This post, HR won’t do anything about a coworker who’s angry about my weight loss , was written by Alison Green and published on Ask a Manager.
A reader writes:
I just came back to work after a month-long emergency medical leave. The tl:dr is that after a decade of medical gaslighting, a new doctor ordered an emergency MRI during a routine visit and discovered a mass in my abdomen. I was rushed into surgery within 24 hours. I ended up having an 18-pound benign tumor pressing on my vital organs and I was about a week away from multiple organ failure. I’m lucky to be alive and time will tell if I have any lasting organ damage but right now everything is fine.
Mentally I’m struggling with a few things but the only outwardly noticeable impact is that I’ve gone from a size 20 to a size 8. Nobody on my medical team anticipated a change this drastic but I’m healthy and lucky. I was expecting to get a lot of questions from my coworkers because curiosity exists. I had a basic “emergency surgery but I’m fine now” answer that almost everyone accepted but one coworker who I hardly speak to, Aubrey.
On my first day back to work, Aubrey came up to me and said, “I wish you had come to me to lose the weight instead of resorting to such drastic measures. You’re going to gain it all back, you know. I’ll be waiting.”
I was aware of Aubrey’s reputation, but since we never work together I didn’t think it would be an issue. She’s one of those people who think they’re a fitness expert and calls herself a “health coach” (nothing to do with the company we work for). She has a reputation for giving out unsolicited and incorrect “health advice” and is always commenting on people’s food choices. I was speechless when she asked why I “opted to get butchered instead of putting in the hard work to lose the weight.” There’s nothing wrong with someone choosing surgical weight loss options, but that’s not what happened to me and I really resented her aggressive attitude/spreading rumors.
During my second week back, she came by my office at the end of the day in athletic gear offering to go with me if I was “too afraid to go to the gym alone.” At the time I wasn’t even cleared to lift my kid, do laundry, or climb a flight of stairs, let alone go to the gym with this crackpot. I don’t remember what I said to her, but she left saying I’d gain the weight back because I’m lazy.
The next day Aubrey ranted angrily about me in a meeting I wasn’t in (missed it for a follow-up, ironically). I don’t know everything that was said, but the gist was that if I can’t dedicate myself to weight loss, I obviously can’t see my work obligations through. HR called for a red flag mediation. At our company, mediation can go against your bonus opportunities for the year. I have no idea why I’m in mediation when she’s the one being an asshat.
At the mediation, Aubrey stated that she was triggered by my “new body” and I should have “thought of other people’s feelings and warned” her before my surgery. I hardly had time to warn my husband and get my kid out of daycare. I don’t owe Aubrey anything. I have empathy that she’s obviously struggling, but that does not excuse her behavior.
HR said that while they can’t ask me to explain my medical history, it might clear the air if I told her what kind of surgery I had and why. I said I wasn’t obligated to share my medical information with anyone and that Aubrey having bad coping skills doesn’t entitle her to a coworker’s personal health information. Their response was kind of “well, then we can’t stop her from bullying you.”
After Thanksgiving, my doctor helped me put in ADA accommodation paperwork so I could work from home. I was having some mild complications from surgery but also to avoid Aubrey. This company hates remote work so they’re REALLY not happy. Aubrey still emails me workout videos and diet plans and when I forward them to HR their response is, “Noted. Do you know when you’re coming back to the office?”
I’ve been thinking about escalating this to corporate with an employment lawyer. Is that overkill? I’m still in a sensitive place after my surgery and I have no energy for this, especially since Aubrey is fixated on weight loss which was the primary way doctors gaslit me for years. I’ve been with this company for five years and I’m just exhausted and disappointed in how they’re handling this and I want it over yesterday.
What on earth. Aubrey is obviously batshit bananapants and wildly offensive and out of line — but having one bananapants coworker is less surprising than how much your company’s HR team is dropping the ball.
Aubrey is welcome to have her own private feelings about weight loss, but she needs to keep those feelings to herself at work (and preferably everywhere else too). She is not entitled to harass a coworker about their body, their weight loss, how she thinks they achieved it, or what she thinks they should do next. She is definitely not entitled to refer to someone’s surgery as “butchering” themselves (!) or claim their body triggers her (!) or proclaim that their weight has anything to do with their follow-through on work obligations. (And the whole “you’re going to gain it all back, and I’ll be waiting” thing?! As if after this you’d obviously go to her if you did gain weight? What?)
But, as I said, she’s clearly bananapants. HR’s response in some ways is weirder, because you’d assume they don’t have whatever problems Aubrey is dealing with.
HR should be fully aware that they can’t legally allow an employee to harass another employee about a medical condition — a real one or one that exists in Aubrey’s mind. (The ADA specifically calls this out; you can’t discriminate against or harass an employee because of their protected health condition, or because of a condition they are perceived as having.)
Telling you that they can’t help you unless you share your private medical information with Aubrey … no. They might not be wrong that it would shut her up, but (a) Aubrey isn’t entitled to that, nor should they support the idea that she needs a “good enough” reason to stop, and (b) they’re obligated to shut her down regardless. And making you do mediation with her? No.
And now they’re being weird about your ADA accommodation — and in that context, are blowing you off when you report Aubrey’s latest harassment? That’s a huge problem. The entirety of the picture — the mediation, the vibe you’re getting about your remote work accommodation, and how they’re raising it when you attempt to discuss Aubrey — is concerning enough that talking with a lawyer about your options is a reasonable next step. Not necessarily because you’re going to sue (hopefully it doesn’t get to that point) but because lawyers can be enormously helpful in negotiating with your company on your behalf or advising you from behind the scenes on how to protect yourself.