A complaint has been made against me at work

People are taking sides and the conversation stops when I walk into a room. I’m wondering if I should leave

PROBLEM: I’ve been working in the same organisation now for 12 years and had thought that this would be my life’s work. The mission statement is very close to my values, and, although I do not get paid a lot of money, I feel that I am contributing to society. Two months ago, when things were very busy and there was a lot of stress in the air, a colleague of mine made a complaint against me. I was shattered and stunned. She is fairly new to the organisation and had been in my team for less than six months. She complained that I made her feel inferior and that the way I spoke to her was abusive. The complaint is now going forward to the formal stages, as she says she cannot be in the same room as me.

People at work are taking sides and the conversation stops when I walk into a room. I am now watching what I say so much that I can hardly speak at all. I dread going to work and I am not able to concentrate. I am not sleeping and I can’t talk to my wife as she is pregnant and I don’t want to add any stress to her life. I feel my reputation is gone and my motivation and confidence are at an all-time low. I am so disappointed in how the organisation is handling this and I’m wondering if I should look for a new job.

ADVICE: The world we live in has become much more litigious, and formal complaints have become the way to sort conflict and differences. It is a very difficult situation for both complainant and complained-against. However, you have no choice but to meet the situation face-on, and in order to do this well you will need to be in charge of yourself and have full access to your intelligence and insight.

Many organisations are still in the process of honing their complaints mechanisms, and the gaps in the procedure only become clear when they are tested with a real case. It sounds as though your organisation could have made more use of the informal procedure in your situation and avoided escalating the situation to the level of formal complaint.

However, your colleague has said that she is not able to be in the same room as you, and this has to be heard both by you and the organisation. It is very difficult not to take this personally, as it suggests that you are lacking in compassion and might cause upset to the other person. In order to refute this, you need to practise the opposite; openness, good listening and a willingness to engage and understand what is being put to you.

However, all of this is very aspirational, and in the meantime you feel your reputation is under severe threat. You will need support while this situation is ongoing. Can you ask HR for a support person, someone you can talk to about the situation who is trustworthy and who will not take sides? Perhaps you can speak to a friend on a daily basis, as you will need to download your feelings and thoughts or these deductions can become so burdensome for you that you might be unable to work.

Mediation should be offered to you; this can happen at the same time as a formal process. Mediation is a completely confidential process in which both sides can say what is really happening without fear that it will end up in writing or be held against them. The mediator does not make a judgment and the outcome (if any) is agreed by both parties. If you intend to stay in the organisation, mediation offers the best possible outcome, as it will begin the process of mending the communication between you, and the rest of the staff will take their lead from how the two of you interact.

If this does not work, or it is not an option that is taken up, the formal process will continue. It should be fair to both sides, and your side of the story should be given credence and a fair outcome suggested. The aim is for you to arrive at this stage of the process without being so stressed that you cannot function. Do not spend all your time outside work focusing on this: go out to the cinema, walk, and talk about other things. If possible, play sports, as this will focus your mind and release pent-up energy.

Take each stage of the process one step at a time. There is no point in sending your mind ahead to what might happen. Above all, do not make any life or career decisions from this stressed place.