This is my (intentionally stark) account of the destruction wrought some 30 years ago by one toxic person in a workplace. Names are changed.
Peter stopped getting out of bed in the mornings. He denied he was sick and said he just didn’t feel like going to work. After a couple weeks of this, his attendance dropped to 50% and there it stayed.
Peter had been the first client I’d met on my first shift working at a group home for adults with intellectual disabilities. When introduced, he’d clutched my arm with a gleam in his eye and I briefly wondered if I was cut out for the job. A couple weeks later I was tasked with nail care, and the first time he took off his socks I wondered again about my suitability. But by the six-month mark I was no longer startled by people standing too closely nor freaked out by fungal toenails. We’d worked together five years when Peter’s troubles started, so I did know he’d never miss work at the sheltered workshop voluntarily. Even the thought that he might be running late in the morning would upset him.
Investigating significant behavior change starts by talking with the client and ruling out medical issues. After that you talk some more: with client, family, frontline staff, and other members of an interdisciplinary team. Flynn, a recent hire with an impressive resumé, headed up the day training program Peter belonged to. Following a team meeting one morning, we drove to a nearby diner for a working lunch to brainstorm Peter’s situation.
The conversation was routine and unmemorable until it was time to head back to the office. As we started to gather our things Flynn said, “I come from a family that’s very open about sex.”
“I don’t,” I said.
Flynn backed off that day, but continued to push boundaries on occasion, the subtext typically suggesting I was a prude and therefore it was my problem. Sometimes he retaliated for my refusal to play by lying to the boss about me or blindsiding me with complaints at staff meetings, and once he surprised me with pornography in my mailbox that he pretended were legitimate sex education materials.
This wasn’t my first rodeo. During half a spring and a summer, at age 19, I worked in the same department with a man who feasted daily upon my distress at his verbal harassment. Eventually he was charged with — and confessed to — molesting an eight-year-old boy. It taught me when someone violates another person’s rights, it’s a good idea to ask what line it is they will not cross; later, once working with vulnerable people, the question became mandatory.
The group home was separate from the building that housed the front office and sheltered workshop, and with Peter home so often I was more isolated at work than usual. Nevertheless, I became aware the front office staff didn’t like Flynn, and neither did other departments. He had a habit of talking big and not following through. Worse, when confronted about this he’d suggest the other party had “misheard.” It happened so often we began to take turns during staff meetings to write down Flynn’s claims and promises.
But as the rest of the organization was starting to get Flynn’s number, his own department of 12 was already miserable and becoming desperate. Stories leaked about Flynn’s behavior with the young part-time women, and we started seeing frequent turnover among them. Once or twice people witnessed inappropriate comments and when called out, Flynn would respond that they couldn’t take a joke. Other employees reported constant lies and degrading remarks.
Unfortunately for Flynn, his tenure had succeeded that of an outstanding program supervisor, which helped foil his attempts to divide, control, and abuse with impunity. His staff knew how they were supposed to be treated, and some of the full-timers had comprised a cohesive core in the department for years. They also reached outside the department and found moral support there. One morning these employees holed up with the executives and presented a massive complaint signed by 11 of the 12. Before noon we got word Flynn had resigned.
When I told him Flynn was gone, Peter put his hand on my arm and said, “He grabbed me in the bathroom, you know.” The next day Peter began to rebuild his record of perfect attendance at work.