I've been working at this office for about 3 months now and everything seems to be going smooth. During our company's time allocated for sports while we were standing with ~12 people on the field, somone came from the office and shouted toward John that his child was sick. A little while later I tried to make smalltalk with John, nothing out of the ordinary here. I was worried about John's child so naturally I asked if everything was all right. To which he replied:

Yes everything is fine.

Turned out that this was not the case and totally inappropriate to ask. He was struggeling to keep his tears in for the next 4 hours. I felt really bad afterwards but assumed that he knew I didn't mean to hurt him like that.

Forward a couple of days and his behaviour toward me has totally flipped. He rarely jokes with me anymore and I can just feel a vengeful tone when he speaks to me. Today first thing in the morning when I entered the office after I greeted everyone he remarked:

You should settle down a bit and keep your noise down.

Then 10 mins later at the coffee machine I asked if he meant it and if he did that I would adjust. To which his reply was:

Yeah I did mean that, rumours have spread, you should know your place as an intern.


I'm at a loss here, I really didn't think he would take it as a personal attack. How can I make clear that I didn't know about his situation and want to apologise?


My ambition is to join this company in the future so approaching this situation with the utmost care is important

  • 3
    Did you apologize to him when you found out that it was inappropriate?
    – Masked Man
    Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 8:44
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    Maybe I'm socially awkward or something, but asking someone if everything is alright seems totally fine to me and not something anyone should apologise for. Your colleague is the one who acted inappropriately. Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 10:39
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    agreed with @JonathonCowley-Thom, I totally don't get why he is upset. you showed genuine concern. It is okay for him to be upset about his child being sick, but I don't think its okay for him to be upset with you for asking.
    – Sabine
    Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 10:49
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    @AnneDaunted I asked "I heard your daughter was ill, is everything alright?" Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 10:57
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    Occam's Razor. It doesn't make sense that he's this upset about the question. Assuming you're truthful and your memory doesn't fail you, chances are he's upset about something different. You can't resolve this if you don't even know what "this" is. You need a mediator if you want to actually resolve the situation - HR is a possibility, so is the team lead, or the mentor, if you have one.
    – Peter
    Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 10:17

5 Answers 5


How can I make clear that I didn't know about his situation and want to apologise?

By actually apologising. And that means making a real apology, not the "I'm sorry you were upset" kind of nonpology. You should express regret that you did something that hurt him, acknowledgement that his hurt is real and valid, and how you're going to try to make sure it doesn't happen again. Here's an example:

"John, I'm so very sorry that I spoke out of turn and upset you the other day. It was wrong of me to ask about something so personal, and I really regret hurting you by bringing up something so painful for you. Next time I'll think twice before I ask about something like that. I hope you can forgive me."

You should also be aware that John is having a really hard time right now; his reaction might be disproportionate, because his feelings are all over the place. Anxiety, worry and grief may make him snappish; he may be subconsciously looking for something to be angry at because anger is a more acceptable emotion than sadness. You may be the target of that. If so, be the bigger person and accept it.

If the situation doesn't get better, you could also go talk to your manager or someone else you trust and tell them that you said something that hurt John, and you've apologized but there's still strain between you and you'd like advise on how to improve matters so you can be a better coworker. Showing up to take responsibility for fixing problems is what a good person, and a good coworker/employee, does, so any reasonable manager should appreciate it.

Edit: Since this has come up in comments: I don't think you actually did anything wrong, at least not intentionally. The error was that you misjudged the situation. When it comes to something that's very painful, many people want to choose how, when and to whom they talk about it. Having someone who's not close bring the topic up can feel very intrusive, in addition to it bringing the painful subject to mind and thus affecting the work day. Some people prefer to handle a painful home situation by putting all thoughts of it aside during the work day and focusing on work only. John appears to be one of these. Again, you acted with good intentions, but the outcome was nevertheless that he was hurt. And when we inadvertently hurt someone with words, the right thing to do is to apologize, just as when we inadvertently step on someone's toes or spill their coffee or in any other way cause them hurt or problems.


Turned out that this was not the case...

If the question you posted can be taken at face value, you're not in the wrong for having asked.

John clearly has a problem in his personal life that was forced into his professional life by no doing of his own and certainly not by yours. Anger about that should be directed toward whoever called the office and divulged the details to your other co-worker and the co-worker who divulged it to all of you by shouting it across the field. It should never have gone beyond "John, you have an urgent call; please come inside to take it."

John had the options of telling you he'd rather not discuss it and even that he was upset that the details were divulged but didn't avail himself of either. He compounded that decision by lying, and that's something you really shouldn't do ever.

He was struggling to keep his tears in for the next 4 hours.

If the problem was severe enough to have an effect on his behavior in the office, the professional thing to do would have been taking the rest of the day off to be with his family. There are a few situations where toughing it out at work under those circumstances is the right thing to do, but odds are good this isn't one of them.

Your place as an intern is to behave like a professional, just like everybody else in the office. Expressing concern for co-workers is the sign of a good human and isn't unprofessional behavior by any stretch of the imagination. I think you've held up your end of the act-like-a-professional bargain, and it's admirable that you recognize a problem when you see one and are willing to ask for the opinions of others in resolving it.

At this point, it's up to you to be the adult and put a stop to the situation before it gets worse. Take John aside and make a few points politely but firmly:

  • You appreciate that this is a difficult time for him.
  • You value the professional camaraderie you've had so far and would rather not have the remainder of your time at the company marred by animus.
  • You weren't the one that made his situation public.
  • You asked if everything was okay because you care.
  • If he didn't want to discuss it, he should have said so.
  • His behavior toward you after the fact is unprofessional and undeserved.
  • His behavior is even more unprofessional if he's spreading rumors about you. (Don't make that accusation without having your facts straight first.)
  • Regardless of your position in the company, you expect the same professional treatment from your co-workers that they expect of you and that you do your best to deliver.

I'm probably going to get a few comments and downvotes as "too harsh," but there's nothing wrong with standing up for yourself. Just don't be an ass about it.

The reaction you get from this should be incorporated into your opinion about whether or not you want to work for this company. Maybe John is the one employee there who can't behave professionally when his personal life puts him under pressure, but he might also be representative of the kind of people the company hires.


How bad is the situation with his child?

Everything you've said is consistent with a person struggling at work due to personal reasons.

He could well have stopped joking... because he's sad.

I've never met batman, so I don't know what a"vengeful tone" is, is it possible you're mistaken maybe the tone is one of stress?

You note he rarely jokes with you.. so he still jokes with you. Doesn't sound like someone with vengeance.

Hope loud are you when you come in? Are you... annoyingly loud, perhaps? perhaps John is looking out for you.

" Yeah I did mean that, rumors have spread, you should know your place as an intern. "

What rumours might spread, incidentally? Even assuming your estimation of the situation is correct... nothing there would lead John to say "rumours". He was, after all, there.

Rumours have spread... could imply the company is looking at layoffs. As an intern you don't add value, so could be the first to go.

From comments

  • OP notes OP is not paid, although be aware that interns still cost money
  • If OP has other friends, might be good to find out what rumours might be out there.
  • Failing that, ask John what rumours there are only.
  • Still don't feel there is a problem between OP and john.


Respect that John is having difficulties with his daughter, and this will change how you act very quickly. Don't expect him to joke around as much, that's surreal. Best you can do is ask him out for coffee or lunch, tell him you're sorry about what's going on, and if he needs anything to let him know. That's it, all you can do.

Just act more professionally too. I'm imagining you screaming "good morning" across the office each day... maybe drop that too for the time being.

You might want to escalate to your manager - by escalate I mean "ask for advice". That's the most rational choice, given the things you are unaware of.

  • @Afriendly then what rumours is he referring to? It didn't make sense he refers to you asking him how his daughter is.
    – bharal
    Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 15:08
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    I don't think he should apologize to this individual. This individual should be apologizing to OP for spreading rumors about him and telling him to know his place.
    – Jack
    Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 2:47
  • @Jack I never suggested he apologise for anything?
    – bharal
    Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 4:48

There seems to be something going on that you are not aware of. I hardly see what you did as an offence, maybe something out of touch but nobody with a degree of emotional intelligence would believe you meant harm by asking "How is your daughter".

I would advise, first, to ask him to have a 1 minute to talk alone.

Then you could approach the issue:

I have noticed that while we had a nice professional relation at first now it seems that I have upset you somehow. I am not sure what have caused that and since I care about you, could you please let me know what have I done?

  • I would go to the manager instead. If something is going on that made the colleague go bad, a 1 on 1 can only go worse imo
    – Paolo
    Commented Mar 4, 2018 at 11:20
  • @Paolo I respect your opinion. In general I prefer to avoid going to managers to talk about interpersonal issues as long as I haven't talk about those issues with the person itself.
    – Mr Me
    Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 10:35
  • the issue here is that the coworker looks as not reasonable and can make everything worse spreading rumors about the 1 on 1. Maybe not with a manager, but I would not go alone.
    – Paolo
    Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 10:43

Report him to HR for this totally inappropriate behavior.

Mending your relationship with him won't do anything. He has already shown his true colors. If such a minor question asked with good intentions triggers him this much, what about next time he decides to get offended? Or the time after that?

I suspect he is a drama queen that likes to stir up conflict.

This quote in particular is completely out of bounds.

Yeah I did mean that, rumors have spread, you should know your place as an intern.

He should be apologizing to YOU. He is spreading rumors about you and demeaning you. This is an HR problem.

  • 1
    This is bad advice in my estimation, I could joke lots with him before the incident. I really don't want to put him against me. Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 8:46
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    I'd avoid this. Bringing HR into interpersonal issues invariably makes things worse and creates a toxic working environment.
    – user44108
    Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 8:50
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    Given that we're talking about an internship, this is actually very good advice, despite the downvotes. While a majority on workplace,stackexchange are terribly afraid of HR, competent and well meaning HR is great at resolving such issues. There's a chance it can backfire, but we're talking about an internship here, and it's a great opportunity to learn about HR early in the OP's career. On the other hand, learning to apologize for doing the right thing - as advised by the other answers - can cause serious career damage as it enables and even encourages mobbing.
    – Peter
    Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 9:17
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    @Snow I think you misunderstand who is causing the toxic environment here. The one spreading rumors and telling someone to know their place is the toxic one.
    – Jack
    Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 9:37

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