I recently logged into a web conference meeting a few minutes early. Some of my direct reports were already on and they didn’t notice I had joined. I heard them talking about one of their colleagues who also reports to me, and I was shocked. They were talking about their political beliefs, which it seemed they all shared, and were trashing their colleague whose politics are different from theirs. They were calling her names, questioning her intelligence, and actually wishing violent things on her. They were brutal.
I was so upset that I clicked out of the meeting and logged back in as if I hadn’t been there. Now I feel like a coward. What they were saying was completely inappropriate. It was 100% hate speech—racist, sexist, and ugly. I don’t know if they know that I had joined and heard them. I feel like I need to report them to HR. I am confused and upset. Even though I disagree with them politically, I don’t hold that against them. I simply had no idea these three men were so angry and mean. They have hidden it very well.
I wish I had never heard what I heard. I will never see any of them the same way again. But based on what I heard, I am literally afraid to bring up this matter with them.
What should I do now? I have talked to a couple of friends and none of their advice was useful. One actually suggested keying their cars! You see the problem.
Confused and Afraid
Dear Confused and Afraid,
Wow. This is really hard. I am so sorry you stumbled into learning things about your direct reports you wish you hadn’t. You can’t pretend it never happened, much as you may want to.
You must get input from your HR business partner; I am sure there are company policies about acceptable/unacceptable behaviors at work. The men were, in fact, talking on a company web conferencing platform and could have been overheard by anyone. If you had heard them talking on a private channel or gathering, you would not be responsible—but since it was a company platform, on company time, as a leader in the organization you are duty-bound to address the situation.
If the employee who was being talked about is a member of a protected minority, you may have a separate problem to address as well, since it would potentially involve legal repercussions. Some states have zero tolerance for hate speech against or harassment of a protected class. The company could be held liable and it could be grounds for dismissal. If, in addition to laws, the behavior you witnessed is explicitly prohibited in published company values, that may also be grounds for sanction or dismissal.
Either way, I suggest you enroll your HR representative to provide you with guidelines on what to say and to attend the meetings with you. I also suggest you speak with each person individually, not as a group—and schedule the conversations one right after the other to reduce the possibility of offline cross talk among the group.
I understand how hearing talk of violence against a fellow worker might make you afraid. No one wants to attract that kind of attention. If it turns out that there are real consequences to be enforced—for example, that the incident will be written up and kept as part of each employee’s file, or that you must actually fire all of them—you may have valid reason to be concerned for your own safety. Again, this is something you will have to discuss with HR. Your boss also will need to be told.
I know you wish you hadn’t heard what you heard. So do I. And you probably feel like you could ignore it and get on with things. But you did hear it, even if the nasty guys didn’t know you were there. They will accuse you of spying on them—but, again, they were on the company platform, so they left themselves open to being overheard. You may also be tempted to convince them of the error of their ways. But let that one go—you have no obligation for their moral development. And of course you are right that it wouldn’t be appropriate for you to engage in retaliation. Keying cars is out of the question. Nastiness begets nastiness and eventually catches up to people.
Your job as a leader is to call out bad behavior when you see or hear it. Period. So get step-by-step instructions, then stand up and do what needs to be done firmly, clearly, and kindly. Bullies with big mouths often back down quickly when they are called out on unacceptable behavior.
On second thought (actually, I have thought about this so much it is more like 37th thought) you really could pretend it never happened. Only you will know, ultimately. It wouldn’t be for anyone else to judge. Only you can decide what your personal standards are and assess whether or not you have the mettle to rise to the higher ones. Not everyone is signed up to be a warrior. However, it is my experience that it is the secrets we keep that erode the spirit. This may be a crossroads moment for you. It is a choice you have to make. What I want for you is to have no regrets down the road.
I am sorry you are in this bind. Truly, I am. I wish you strength and courage, either way.
About the Author
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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