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I work as a barista at a well-known coffee company. I have about nine years of experience with the company, so coworkers often ask me for advice. I injured my knee at the beginning of August and had to go on a leave of absence for about six weeks. When I came back to work, several changes had taken place:

  • The store manager had left the store (expected),
  • The district manager had left the company (unexpected),
  • Several new shift supervisors were transferred in,
  • A former store manager was transferred in at an entry-level position, and
  • The replacement store manager arrived with no prior food service experience or experience in the company.

That's the background I returned to. I immediately noticed tensions were up and individuals sniping at one another or being casually rude to less-experienced employees. The layout of product in the store changed daily for several weeks, with these changes being ascribed to "Person A". Person A is the former store manager who transferred in.

Person A adopts dominance postures (one hand tucked in the apron, raises her head to talk to speak to others) and acts outside her role (telling shift supervisors what they should do). The store manager also goes directly to Person A for advice in managing the store every day that they work together. Their talks are regular and frequent, and the store manager places considerable faith in Person A's advice.

The Event

After maybe two or three weeks and a maximum of ten shifts worked at least partly concurrently, Person A approached me while my back was turned, placed her hand on my opposing shoulder tightly, rested her elbow on my lower-mid back and said from roughly a foot from my ear, "I really love working with you. You're always smiling." Please note that I was standing with my stomach against a counter--I could not move without pushing her.

My Concerns

Firstly, I am consulting here as I have PTSD, and thus feel threatened easily. I wasn't sure what was happening or why. The comment itself was fine, but the context made it feel inappropriate. Had it been a male touching me, I would have felt physically threatened.

Secondly, Person A is basically in charge of the store when she is present. One of the two shift supervisors I primarily work with is comfortable with this, as they have worked together previously (and he is relatively new to his position). The store manager has medical issues and tardiness issues, so she is often late or absent. There is no assistant manager at my store. Person A also has not been a store manager for several years, and is well behind the curve on current policies and procedures.

To continue, individuals who have been at the store immediately came to me after my return from absence to express concern at Person A's level of control over the store. Since I'm not in a management position, I expressed that I'm not in a position to affect change. Suggestions of bringing it to the store manager were met with frustration and reminders of the close working relationships between Person A and the new store manager.

Lastly, I met the new district manager a few days ago. Her first words after pleasantries were to inquire how well Person A is working out. I do not know this district manager, though I recognize the name.

My Current Thinking

If Person A touches me again, I intend to try to ask her to stop doing so (it's difficult in the moment when panic hits). Beyond that, I'm kind of at a loss. My own history makes confrontation difficult for me.

My Question

  • Should I be concerned about the incident? Am I overreacting?
  • How do I express my concerns about the incident and her other behavior without creating additional friction/drama?
  • Transferring is not my preferred course of action, as I work at this store because of the customers (there are multiple locations nearer to where I live, but I work at a very well-established store--one of the first in the area).

For clarification, I am in the USA.

  • What did you tell the district manager? – David Thornley Oct 10 '18 at 14:59
  • @DavidThornley Nothing, aside from introducing myself and shaking her hand. I first met her two days ago. – Jon Harper Oct 10 '18 at 17:18
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Should I be concerned about the incident?

In my opinion yes. Unless you know a colleague well enough to be 110% sure that touching/interacting them in the way you describe the "event" is acceptable by them it's out of line - and you need to be 220% sure if that person is of the opposite gender.

Am I overreacting?

Not at all - you have PTSD, pretty much one of the key defining characteristics of PTSD is that you can't control how you react when triggered! In fact one of the reasons why you don't go around doing what Person A did in the workplace is that you can't know if the person may have something like PTSD and it's not exactly practical (or fair) to have sufferers such as yourself wear signs around their necks saying "don't touch me, I have PTSD"

How do I express my concerns about the incident and her other behavior without creating additional friction/drama?

If you feel able see if you can talk to Person A 1-1 and say that due to personal reasons that have nothing to do with her that you felt uncomfortable with what happened and that you would ask them not to do anything similar again. While it sounds as if Person A has many..challenging personality traits I very much doubt they intended you to feel that way, and it may help for you to stress that fact with them.

If you don't feel able to approach Person A directly I would talk to the store manager about it next time they are in.

Don't worry about having to say something "in the moment" - you actually may be better off saying something once you are feeling calmer as you'll likely be better able to articulate yourself and reduce the potential for friction/drama as a result.

  • I appreciate your advice. Though it coincides strongly with most of the other answers, the last paragraph struck a particular chord with me. I would be likely to react more strongly in the moment. I ought not to kick myself for not doing so. I also found the "it may not have been intentional; look their their perspective" helpful. – Jon Harper Oct 10 '18 at 17:21
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Addressing the questions from a UK centric approach:

Should I be concerned about the incident?

Potentially. If this made you uncomfortable, then you absolutely should be concerned. However, it is worth considering the intent behind the contact.

Am I overreacting?

Maybe, but without further information it is hard to answer. With the info provided, I would say that your reaction and concern is valid.

How do I express my concerns about the incident and her other behavior without creating additional friction/drama?

Address it directly if possible. Speak to the person involved and explain that due to some personal issues you're not comfortable with contact. If you're happy to explain further then do so, otherwise leave it there.

It is likely that this was an attempt at being friendly, and they failed to perceive your discomfort. If that's the case, confronting the issue in a calm and friendly manner will likely resolve it.

If, however, they meant to make you uncomfortable, it may result in some workplace bitchiness. If that happens, escalate to management.

And the other behaviour?

Not much you can do here. Management is the best option, but only speak for yourself. Invite your colleagues to do the same if they have issues.

  • Thank you for your answer. I found it helpful, as well, but SE only allows one accepted answer. ;-) – Jon Harper Oct 10 '18 at 17:25
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Welcome to the site!

I don't think I can comment on whether you are overreacting or what your options are with any certainity - I can give you at best an opinion to that I think you should hold off on sounding the alarm. It sounds like there is a lot of tension lately and the best idea - again my opinion - then is to try to avoid overinterpreting and as best you can be the "eye of the storm". This will help your teammates as well - having one person that seem unaffected is going to help alot.

As for your emboldened point: At first, assume no harm: (chosen life principle on my part)

I would at least let her know about the PTSD:

"Hey A, I don't want this to become a big issue, but because of my experiences...

insert if you will a brief but unpersonal description of the experiences - if it is not sexual abuse or anything very personal. Like "After Iraq..." or "There was an incident at my college and because of it

...I have a mild PTSD and I really don't have a nice day after someone approaches me from behind and adresses me like you did the other day. I know you didn't mean any harm, so don't worry about it - but I thought I should let you know that you have to avoid approaching me like that. I really try to be the best version of myself at work and I'd appreciate your making it easier for me to do that. Sorry and thanks!"

Now if it repeats after that you are basically in a fight-or-flight situation. Either fight it by making it more official, involving manager and HR, or by asserting your own dominance (which is not ideal, it adds fuel to an ongoing fire, but it works. I won't advise anyone on how to be a d*ck towards someone else at work though)

Or flight: Find a new job. We coffee-lovers are LEGION and there is bound to be other opportunities for you!

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Should I be concerned about the incident? Am I overreacting?

I suspect you are overreacting about the incident. If it happened once, I personally wouldn't be concerned, but your concerns are personal to you, perhaps due to your PTSD. If you are touched again in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, use that opportunity to immediately ask whoever touched you to stop.

How do I express my concerns about the incident and her other behavior without creating additional friction/drama?

It's unlikely you can go very far expressing concerns about "her other behavior" without creating friction and/or drama. That's normal. Clearly things have changed during your six week absence. And maybe you are no longer the "go to guy" that you were before. That may change over time, or it may just be something you have to learn to live with.

  • I agree about her other behavior. I'm inclined to stay out of it, lest I be caught up. – Jon Harper Oct 10 '18 at 14:08
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I'd be concerned about the incident.

A hand on the shoulder is reasonably normal. I wouldn't do it to someone I didn't know would accept it, but it's not surprising. The elbow in the back is concerning. That's not normal. Neither is pinning an employee while saying something to them.

Since you have PTSD (is it officially diagnosed?), you have some legal protection, and your employer is almost certainly required to make reasonable accommodations for your job. Not being touched by co-workers is very reasonable. This may also be some form of sexual harassment (I don't have enough details to make a reasonable guess, but your name is typically male, the touching excessive, and the compliment ambiguous). In any case, it puts you in a position to file a lawsuit if anything happens, which is what HR wants to avoid.

It would be best to try to solve your problems before going to HR. I'd suggest telling A that A's touching was unwanted, and that it should not happen again. Be free to describe what about it was particularly bad. If your PTSD is not known to the store workers, I'd consider not mentioning it at first. Don't wait until it happens again. You're better off doing that when you're reasonably calm, which is not when your PTSD is triggered.

As you realize, the situation at the store is strange, and you might consider finding another job. If you stay there, it would probably be best to try to keep out o the politics going on and concentrating on keeping yourself safe. HR at least should be concerned, since if the behavior continues you're a lawsuit threat, and I hope they listen to you.

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