What To Do if You Feel Threatened at Work (With Tips)

Updated March 10, 2023

An ideal workplace represents a safe and comfortable environment for all employees. Sometimes, you may encounter behaviors that make you feel less comfortable, such as threatening statements or actions from a colleague. When you find yourself in such situations, it's important to understand the steps you can take to help resolve them so you can enjoy your time at work. In this article, we discuss the signs of being threatened at work, what to do in such situations and offer a list of tips you can use to help you navigate this type of workplace challenge.

Related: 5 Signs You’re in a Toxic Work Environment and How To Handle It

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What are some signs you're being threatened at work?

A threat represents a statement someone makes that involves the intention of causing physical and emotional harm or other damage to another person. In the workplace, individuals may experience threats from their colleagues, supervisors or subordinates. Generally, a threat is a statement that makes someone feel uncomfortable or unsafe in the workplace. Individuals may experience different types of threatening behaviors, such as:

Bullying or insulting language

Individuals may encounter threatening behavior not directed at them. In these situations, colleagues or supervisors may make bullying or insulting comments about particular groups of employees. For example, someone may insult a particular racial group or make a demeaning comment about someone based on their gender.

While these comments don't explicitly state the intention of harm, they often make individuals feel uncomfortable. These employees may worry the bullying person might discriminate against them, causing harm to their professional lives and opportunities in the workplace.

Related: Workplace Bully: Definition and Examples

Direct threats or harassment

Individuals may also encounter direct instances of harassment or threats at work. These threats may involve physical harm or some other form of damage to the person's personal or professional life. They may use specific language, such as threatening to hurt the individual after work, or a general phrase meant to intimidate someone such as, "If you don't do this, you'll be very sorry." Direct threats make the person feel targeted and unsafe in the workplace.

One specific type of threat that occurs in workplaces is threats toward whistleblowers. A whistleblower is an individual who reports unethical, illegal or otherwise illicit behavior at an organization to the authorities. They often have legal protections, including from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), so employees who encounter this situation can report such threats to legal professionals. Employers who threaten whistleblowers may face repercussions based on an investigation of the incident.

Related: How To Identify and Deal With a Hostile Work Environment

What to do if you're threatened at work

Here are some steps you can take if you encounter a situation where you feel threatened at work:

Assess the situation

When you encounter a potentially threatening situation in the workplace, spend time evaluating the situation before taking action. Think about the behaviors you've experienced from the other person and try to define the type of threat you felt. When the person voices a threat to you or others, write the exact words they used to ensure you can relay this information accurately. Similarly, if the threat occurred via email or another messaging system, save a copy of the message as evidence.

If the other person repeats these behaviors often, consider taking notes about each time they occur. These notes serve as additional proof and demonstrate a pattern of harassment or threatening behavior. You may also speak to witnesses of such behaviors to gather their support and evidence. Speaking to other colleagues may also help you gain more insights into the individual, such as whether they have a history of inappropriate behaviors.

Determine your response

As you assess the situation, you can begin planning or implementing your response to the behaviors. When another person makes a direct threat toward you, it's a good idea to react calmly and remove yourself from the encounter. People can act unpredictably, so it's wise to avoid taking actions that might potentially provoke them or escalate the situation. For example, when someone threatens you in person, you might find it suitable to walk away from the person. If possible, look for support and protection from others in the workplace.

In the example of a threatening phone call, voicemail or email, you might avoid responding to the message. This tactic helps you potentially prevent the situation from escalating further. Again, save these messages as evidence of the threatening behavior for future reports you may make. If possible, try to avoid this person in the workplace while you document their behavior and determine your steps for reporting it.

Related: Conflict Resolution Skills: Definition and Examples

Make a report

When the threatening behaviors continue and impact your work life, you may need to file a formal report or complaint. You can start by addressing the situation with your direct supervisor, defining the exact behaviors, actions and words used by the other person. If you have documentation of the threats, you can provide it to the supervisor as evidence. Consider getting permission from other colleagues to use them as witnesses to this behavior, allowing the supervisor to gather more insights as they investigate the situation.

Depending on the situation or your workplace, you may also be required to file a report with the human resources department. For example, if the threatening behavior comes from your supervisor, you may want to go directly to HR to help resolve the situation. These professionals often have conflict resolution training and perform thorough investigations into employees' complaints to ensure the workplace is safe. They also help to establish the policies and procedures for proper workplace conduct and how to respond to or reprimand threatening behavior.

Related: How To File a Complaint With Your Human Resources Department

Follow up on your report

The next steps in this process can vary depending on the situation or workplace. Your supervisor or HR professionals may need to investigate the threatening behaviors and interview the involved parties. They then may assess the situation to determine the appropriate action that helps keep the workplace safe and upholds company policies, procedures and reputation. For example, they may discipline the employee with a warning or end their employment, depending on the severity of their actions. After reporting the incident, make sure to monitor its progress and follow up with the HR department or supervisor as needed.

When you report the incident to management or HR staff, consider asking whether they have an expected timeline for their decision. If you haven't heard any updates within this timeline, you can send a follow-up message to these professionals to show respect for their time and avoid overwhelming them. If the company doesn't offer a timeline, wait at least two to three weeks before following up with them.

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Tips to handle a threatening work environment

You can use the following tips as guidance for addressing and navigating situations of workplace threats:

Review company policies

Companies typically provide employees with documentation of their policies related to appropriate workplace conduct. These documents also typically outline your rights as an employee of the organization. When you encounter a potentially threatening situation, you can refer to these materials to evaluate it and determine which behaviors are and aren't acceptable. Employee handbooks may also provide you with the proper procedures for reporting such issues, helping you navigate this situation more easily.

Related: Code of Conduct Examples in the Workplace

Document the process

Throughout the entire situation, document every encounter you have with the person you're reporting and the staff to whom you're reporting the incidents. When you have notes or physical evidence about the threatening behaviors, it makes it easier to report them accurately to the appropriate staff members. This evidence can also help streamline their investigation process.

Similarly, maintain documentation of your communications with your supervisors or HR staff members about the report. These professionals are responsible for providing an ethical, unbiased investigation into the situation. If you feel the outcome is incorrect or unfair and want to take further action, this documentation can help you build your case when speaking with an employment attorney or legal adviser.

Seek support

If you have friends in the workplace, notify them about the situation when you begin to feel uncomfortable. These colleagues can often offer their support as you navigate the situation, providing advice about the next steps to take and helping make you feel more comfortable at work.

Consider seeking other individuals who've experienced similar behaviors, as they can help you show the impacts of the individuals' actions. As mentioned, they may also serve as witnesses to the threatening behavior and allow your supervisor or HR department to interview them for more insights about what they've experienced or witnessed.

Contact legal professionals when necessary

Depending on the outcome of your supervisor's or HR department's investigation, you may need to evaluate whether it meets your expectations. For example, if the person continues to work for the organization and harass or threaten you, you may consider taking additional actions. If you still feel unsafe or didn't gain sufficient internal support, you may seek assistance from external sources, such as legal professionals.

Employment lawyers can help provide you with legal advice or guidance to determine what options and rights you have. Make sure that you've saved documentation of communications with all the involved parties, including the person who made threats and the people who managed your complaint or report. Depending on your situation, they may help you file complaints with government agencies. For example, OSHA offers a complaint form for whistleblowers who've received threats from employers.

This article is for information purposes only and is not intended to constitute legal advice, you should consult with an attorney for any legal issues you may be experiencing.

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