update: my boss is sending everyone at my office racist memes

Last week, we had a letter from someone whose boss had sent everyone in her local office a racist meme and she was wondering how to speak up about it. Here’s her update.

I left a voicemail with the CEO on Thursday. He was out of the office intermittently last week, so he didn’t return my call until today (Tuesday).

When he called, I was working from home. This worked out well – I could speak freely without any concern of being overheard.

The conversation went great! He was very sympathetic to my concerns agreed with me that this e-mail is not OK and needs to be addressed. He asked me to forward the e-mail to him so that we could look at it together. I did so right away. The moment he received it, he groaned – “oh yes, this is bad.”

Based on the comments my post received, I refrained from calling the meme (and the manager who sent it) racist. Instead, I used some key words from our organizational values about respectful, civil dialogue and pointed out that this didn’t fit. I said that “some people” could even interpret this meme as racist. I also mentioned how easy it would be for a staff member who also thought that this meme was funny/insightful/etc. and endorsed by our higher leadership to forward it on to stakeholders, causing big problems for our organization.

Our CEO was in agreement with what I said. He told me a little bit about his plans to address this, too. While I don’t expect him to let me know about any disciplinary action, I’m confident that he will take action on this. The episode illustrates two major problems in our organization – an indiscreet director of communications, and a broader corporate culture that, except for me, was willing to shrug this off.

He repeatedly thanked me for bringing this to his attention. He’s also assured me that he’ll handle this discretely, without mentioning that I was the one who let him know.

Thank you, Alison, and everyone else for their supportive comments. You all gave me the courage and the words I needed to say to bring this to the CEO’s attention. I’m so glad that I spoke up – my conscience is clear. What a weight off my shoulders!

{ 74 comments… read them below }

  1. Snork Maiden*

    I’m so pleased this turned out well for everyone involved – I mean, aside from the meme-sender.

    1. Koko*

      Yes! I love a story where the smart approach got the desired result and there’s a happy ending!

  2. LBK*

    Wow, what a great update! My only comment is that I don’t see problem #2 as being that much of a problem with the company itself – if anything I think it’s a general cultural problem. No one wants to be the person that points out something is offensive since calling stuff out often still has too many personal drawbacks/consequences for people to feel comfortable doing it.

    That being said, examples like this help us turn that way, and the more we hear about people calling things out and getting good results, hopefully the more we’ll all be willing to do it ourselves (I know I’m certainly guilty of staying quiet when I hear something offensive too often).

    1. Zahra*

      Yeah, there’s the “It’s just a joke!” factor. Being labelled as humorless is often the reaction you get, unfortunately.

      1. allisonallisonallisonetc*

        And if your race/gender/sexuality/etc is the butt of that joke, there are a lot larger concerns than just being labelled humorless.

        1. M-C*

          Yes, it’s -much- better that someone not directly affected by the insult be the one to complain. Otherwise you get labelled as not just humorless but a whiner, or ‘too aggressive’, take your pick.
          Thanks OP for addressing this, and doing your bit to let people know it’s not OK.

      2. Allison*

        I just thought of the people who then turn around and say you’re “the real racist/sexist one here” when you make it into an issue. Usually before or after claiming to be an equal opportunity comedian or something.

      3. hayling*

        I’ve never tried it but I’ve heard that a good way to challenge the “it’s just a joke” is to say “oh, really, can you explain it to me?”

        1. Jazzy Red*

          Or, “are you sure?”

          I consider that to be the very best come-back I’ve ever heard to something that was so un-funny.

  3. louise*

    Great outcome! It will be interesting to see if the sender of that original email will behave more appropriately in the future.

  4. TCO*

    Wonderful news, OP! I’m so glad you found the courage and the right words to speak . It’s great to hear that your CEO took it as seriously as you expected he would.

  5. Adam*

    That’s awesome. I’d actually be curious about a follow-up to this follow-up to see how the CEO goes about addresses this and the level of success he achieves.

    1. A Non*

      Me too. I wonder if there’ll be any noticeable change in the meme-sender’s behavior or the kinds of comments he makes.

      Yay for a CEO who is doing his job!

  6. geekchick603*

    Great news! I always like hearing followup stories, especially the ones that turn out so well.

  7. puddin*

    Thank you for the update! I am glad that you connected with the CEO and he seemed responsive to your thoughts. Excellent job speaking up for yourself!

  8. Amy*

    There’s a tendency in some places not to want to get people into trouble, or to be seen as a tattle-tale, or even to resist giving anyone bad news. I wouldn’t necessarily say people shrug things off because it could be for those reasons, not that they think it isn’t important.

    1. AW*

      According to the original letter, the LW’s supervisors said it was “distasteful” but not enough to say something about it. I think in this specific instance “shrugging it off” fits.

  9. DJ*

    Oh, what a great update! I was wondering how this would turn out. I’m glad to know that it worked out smoothly and that good will come of the writer’s actions.

  10. ZSD*

    Yea! And I think it was a great idea to call the CEO rather than just forwarding him the email. Being able to convey information with tone of voice is important in situations like this.

  11. AndersonDarling*

    OP- I’m so glad you were brave enough to follow through! You are awesome! I had been thinking about you and I’m so happy you let us know how things turned out.

  12. Suzanne*

    That took guts! Glad it turned out well.
    I had a supervisor once who said ridiculous sexist things, mostly. I never said anything but I think someone else did and he was fired. So was the receptionist whowithin a few weeks of being hired, sent us all these weird emails about relationships and how a man who helps his wife in the kitchen will be more likely to have “relations” with her than the husband that doesn’t. But the aforementioned supervisor hired her because she was very attractive and wore short skirts-we know because he told us.

  13. Muriel Heslop*

    Great outcome! Way to go! So glad you had the courage to address it with your CEO.

  14. T*

    Indiscreet–exactly the quality you want in a director of communications. I wonder why he didn’t send it to the CEO in the first place. Seems kind of telling.

    Well, done, OP. I can understand why some people would not find it offensive while many others would. You did a great job capturing why the email was disrespectful, even if that was not (or was?) the intention of its sender.

    1. Jessa*

      Yes, I missed in the original the part about “Director of Communications,” which requires a higher, more nuanced understanding of “what not to forward” to people than the general “manager of division” type.

      Good for the OP though. Worked out wonderfully.

      1. Artemesia*

        No kidding. While not acceptable you could sort of understand someone with little personal skills and client contact doing something like this thoughtlessly — but Director of Communications. Wow.

    2. LizNYC*

      This was my takeaway too. If the DOC thinks this is OK, I’d question his judgement in other things too!

  15. allisonallisonallisonetc*

    Great update, OP! I’m glad you followed through on calling out the behavior to the CEO. I have a friend who just called his own boss the other night about a similar type incident with one of his coworkers.

  16. Rocket Scientist*

    Fantastic update. Thank you for being the person that didn’t shrug this one off.

  17. Not So NewReader*

    Good on you, OP. And good on your CEO, also. I am hoping this opens up an on-going conversation in your company.

  18. AW*

    So great to hear a good outcome on this situation, especially since, as Malissa pointed out toward the end of the comments on the original post, so many people were worried the LW may be the one to face reprisal.

    I hope that however things shake out for the Director of Communications the CEO takes the opportunity to stress that this sort of thing is not tolerated.

  19. Alma*

    Hurray!! I’m so glad the events worked out as they did so you were able to speak freely with the CEO. Funny how that happens.

    OP, I hope you feel affirmed, and more confident about speaking up and “trusting your gut” – to be the only person in the organization to say “this is inappropriate ‘enough’ to go up the ladder” was the right thing to do.

  20. Really?*

    I still don’t see the picture as a problem, a bit sophmoric, but not inheirantly racist, perhaps reader-response is reading too much into this.
    with all due respect this just seems too PC and sensitive for logic sake.
    Kudos on having the courage to stand up for what you beleive, that by itself is a positive thing, but the image in question is (in my opinion) worthy of labeling the sender as a dunce and not neccesarily a racist or hate-monger.

    1. VintageLydia USA*

      There are dozens of comments in the previous post explaining exactly why that image was racist, and considering the CEO agreed with her it was a problem should be proof enough that racist or not, it’s not the sort of thing he’s cool with his Director of Communications forwarding around. So let’s not rehash that conversation here, okay?

    2. Kelly L.*

      And even if it weren’t racist, the OP specifically came from the angle of saying that it was not respectful and not civil.Do you believe it’s respectful and civil?

      1. ten stone lions*

        This Neil Gaiman quote seems relevant:

        “I was reading a book which included the phrase ‘in these days of political correctness…’ talking about no longer making jokes that denigrated people for their culture or for the color of their skin.

        “And I thought, ‘That’s not actually anything to do with political correctness. That’s just treating other people with respect.’

        “I started imagining a world in which we replaced the phrase ‘politically correct’ wherever we could with ‘treating other people with respect’ and it made me smile.

        “You should try it. It’s peculiarly enlightening.

        “I know what you’re thinking now. You’re thinking ‘Oh my god, that’s treating other people with respect gone mad!'”

    3. Anna*

      Things to note:
      1. When anything starts with the phrase “with all due respect” it usually indicates the poster doesn’t believe it deserves much respect at all.
      2. There’s a tendency to label things as “PC” and “too sensitive” when something being called out forces them to think about their own stereotyping of a group of people. Just because you don’t think it’s particularly offensive doesn’t actually mean it isn’t offensive.

    4. caraytid*

      does it really matter? it’s in poor taste for a number of reasons and could reflect badly on the company if he ends up sending stuff like that clients.

      if someone is standing on your foot, they need to get off your foot. it doesn’t matter what their reason is for doing it.

      1. FiveByFive*

        Well, I don’t disagree with reporting this, but the piling-on here and in the original thread does have a bit of a #HasJustineLandedYet vibe. It can be a fine line sometimes between widespread agreement and mob mentality.

          1. FiveByFive*

            It was just an observation. I’m resting just as easy as you are. I had the same feeling the other day reading the follow-up where the LW printed out the hundreds of comments from here criticizing a co-worker and anonymously placed it on her chair. Actions like that can be very powerful, and they make me a bit uncomfortable sometimes.

              1. FiveByFive*

                A different LW – it was the one where a co-worker was playing food police to another co-worker who had fallen ill. Sorry I don’t have a link :(

                1. nona*

                  Oh, wow! You know, I’d seen people joke about showing printed comments to coworkers or bosses before, but never knew how it started…

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I don’t have a problem with piling on in response to obvious racism. I’d be concerned if people didn’t have an issue with obvious racism.

          1. jess*

            I think the issue may be that it doesnt seem to be obviously racist to everyone. But yes, piling on for such things is certainly warranted!

          2. FiveByFive*

            Understood. I’m just not a fan of the “ha ha” “gotcha!” stuff, and I just sorta got that vibe. Sometimes people really are racist, and other times they might have used poor judgment in their offensive or insensitive behavior. I’d rather see the behavior corrected (as it likely will be here) without the Scarlet Letter treatment.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              To me, it seemed so obviously racist that I don’t think there’s any subtle gotcha stuff going on; the guy sent a racist meme around and rightly got slammed for it.

            2. neverjaunty*

              What “Scarlet Letter” treatment? We don’t know who this dude is. Nobody is starting a Twitter hashtag with his name or posting comments on his Facebook wall.

    5. elikit*

      Yes, perhaps every single person who has commented so far is wrong, and you’re the only right person.

      Or there is another option…

    6. AW*

      “not inheirantly racist”
      “too PC and sensitive”
      *conflating referring to an action/item as racist and accusing a person of being racist*

      Somebody’s been reading Derailing for Dummies!

  21. Observer*

    Great update. I think that you handled this very well, and it sounds like your ceo got it.

  22. newb*

    Such an informative posting originally; I was surprised you could get fired for reporting such (in my opinion) evident racism, like a lot of people were cautioning. Yikes.. Anyway it sounds like you did right and are doing well–kudos, OP!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      To be clear, it’s actually illegal to fire someone for making a good faith report of harassment or discrimination based on race (or another protected class). Doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen anyway, but the law does prohibit it.

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