Handling a hostile colleague in Germany

21 posts in this topic

I'm working for a large research firm in Germany in a technical role. For the last year, it has been my dream job. Unfortunately, starting about two months ago, one of my primary coworkers has begun behaving in an extremely toxic manner. He's made a couple of very angry and inappropriate attacks on my competence (via text, so I have then documented.) In our daily work life he has become increasingly passive aggressive (as well as classically aggressive), argumentative, obstructionist, and hostile.

 

Simply put, he feels (and has told me directly) that even though I'm 10 years his senior in experience and qualifications, I'm incompetent compared to him, and I should be deferring to him in all ways. He has begun actively pursuing a takeover of all my tasks. 

 

We are considered to be in a "flat hierarchy." Neither of us has any official authority over the other, and the project is small - meaning there is no legitimate way to avoid working with him.

 

I have (today) sent an email to our managers asking for intervention. 

 

My questions are these: 

I am American. He is Russian. I know that - in the U.S. - there are certain standards of professional behavior, including how you interact personally with employees. For the most part, I have found the German workplace in agreement with this. But, I'm a stranger in a strange land. In the U.S., his comments to me would be considered insanely inappropriate and aggressive - I believe such much so that (if we were in the U.S.) sending the text copies of our conversations to HR would result in immediate reprimand, if not dismissal. 

 

Q1. However, this is not the U.S.  - and he comes from a different culture. Am I misunderstand, or mishandling the situation? I have tried all the conflict management techniques I know - FROM THE U.S. - and they all have failed. Should I be responding directly to him in a different way?

 

Q2. In the U.S., as I mentioned, I fully believe his actions would result in immediate reprimand or dismissal. I suspect him being dismissed is nearly impossible under these German employment laws, and that's not what I'm seeking anyway. But do German HR departments involve themselves in these types of things? The impression I get is German HR departments are less about "managing employees" and more about handling hiring and firing paperwork. 

 

Q3. If not HR, whom else, or how else, should I be asking for help with this?

 

Q4. I'm not sure this can be solved while we remain in a flat hierarchy. While I honestly do not seek to be in a formal leadership role, I also suspect life will be intolerable working with him were he to be placed in a formal leadership role. I know that Germany is highly dependent on certifications and years work for determining position. If the only solution is appointing a "team leader", is it reasonable to insist that I'm appointed the position based on my senior credentials and experience?

 

Thanks! 

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Document everything!

You wrote, you have the texts, that's good.

Everytime he says/does something aggressive, hostie etc., write it down with date/time.

If you have to go to HR you have everything documented - difficult for him to argue against.

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There are 3 different cultures involved here - US/Russia/Germany so it's possible to put it down to cultural differences but that doesn't mean you have to accept the behaviour if you feel it is inappropriate. Personally I would email him (so you have proof you have mentioned it to him if you do end up going to HR) and explain that you find his behaviour inappropriate and if it continues you will need to speak to HR about it.

 

Offer to discuss it with him over a coffee/drink (outside of work?) but make it clear without being aggressive that you won't allow the situation to continue.

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I have had only one conflict with a Russian colleague in a professional setting and it came down to me (rather diminutive woman) telling the man (20 years my junior) to back the fuck off or I would eat his lunch, figuratively speaking.

 

This may not be a cultural issue, but rather an age-related one. Maybe this guy just thinks younger is better. It is kinder for you to let him learn now, the easy way, than for you to hold all of this for one big dump on HR and let him learn the hard way. I would start with whoever is your mutual supervisor (gives you the tasks) and only go to HR as a last resort.

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I teach in a German company that was bought over by a Russian company about 7/8 years ago.  Way back in the past, the company had more dealings with US colleagues and worked very well with them, once the Germans learned to soften down a bit. Now they have to deal with Russian colleagues and it’s not going very smoothly.  Russians don’t like a flat hierarchy; they respect a strong Putinesque type of boss and it sounds to me like your colleague is frustrated at not having someone in authority making decisions, so he’s pushing you around to make himself feel like he’s the boss, because in his mind, somebody has to be.  

 

The company I’m teaching in has started cultural awareness training, helping the German employees to understand the Russians better, and vice-versa, but that’s not going well as most of the Russians have refused to attend. Personally, I think that after 7/8 years, it’s too late.

 

I don’t know what to tell you, except that it might be time to stand up to him and tell him that he’s not the boss, and if he doesn’t like it, he needs to go to HR and complain.

 

Good luck with this, they're not always easy people to deal with.

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Regarding Q3, are you a member of a union? If you are, then you could take it up with a union representative. I'm sorry you are in this situation, and I hope it can be resolved. 

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1 minute ago, Elljay said:

Regarding Q3, are you a member of a union? If you are, then you could take it up with a union representative. I'm sorry you are in this situation, and I hope it can be resolved. 

Unfortunately, I'm not :/ But thanks for the response. I am disabled, but I don't see how that would help in this particular situation. He has never made a problem of my disability.  

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There must be some kind of supervisor that you both report to (as AlexTr has said). This person, rather than HR, should be your first stop. 

If your direct manager doesnt' to anything, the next in line would be the work council, if you have one. Or your boss' boss. Only after that fails would I involve HR. 

 

But feel free to fire back yourself, politely but firmly. In an e-mail, you can put your supervisor in copy. 

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are you the only one in this small group he has a problem with?  does the behavior take place in front of others?  are any of his accusations true?

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If you are in a big Research Firm, there could be a Betriebsrat. May be you can discuss with someone there. Or you can talk to someone in the HR department before sending a written complaint

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Don't wait and start a dialogue with HR. Don't go there with a complaint. Go there and ask for an advice. (it is part of soft skills, people react to "asking for help" differently than to complaints). Anyways, i discovered that 96.7% of personal conflicts are about emotions and communication. Talk, talk, talk...

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20 hours ago, burningkrome said:

My questions are these: 

I am American. He is Russian. I know that - in the U.S. - there are certain standards of professional behavior, including how you interact personally with employees. For the most part, I have found the German workplace in agreement with this. But, I'm a stranger in a strange land. In the U.S., his comments to me would be considered insanely inappropriate and aggressive - I believe such much so that (if we were in the U.S.) sending the text copies of our conversations to HR would result in immediate reprimand, if not dismissal.

 

I had the exact same problem with an older Russian colleague soon after arriving in Germany. He made a bad decision in a project but noone was blaming him. But he got concerned he would be blamed, so he tried to find a scapegoat in my team. He harrassed me and my boss for months until it reached a point where he wrote several very offensive emails clearly calling me and my boss incompetents. At that moment I felt like getting up and punching him hard. But as this is Germany, I stopped for a few hours and thought it through. I the end, I ignored him and escalated the thing on his back. He got a written warning and AFAIK also lost yearly bonus. Later he quit, his colleagues were finding him toxic. Advice here is that your colleague intentions are probably not good, so you will not be able to dialog with him, you need to escalate.

 

A friend working with Russians also told me several of them were not good co-workers. Either they are lazy and try to offload work to you or they try to use you as a scapegoat.

Of course I have other (younger) Russian colleagues that work well in a team enviornment. Maybe it is a mix of culture and age.

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19 hours ago, burningkrome said:

I am disabled, but I don't see how that would help in this particular situation. He has never made a problem of my disability.  

 

Does your colleague know you have a disability? Even if he hasn't said anything he might know about it. Find out if you have a Schwerbehindertenvertretung. Any conversations with them are confidential (unless you give permission for them to interveneon on your behalf) and you might be able to receive some specific advice from someone who is familiar with your workplace culture and dispute resolution practices).

 

On a side note, it has been a long time since I've read such a well thought out and structured set of questions on this site. :)

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OP, by the sounds of it, the only disability that has any relevance here is your co-worker's lack of ability to work effectively with others. If there were a genuine problem, you would have heard about it much sooner and through the correct channels.

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On 1/12/2021, 5:22:06, maxie said:

There must be some kind of supervisor that you both report to (as AlexTr has said). This person, rather than HR, should be your first stop. 

If your direct manager doesnt' to anything, the next in line would be the work council, if you have one. Or your boss' boss. Only after that fails would I involve HR. 

 

But feel free to fire back yourself, politely but firmly. In an e-mail, you can put your supervisor in copy. 

On 1/12/2021, 5:22:06, maxie said:

 

On 1/12/2021, 3:15:44, Elljay said:

 

I did get my direct supervisor involved, and we're forming an action plan. We'll see how well that works :)

 

Thanks for the post :)

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On 1/12/2021, 5:52:22, catjones said:

are you the only one in this small group he has a problem with?  does the behavior take place in front of others?  are any of his accusations true?

are you the only one in this small group he has a problem with? 
I don't know, but there's only three of us in - and one of us is only there 10% of the time :D 

 

does the behavior take place in front of others?
Sometimes, and it has been seen and commented on. Most of the abusive stuff is in a private chat channel (which I no longer go to :D)

 

are any of his accusations true?
With the most sincere reflection, I don't think so. All of my Arbeitzeugnis here in Germany have been good (including looking for weasel words and coded sentiments.) My reviews from the U.S. before moving were excellent. 

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Another theory: If you are the only two foreigners in the team or department (and people like you better), he might feel inferior and is trying to make up for it? 

Or he watched too many old movies and sees any American as his enemy. 

 

Or - and this is my favorite - he's just an a**hole. There's gotta be one in every team. It's pretty much a law of nature. 

 

I think it's good you got your supervisor involved and they're not just shrugging you off. S/he could also bring in the next level up, to make it more official. Russian culture tends to be more autoritative, so that might help, too. 

 

Best of luck! No one should have to put up with behavior like that.  

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On 13/01/2021, 10:08:11, MikeMelga said:

Either they are lazy and try to offload work to you or they try to use you as a scapegoat.

That was my experience with Germans :lol:

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5 minutes ago, optimista said:

That was my experience with Germans :lol:

I've noticed Germans have a lot in common with Eastern Europeans. I've even heard Germans say that.

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