The following is taken from an incident report at the homeless shelter where I work. A new staff member wrote it:
Gus came into the office being very disrespectful towards me.
He asked me “do you actually do any work to deserve a paycheck?”
I told him if he continues disrespecting me or other staff then I will ask him to leave.
Eventually, he told me he does not respect me because to him I am a kid. Then Gus left the office and slammed the door.
The staff member—we’ll call him “Robert”—was furious.
Robert went to his supervisor to have Gus kicked out of the shelter for being disrespectful to staff.
The conversation with Robert’s supervisor went something like this:
Supervisor: We are not going to kick Gus out for calling you a kid.
Robert: But he was disrespectful to staff. That can’t be tolerated!
Supervisor: “Disrespect to staff” isn’t a thing. It doesn’t even exist.
Robert:What do you mean? He was disrespectful to me!!
Supervisor: Gus suffers from traumatic brain injury and Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome and probably several other undiagnosed mental health conditions.
What you experienced was not “disrespect.”
It was a “symptom” of various mental health conditions.
Robert: That is no excuse for disrespect!
Supervisor: It isn’t an “excuse.” It is an “explanation.”
Robert: I deserve to be treated with respect in the workplace.
Supervisor: This isn’t about you. Gus doesn’t even know you.
In his pain, Gus is lashing out at an unfair world. You just happened to be the person standing in front of him when it happened.
The sooner you stop thinking about it as “disrespect” and view it as a “symptom” the better.
I am sure I will get some angry emails, but I feel VERY strongly about this.
In my decades of working in a homeless shelter, I have been talked to “disrespectfully” hundreds (thousands?) of times.
My favorite was a woman who was able to insult my hairline AND accuse me of inappropriate relations with my mother in a single sentence!
If your organization serves vulnerable people—homelessness, mental illness, substance abuse, trauma— you will have to accept a certain amount of abuse.
My advice is to distinguish between three different types of behavior:
- Violent Behavior – You should never tolerate physical violence towards staff.
- Hostile or Aggressive Behavior – You should take threats of violence (overt or implied) very seriously.
- Disrespectful Behavior – Insults and “disrespect” are often a symptom of a person’s deepest pain. They only hurt you if you take them personally (“sticks and stones…”).
One other thing:
If you are in leadership, be careful of staff who say that they have a “right” to be treated a certain way at work.
If your organization works with the public, then your staff will have to accept a certain level of abuse.
It is the price we pay for the privilege of serving marginalized populations.
The ONLY way to eliminate disrespectful behavior is to eliminate struggling people.
And if we won’t serve the people who need us the most, what is the point?
Thank you for everything you do to serve a hurting world.