Q: The one person with whom I never again wanted to cross paths was just hired at my workplace.
A few years ago, “Wanda,” a former co-worker, asked me to put her up at my home for a couple of months until she could get a job. While living with me, she did not pay me much or do much. To make things worse, she had an accident while on my property and sued the company that owns the development. I asked Wanda to leave after two months. She finally left, but it was contentious.
Wanda eventually took a job somewhere else and shortly thereafter filed a short-term disability claim for a non-work-related accident. However, people witnessed her being very active while she was receiving benefits. She soon left that employer, and now she’s been hired by mine. You can’t work here if you cannot lift a certain amount of weight, so I think she may have omitted information about her injury to get hired.
I am a licensed professional and need to be able to trust my colleagues. Normally, I would give someone the benefit of the doubt, but I was burned by Wanda and am already stressed about her being here.
Should I give HR a heads-up that Wanda and I have a past, just to get it on the record? If I try to discuss the past with her, I might get in trouble for harassment.
A: It can be tempting to see a history like Wanda’s as an indictment of her integrity. But the only evidence I see of her burning you is when she took advantage of your generosity as your roommate/squatter. Even then, I could see her making a plausible case that you both understood the terms of your arrangement differently, or that she was desperate and contributed as much as she could.
The other information you provide about Wanda could be interpreted to paint her as anything from a deliberate, habitual grifter to a hapless victim of a series of compounding setbacks who’s had to rely on the legal system and the kindness of others to try to get back on her feet.
More to the point, legal actions that didn’t directly involve you, secondhand observations about how “disabled” she truly was, and your suspicions about how she got this job are all hearsay and speculation. They may be accurate, or there may be a reasonable explanation for everything. In any case, going to HR or trying to confront Wanda directly with what you (think you) know about the past will almost certainly backfire.
But you can use what you (think you) know about Wanda to set your own risk tolerance threshold for your interactions with her in the present.
Aside from whether Wanda herself is trustworthy, you know you can’t leave room for misunderstanding or differing interpretation with her. That means double-checking information you receive at the source whenever possible. It also means following procedures by the book — in this case, your employer’s policy handbook.
When you uncover inconsistencies, probe neutrally: “Wanda told me X, but Natasha, you’re saying Y. I need to know which is correct before I proceed.” It’s more work for you, of course, but the goal is to ensure your behavior is above reproach while giving Wanda space to prove — or impugn — herself.
If you detect a pattern of errors, falsehoods or policy violations in Wanda’s current work, or she’s literally letting others do all the lifting, that’s what you take to your boss or HR, ideally with documentation and witnesses to shield you against accusations that you’re pursuing a personal vendetta.
Incidentally, if you hadn’t allowed Wanda under your roof, how much of her personal history would you even be aware of? For that matter, how well do you really know the other colleagues you place your trust in?
As an example, many of us have learned to our dismay that what we consider “careful” behavior during the coronavirus pandemic exists on a broad spectrum of preventive measures and risk tolerance, and our family, friends, neighbors and colleagues may inhabit very different places on that spectrum. It’s enough to make you paranoid — or, at least, make you consider that no one, not even the people we choose to trust, is entirely above reproach.