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I recently signed on as an engineer with a high paying firm, and was excited to finally have (for the first time in my career) a well paying job.

I finally get to meet my new supervisor (not my boss, but the team lead), and I think I messed up. He's a very courteous, but straightforward, no-nonsense, and extremely large/muscular man. I am not comfortable around him because he physically resembles a man that assaulted me years ago (facial features, haircut, etc.). This man is clearly not the same one that attacked me (the assailant is behind bars). Nevertheless, I asked HR if I could request a different team lead, due to the stress it caused me (PTSD diagnosis).

Due to HR's incompetence, my boss and "Mr Big" found out about my request, and "Mr Big" has gone from kind to vicious, and is demanding a public apology (i.e. via e-mail, which he could very well make public further outside the company) for likening him to "common gutter trash". If I don't play along, I will be fired and blacklisted with cause.

Edit: this is in Canada. I may have accidentally said he looks like a man that attacked me to two colleagues.

How can I fix this? Is a public apology just a way to sabotage my career and fire me without severance pay?

  • 14
    Are you formally diagnosed with PTSD? – Matthew Gaiser Dec 7 '19 at 6:55
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    "i may have accidentally", so did you or did you not? It's extremely important which one is it – Tymoteusz Paul Dec 7 '19 at 9:23
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    When you said he looked like your assailant, did you made 100% clear that he wasn't? That is, could someone had any doubt or construe what you said as a hypothesis? – Quora Feans Dec 7 '19 at 19:19
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    You stated: "If I don't play along, I will be fired and blacklisted with cause." Were you actually told these things would happen, or is it just an assumption on your part? If so, who said that they would happen? As to the blacklisting, if someone said it, did they say that you would be blacklisted at your current company, or that they would be attempting to blacklist you across some larger area (i.e. across multiple companies, or an industry)? – Makyen Dec 7 '19 at 19:58
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    My sympathy for your past trauma. Regarding “I may have accidentally said he looks like a man that attacked me to two colleagues.” — can you clarify roughly what you said to your colleagues? There’s a huge difference between something like “Sorry I was nervous in that meeting, Mr Big just looks rather like someone I had a bad experience with a few years ago, and it brings back bad memories.” — which is not suggesting anything bad about Mr B — and something like “Wow, Mr Big looks pretty scary for an engineer!”, which would make his indignation rather more justified. – PLL Dec 7 '19 at 20:55
40

You should speak to an employment lawyer about this

This is a legal minefield. It touches everything from disability law (PTSD can be considered a disability for which reasonable accommodation is required) to potentially defamation (highly unlikely, but it could depend on how exactly you phrased the request) to gender discrimination if you are a woman.

They could be in a lot of trouble for threatening to fire you for cause due to disability accommodation laws and/or you could be in trouble for what you said. Retaliation may also be a factor as it is generally illegal to punish an employee for making accommodation requests and threatening to fire and blacklist someone certainly counts as potential punishment.

You would also need to ask the lawyer about how an apology might be used against you and how you can write an apology that doesn't admit to more than you are willing to apologize for.

Depending on what "vicious" means in the context of Mr. Big, it could also be a legal issue.

The specific details and many components of the law matter here. You basically need to go and spend a few hours hashing this out with a specialist.

  • 23
    I think you are downplaying greatly the " I may have accidentally said he looks like a man that attacked me to two colleagues.". This is more likely how Mr. Big found out, not from HR, and why he reacted like he did, as the newly hired employer is going around and likening him to such an individual. Sure makes a lot more sense than HR spilling the beans for no good reason. – Tymoteusz Paul Dec 7 '19 at 9:32
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    @thanby While requesting a different accommodation, the relevant justification has the potential to utterly destroy the career of Mr. Big, especially in a time where mere rumours can be sufficient to start an avalanche. His move may actually have been prompted by his lawyer to make sure that OP's statement does not get a life of its own. While it is reasonable for someone with mental illness to get reasonable accommodation, it is not reasonable to expect that this comes at the cost of potential serious harm for third parties on the way. – Captain Emacs Dec 7 '19 at 15:26
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    I'm not seeing the "gender discrimination" angle of this. What difference does it make if the OP is female? – Lightness Races with Monica Dec 7 '19 at 16:08
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    Retaliation laws typically only cover situations where Mr. Boss was the person in jail. If I was compared to somebody that was in jail, I wouldn’t want to work with the individual either, Mr. Boss has rights also. I mean the comparison was made to coworkers, of Mr. Big, knowing that Mr. Big was absolutely not that person. That sort of sounds like slander to me. – Donald Dec 7 '19 at 17:14
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    @lightnessraceswithmonica while nothing in the question points to anything related to gender, OP included the tags "sexism" and "sexual harrassment" - but I agree that OP should clarify how that has anything to do with the question, as it may radically influence the answers – Mowgli Dec 7 '19 at 19:50
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You just started. Usually there is a probation period where you can be fired easily (even in much more employee friendly countries in the EU, you can leave or be fired without any problems in the first weeks of your job).

You asked for a different team leader. Obviously the company isn't going to switch team leaders because of you, so you asked to be assigned to a different team. But you were assigned to this team because they need an additonal employee, and other teams don't. So HR could have immediately told you "sorry, if you don't like that team, we'll hire someone else instead of you".

You then went round and told people that your team leader looks like a common thug who assaulted you. That goes down like a led balloon. A sincere apology is most likely the only thing that can save your job. No apology for your absolutely insulting behaviour will get you out. PTSD is no excuse for going round and telling people that your team leader looks like a thug, and PTSD is most definitely not an excuse for not offering an apology. And finding you a different job than the one you were hired for is not a reasonable accommodation.

I wouldn't be surprised at all if HR was right now checking how to get safely rid of you. Let's add that you called HR "incompetent", you called your team leader "Mr. Big", your tags on the question imply that you are accusing people of gender discrimination, sexism and sexual harrassment, without any justification, all things that don't go in your favour.

PS. You want severance pay? What on earth makes you think you deserve severance pay? What if instead of a severance pay they give you a reference where they truthfully state why they let you go?

  • 1
    Yeah I think this is some perspective you really need - this is likely how the company feels regardless of how you handled yourself. I’d still recommend speaking to an employment lawyer. It’s unclear if issuing an apology would exonerate you or further implicate you. De-escalate this situation. You have a disability and there’s something to be said for that, but you probably made a mistake speaking to your coworkers even if you felt you could confide in them and didn’t have any malicious intent. – Jordan Dec 7 '19 at 14:02
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    While this answer is useful, it is phrased in a way that might offend the OP. – lawful_neutral Dec 7 '19 at 16:04
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    The answer is clear and I don't think it has been written in a way designed to offend the OP, just calls a shovel a shovel... – Solar Mike Dec 7 '19 at 17:11
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    I think the answer isn't terrible, but it sounds a little too judgmental to be useful. It feels like writer is trying to put the OP in their place, which shouldn't really be a motive in an answer to a difficult situation like this. – Mark Rogers Dec 7 '19 at 20:30
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    @FreeMan Look at the accumulation of things. The tags in the question. Incompetent HR. Telling people the team leader looks like someone who assaulted him or her. "Mr. Big". That's all tiny little red flags. Not big red flags, but lots of them. – gnasher729 Dec 7 '19 at 23:23
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I finally get to meet my new supervisor (not my boss, but the team lead), and I think I messed up. He's a very courteous, but straightforward, no-nonsense, and extremely large/muscular man. I am not comfortable around him because he physically resembles a man that assaulted me years ago (facial features, haircut, etc.). This man is clearly not the same one that attacked me (the assailant is behind bars). Nevertheless, I asked HR if I could request a different team lead, due to the stress it caused me (PTSD diagnosis).

That's good, and that's how you should handle it and HR then should do their best to try to accommodate this request. It may not be instantaneous, and the solution may not be everything you ever dreamed of, but this is a first step towards resolving it.

Due to HR's incompetence, my boss and "Mr Big" found out about my request, and "Mr Big" has gone from kind to vicious, and is demanding a public apology (i.e. via e-mail, which he could very well make public further outside the company) for likening him to "common gutter trash". If I don't play along, I will be fired and blacklisted with cause.

I don't think that this is what happened, especially when you take into account the following that you've said later, and that you provided no evidence that he has found through HR, but have said:

I may have accidentally said he looks like a man that attacked me to two colleagues.

That's bad, very bad, why would you ever do that? Saying something like that to anyone in the workplace, besides HR, will make this hot gossip spread like wildfire. And it will not be in the original form of "this guy reminds me of the guy who is behind bars.", but something warped into a lot more sinister entity. That is also how it likely reached Mr. Big, who found it out from another employee that someone is spreading such rumors about him, and because of that got, quite justifiably, angry. I certainly would be in this situation.

How can I fix this? Is a public apology just a way to sabotage my career and fire me without severance pay?

While it is possible to fix it, I honestly would start brushing up your job interviewing skills again as this is a lot of damage to undo. To start fixing it you have two routes, one will be where you meet with Mr. Big and HR in private settings and hash this problem out (don't do a 1:1, make sure to have the HR rep there) and hopefully, when he is briefed on all the context you can move on and agree on bygones.

The other route is to lawyer up. While you may even be successful in this action (although it's debatable as facts are unclear), the rewards in this will be very limited, and you certainly will need to look for a new job, as your future in a company you just sued, as a new employee, will not be bright and great, even if they will be forced to keep you.

  • 1
    Your next steps are spot-on, but I don't think it's as dire as you make it sound. I feel like getting them at the table to discuss and maybe offer a private apology would be enough to settle feelings, assuming this manager is at all reasonable. The whole thing just sounds like a mistake compounded by a misunderstanding, then whipped into a panic. – thanby Dec 7 '19 at 15:03
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    @thanby I would agree if not for the part where OP told coworkers, that is really the thing that cannot be left unaddressed right away. Simply the rumor cannot continue to be unaddressed, as possible damage to Mr. Big reputation from it may be impossible to repair. That is the delicate balance with sexual harassment accusations, that even if found as without any based in reality (or as a result of misunderstanding like it seems to be in OP case), can cause massive damage to the accused. – Tymoteusz Paul Dec 7 '19 at 15:23
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    You've got a point about sexual harassment claims. It would be prudent to quash those (potential) rumors ASAP – thanby Dec 7 '19 at 15:30
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    @thanby If Mr. Big has a good lawyer, they will make sure that Mr. Big gets a public apology, as the accusation was also semi-public. If Mr. Big agrees to a private apology, he is making a grave mistake from the perspective of one who does not know what OP's ultimate plans are. Of course, OP here is clearly not planning anything untoward, as it seems, but neither Mr. Big nor anyone else in the company can rely on that. One example why gossip is very dangerous (also to oneself). – Captain Emacs Dec 7 '19 at 15:31
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Do not admit to anything. Hire an employment lawyer. Skip work if you have to.

Your lawyer can act as your shield.

In other words, your lawyer can say things like:

My client will apologize to anything so-and-so wants. That being said, before my client can apologize, she'll need to know what was said and who said it, to address any possible distortions of what was said.

In other words, you need to find out what was said and who spilled the beans.

But in order to find this out without further incriminating yourself, you need an employment lawyer to act as your go-between.

Hiring an employment lawyer will also make them think twice about making a rash decision and firing you right off the bat.

Also, if an apology is given, that lawyer should try to extract a written concession in exchange. That concession could come in the form of an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement), a change of department, or a small severance package (if a change of department or a change of boss can not be negotiated).

However, if such an apology is sent before a lawyer gets involved, he may not be able to get anything in return.

Honestly, I think that getting yourself a lawyer is your only move right now.

Is a public apology just a way to sabotage my career and fire me without severance pay?

While I can't guess what his ultimate intent is. I agree that issuing a written apology over email, that can easily be forwarded, could easily be used to fire you. Don't do that, before you consult a lawyer.

In the future, if anyone at work wants to talk to you about this. Tell them to talk to your lawyer. Don't be afraid to sound like a broken record if you have to. Do not say anything. Do not confirm anything. Blame it all on the instructions of your lawyer. And let your lawyer be the go-between on this issue.

  • And what do you expect that will be the outcome of all of that? Skipping work, hiding behind a lawyer, when you just joined a company? – Tymoteusz Paul Dec 7 '19 at 11:59
  • Then... how can you recommend an action without an outcome in mind? That seems haphazard at best to just say "lawyer up" but not give proper thought to likely outcome first, which will almost guarantee having to restart a job hunt. – Tymoteusz Paul Dec 7 '19 at 12:08
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    @TymoteuszPaul, As to an alternative outcome, I think the lawyer should first try to find out what was said and who said it first because I doubt the OP used the words "gutter trash" herself. Also, if an apology is given, the lawyer should try to get a written concession in exchange. That concession could come in the form of an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement), a change of department, or a small severance package (if a change of department or a change of boss can not be negotiated). – Stephan Branczyk Dec 7 '19 at 13:00
  • If you can add that to the answer I will gladly upvote. I simply want anyone reading the answr to realize that lawyering up is serious, and quite likely outcome will be parting ways. – Tymoteusz Paul Dec 7 '19 at 13:14
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    @TymoteuszPaul, Done. – Stephan Branczyk Dec 7 '19 at 13:35
3

There are good answers here worthy of acceptance, but I just need to throw in my two cents on part of the situation because nobody else has mentioned this point in particular.

Do not issue a public apology.

Issuing an apology at all admits guilt. Before you do that, make sure you're actually guilty of something. Not to mention it will publicly smear you in front of everyone, versus the manager who was maybe embarrassed in front of a few people who talked about it.

So what's going on here? Let's look at this from the manager's perspective.

This guy has no idea who you are, just that you're new and you're on his team. He doesn't know about your past, and neither does anyone else. The first thing that happens is he hears a rumor from a colleague that you think he looks like someone who assaulted you. Now stop there for a second and think what that sounds like to him. He may think you're actually implying it was him that did it, and you're talking to other people behind his back about it.

That's not to say you did anything wrong, it was an honest mistake on someone's part to spill the beans like that. So from now on, keep everything, I mean everything, between yourself and HR, so if someone messes up, it won't be you. This is important for legal reasons.

So what's my ultimate point here? This all looks like a big, but serious, misunderstanding. This guy is mad because he thinks you're accusing him of something. Get him in the room with HR and just do your best to explain the situation so he understands where you're coming from.

If he will take a private, verbal apology (assuming you actually did anything wrong, which isn't clear), do it. But make sure that HR witnesses it and that there will be no further action. Do not actually write or broadcast it unless a lawyer tells you to. Also make sure that it's clear that you need accommodation for the PTSD, because that's serious. If that wasn't on the record before, it needs to be now.

What happens if things escalate?

Call a lawyer and look for a new job. End of story.

  • If I was in the manager's place, I probably would not take a private verbal apology for public smearing that might have damaged my reputation, because it would probably not fix the damage done. – Honza Brabec Dec 8 '19 at 7:48
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    That all depends on the extent of the damage. Depending on what OP said to her coworkers, there may be little or no damage at all. I think jumping right to the conclusion that this guy's career is ruined is a bit hasty. – thanby Dec 8 '19 at 13:27
  • @HonzaBrabec, It's like you only skimmed Thanbys' answer instead of actually reading it. – Stephan Branczyk Dec 8 '19 at 21:17
  • @StephanBranczyk Why do you think so? Can you explain why my comment is out of place instead of commenting on if I have read the answer thoroughly or not? – Honza Brabec Dec 9 '19 at 11:59
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    This is the part that I was thinking of: "The first thing that happens is he hears a rumor from a colleague that you think he looks like someone who assaulted you. Now stop there for a second and think what that sounds like to him. He may think you're actually implying it was him that did it, and you're talking to other people behind his back about it." Also, another one of Thanbys' point is that the so-called smear wasn't public. And yet in your first comment to his answer, you seem to ignore those two main points he's made, in both the nature of the comment and the non-public nature of it. – Stephan Branczyk Dec 9 '19 at 12:12
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Typically I’d suggest you get the hell out of there, but it’s the ultimatum that gives me pause. I agree with others that it’s probably time to consult an employment lawyer. In the meantime be sure to act as professionally as you are able to under the circumstances. You don’t want to escalate this. I’ve been in a lawsuit before with a negligent landlord and it was NOT fun - we settled and at the end of the day nobody was happy (a sign of a fair settlement). Being involved in a lawsuit or other legal action with a former employer is not a good look, but sometimes it’s something you have to do. It doesn’t sound like that’s the case for you. Get a lawyer to help you navigate this. Do not threaten them with legal action. Interview your lawyer and make sure they want to help you resolve the conflict and not escalate it. When I was involved in my lawsuit our first lawyer threatened our landlord for 6 months. They retaliated by burying us in paperwork. We finally got a very expensive, but well respected lawyer and guess what - he specialized in family law and conflict resolution (in fact he is also a well respected professor who teaches courses on conflict resolution). He resolved the issue in under 3 billable hours! Well worth the $1,200 (a discounted rate) we payed him (which we recovered in the settlement anyways). If we hired him up front we wouldn’t have been involved in a lawsuit in the first place.

Don’t worry about the job. Software engineers are in very high demand. I’m not sure why you’d want to continue working there after this situation anyways.

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