my coworker stabs office furniture with a knife and no one thinks it’s a big deal — Ask a Manager

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A reader writes:

I am dealing with a bizarre situation at work and could use some advice on how to proceed.

My coworker, Charlie, has several concerning habits involving the lighter and several utility knives he carries around on a daily basis. When we’re in team meetings or things are slow in the lab, Charlie will do a few things: pull out a piece of leather and hone his knives, loudly and repeatedly flick his lighter on and flip the lid over the flame to put it out, shred pieces of paper with one of his knives (leaving a huge mess he rarely picks up), or use one of his knives to stab and/or whittle at whatever chair, wall, or table is nearest. He does this in plain view of anyone who’s around.

I am a relative newcomer to this team; almost everyone else has worked with Charlie for years and seems accustomed to what they refer to as his quirks. (I’ve been on this team for three months, but at the company for almost three years.)

My team spends a great deal of time doing work in a shared lab space. There are tables, chairs, and computers in the labs that everyone has to use. The few times I’ve been working with Charlie, he’ll whip out his knives and violently stab the arms of the chair he’s sitting in. One time I asked him what he was doing, and he laughed and said that the chair “had a pimple” he was fixing.

Recently he’s taken to shredding several sheets of paper onto the keyboard of the lab computer my team shares and leaving the mess for whoever uses the keyboard next. He used a knife to nick the entire edge of the computer desk, leaving sharp little plastic spikes sticking up where people usually rest their wrists. In meetings sometimes he will often wander around just outside the conference room cubicle, stab the walls, and shout over the wall when he’s asked a question.

I’ve asked several of my teammates about Charlie and his strange behavior and every single one has brushed it off and said something along the lines of “that’s just Charlie.”

Other than his scary habits, he seems to care deeply about his work and is cheerful and friendly with everyone. More than once, he’s been recognized by management for outstanding work, and generally people seem to like him. He never damages anything other than office furniture and paper as far as I’ve seen.

It makes me really, really uncomfortable sitting near him when he’s engaging in this behavior, having to use furniture that he’s damaged, and cleaning up piles of paper scraps that everyone else ignores. I’m even more uncomfortable talking to Charlie about his habits directly, given his strange response the last time I spoke up.

The way my team brushes of Charlie’s weird habits is making me feel like I’m crazy for having a problem with Charlie. I know there are some problems with my team; a former teammate, John, was reassigned due to anger issues and my several of my coworkers have said very mean and inappropriate things about the person who reported John for yelling and throwing chairs. I’m strongly considering talking to HR and my boss, but Charlie is inexplicably well liked, I’m afraid of retaliation from my team. What else can I do here?

What.

I guess it’s weird coworker day here.

My guess — and it’s nothing more than speculation — is that Charlie’s habits are some kind of tic, and that’s why the rest of your team is so cheerfully accommodating about it.

But pulling out knives and stabbing office furniture and walls is not really an okay accommodation, if in fact that’s what it is. Even if the rest of the team is genuinely unbothered by it, (a) Charlie is systematically destroying work property that other people need to use, and (b) eventually someone will come along who is bothered by it — quite reasonably — and in fact that has now happened.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, because we don’t even know that that’s the explanation. And ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. You’re on very solid ground in not feeling safe when a coworker pulls out knives in meetings and begins stabbing things.

I’m curious what would happen if you talked to a team mate and said something like, “I’m really unsettled when Charlie takes out knives and stabs things. I’ve noticed no one else seems bothered by it. But I feel really uncomfortable! Is there more context to this that I don’t have?”

You’d also be on solid ground doing any of the following:

  • Speaking up in the next meeting where Charlie pulls out a knife and saying, “Would you mind not taking knives out while we’re talking? I find it really distracting and unsettling to have knives around.”
  • Speaking up in the next meeting where Charlie starts playing with his lighter and saying, “Would you mind not doing that while we’re talking? I can’t focus when something is on fire near me.”
  • Talking to your boss about all of this, pointing out that you feel distracted and unsafe when Charlie is stabbing things and sharpening knives.
  • Talking to HR about the same.

I know you’re afraid of retaliation since Charlie is well-liked and your team trash-talked someone else for reporting a colleague who threw chairs. Given that history, you’re not wrong to consider that! But the alternative is saying nothing, and this behavior is so wildly bizarre (and distracting, and unsafe) that it really does warrant raising it. You should mention your concerns about retaliation to both your boss and HR — including that trash-talk about the chair-throwing reporter — so they’re aware of that as an additional element that needs to be navigated.

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