141

I work on a project that requires many on-site meetings at the client's location, with client people from different departments. These departments can be considered as closed silos, where everyone knows only the things they care about, and nothing more (obviously some people are more open whereas others follow this policy strictly). For example, we recently attended a two-hour meeting with 18 people from 9-10 different departments to discuss the position, the color and the label of a single button in a web page.

Because of politics/personal dislikes/etc(I don't exactly know), some meetings become very heated: I could cite countless times where people yell at each other, I could cite a dozen times when people insult each other (many-a-time personal insults) and I personally saw yesterday people start a physical fight1 (the reason I decided to ask this question).

How should I behave the next time I will be in such a situation? Should I directly intervene to separate the contenders? Should I try to stop the heated meeting from becoming a fight? Should I stay in my corner and not get involved?

1 A coworker and I were in a meeting with 7 people from 4 departments of the client. Two of these departments are in a big delay: this delay will probably cost the company a huge fine (a million). Immediately people start to shout at each other and in less than 5 minutes, they were launching insults at each other. In the meanwhile, my coworker and I were in a corner speechless. After a few minutes, 3 other people join the meeting and the situation escalated: someone blinded by anger threw his laptop at other people and broke the glass door of the meeting room. At this point, 4 or 5 people began a physical fight. A lot of people came in and, with a lot of difficulty, they separated the contenders. We were asked to return to our office.

  • 2
    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Mister Positive Mar 12 at 19:04
  • 5
    Would it be possible to not have those meetings in the first place? Sounds like a lot of wasted time to discuss two hours about a button placement with 18 people. Maybe create three visual mockups, mail them to the people involved, get feedback by email, and pick one? Then, when someone questions the chosen option, you stress that this will be the one that will be deployed, but it can be changed later until experiences have been gathered in the actual production environment. – ZeroOne Mar 14 at 6:22
  • 8
    This... honestly sounds like the script to some dark-humour comedy about office workers... At this point I'd be tempted to whip out my cellphone and start recording... – Shaamaan Mar 14 at 8:31
  • 2
    @H.W.Bawan So how do people get invited to your meetings then? The same process should work for involving enough people by email. Also, I'd be careful not to let the parties actually discuss the matter over email, that'll only turn into yet another confusing shouting contest. Send them private emails and/or a link to some Google Forms document that they can fill out to give their feedback. (I can't post all this as an answer since I'm totally reframing the question, as the root issue is obviously elsewhere: people just shouldn't start fighting in meetings...) – ZeroOne Mar 14 at 13:46
  • 4
    @ZeroOne I wonder if there's some connection between having meetings like the one with 2-hour 18 person meeting to discuss a button and a "big delay" costing the company millions. – JimmyJames Mar 14 at 18:05

10 Answers 10

175

Unless you are a supervisor of someone involved (which you are not), your role is to provide physical security (which it is not), or someone is at risk of severe personal harm (discretionary):

DO NOT GET INVOLVED

You should at all times act in a professional manner. The behaviour of others is no excuse to act in an unprofessional (and criminal) manner. This can be hard as it's hard to remain clean when you're in a pig sty.

If you are ever physically threatened, you should leave the area immediately and report the matter immediately following your organisational policies. You should sit near the door, if practical, and if there is violence, calmly leave, unless doing so will put you in danger.

You should ensure that your supervisor is aware of what happens in these meetings, and you should carefully document your involvement in the meetings.

The person in charge of organising these meetings from your side should look at alternative arrangements, such as teleconferencing, or asynchronous forms of communication. Your employer has a responsibility for your safety.

If you are a contractor, it is reasonable to request alternative arrangements. Speak to your contact at the company and determine what steps have been taken in response to this event. You should be firm and clear that you do not want to be in that environment.

It would not be appropriate to offer suggestions regarding culture to your contact at the other company. It's likely they are (now) aware that there are issues that need to be resolved.

  • 75
    +1 for leaving the room quietly. It's the safest course of action both physically, and career wise. If someone asks why you left the meeting, just state you feared for your own safety. – Trevor D Mar 12 at 12:05
  • 15
    "If you are ever physically threatened" - I would say even if you are not. Just leave the meeting room. If there is any yelling, insults or bad language, leave. Calmly take your laptop etc. and walk out the door to the room. Find a quiet place nearby and wait until it gone absolutely quiet in the meeting room. – Bent Mar 12 at 12:06
  • 9
    @Bent Yeah. It will depend on the culture/industry. There will be some cultures where walking out because a few of those things would look overly sensitive. In a perfect world they would all be considered unacceptable. – Gregory Currie Mar 12 at 12:19
  • 16
    @GregroyCurrie Sure fight club it would look bad. But I think anywhere else, overly sensitive is probably fine when physical violence becomes an issue. – Trevor D Mar 12 at 12:26
  • 14
    @TrevorD Sure, as I said, if you are physically threatened you should leave. Just as an example, there are traders in financial markets who will swear and carry on if things are not going their way. It's not the best culture, but sometimes you just have to endure a bit of it to remain professional. Physical threats fundamentally cross a line however. – Gregory Currie Mar 12 at 13:58
39

In case the incident is happening at a client location

Three things you need to do:

  • Don't get involved personally into the fight, you have no business teaching someone professionalism (read as: the difference between a street fight vs a discussion in a meeting room in office).
  • Look out for your own safety at all time.
  • Inform the chain of command and your supervisor/managers about the issue and detail them about the incidents (preferably in writing). Request for temporal suspension of activities which involves being physically present at client location unless there is a confirmation that the situation and the attitude are "contained".

If you have a client location SPOC, check with him/her whether you need or entitled to file a "security incident" or not. This is not some "office politics" or "silly joke", the incident(s) can cause bodily harm and MUST not go unnoticed.

In case the incident is happening at your office premises

How should I behave when I will be again in such a situation? Should I directly intervene to separate the contenders? Should I try to stop the heated meeting to become a fight? Should I stay in my corner and not get involved?

If this thing happened in the past also, and people are aware of this, and nothing changed, the best thing you want to do is to make sure you're never in that situation again by leave immediately and get a new job. It's more than a problem, it's a threat to your personal security. Yes, irrespective of the fact whether they are from your organization or a client or customer, basic security policies apply to all in a workplace.

An incident of this magnitude must be taken seriously and strict disciplinary actions must be taken to ensure that any kind of incident like this never takes place. Seriously, it is beyond your control (unless you are the admin/management team member/ manager).

That said, even if the "physical fight" is the first incident of it's kind, from your description, it appears that insulting colleagues has become a part of the culture at the workplace, it happens often and no action has been taken so far. You are not clear about whether

  • These incidents are reported, employees are warned, but they chose to ignore and continue without any further side-effects, or,
  • these incidents are reported (by you or by anyone else) and ignored by management (HR/Admin team), or,
  • these incidents are not even reported.

In the first two cases, I'd say, there's a problem with the company culture.

In the third case, I'd say, (given the span of the malpractice), once again, the company policy is not open/welcoming enough to report "abusive" behavior and company is not taking enough initiative to educate the employees to speak up against any improper situation/incident.

All the more reasons for looking for a new job. Best of luck.

  • 7
    I get the impression that the poster is a visitor to another company when these meetings take place. – Gregory Currie Mar 12 at 8:42
  • 1
    @GregroyCurrie You are right, that's an angle I'd have missed, Updated. – Sourav Ghosh Mar 12 at 10:44
  • 1
    @H.W.Bawan OK, then the first part of the answer is applicable to you. Left the remaining part in my answer so that to refer in future case / readers if they might have similar case in their own office (I'd pray no one has to face this in a workplace, though). – Sourav Ghosh Mar 12 at 13:18
  • 1
    A further reason to inform your own company (even if they already know) is that it is likely this behaviour will be directed at you or your company eventually. At some point they may decide you are the ones who are causing their problems and it seems that they do not have good conflict resolution skills (to use a very large understatement). Is this client worth the risk of having a frothing maniac screaming that your product is the wrong shade of yellow and they are going to sue you and tell everyone in the industry that you are worthless cowboys. – Eric Nolan Mar 13 at 16:28
  • 1
    "All the more reasons for looking for a new job" <- This is suggested many times on this site, maybe excessively so. This time, however, I absolutely agree; it sounds like they have the worst/toxic company culture in the world. – Radu Murzea Mar 14 at 15:36
12

My thought is you should record these fights and insults. Then show them to your boss or HR to explain that you do not feel safe at the client location. Otherwise nothing can be done on your part. You'd just be another yelling voice in the big brawl.

Personally I would refuse to go to these meetings. I would just get up and leave immediately. Especially if the argument is over a button color or position on a website.

  • 70
    +1, but... no matter what the argument is about. A laptop was sent through a glass panel. I genuinely cannot see any business situation that would make this acceptable (except in an R&D site testing new laptop-proof glass panels I guess) – Patrice Mar 12 at 12:22
  • 10
    Recording people without their consent is against the law in many countries. Do not engage in criminal acts. Just inform HR of what happened and if they don't believe their own employees without video evidence... look for a better employer instead of breaking law to convince them. – nvoigt Mar 12 at 14:30
  • 2
    @nvoigt Sure but most countries have exceptions to it where your life or liberity is in danger. In the USA many states are 1 party consent and in public spaces, no consent is needed. – Dan Mar 12 at 16:46
  • 12
    Yes please record the fight secretly and upload to youtube. – vikingsteve Mar 13 at 7:20
11

Don't get involved, and prompt your own business to review where it's failing

A few answers already cover the "don't get involved" bit, so I'll stick to where the problem actually comes from IMHO: the one(s) managing the project and the customer relationship on your end.

For example, we recently attend a 2 hours meeting with 18 people from 9 or 10 different departments to discuss the position, the color and the label of a single button in a web page.

My initial reaction reading the above was: Why on earth is this happening to begin with?

I thought that for two reasons.

The first is that, when dealing with large enough companies, it's a good idea to prewire meetings so that decisions are basically already or nearly made before the meeting actually occurs. (Some call this politics or selling. It's just good project management.)

You do that by having regular 1:1 interactions with the stakeholders. As you do, get buy in on what you have in mind, and if there are differences in opinions, then mediate whatever differences there are in between the teams. Don't make anything personal by playing this or that person against another. Just build good rapport with all stakeholders and focus on making a consensus emerge that a) they can all live with and ideally b) they're convinced they came up with.

During the actual meetings, step 0 is to only invite stakeholders that matter (18 people is nuts). Start by covering every topic where you've identified a decision already so your project can move forward. And then switch to topics that don't have consensus yet but might with a bit of diplomatic nudging. Do not schedule topics that you feel will need more prewiring ("still discussing options with your teams for that one"). Doing so would waste their time and yours.

The other reason I thought the above is that it sounds like you're letting your customer design what you're doing by committee. Assuming you're in charge of the design in some form or shape, don't let your customer do that. The way to do that is to focus their attention towards details that actually matter to their business, instead of asking for approval. If you don't act like you're the expert in the room, your customer will quickly feel it and start micromanaging you.

Put another way, do not say things like:

We've put a red button with this label over here.

Say things like this instead:

We've made this part of the page more prominent because it's what's driving your revenue.

(Aside: Mike Monteiro, of "F@ck You Pay Me" fame, made a talk on that very topic a few years ago. I don't remember which video it was on YouTube, but they're frankly all worth watching.)

  • As I said in another comment I have absolutely no power on setting up meetings and choosing people to invite. The client always organize these meetings. And I must have the authorization of all department involved to start any development. We sometimes presents are ideas before meetings to some stakeholders, but if someone does not like our ideas, long discussions begin – H. W. Bawan Mar 14 at 13:24
3

Your safety comes first.

I work on a project that requires many meetings on site at the client's location, with client people from different departments. These departments can be considered as closed silos, where everyone knows only the things they care of and nothing more (obviously some people are more open whereas others follow this policy strictly). For example, we recently attended a 2 hours meeting with 18 people from 9 or 10 different departments to discuss the position, the color and the label of a single button in a web page.

This clearly is a dysfunctional project in need of reorganization. You need to express that view (if you agree with it, of course) in an email to your superiors, explaining why.

Because of politics/personal dislikes/etc I know only partially, some meetings become very heated: I can cite countless times where people yell at each other, I can cite dozen times when people insult each other (many times personal insults) and I personally saw yesterday people start a physical fight1 (and this is the reason I decided to write this question).

I'll get back to the physical fight later, as it's an entirely different issue, IMO.

From your own point of view you need to :

  • If possible get away from this project. It's toxic and cannot be a success for you or anyone else. It could affect your career adversely.

  • Tell your superiors that this situation exists (in a very confidential email !). You need to create a record with your organization that shows the problems you have no control over that may cause severe difficulties for your own organization (and you). You also need to flag the extremely unhealthy (and even physically dangerous !) conditions you are being expected to work in. Remember that verbal discussions don't create a record - you may need a record you have told them. I would go as far as to suggest that your own organization should consider leaving this project - it's got "disaster" stamped all over it and could have worse issues ahead.

  • Do not get involved in the client side issues. Use neutral language when writing or talking. It sounds to me like nothing you could say would not be annoying to someone - it's simply a very toxic atmosphere and people seem to be playing the blame game and nothing else.

  • I'd discuss with your own people about making a formal statement to your client's that any future discussions that become so heated will be left. There's no sane reason for anyone to remain in actual danger in a meeting about a webpage ! You must raise the issue of your own safety - it's a real concern in this scenario.

How should I behave when I will be again in such a situation? Should I directly intervene to separate the contenders? Should I try to stop the heated meeting from becoming a fight? Should I stay in my corner and not get involved?

Get up and leave.

You don't really understand the politics or people involved so you're in no position to intervene constructively verbally.

What you need to do is video or record the meetings (with or without permission - your safety and integrity is the main concern) and leave (simple as that) when it become overheated. Tell people to call you when they calm down. You're not employed as security, an umpire or to solve their personality disputes. You get up and leave and inform your own management.

A coworker and I were in a meeting with 7 people from 4 departments of the client. 2 of these departments are in a big delay: this delay will probably cost the company a huge fine (million). Immediately people start to shout at each other and after less than 5 minutes they were launching insults over each other. In the meanwhile, my coworker and I were in a corner speechless. After a few minutes, 3 other people join the meeting and the situation degenerated: someone blinded by anger launched his laptop towards other people and broke the glass door of the meeting room. At this point, 4 or 5 people began a physical fight. A lot of people came in and, with many difficulties, they separated the contenders. We were kindly invited to return to our office.

This sounds like a criminal affray. At the very least some of those people should have been fired. You would have been justified in calling the police and put simply no work situation should put you in that position.

This is too dangerous an atmosphere for you to work in. You leave the instant this starts. I personally would make a written report to my own organization stating that you won't attend any meeting involving those 4 groups (the 4 or 5 people) again.

And note it's a fight with at least 4 people of 7 involved. The police would do what ? Pepper spray them possibly. All over work on a website ?

Your safety - put it first.

Walk away. If possible run away from this project.

  • I found some interesting advises here. Just a note: my company is well aware of the situation, from my manager to CEO/Owners. This is the first time the fight became physical. Until now nothing happens, as far as I know – H. W. Bawan Mar 14 at 13:29
  • @H.W.Bawan Make sure your company knows in writing. Experience has made me cynical about the reliability of verbal communication when the blame game starts. Good luck. – StephenG Mar 14 at 19:00
2

A meeting when people are starting to call names is clearly a danger for you. Do not get involved and leave, eventually if it's going physical call security or cops. Besisdes a meeting where people will start name calling is not professional and not useful. Report to your boss and state clearly you don't want to participate.

1

Clearly your meeting does not have enough department or people.

Suggest that 3-4 members of security attend the next meeting so they can use their training to stop the fight before it happens.

If that doesn't work, or is insufficient get a trained mediator.

You could also host these meeting via skype or etc so they can't physically touch one another.

  • I like the idea about the remote meetings. However even if you just recorded the meetings I doubt staff would begin insulting and assaulting each other. You could also contact someone who these people report to or their internal HR and ask them for advice. This kind of "misbehaviour" is grounds for instant dismissal any place I've worked. – Stevernator Mar 14 at 6:05
0

If you're not the most senior in your own team, follow their lead always.

You represent your company and what you do has impact on the relationship between the client and your company, potentially costing a deal if your behaviour was ill received.

Try not to get involved into internal arguments of clients unless you can offer an immediate solution that's part of your company's services and you have the authority to offer it.

Remain passive,neutral and diplomatic if you attempt to de-escalate the situation that gets too heated.

You may suggest to have a recess for ten minutes or so to "gather thoughts to tackle the problem together"(if it's not an internal client problem but you can contribute).

During physical altercations don't join the fight, even if you get hit.

If you attempt to separate the parties, don't become an aggressor and once separated ask for a break or another meeting later.

  • 3
    ... follow their lead always So when the most senior one gets involved in the fight and yells, hits, throws things, etc., one should do the same? – Arsak Mar 13 at 10:04
  • @Arsak oh absolutely,that's how wars start.my following suggestions do speak against violence though,so...no.(; nice try – DigitalBlade969 Mar 13 at 10:38
  • The reason this is bad advice is that following the direction of a senior person will not keep you physically safe, nor will it prevent you from getting fired. The rest of the answer is OK, but it's tainted by a contradictory opening sentence. – Gregory Currie Apr 22 at 5:14
0

You should dust off your resume and find a new job when people you work with start physically fighting. Staying in that sort of toxic work environment will not do you any good in the long run. That toxicity is likely to leak out to the rest of your life too.

As for right now, don't get involved and avoid getting hurt. If you really wan to give 100%, perhaps try using some agile practices to make the meetings more about the tasks and less about the people. Kanban and scrum do something called walking the board where the project manager goes over all the projects on the board generally starting on the left and working towards the right. This keeps people engaged by taking the pressure off of them so they don't end up sitting in a 15 minute meeting rehearsing what they're going to say until it's their turn to say it. Perhaps something like that could salvage this situation.

Don't kid yourself though, this is definitely a find a new job situation.

Since this is entirely between clients, sit them down and explain that you'll have to drop them both or work with them entirely separately if they don't get along. Firing your clients isn't ideal, but it's something you have to do sometimes.

  • I think it is not so sure. If such things happen, the primary interest of all the participants is to keep it secret forever. Maybe tales might emerge, but they are actually helpful to keep the participants secret (A: "You worked at X? Is it true, there was some fight on a meeting?" B: "??? I don't know what are you talking about" <- I think such a talk is much more "hot water" for "A" than "B") – Gray Sheep Mar 13 at 18:20
  • 2
    The problem seems to be not the company the asker works for, but this one client company. Nothing about the question suggests the asker's own company is at fault. – user568458 Mar 13 at 18:33
  • @user568458 I mean, if your employees are getting into physical fights with a client, maybe it's not entirely the client's fault. – user53651 Mar 13 at 19:39
  • 5
    @Steve I was under the impression that the clients were fighting with each other, not with OP's coworkers. – John Montgomery Mar 13 at 21:51
  • 1
    @Steve user568458 and John Montgomery are right: everything is between clients. They never shout at us or anything worse – H. W. Bawan Mar 14 at 13:32
0

I would say you are in a bad situation and have to decide for yourself what you can live with. I would base this decision on:

  • do you feel like you should do something? your question seems to indicate you do.
  • can you actually change the situation, based on your capabilities and the grade of violence already reached - if enough people are fighting you probably can not, if there are only two, but both stronger than you, probably also not.
  • do you have any experience with violent situations?
  • are you willing to live with the eventual consequences of your involvement in such a fight - physical, legal and eventually professional (should you hit a client for example you might be in for a career change)

So if you do nothing and remove yourself from the situation you will probably be safe. If you feel strongly that you should do something, are willing to take a beating or legal/professional trouble, feel you can make a change - go for it.

protected by mcknz Mar 22 at 21:45

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.