couple of steps, keeping this uncharismatic character at arm's-length. Your attempt at friendship didn't work, to say the least. So shut it down.

If he continues his unacceptable behaviour, you'll be better armed (with your diary and e-mails) to launch a formal complaint and take him down.

Vis-à-vis your "best friend," well, I wouldn't force her to choose between you. But her lack of loyalty is definitely a red flag. Take her out and tell her it bothers you. If she offers you the verbal equivalent of a shrug, you may have to start shopping for a new bestie.

Are you in a sticky situation? Send your dilemmas to Please keep your submissions to 150 words and include a daytime contact number so we can follow up with any queries.

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