The background

I've recently started in an individual contributor role at a new (to me) company. One of the warning flags when I interviewed was a behavioral question (from a peer, not the hiring manager) along the lines of "Have you ever experienced a coworker's comments or behavior that you found offensive, and how did you deal with that?" I thought "Wow, someone's behaving badly, and instead of addressing the behavior, they're screening hires on ability to deal with it". But that con was outweighed by pro factors such as a paycheck, and I accepted the position when it was offered.

Now that I'm on the job, I've inferred that the person that this question was likely about is my boss's peer, who has a reputation as mysogynist.  So far, I've only observed one instance of offensive behavior (an inappropriate "joke" photo attached to an email), but I've heard about others, such as similar emails in the past and using the "c-word" in a meeting.

As it happens, this manager's group is entirely male, and now that I've joined, my group is entirely female (the previous person in my position was male). The industry and company are male-dominated, so all-male teams are not unusual. My group is also dependent on the other group for information to get our jobs done, so we are in a lower power position.

The company does have a harassment policy in place, which this behavior appears to me to be violating, in that it creates a hostile environment based on gender. I believe this manager's manager is on the email list to which the offensive photo was sent, and therefore would be aware of at least that instance.

My plan

My first order of business is to start making positive contributions to work output, and to establish relationships with members of the other group, including this manager.

However, I also intend to give peer feedback to him if I see other instances of this type of behavior. Something like:

"When you sent out a photo showing X to a work group mailing list, I find it offensive and inappropriate in a professional setting."

If repeated feedback doesn't work, I would speak to the manager's manager, informally first, and then file a formal complaint if necessary. I hope the situation doesn't require the "nuclear option" of filing a complaint -- the main goal is to stop this behavior -- but I'm willing to go there if nothing else is effective.

My question

The often-advised first step in dealing with harassment is "confront the harasser and tell them to stop". I think the peer feedback model is a good way to approach this, since it focuses on the behavior, and shifts the interpretation (i.e., offensiveness) into the consequences part. However, since the peer feedback model omits the change-of-behavior step, there's no room in the model for telling the person to stop the offensive behavior.

How do you suggest reconciling that conflict?

One way that I can see is to make it another consequence: "... and I want you to stop sharing photos like that." That is, it's another aspect of my reaction to the behavior. Thoughts?



bug_girl's picture

I'm surprised that management isn't more interested in this. The guy is creating a permanent track record of his bad behavior, and is a huge liability!

You are correct that what he is doing is unacceptable, inappropriate, and should be stopped.

Having said that--this is a battle that you almost certainly won't emerge from unscathed. Sad but true.  What you need is an advocate higher up the corp food chain, or a way to bring what he is doing to the notice of HR, who will then enforce the policies for you.  You are correct that it's the "nuclear option" to report him, unfortunately.
Is there anyone around (i.e., a dude) who seems as taken aback by this employee's behavior as you that would be an ally?

Also, start documenting right now. The more evidence you have, the easier it will be to take action later, if you need to.

This should serve as a wake up for folks that this sort of bad behavior does persist!
While many of the duties of being an administrator drive me crazy, I am glad that I can actually implement policy and make behavior like this STOP.

I hope that someone there also takes that responsibility seriously and will help you.

I'm very interested in the advice of other folks--hopefully you'll get something more useful than mine :(

thaGUma's picture

This behaviour is inappropriate. This behaviour is only recently inappropriate.

The US is ahead in pushing the ‘politically correct’ attitude. This is a desirable state of affairs in that we will not as a society become enlightened until we give due respect to all. It is extremely naive to believe we are anywhere near the point where a colleague will be welcomed in whistle-blowing.

I am embarrassed to say that my approach is not to join in. A dead joke, an ignored comment, sometimes a pained expression. I do not feel sufficiently secure in my relationships with seniors to do otherwise. 

I do believe that I can pick up peers but it needs to be done immediately to set the tone – ‘not in front of me please’.



jhack's picture

bug_girl's advice is, as usual, quite solid.  

For the 'dudes' out there, you have a special role to play in handling sexist or misogynistic statements in the workplace.  It can be very difficult to "take offense" and Chris's refusal to join in the hilarity is a step in the right direction (ignoring the behavior is better than rewarding it by laughter). 

Be aware though, that putting behavior on extinction (by ignoring it) is often met with what behavior scientists call an "extinction burst" where the person tries harder to get the desired response, by escalating the tone, volume, or frequency of the action.  If you choose to take the "ignore it and it will go away" route, you may have to ignore a LOT before it goes away.  

Here's a technique I've used that has worked:  run down the possible consequences for the offender (US law even allows for the manager's personal assets to be claimed in a civil lawsuit - that one usually gets their attention).  I don't judge the behavior, or suggest that it crosses the line (just between us guys, you know...),  but that it could be perceived as such by someone else, and the consequences could be dire. 

I have never, however, heard anyone use as vulgar a phrase as the one you hint at above; that is egregious. 

John Hack

ken_wills's picture

Agree with those who've posted.

I just want to add an observation regarding the circumstances that seem to be lurking just beneath the surface of the example you've brought out:

Based on my experience, teams composed entirely of one gender (EITHER gender!) are petrie dishes for unhealthy beahviours.

As you look at opportunities to move or advance, I recommend that you be wary of joining any team (or leading any team) that's 90% or more one gender.  Chances are good that you'll find a whole lot of insular cultural mores and behaviours you'll have to navigate through (and that's regardless of whether your gender is the one in the majority or not!).

This is just another example where diversity is a good and healthy thing.


And good luck anonymous!

bug_girl's picture

I got praise from JHack! That totally made my week :)

One thing that is very clear from sociological research is that people engaging in these behaviors interpret the silence of those "like them" to indicate agreement.  This is especially true about race/ethnicity, but also for gender, disability, and sexual orientation.

In the wonderfully titled paper "How to spread a social disease"

 they found that simply hearing a racial slur made people judge that group more harshly.  This has been supported several different times over the years by new research.  I think that argues that the best thing to do is to explicitly make your disagreement with the behavior (not the person!) clear.

It is hard to find the balance between confronting bad behavior and protecting your own neck in an uncertain job environment.

I usually choose to speak up, which I'm sure no one finds surprising :p


430jan's picture

I'm a nurse, so it is rather inevitable that our teams are predominantly women. I don't see that it is practical or possible *or desirable* to choose your position by the gender of the team. There is plenty of this stuff on both sides of the gender aisle.

So, here is my 2 cents. Wait for credible evidence that isn't secondhand. Be sure. This is a serious accusation. This is a legal issue. Be smart. A forum post can't really be adequate advice.

I am with John and Bug_Girl in believing that silence is not the proper response. All abuse has a shroud of secrecy. The abuser is counting on it. Silence = secrecy. You don't have to shout it from the mountaintops, but the longer you stay without addressing it, the harder it will be to live with yourself and less effective your complaint will be when you have to make it. When you see it address it immediately. It's not going to get any easier. But watch the Wizard of Oz and note the army after Dorothy drowns the witch. There are probably lots of people that just don't have the moral fortitude to do something about it.

Bug Girl, I found your blog on the article post you had, but the link above took me to an abstract in French (I'm not nearly that smart). I'm in public health, so I had to check out any article on social disease! Sounds right on for the effects of social stress from inequity.

Good luck to you my dear and go save the world. Be a steely-eyed missile man (ok woman).  It starts with each one of us.



anon_y_mous's picture

Thanks everyone for your sympathy and support.

I've been at the new job a few weeks now, and so far, there has only been that one incident that I've experienced first-hand. I let that one pass because it was only my third day on the job. It's possible that he has already gotten feedback that has affected his behavior. However, I do want to be prepared in case something happens again. Having a feedback statement worked out and mentally rehearsed will help me to deliver it in a low-key, non-accusatory way.

I'm still interested in opinions about whether that feedback can include a suggestion for changing his behavior. Does the situation justify bending the peer feedback model?

In short, can I say:

"When you send out a photo showing X, I find it offensive and inappropriate in a professional setting, and I want you to stop sharing photos like that."

Or should I leave off the last clause? Or soften it to "I wish you would stop" or "I would prefer you didn't"?


jhbchina's picture

Can I recommend your last phrase be

" I want you to NOT share any type of questionable material with me in the future, for I never want to have to explain how it ended up in my work email"

One never knows when some IT organization is asked to do an  unannounced security test or audit.

That kind of shows that you are protecting him :-) in a round about way.

Good Luck and hang tough



mauzenne's picture

Let's be clear though folks ... that ain't the peer feedback model.  If you want to TELL him what not to do, feel free. But that isn't peer feedback and let's not call it that.

For what it's worth, in my experience, you either use the peer feedback model and trust that at some point he understands that his behavior isn't appropriate (at least around you, because you keep politely pointing it out) OR put aside any pretense of team-oriented behavior in the face of this clearly unacceptable behavior.  You can't have it both ways.

Frankly, personally I'd go the nuclear option, BUT there are potentially (wrongly) significant consequences (the organization HAS been tolerating this for a long period of time) and so I can't recommend it without knowing a whole lot more.  Certainly, your continued willingness to politely point out the impacts of his repeated inappropriate behavior (peer feedback) over a significant period of time may put you in good stead should more drastic actions be required in the future.


anon_y_mous's picture

Thanks, Mike. That's the kind of clarification I was looking for, and pretty much what I expected.

What you and Mark have said about the peer feedback model is that step 4 is left off because one has no leverage over the behavior of someone who's not a direct. The harrassment complaint mechanism provides a degree of indirect, painful, and difficult leverage, but unless and until I'm ready to use that option, it's probably best to omit even a hint of that fact.


bug_girl's picture

Thought this might be of interest to the group:


Women who hold supervisory positions are more likely to be sexually harassed at work, according to the first-ever, large-scale longitudinal study to examine workplace power, gender and sexual harassment.

The study, which will be presented at the 104th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, reveals that nearly fifty percent of women supervisors, but only one-third of women who do not supervise others, reported sexual harassment in the workplace. In more conservative models with stringent statistical controls, women supervisors were 137 percent more likely to be sexually harassed than women who did not hold managerial roles. While supervisory status increased the likelihood of harassment among women, it did not significantly impact the likelihood for men."

"This study provides the strongest evidence to date supporting the theory that sexual harassment is less about sexual desire than about control and domination," said Heather McLaughlin, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota and the study's primary investigator. "Male co-workers, clients and supervisors seem to be using harassment as an equalizer against women in power.

rgbiv99's picture

Thanks for the share!