Dear Evil HR Lady,
I got into a situation at work -- I threw my coworker's keys out the door, and called her a [bad word].
I am being sent to human resources, and they are investigating a harassment claim. My question is, should I just resign, and would the harassment claim be on my record? Or should I just wait until they fire me?
No matter what happens, this will go on your record. In fact, there is probably already a plan to put notes in your file.
Would it make you feel better if I told you your fate is not sealed? Yes, you were pretty awful. People who throw keys and call other people names aren't likely to be able to park in the "employee of the month" spot.
Now, I'm going to assume three things. If these are false, then the advice would be somewhat different. First, you just threw the keys into empty space and not at your coworker. No one was injured, and no one had to jump out of the way. Second, you don't have a history of throwing things or otherwise being violent at work. Third, this was the first time you have called this coworker a name. If you habitually hurled expletives at coworkers, which obviously is different from swearing at copy machines, empty coffee pots and people who cut you off in traffic, this would be a bigger problem.
So, first things first. Don't try to avoid your meeting with HR. They will find you anyway. And if they have to search you out, it will be worse. Go and go willingly. (If you're unionized you can likely bring your union rep with you, but I doubt that is the case here.)
The first thing out of your mouth should be an apology. "I am so sorry. I lost my temper. It was unprofessional and inappropriate of me. Let me know what I need to do." Then shut up.
Did you notice how that statement was not, "I'm sorry but Jane was doing X, Y, and Z and she lost the file for the Q account and she is sleeping with my boyfriend!" This may all be true. It doesn't matter. (Well, it does matter, but not for this conversation.) If Jane was doing all these things, she will be getting her own meeting (Not about the boyfriend, because HR has too much other stuff to do than monitor the dating lives of worker and assuming the boyfriend isn't also an employee.)
If they ask you what led up to the situation, be honest. But don't try to use that explanation to justify why you acted as you did. If they say, "Jane said that you called her [bad word 1] and [bad words 2-6]" and that is not true, you can calmly refute that. Say, "I only used one bad word, but I can see why she may have perceived it differently. I was pretty upset."
They may respond that you have violated company policy (true) and that you will be terminated. Alternatively, you may be told that this is a serious matter and that to keep your job you must attend sexual harassment training. You also will be on probation for 90 days and the incident will go in your file. If that is the case, thank your lucky stars. Admit that you behaved inappropriately, and promise to never let it happen again.
If they say you will be terminated, then you can say, "I totally understand. This was a huge error on my part. Would you like me to write up a list of my responsibilities for my replacement?"
Now, I realize this last part sounds like sucking up. That's because it is. And what's the point after you've been terminated? Because you want to leave on good terms. I realize this is virtually impossible. But last impressions are also lasting impressions. (If you've been a pain in the neck employee the whole time, none of this makes a whit of difference, but I'm assuming you weren't.) Also apologize directly to your coworker (unless your HR person tells you to avoid her) and to your manager. "I'm very sorry for what I did. I know it was inappropriate, and I know it puts you in a bind because you're going to be down a person until you replace me."
Should you volunteer to resign instead of being fired? Well, if they've said they are going to fire you, then you can ask if you can resign instead. ("No, this is all my fault. Why don't I just resign and save you the paperwork hassle?") They may say no. They may say yes. (Personally, I'd say yes. I'd also put a "not eligible for rehire" note in your file, but I'd certainly allow your official termination reason to be resignation.)
Companies aren't required to fire employees who violate harassment statutes one time. Some do and some do not. But you may be able to come through this. And if you are lucky enough to retain your job, it should go without saying that you should follow the instructions of HR and your manager precisely. This is your grace period. Don't blow it. You won't get another chance.
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