employee won’t stop talking about a coworker’s prosthetic limb

A reader writes:

I recently applied for and was promoted into a management position. I manage a team of nine people. We are all new to each other, and the team has come together well, except for one issue.

Our admin/divisional office manager/support person, “Jane,” has a prothestic limb. “Fergus,” one of the other team members, constantly refers to Jane’s disability or brings up her being disabled. This annoys Jane because she doesn’t consider herself disabled. If Jane ever asked for accommodation, there would be no issues and it would be done, but Jane says she is fine and doesn’t need anything. She has repeatedly asked Fergus to stop calling her disabled, but he continues to do it.

For example, if someone from another division or location comes to our work area looking for Jane or our admin, Fergus will direct them to Jane and say something along the lines of “That’s Jane, she’s disabled you know.”

If a courier is coming to drop off a package, Fergus will tell them, “Leave it with the admin. You’ll know who it is because she’s the disabled one with a prosthetic.”

Or he’ll say things like “I wonder what it would feel like to have a disibility like Jane” or he’ll ask Jane things like “how can you play baseball in a league with people who aren’t disabled like you?” He basically finds a way to call her disabled every time almost he interacts with her or has to direct someone to her. It’s awful to constantly point out if someone has a disability, but Jane gets especially annoyed because she doesn’t feel that label applies to her.

I have asked him at least six times to stop. Whenever I hear him do it, I will say something along the lines of “Fergus, we’ve repeatedly discussed that you are being inappropriate. Is there a reason why you continue to call Jane disabled?” But all that happens is that Fergus mumbles an apology and says he won’t do it anymore, but it never lasts and it inevitably happens again.

Jane came to me after it became unbearable having to constantly explain that she isn’t disabled and can do everything anyone else can do. I have spoken to Fergus, but it still continues. He is an otherwise good worker. The division is still fairly new and everyone is learning still but besides this I have no complaints.

Jane told me she is considering applying for an internal transfer to another division. Jane is great at her job and she makes the division run smoothly. Her work makes me and the division look good. I don’t want to lose a such a competent employee and, at the risk of veering out of management territory, a good person. I also don’t think Jane should have to leave because of someone else’s behavior. The company only has one HR person and he’s out of the office so much that it’s impossible to get ahold of him. Jane has been nothing but professional even though she dreads dealing with Fergus. I want to bring the problem to the attention of my manager but I’m not sure if it’s appropriate or even how I can say it without looking like I’m an ineffective manger shunting off the problem to someone else.

Stop asking Fergus to stop, and instead tell him that it stops immediately or he’ll no longer have a job with you — and mean it.

And yes, loop in your manager because she needs to be aware that Fergus is harassing one of your employees and that this may end in you needing to fire him.

This is harassment, and it’s illegal. Federal law prohibits harassing an employee because she has a disability or is believed to have a disability. And your organization is violating the law by knowing about it and not putting a stop to it.

Of course, even if that weren’t the law, it would still be 100% your ethical obligation to put a stop to it because it’s in no way okay to let an employee harass another employee about a perceived disability.

And I know that you’ve been trying to get Fergus to stop, but you haven’t backed that up with any teeth at all. You’ve been relying on trying to convince and cajole him, rather than exercising your authority as a manager and ensuring that it stops, period. This is not an “is there a reason you continue to do X?” situation. It’s an “if you continue to do X, I will let you go” situation.

Stop asking and start telling.

Specifically, sit down with him right now — don’t wait for him to make yet another offensive remark — and say this: “Fergus, I’ve spoken with you in the past about the inappropriate remarks you’ve made about Jane. You’ve continued to make those remarks. I want to let you know that these remarks are harassment, and we have a legal obligation to ensure they stop. Effective immediately, if you make any further remarks about Jane’s prosthesis or your perception that she’s disabled, I will ____ (insert consequence here).”

What to fill in for that consequence depends on what your boss and/HR will okay. Frankly, I’d advocate firing him — Fergus is creating a hostile work environment for a coworker, has been told repeatedly to cut it out, and has continued anyway. But it’s possible that your boss will have different ideas — like a formal warning, followed by firing if it happens again, or a variety of other less severe consequences. You want to get aligned with her on how you’re going to be able to proceed, so that you can lay out the consequence for Fergus with confidence when you talk to him.

But you really do need to put a stop to this permanently. No more asking and hoping that Fergus will behave like a decent human — that should be a bare minimum condition of staying on your team, and you need to enforce that.

{ 427 comments… read them below }

    1. Cathy*

      Preferably before Jane takes off her leg and beats him severely about the head and neck..which is what he so richly deserves!

        1. Captain Radish*

          I don’t think it’s ever specified. Honestly even in my line of work where I’m on my feet all the time and up and down ladders and such I wouldn’t consider myself disabled if I only had one leg.

      1. MashaKasha*

        I was thinking along those lines as I read the letter. “Should I say it? I mean, I would totally DO it to him.”

      2. LBK*

        At the very least she should take it off and throw it dramatically across the room, a la Aviva from RHONY.

          1. LBK*

            I’m glad at least one person here got it – was skeptical about how much the AAM reader and RH viewer Venn diagrams overlapped :)

  1. SouthernLadybug*

    I agree with everything Alison says. Also, I want to point out that you are probably at risk of losing more than Jane. If I was in your division, and saw that Jane was pushed out because of Fergus’s behavior (and that is how I’d interpret it), I’d be looking to leave as well. I think you are trying to handle this well, just trying to let you know that with Fergus being so obvious and horrible that you have more than just Fergus and Jane to consider.

    1. Cambridge Comma*

      Yes, nobody wants to work in an environment where the harassed people have to leave and the harassers get to stay.

        1. M-C*

          +100 in fact, more likely to pick several new targets as he’ll know he can get away with this harrassment. I wouldn’t even be surprised if he picks the OP as his next target, as he might see her as easily replaceable.

      1. Rocket Scientist*


        Also, if I saw this taking place, I’d go to HR and specifically mention how the OP was failing in her management duties.
        Nip this in the bud now.

        1. CR*


          OP shouldn’t be surprised Jane wants to leave. She’s working in a toxic environment with a bad manager.

              1. ExceptionToTheRule*

                Amen. When I was officially promoted to a management role this spring, it didn’t come with a handbook or instructions or training. Had it not been for some previous experience in the matter & things I’ve learned here, I sure wouldn’t have known what to do with a similar situation that one of my employees brought up last month.

                1. Natalie*

                  And HR may or may not be a resource. In my company, HR is housed in the accounting department (because it involves payroll) which means me and my boss… neither of whom is any sort of HR expert. At least we know what we don’t know, so to speak, and consult legal authorities whenever possible.

            1. Rocket Scientist*

              Well, they have let this happen “at least 6 times”. That’s not good management by any stretch of the imagination.

              1. Jadelyn*

                It’s not *good* management, no, but it’s not so much *bad* management as *inexperienced* management. If this is the OP’s first time in a management role, they’ve never experienced this before, and if they’re not getting the support they need then nobody has ever told them what to do. The fact that the OP wrote in to Alison to ask how to handle it suggests to me that they really *want* to be a good manager – an actual bad manager wouldn’t care enough to do that.

                1. KR*

                  Seconding this. Rocket Scientist and CR, would you want to write to a management advice blog if you knew the people in the comment section were going to call you a bad manager for not already knowing the answer? Please consider this from the OPs perspective.

                2. SouthernLadybug*

                  Yes. I almost didn’t post my comment b/c I didn’t want the LW to take it as in indictment – just an added piece of info/perspective she may be missing. This really reads more like a new manager without great (any?) HR leadership above her in the middle of a tough first learning experience vs. just being a bad manager. I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and think that she’ll act decisively now.

              2. Liane*

                This is bad *management* but not a bad *manager*. OP is a new manager attempting to do the right things–she has identified the problem, tried a Plan A, and when it hasn’t gotten results is seeking advice from someone more experienced to find an effective Plan B.
                A bad manager wouldn’t bother to get Alison’s–or anyone’s–advice. Or, if they did email Alison the question would be something like, “My employee Fergus keeps bringing up his coworker Jane’s prosthetic and she acts like it’s MY job to shut it down when she needs to suck it up/deal/ignore it. How do I get this through to Jane?”

                1. Annonymouse*

                  But by this point it should be clear that Fergus isn’t just a little misguided/fascinated by how things work for Jane.

                  This has become harassment. He is pointing out her disability at least once a day despite numerous requests to stop.

                  It’s great OP has written in for help. I just think it should have been done much sooner.

    2. Dot Warner*

      I agree. Because Fergus’ behavior has been allowed to persist for so long, other employees might begin to think your company approves of it, or at the very least doesn’t understand what a Big Deal this is. I don’t want to work for a company with that view, and if I found out that I did, I’d be dusting off my resume.

      1. AnonAnalyst*

        Exactly. The fact that this is so clearly inappropriate but is allowed to continue would make me wonder where the line for acceptable behavior in this workplace is – what else is fair game to be a constant topic of discussion? For me personally, that is not a feeling I want to have at work.

        I would also guess that other employees are uncomfortable when Fergus is saying this stuff, so I don’t think Jane is the only one who dislikes his comments. I suspect that Fergus’ behavior is impacting more members of the OP’s team than she anticipates.

    3. EddieSherbert*

      I think this is a good point. I know if I worked here, I would feel horrified on Jane’s behalf, and be very closely watching how our manager handled it.

      Not the same situation but for example: at ToxicOldJob, I had JobA and was treated fine, but a couple my coworkers with JobB were treated awful by our manager. They were regularly told in team meetings that “anyone can do your [specific, skilled] job,” and berated for any issues/concerns they had because “it’s not that hard to figure out.” Just seeing that happen completely changed my perception of my department and gave me the push to leave – despite personally being valued and treated respectfully.

      1. Christopher Tracy*

        Yeah, my prior manager in my last division was a nasty piece of work to most of my coworkers while acting like me and two other women walked on water. The division that created among the team was toxic as all hell and was one of the reasons I decided to leave – who wants to work around that drama? So since I had options, I posted for other internal positions and eventually left (but not before incurring former manager’s wrath for daring to leave and make her look bad).

        1. HardwoodFloors*

          +1 Yes, experienced scape goat/golden child dynamic in former workplace. I never had a name for it.

      2. shep*

        I had a manager like this–she loved me but was awful to a lot of other very competent people. She was inadvertently awful to me in other respects because she was a disorganized mess of a manager and I often had to run around putting out fires after her, but she certainly wasn’t hostile to me like she was to other people.

        It took me three years to jump that [sinking] ship. I was so happy when I left.

  2. Leatherwings*

    I would also advocate for firing Fergus. His behavior will probably cost you at least one good employee unless it stops immediately, and it would be better to lose him than lose Jane. Nobody wants an ableist on their team.

    After you sit down with Fergus, I would also let Jane know that you want her to tell you if it happens again – even once. Hopefully that will communicate to her that actions are being taken even if you can’t outline everything you’re doing with Fergus.

    I hope you’ll update us on the situation!

    1. Rincat*

      Agreed, I think it would do a lot for Jane to hear that some serious consequences were coming down the line for Fergus. Few thing are worse than a terrible coworker running around and it seems like management is doing nothing about it. Just knowing that he faces real, actual consequences might be enough to get her to stay a little while longer.

    2. Lurks @Work*

      Honestly, at this point, I would have the manager above you deliver the news that the Fergus situation is being handled, if possible. You dropped the ball on this six times already. If I were Jane and my manger feigned assertiveness after being wimpy for so long, I would doubt her. The manager above you can give this teeth you don’t have.

      1. Leatherwings*

        Hm. My initial instinct is that’s not a bad plan, although it would definitely undermine OPs authority to have someone step in on her behalf.
        It might be better to just grow some teeth. If Jane has to see it to believe it, then show her.

        1. OhNo*

          Would it help to split the difference, do you think? To have Jane meet with both the OP and their manager to give her the news that it is being handled? At least then Jane would know that the OP is participating in this step, not just being a passive observer to their manager handing down consequences.

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I think the problem with having it come from the manager above the OP is that it will signal to Jane that the OP wouldn’t have handled it on her own, had the higher-level manager not stepped in. And that could be pretty terrible for the relationship between Jane and the OP. I’d rather see the OP handle it herself, but acknowledge that she should have acted earlier and that she will ensure it Jane doesn’t have to deal with any more of it from here on out.

        1. Katie F*

          I feel like open communication with jane about how badly the ball was dropped would go a long way towards repairing the OP’s relationship with her. Just outright acknowledge that OP was wrong – “I would like to apologize, I’ve let this behavior go on for far too long, and there is no excuse for allowing your working environment to get so hostile before I took proactive action. I would like to reassure you that will no longer be a problem.”

    3. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot*

      I was thinking it’s a toss-up between Fergus and Jane but you’re right. There is a clear asymmetry, even if they are both equally good employees. Jane isn’t violating any laws, Fergus is; so Jane isn’t endangering the company’s legal welfare while Fergus is. Moreover, what does Fergus need to do to resolve this situation? Simply stop pointing out Jane’s prosthetic/perceived disability. What does Jane need to do to resolve this situation? Grow a leg (or arm), an entirely unrealistic demand. So it seems to me that if I were OP and I had to choose between Jane and Fergus, I’d choose Jane. It’s straightforward.

      1. Marina*

        But what law is he violating? He’s not saying anything that’s not true, right? Does the company maintain a head count of employees by gender, race, ethnicity, disability, etc.?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Harassing an employee with a disability or who’s perceived to have a disability violates federal law. However, it’s the company that’s liable, not Fergus personally.

          1. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot*

            Exactly, this is what I was referring to. Thanks. Yes, Fergus himself is not liable, but exposes the company to that risk as long as they knowingly allow this behavior.

        2. Nerdy Canuck*

          He is saying something that’s not true: He is saying that he I is disabled, Jane has repeatedly pointed out that since she can do anything anyone else can, she is not disabled.

          She actually does get to. Make that decision.

          1. Nerdy Canuck*

            And the full stop in the middle of that last sentence was not intentional… And that second sentence should read “she is disabled”.

            Apologies for uncaught autocorrect errors.

          2. NacSacJack*

            Uh no. For legal purposes, Jane is id’d as a disabled employee. Regardless of how she feels or wants to be treated, it’s how she is perceived that is important here.

  3. Natalie*

    I agree with Alison, it seems terrible that Jane wants to transfer – it’s clearly gone beyond warnings.

  4. Cambridge Comma*

    It sounds like OP has all the right instincts about the situation. It just depends on whether she can fire Fergus with or without her manager’s involvement.
    The maximum number of times Jane should hear such remarks again is once (and that should end with Fergus leaving).

    1. SouthernLadybug*

      I agree – I’m a little worried that the OP may have a pile on. Fergus sucks. And I think she knows it – it’s just having the affirmation and back-up sometimes. Especially since it sounds like she may be newer to management.

        1. Alton*

          Yeah, I feel for the OP. They’re new to managing this group, and it sounds like they may be new-ish to managing in general, and it sounds like there may not be a lot of support or oversight in place. And this is a really strange and bad personnel issue to have to deal with right off the bat.

          1. Christopher Tracy*

            Yup. OP sounds like she reads this site regularly because the initial script asking Fergus if he could stop with his treatment of Jane sounds like language Alison’s used in the past, but OP doesn’t quite grasp when to apply such language. The ask approach is typically for smaller issue items, not full on harrasment. That should have been nipped in the bud immediately with threat of firing and follow through if it happened again. Now that OP knows this is A Thing, I don’t doubt she’ll do what she can to either shut this behavior down for good or get rid of him. Good luck, OP.

            1. SRB*

              Yeah and the ask approach really could only work for the first instance, not the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh…

        2. HR Jeanne*

          This is not just an “absent” HR Manager. This is a BAD HR Manager. If even one of these comments were brought to me, I would take immediate and swift action. This is the stuff of lawsuits. This is illegal harassment, and the OP needs the backup of her manager and the HR department, which she is clearly not getting.

          1. Jadelyn*

            I agree, but to be fair from the phrasing it sounded to me like the HR Manager doesn’t even *know* that this is going on yet. There’s a whole other conversation to be had about HR’s visibility and the relationship between absent and bad HR, but this doesn’t sound like a situation where HR has been notified and is ignoring it, so much as they are so absent as to be painfully unaware.

            1. Liane*

              Yes, this is bad, but since OP mentioned there was only one HR person, It’s possible they just do hiring and benefits paperwork, not “full service”HR, so may not be much help. That is bad also, but from what I have read on this site, it isn’t an uncommon set up.

              1. Natalie*

                Yeah, I mentioned this upthread but that’s how my company (approximately 50 employees) handles things. HR is housed in the accounting department because of payroll, but our primary function is accounting and thus both me and my boss only really have education/experience in accounting. We’re both new and have been making changes as far as how HR things are handled (and removing a half dozen explicitly illegal policies from our 20-year-old handbook), but as far as I can tell the prior person in this position took HR to mean nothing more than payroll and benefits paperwork.

      1. Cambridge Comma*

        Yeah, from the way OP writes I think with Alison’s answer she’ll be marching in tomorrow to protect Jane and deal with Fergus.
        It also sounds like such a crazy problem. Who does that? Who doesn’t stop doing that when asked repeatedly.
        (The answer is Fergus.)

        1. AnonAnalyst*

          This was exactly what I thought too. As I was reading this, I was thinking that I can understand why the OP is lost because, seriously, who does this at all, AND THEN CONTINUES after they have already been told to stop?

          If I had to tell someone not to do this, the only reaction I can imagine that person having is complete mortification once they realized what they had been doing, following by them not ever doing it again. So I also would be quite perplexed when the person continued behaving the same way. But apparently just pointing out that Fergus is not acting like a decent human being isn’t enough to change his behavior, so the OP needs to move on to outlining consequences if it continues.

        2. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot*

          Yes, to be honest, who does this? Young children. Fergus’s behavior resembles that of a young child who doesn’t know better. Except Fergus is a professional adult.

          1. CM*

            My young children understand that they have to treat people with respect, and would not need to be told more than once that this behavior is unacceptable… Fergus’s behavior is of somebody who doesn’t respect boundaries.

            1. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot*

              That’s good. I can’t say that’s the case for most kids though, going by my own experiences as a kid. But yeah.

          2. RDB*

            I had a somewhat creepier thought. Yes, children will do this sort of thing because they don’t know better. Fergus comes across to me like a fetishist with extremely poor impulse control.

    2. Eddie Turr*

      I’m glad you’re pointing out some good things about OP. She recognizes that Fergus’s behavior is wrong, and that mismanagement of bad employees can cost her good employees. She also seems to have an understanding of how to work with people who are visibly different (whether they consider themselves disabled or not). And, of course, OP has enough self awareness to ask Alison’s advice when the next steps don’t seem clear. These are all good things.

      Not using her authority as a manager to more firmly address this situation is going to wipe out all of the things OP is doing well. She needs to take action now.

      Honestly, if I saw a manager allow this situation to continue without intervention for much longer, I’d recommend firing the manager, as well. OP, don’t let this cost you your job!

  5. Anna No Mouse*

    This guy sounds like a real tool, and I would bet money that he has said inappropriate things to other people in the office as well, though he is definitely fixated on the prosthetic limb for some reason.

    I agree with Alison about firing him if your manager and HR will back you. It’s not as if he hasn’t been given every opportunity to cut it out. Now you lay it out that the next time he says anything to Jane or about Jane along these lines, he is gone. And let Jane know to keep you apprised, in case he says something to her without you around.

    Either way, once you have the talk with him, sit Jane down and let her know how valuable she is to your team and that while you understand if she wants a transfer, but that you are taking steps to get Fergus under control and that it will be dealt with one way or another.

    1. stevenz*

      Have that conversation with Jane asap so you reassure her that she’s valued and hopefully doesn’t go off to another team.

  6. KT*

    I want to punch Fergus in the mouth. I know that’s not HR approved, but seriously, what is his deal?!

    Definitely worth a firing offense–that’s disgusting behavior. I can even see it happening once or twice by someone who perhaps had never been around a person with a prosthetic (thinking they were being helpful by giving someone a heads up), but after being corrected multiple times? That’s just rude and gross. I don’t blame Jane for being upset and it’s certainly harassment.

    1. AMG*

      It’s so weird. Hard to tell if he’s just fascinated by the prosthetic limb or is actively trying to harass Jane. Either way, shut him down with vigor. Jeez.

      1. Newby*

        If he weren’t trying to harass her then the multiple times he was asked to stop would have worked. He has already been told it bothers her so it is not unintentional.

          1. Elizabeth West*

            Mine too–but it could also be that he has some other problem with it. Especially since he’s been asking her stuff like “How can you do X with this?” Like it’s a “How can you be around ‘normal’ people?”

            1. Julia*

              The reply to that last question would be, ‘I’ll let you know once they’ve replaced you with someone normal.”

            1. Jadelyn*

              I’m glad/horrified that I’m not the only one who got that sense from the letter. I feel awful for Jane.

              1. CS Rep By Day, Writer By Night*

                Sadly, that was the first place my mind went. Bringing something up over and over again out of context is pretty common when someone’s fetishizing an individual or group. It’s just got that weird, creepy compulsion element that’s as distinctive ans it is gross.

                1. dragonzflame*

                  First thing I thought of too – then again, maybe I just need to spend less time on the internet.

              2. Sans*

                Yeah, I got that feeling, too. Yuck, what a creep! Get him out of there. I bet Jane is not just offended but totally weirded out by him.

          1. Wehaf*

            Rule 34 is the supposed internet rule that if you can think of something, you can find porn on that topic somewhere on the internet. So the implication is that Fergus may be sexually aroused by Jane’s having a prosthetic.

              1. Barefoot Librarian*

                And this just peppers the whole situation with a heavy dose of “eww”. Poor Jane. Fergus needs to go.

        1. RVA Cat*

          That crossed my mind as well. Eww. It’s like he’s substituting the ableism for the sexual harassment he may be thinking – as if somehow that makes it okay?!

          Anyone else kind of hoping Jane goes full Imperator Furiosa on him?

        2. Aurion*

          I think my disgust with Fergus just reached a whole new level. Wow. OP, shut this down now.

          If I were OP, I’d also talk to Jane using Katie F’s excellent script, with the addendum “one way or another, this will stop”. Implying that Fergus would be fired over this may be toeing the line since managers shouldn’t talk about consequences to other employees, but I’d want to emphasize to Jane that this is being taken seriously (if belatedly).

          1. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot*

            Yeah, I think it’s important Jane knows that “one way or another, this will stop” before she leaves.

        3. Anon attorney*

          Sadly this was also my first thought. Find it hard to believe Fergus is just this clueless. He is almost certainly getting a kick out of all this.

        4. Cath in Canada*

          Ick, but something to think about!

          I came {this close} to losing my left arm when I was a kid – luckily, I had an excellent surgeon who was able to save my arm (the hospital videoed the traction apparatus set-up because it was so innovative at the time), and a physio team who helped me to almost completely restore function over the course of several months. Now I just have a large scar, slightly impaired function, and a very clicky shoulder (from the traction). I’ll admit that for a few years after that, I had a somewhat morbid fascination with prosthetics and would stare quite intensely if I saw someone with a prosthetic arm in particular. But I was, y’know, eight years old, and my parents were excellent at helping me realise how inappropriate I was being. Fergus needs to grow up about this.

        5. AD*

          Honestly, this isn’t helpful to OP’s situation at all. Let’s focus on helping her deal with Fergus’ behavior instead of speculating on why he’s being a jerk in this particular situation.

        6. RDB*

          It absolutely crossed my mind. In fact, I think that’s the whole reason for Fergus’s behavior.

    2. Jadelyn*

      If I’m in HR, even if not at the company in question, can I approve it anyway? Because I’m with you on the punching thing here. This guy is being gross and creepy and unbelievably disrespectful. I’m not at all surprised that Jane wants out, since (from her perspective) her manager won’t protect her from this guy and his harassment.

        1. Aurion*

          You’ve my approval, though unfortunately I’m not in HR. I’ll even sharpen your skates for you beforehand!

    3. Eddie Turr*

      Part of me wonders if OP’s examples are more egregious than what’s really going on. Not because I don’t trust OP to tell the truth, but because it’s difficult for me to imagine that a working adult would bring up a prosthetic/any perceived disability literally every time or even almost every time he speaks to or about a co-worker. And after being asked to stop?! This just goes so far beyond any kind of genuine ignorance or social ineptitude I’ve ever encountered.

      As someone said above, I’d expect an employee who honestly didn’t know better (or knew better bet let something inappropriate slip out) would be mortified as soon as OP politely corrected the behavior. Running into it repeatedly really might throw me off because it’s such a violation of basic manners.

      1. Blurgle*

        I can. I know people who act like Fergus; now obviously I’m not in his mind but the people I know are deeply disturbed by the existence of disabled people. They don’t want them at work (because it disturbs them to have to look at them), they don’t want them on disability (they’re the ones screeching about “benefit scroungers”), they would like it very much if disabled people were all taken out and shot. (And of course they assume every disability is the ‘fault’ of the disabled person.)

        They’re basically so terrified of being disabled themselves that they subconsciously do everything they can to erase the fact of disability from the world.

        1. Oranges*

          I actually learned this about myself when I was 14. That my discomfort around people with mental impairments was because I was frightened of a world where that could happen to me.

          Society as a whole rightfully told me that I was being a jerk. I didn’t want to see myself as a jerk therefore I did the work. Yes, selfish but also that’s kinda… why society exists in the first place. To make living with umpteen million people easier/better than it would otherwise be.

      2. Ultraviolet*

        Does it make a big difference to your take on the situation whether it happens in many interactions vs basically every time? It’s happened enough that OP has asked him six different times to stop. Do you literally mean that you doubt the specific examples OP gave (like with the courier, or baseball) just because OP may have used a bit of hyperbole in a very common way? I’m not sure what you’re getting at here.

      3. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot*

        It’s not hard for me to imagine at all. Yes, it goes beyond both genuine ignorance (or honestly not knowing better) and social ineptitude — but who says it has to be either of those? At this point, to be honest, it looks like malicious behavior on the part of Fergus. It’s a rarity.

      4. Julia*

        I can imagine that. Especially since “Jane is easy to find, she’s the black woman” is something people would say, and I am guessing Fergus just uses those kinds of labels a lot.

    1. Overeducated*

      Me too. OP, please take Alison’s advice ASAP, and let us know what happens down the road!

  7. Oryx*

    OP, you need to Shut. This. Down.

    I also advocate for firing him because he is willfully ignoring your instructions. Even if you’re taking a more passive approach of asking v. telling, he knows you want him to stop and he’s choosing not to.

      1. Oryx*

        The OP states she’s asked him multiple times. If a parent asks a child to clean their bedroom several times and the child doesn’t, that’s willfully ignoring instructions.

        1. Allison*

          That’s not how I read it, it seems like the OP is talking to him but using very vague, passive, “hm, this seems to be an issue, let’s talk about this” manner. If my mom kept saying “gee honey your room is a mess, any reason why you haven’t cleaned it recently?” or “let’s see if we can find a way to make this room less dirty sometime,” I might pick up on her wanting me to clean my room, but I wouldn’t take that to mean she’s asking me to do it, just that she’s hinting I should, and that makes cleaning my room pretty low on my to-do list. That language annoys the heck out of me, to be honest; if you want me to do something, say “hey Allison, can you do X?” or “Allison, I need you to to X.” Direct language works better.

          1. OhNo*

            True, but it sounds like the OP is newish to management, which means they might not be totally sure where the line should be between asking and telling. It can be a pretty nuanced thing, especially in situations where you have to remain professional and preserve relationships. It’s not surprising that they don’t realize that this should have graduated to telling a while ago.

          2. Oryx*

            The OP literally says: “I have asked him at least six times to stop. Whenever I hear him do it, I will say something along the lines of “Fergus, we’ve repeatedly discussed that you are being inappropriate. Is there a reason why you continue to call Jane disabled?”

      2. Leatherwings*

        I don’t think the OP implied they’ve been suggestions. It seems like they have been clear instructions so far, the issue is that it hasn’t been tied to clear consequences.

        1. Kelly L.*

          Right–even though the OP used the word “asked,” it’s pretty clear it’s not really a question.

          1. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot*

            Yes, as a general rule of thumb, if your manager “asks” you something, she isn’t asking. Especially in a case like this.

      3. Jadelyn*

        If your manager “suggests” something to you several times, that’s tantamount to command/instruction. Fergus sounds like the kind of guy who’s going to play the plausible deniability game (but you never said I *had* to!), but that doesn’t make it a reasonable interpretation.

        1. KR*

          This is what I came here to say. When my manager suggests that I do something, I assume he’s suggesting it because he wants me to do it. My grand-boss also phrases nearly all of his instructions as suggestions.

          1. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot*

            My boss and grandboss (great word btw) both phrase all of their questions as suggestions. Especially my boss, he is almost “too nice” when asking me to do things. But I know he is actually telling me to do it, not asking.

            1. LCL*

              I think the phrase grand boss is repellant and repulsive. I think on an open Friday it should be discussed.

              1. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot*

                Alright then. I’m not one to care if I “offend” people, so I’ll keep using the term.

                Grandboss grandboss grandboss grandboss grandboss grandboss

        2. JessaB*

          Yes but there are some people that just do not ever get indirect speech. If the words are not “do not ever do x for any reason ever,” and are even a teensy bit softer than that, they do not understand it. And while I probably think that Fergus is not that kind of person, until you directly say it to him to make sure he’s not, you have to kind of give the employee the benefit. Some people have been trained up that anything passive aggressive or softened is a suggestion not a command. And yes a lot of people take advantage of that because they know there are really people like that. And I have a good idea that Fergus is one of them. He’s been told just a few too many times for it to be otherwise.

          1. Addie Bundren*

            When it comes to behavior like this, a manager certainly does not “have to” give an employee the benefit of the doubt.

          2. LCL*

            ‘some people have been trained up that anything passive aggressive or softened is a suggestion not a command.’ Describes my parents philosophy of command exactly. Not that I am justifying Fergus’ actions!

      4. neverjaunty*

        1) Jane has clearly told Fergus to stop.

        2) OP says that when she speaks to Fergus, he apologizes and says he won’t do it again.

        This is not a situation where expectations are unclear or Fergus has no idea what’s appropriate.

        1. Dot Warner*

          Yes. This isn’t Fergus not getting indirect speech or the OP not having explained things well. This is Fergus being a jackass.

  8. A Girl is No One*

    This reminds me of an episode of “The Closer”, where the oldest detective makes an offensive remark and is told he will have to go to sensitivity training. His response is “AGAIN? I was just there last week!”

  9. Not Karen*

    I’m surprised a) Jane hasn’t left eons ago, and b) Fergus hasn’t had the crap beaten out of him yet.

    This letter makes me so sad I want to cry.

    1. KT*

      BWA so this reminded me of a story…

      I do work for a non-profit that helps veterans reintegrate into civilian life.

      One young man had his legs blown off, but had prosthetics and walked normally.

      He was sitting in the waiting room, and another person kept being really invasive, asking questions about how he cleans his legs, if he has to be carried to bed, etc.

      The veteran was incredibly calm and coldly courteous, but the guy would. not. stop. So finally, the vet took off his right prosthetic and said very calmly, “If you do not shut up, if you ask me just one more question, I will use this prosthetic to beat you. I am skilled in hand to hand combat, battle-proven, and this weighs about 15 lbs.”

      The guy was quiet for the rest of the waiting period.

    2. Mookie*

      It makes me want to cry, too. I think the detail that most gets to me is Jane having to repeatedly assert that she’s not disabled. It must be so dehumanizing and disheartening and humiliating and confusing to be treated this way–to have to justify her own reality, body, and identity in the face of this crass, rude, utterly cold-hearted human being–and to be powerless to stop it, except by leaving. OP, give her some power. Give her back her control. Nip it now forevermore–and make a point out of airing what the consequences will be out loud so that the rest of the team understands–or fire him.

  10. TootsNYC*

    Alison, that script—”Why do you …X? Can you …X going forward?” —is actually one you often propose, and I generally feel that it’s way too wishy-washy.

    Maybe you can start suggesting firmer, more authoritative wording.

    Especially since I’m a woman, and I am currently managing men, I always say, “You need to” or “I want you to.”

    1. Leatherwings*

      I definitely think that language has a time and a place – with minor issues especially. It gives employees a chance to explain why they’re doing X, which is important for managers to hear. If someone is turning in their timecards early, for example, maybe they just don’t get why that’s an issue. Having the employee explain their reasoning followed by the manager explaining why that needs to change makes employees feel listened to, which is pretty important IMO.

      In this case, Fergus doesn’t need to be listened to, he needs to stop.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      In some situations (more minor ones than this), it’s appropriate to start with “I’m noticing X / what’s going on?” followed by “I need Y / can you do that going forward?” In those cases, there’s no need to be sterner than that; taking a collaborative tone is appropriate, and I’d disagree with using more authoritative wording when it’s not needed.

      But this is not one of those cases.

      1. TootsNYC*

        definitely, the idea of asking a question about what’s going on is important–it’s one of the things I like so much about your advice in general.

        But often I find myself reading advice here and thinking, “Hmmm, I think that needs to be a declarative sentence, not a ‘can you do that?’ question.”

        Definitely, this is a situation where I personally wouldn’t ask, “What’s going on? Why are you…? Is there a reason…?” Because I truly wouldn’t care about what the reason was.
        The reason is probably that there’s some anxiety in Fergus associated with the artificial limb, and he can’t shake it. There’s no acceptable, work-related reason, so I wouldn’t ask about it.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Right, we agree on that part — that this is not a situation where the OP should be asking Fergus. There are lots of other situations where that applies, but this is not one of them. (See from the original post: “This is not an “is there a reason you continue to do X?” situation. It’s an “if you continue to do X, I will let you go” situation.”)

        2. Artemesia*

          Well of course a mild tone is not appropriate in this case, but the whole point of the ‘can you do this?’ nomenclature is that you get the person being managed to buy in and commit publicly to you that they can do what is asked. That is much more powerful than a strong statement by the manager without getting the overt buy in from the staffer. Being given negative feedback arouses resentment and defensiveness in most people, so pushing on the positive thing they need to do going forward and asking for their verbal cooperation makes the process a bit more collaborative and negative and is thus often more effective than a simple command.

          1. fposte*

            I also think that the manner of delivery matters, and that there are people who can be rock firm with a “Can you do that?” and people who can sound like they’d cave if you looked at them directly when they’re saying that this is a breach of the law.

    3. animaniactoo*

      Honestly, I think it’s also fine to start with this as it may lead to a smoother interaction of it. But the OP says they’ve talked to him at least 6 times. So fine for the first time or 2 should long ago have graduated to the firmer language.

      “Fergus, if you use the word “disabled” about Jane or refer to her prosthetic limb again in anything but an absolute need-to-know situation, I will send you home for the day immediately (I’m assuming OP has at least that much authority, although I’ve known of managers who ridiculously don’t). If I have to send you home more than once, we will have to see what further disciplinary actions may be necessary. I’ve spoken to you twice about this and as you’ve continued I apparently wasn’t clear enough about how serious this is, so let there be no mistake now. If it happens again, you will be disciplined for it, immediately.”

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Hmmm, I don’t know about sending someone home for the day — it feels a bit infantilizing to me. These are grown adults. Warn people as much as is warranted by the situation (for something severe, that might be once or less; for some more minor, you’d probably have more conversations) and then take the action you’re going to take (firing or other consequences). Sending them home feels almost patronizing/school-like.

        1. OhNo*

          Plus, depending on the work environment, it could really send the wrong message. If this is a job where there is a set load of work that needs to get done, or where you receive a salary that can’t be docked, then sending Fergus home just ups the workload on everyone else or gives him a free afternoon off. Neither of those is much of a consequence in the first place, and certainly not a consequence severe enough for this kind of behavior.

        2. animaniactoo*

          I agree that it can be infantilizing. In tossing that out as an example I’m thinking of company/industry cultures (retail in particular) where it’s the immediate thing that a manager can do, vs having to work/fight harder to do an official write-up that will stick, etc. so it becomes the first in the chain of things that happens.

          In other places the first official or formal step might be “placing an official write-up in your file”, etc., whatever appropriate leverage the manager does have immediately available.

          1. Lindsay J*

            This. I’ve used it when I was working in an amusement park, because A. Sometimes the people I was managing were not adults. B. It’s a good way to shut down the situation right there – in this situation I wouldn’t have to worry about Fergus calling Jane disabled again the moment I was out of the room, or worse retaliating against her in some way for “getting him in trouble”. C. It had an immediate consequence; they were hourly and would be losing money. D. It enabled me to get with my boss and get a writeup signed by them to give to the person when they next returned to work.

            However, it wasn’t generally something I would warn them about ahead of time. If I was warning them ahead of time about something it would be warning them that they would be written up or dismissed if the behavior continued. The sending home generally occurred as a situation management solution when something egregious happened that needed immediate handling. And I wouldn’t do it in a professional environment.

            1. Collarbone High*

              E. If your state requires that fired employees be given their final paycheck at termination, or within 24 hours, that’s often impossible in an amusement park/fast food/retail setting where you’re not working office hours, so sending someone home lets you delay the actual firing until you can get a paycheck cut.

              F. When I worked in a similar environment, we often used “you are suspended for the rest of the day, come in Monday for a meeting with management to discuss this” for two reasons. One, sometimes in the stress of a busy weekend shift, minor disagreements would escalate, so a cooling-off period was useful for both manager and employee. Two, we preferred people quit rather than be fired, and since these were low-stakes jobs, often people would not come in for the meeting and were considered to have quit without notice.

        3. Augusta Sugarbean*

          So what are the other consequences would you suggest, Alison? What are the steps you’d use in between verbal warning and firing?

          My company, at least theoretically, job coaching, verbal warning (which is still written down ??), written warning, suspension, then firing. But we have such garbage management what they really do is: ignore, empty promises to reporting employees, ignore, coaching, ignore, hope that reporting employee will quit, hope that problem employee will quit, then finally offer the option to resign, then fire.

          1. Lindsay J*

            Heh, I’ve never worked anywhere where a verbal warning is not written down and recorded exactly the same as a written warning, with just a different box checked. It’s always perplexed me.

            1. Natalie*

              I suppose it’s just a less-ridiculous-sounding way of differentiating between “Warning” and “Super Serious Warning”.

                1. LBK*

                  I think instituting a “no talking while the lights are off” policy would be a good consequence, like in the cafeteria at my elementary school.

              1. Jaydee*

                I feel like anymore it should be “Not Final Warning” and “Final Warning.” They’re all in writing so they are documented. The difference is that for one the next step in the progressive discipline plan can still be more warnings while for the other the next step is firing.

                1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  Not Final and Penultimate both have the problem of implying the person will definitely get one more warning, which compromises your flexibility if the next act is so egregious that you want to fire right away. But you really don’t need names like this at all.

            2. Bookworm*

              Ah, the crucial difference between the written-verbal warning and the written-written warning.

            3. Oviraptor*

              I am not in management, but to me (as an employee) wouldn’t the verbal warning need to be documented somehow? That way it is clear as to where an employee is in the disciplinary process and no steps/levels of discipline are skipped over. I can think of two examples of needing all documentation. One, if an employee would possibly be able to take (or think they could take) legal action about being fired illegally because procedure wasnt followed due to not
              receiving a verbal warning (I am not trying to suggest this is even something a lawyer would take as a case or even has merit. But only that a fired employee might consider this Avenue). The second scenario would be if the original manager is gone (new job either within the company but more likely with a new company) the new manager will know exactly what has been happening and what steps have been taken. But, as non-management, this is only my POV. Which may not be anywhere close to the real reason for verbal warnings that are written down and actual written warnings.

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                U.S. law doesn’t require warnings before someone is fired. But yes, it’s generally smart to do it anyway (in most but not all cases) and to document that you’ve done it.

        4. AMG*

          I’ve used it when HR actions are process-heavy and something needs to be done immediately (e.g., screaming, swearing and crying). IMO, Fergus’s behavior is egregious enough that it merits sending him home. If he can’t be fired right away (which hopefully isn’t the case) then this may help to get his attention. It IS patronizing but Fergus is acting like a child or a jerk so it fits.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            The only time I could see using it is when you truly need the person out of the office right now (for example, they showed up drunk or without a shirt) but need time to consider how you’re going to handle it beyond that. But I wouldn’t use it just as punishment.

            1. animaniactoo*

              I think that was the other piece of my originally going to “send you home for the day” – Jane needs a visible sign that Fergus’ crap is being taken very seriously, and she may really need not to see Fergus anymore that day.

              1. Kms1025*

                Completely agree with the “suspended for the rest of the day”. Buys everyone the time to “get their ducks in a row” as to exactly how dire the consequences of the particular circumstances are going to be. After thirty plus years in supervision and management, I have become a huge fan of the verbal to written to suspended progression of disciplinary actions. Usually ending with permanent termination. It’s a rare person who can completely turn around an unwanted behavior once it gets so far “into the weeds”.

            2. BenAdminGeek*

              You show up drunk at work with no shirt on ONE TIME, and everyone’s on your case about it for years….

            3. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot*

              This is the only time I’ve seen it used. I’ve seen both drunk and without a shirt… and one guy showed up reeking. All were at a client site so not my problem. Lol.

            4. Mookie*

              Wouldn’t it be a morale-boosting signal to others, though, that going forward this team has a zero-tolerance policy on harassment? If you do it, you will be separated from that person. Given that the OP has yet to even address this with her manager, sending Fergus home is a good opportunity and excuse to do so and signifies how serious the matter is.

        5. Jake*

          I agree so much! I work in construction, an industry where craft workers routinely get sent home without pay as punishment. It seems so ridiculously out of place in a professional environment.

          1. designbot*

            I’ve always assumed that was used to much in construction for reasons of unpreparedness though? When someone shows up drunk, “forgot their tools,” or is otherwise not prepared to attend to the day’s tasks, sending them home seems pretty sensible. But as a purely punitive thing I’d agree it’s silly. The borderline case I’d say I’ve seen is when someone shows up to work dressed very inappropriately, because the boss doesn’t want clients coming through the office to see them.

    4. hbc*

      Me in this case: “Fergus, you are not to mention Jane’s prosthesis or disability status again, or you will be fired. You have run through any chances on the matter. I don’t care if someone comes into the office offering ten million dollars to someone with a prosthesis, you will not respond on the subject. As far as you are concerned, it does not exist. I don’t even want you referring in general to disabilities unless it’s to come tell me that you need an accommodation.”

    5. KR*

      I’ve started taking a more authoritative wording too, especially since in both of my jobs I’m supervising/managing mostly people in the 16-24 range. They’re so new to the work force that they interpret collaborative language as you giving them an option, so I’ve started saying “-Thing- was not done correctly. Please do -thing- going forward.” or “This needs to be done -this way- because of -reason-, so please do the project that way.” and leaving no room for negotiation.
      Of course, whatever kind of language OP was using does not excuse Fergus’s behavior. OP shouldn’t have to tell Fergus not to make those comments and honestly he should have been mortified that OP had to talk to him about it once.

      1. BenAdminGeek*

        Agree- age/inexperience can lead to confusion there. People who are truly not used to “collaborative tone but really it’s a command” sometimes do ignore it without meaning to be disruptive. It’s another way I’ve learned that people aren’t all the same as me- sometimes we communicate in different ways!

      2. Lindsay J*

        I’m a fan of “I need you to”.

        “I need you to get your reports in on time.” “I need you to do this wayX not wayY going forward.”

        1. LCL*

          I hate the I need construction. It comes across as weak. I work with a bunch of men, I don’t want them thinking about my needs.

            1. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot*

              That works because it’s about what you need to do to meet business goals. It’s about the business’s needs, not my personal needs.

    6. Katie the Fed*

      Asking someone why they’re behaving inappopriately is ok when there’s a possibility of a legitimate reason that you could correct.

      It’s not ok here, because there’s no possible explanation that Fergus could give that would make it ok. It’s not ok, period, and it has to stop. Absolutely nothing he can say will make it ok.

    7. Emilia Bedelia*

      As a more or less Reasonable Person, I would be completely mortified if my boss asked me if there was a reason I wasn’t doing something that I knew I was supposed to be doing. I think this script is fine for Reasonable People for non-egregious issues. In this case neither apply though so I certainly agree with your point

      1. Mookie*

        Yep. If you were raised to respond to guilt or shame for motivation, this will work wonders. Otherwise, people will use it as a blank check to disagree and then just continue doing what they’re doing.

    8. neverjaunty*

      The wording might have been OK if the OP insisted on an actual answer.

      If you ask why an employee did X, and the response is a mumbled “sorry won’t do it again” – that is not an answer, it’s an evasion. “I’m glad to hear that won’t be repeated, Fergus, but I’m still waiting to to hear why you did that.”

      1. Sprinkled with Snark*

        Yeah, there re A LOT of people who think that just by saying “Sorry,” that the discussion has come to an end and the problem is resolved. No need to continue, because they already apologized.

        Maybe I’m in the minority, but asking someone WHY they are behaving terribly seems bizarre. You can ask them why they are completing their forms incorrectly, or why they aren’t completing the assignment on time and you could actually get an answer that might be useful – -(not enough time, that’s how they were trained to do it, the office doesn’t have the right teapot tool, the team is too small, Bob takes 3 hour lunches).

        But what do you expect someone to say when you ask them, WHY are you harassing Jane? Why are you calling Frank gay slurs? Why are you calling Maria a racial slur? NONE of that is appropriate, and frankly, there IS no reason why. EVER. It is just behavior that is not allowed at the office, and it must end immediately or there will be consequences. Have I made myself clear?

        Apologies are pointless, really. Do you think Jane wants an apology, or does she want the behavior to stop?

  11. Rebecca*

    Wow – what is wrong with some people? I can’t imagine how awful this is for Jane. Please fire Fergus, and make it clear to your staff that you won’t put up with such obnoxious behavior from anyone, for any reason.

      1. SebbyGrrl*

        Or – I always feel embaressed saying the name of the cartoon to anyone over 15….

        Angry Beavers Mission to the Red Hot Thingy

  12. TootsNYC*

    ” The company only has one HR person and he’s out of the office so much that it’s impossible to get ahold of him. ”

    Email him and tell him you need his help with a serious legal, “hostile workplace” situation. He should be easier to get ahold of then!

    1. Purple Wombat*

      People so often define “hostile work environment” incorrectly…but this particular case is on-the-nose.

      OP, I hope you are able to fire him quickly, before he has the chance to do anything else!

    2. AdAgencyChick*

      I’d put “URGENT” and maybe the word “harassment” in the subject line, too, if this person isn’t super responsive to email.

      1. Dynamic Beige*

        And then book an appointment. If this guy is rarely around, surely he takes meetings? If the OP is new to management and not certain about what she is and isn’t able to do to Fergus… and it’s been an on-going problem… surely a meeting with the HR guy next time he’s in the office could be set up. Or he could arrange his schedule to be there the next day? Review situation, get advice on how to handle it, or approval that Fergus can be given the boot. It may be that there is a formal policy of verbal/written warnings.

        If Fergus is truly a good employee beyond this one weird thing, I can see that knowing what the OP could do, the next time she hears him going on about Jane, she could say “Fergus, my office/conference room now!” And then drop the boom. Whether that’s a “I have met with HR about how you are harassing Jane and they have advised me that I can fire you. Go pack up your things.” Or a “If I ever hear you so much as insinuate anything about Jane being disabled again, I will fire you. Immediately.” Of course, there’s always the issue that security may be needed to escort Fergus out of the building because you never know what someone is going to do. So perhaps arranging a time to fire Fergus would be better, so his access/passwords/key card can all be deactivated and his stuff is boxed up for him.

    3. Adlib*

      My question is where is the HR guy that he’s out so often? I guess it could be a personal issue, but are there instances where HR people are out of the office a lot?

      1. Dot Warner*

        Yeah, I was wondering that myself. HR folks, correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that if the company only has one person who does HR, they should be on-site as much as possible. Working from home/being out a lot doesn’t seem like something that’s feasible for an HR department of one.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          If it’s an HR department of one, it’s likely that the person is mainly focused on benefits/payroll/that kind of thing, and not on advising managers.

          1. Aglaia761*

            I work at an organization with an HR dept of one. She’s often out because we have over 20 sites in 6 different regions. She not only has to deal with the paperwork of hiring and firing, but she also does interviews if necessary, training, and works with the regional managers to develop their skills for training their staff.

            Hopefully we’ll be getting another person for that dept within the year. But not being in the office doesn’t equal not doing their job. It means you may not see them doing their job.

  13. Amy*

    I’d check in with upper mgmt too, but I’d recommend firing him, not warning. You’ve already warned him. Six times. Clearly this man is not only insensitive but has trouble listening to direction, and given the situation I wonder if his trouble is rooted in the fact that you’re a woman. What are you going to do next time you need him to pay attention to direction and it’s not a problem that can reasonably end in firing?

    There are people out there looking for good jobs, willing to work hard, and willing to pay attention to a boss. I recommend replacing this guy with one of those.

  14. Mike C.*

    Seriously, Fergus needs to be fired now.

    This in the same league as repeatedly sexually harassing someone and should be treated accordingly.

    1. Nobody*

      That’s a good point. What if Fergus were making comments about Jane’s breasts, like, “Ask the admin — she’s the babe with the double Ds,” or, “How do you play baseball? Don’t your boobs get in the way?” Would you let Fergus get away with those comments half a dozen times without disciplinary action? I highly doubt it, and the comments about Jane’s prosthetic are just as inappropriate.

  15. Jubilance*

    Fergus has been insubordinate multiple times, and you continue to give him a pass. This MUST stop and he needs to be told it MUST stop or he will lose his job. It’s that simple. He’s being told to do something and he’s not complying – the next step is to face consequences for those actions.

  16. Katie F*

    Fire Fergus. If you don’t fire him, you tell him one more slip-up and he IS fired. And you let Jane know ASAP that you are ensuring appropriate measures are taken to ensure her comfort at work from here on out. Don’t tell her “Fergus has to stop or he’s fired,” just say, “I realize how negative the environment has become for you due to these concerns, and we are going to be 100% proactive from here on out. I value you too much to allow this hostility to continue. It will stop.”

    Then you fire Fergus if it ever happens again.

    1. AdAgencyChick*

      BINGO. Fergus isn’t the only one who needs to hear from OP, and that is just the right thing to say to Jane.

    2. IT_Guy*

      That is a totally awesome response.

      Having some disability issues/baggage, I am more sensitive to this than most, and want to encourage you to take a hard line with Fergus. The last thing you want is the disabled person to leave and in the exit interview say “I’m leaving because of the discrimination and hostile work environment and nobody tried to stop it” followed by “You’ll be hearing from my lawyer”

      1. Katie F*

        Because, seriously, the company SHOULD hear from Jane’s lawyer if they don’t take a more proactive stance dealing with this. This is not some well-meaning dolt making a few misplaced comments, this is a systematic pattern of harassment.

    3. Blue_eyes*

      Agreed. Please let Jane know right away that you realize this is in no way acceptable and you are taking strong measures to ensure that it stops immediately. Even if you can’t fire him quickly, knowing that you’re on her side and trying to take action will be very good for Jane’s morale.

  17. Lora*

    “Leave it with the admin, you’ll know who she is, she’s the disabled one”

    How about, “Leave it with Fergus, you’ll know who he is, he’s the loudmouthed asshat”? Because that works too.

    Your letter is unclear, have you said anything to him in the heat of the moment, as soon as the conversation turns to How To Describe Jane? I sort of feel like with this type of behavior, if for whatever reason you are stuck with the person (manager doesn’t agree with firing Fergus or whatever), you have to spend literally months all up in their business. Like, Fergus is telling someone to drop the package with Jane and gets as far as, “you can leave it with Jane, you’ll know her because she has–” and right then you say, “WHAT DO WE SAY, FERGUS? HOW DO WE DESCRIBE OUR COLLEAGUES?” and Fergus has to say, “ummmm, brown eyes?” like you would teach manners to a dog or a small child. Because it sounds like it is a bad habit with him.

    That’s ONLY if you can’t actually fire Fergus for whatever reason, or if you have to do a PIP or something like that. If you can fire Fergus, do so, because it’s total crap that people he harasses should have to get away from him. It’s not their task to deal with asshattery.

    1. TotesMaGoats*

      Your example reminds me of a scene from my son’s favorite show, Blaze and the Monster Machines. Crusher is a bully in each episode (never really gets called out for cheating all the time) but his sycophant friend Pickle makes him say thank you in one episode where he steals the mechanic’s toolbox and then needs to be repaired. I kid you not it goes.

      Pickle: And what do we say Crusher?
      Crusher: mumble
      Pickle: Crusher! What do we say to Gabby for fixing you?
      Crusher: thank you (speeds off)

    2. Aunt Vixen*

      “Leave it with Fergus, you’ll know who he is, he’s the loudmouthed asshat”

      I was coming in to say almost exactly that. (I was going to go with a simple “jerk,” but your way works too.)

    3. Jaydee*

      I am envisioning this scene playing out in a TV show and the manager’s voice just loudly coming from an office off-screen and it being said in an irritated, parent-reminding-child-not-to-jump-on-furniture-AGAIN sort of way and I am laughing really hard.

      1. Lora*

        That’s actually a bit how I was thinking of it too. Although mostly I was thinking about two professors I had who taught Black History and Women’s Studies, respectively, and how the first week of class (and frequent reminders thereafter) was directed at non-Black, non-women students, on the subject of “how to refer to people appropriately” and the importance of language and being a good listener. For some students, it took a good deal of time for them to change their habits, and some did get salty about how put upon they felt by not being able to say bad words of their choice in class. After several weeks though, they did at least get it drilled into their heads. It was certainly time consuming, annoying and frustrating until they wised up though.

        You’d think it would have been obvious by the 1990s (when I was in college) that one does not call someone the n-word or any other slur, but apparently it wasn’t.

  18. Chriama*

    One thing I’d warn OP of is that you need to observe Fergus carefully to make sure he’s not violating the spirit of your directive. You don’t want to hear any snide comments about “sensitive” people, or have him sarcastically call Jane “differently-abled” or any other crap that says he’s not taking this seriously. I think Alison’s script is great because you’re telling him the company has a legal obligation to make this stop, which means you can and will go all the way to firing him if he tries to get cute. Don’t hide behind the law (as in, “the big bad government says you need to stop hurting Jane’s feelings”) but make it clear that this is a serious thing he’s doing and your company intends to take it seriously. This is past the level of interpersonal conflict and he should know that.

    1. Always Anon*

      I agree, I think this is really important.

      I also think it’s critical to make sure that Fergus doesn’t pick a new target to harass. Because in some cases the harasser just picks a new target, and management thinks the problem is solved until another pattern is established with another employee.

    2. Chalupa Batman*

      Agree. A prosthetic limb isn’t something that would come up casually daily. OP doesn’t give enough information to know, but there’s enough hostility implied in the act of bringing it up so often that I wouldn’t put it past Fergus to continue to target Jane using wording he considers just on the right side of The Line, especially if he blames her for the crack down on his foolishness.

    3. LQ*

      So much of this. If he was really genuinely like oh this is interesting he would have stopped when asked to, he’s not being nice or misunderstanding. This is not ok. There isn’t a side “well it’s not so bad” version that he can be allowed to get ok with. He cannot continue this is any form. This is illegal and unacceptable and you need to be crystal clear about that, with him, and with everyone else.

    4. Artemesia*

      So this. I think he should be fired. But if he given a last warning then it is important that any slighting or sarcastic or inappropriate verbal behavior towards Jane or anyone else in the office will result in dismissal not JUST the specific disability comments. I can easily imagine him trying to skate close to the line or referencing ‘need to be PC here’ or ‘people are so sensitive here so be careful’ or just endless asshattery. He so needs to be gone.

  19. NCKat*

    “his is harassment, and it’s illegal. Federal law prohibits harassing an employee because she has a disability or is believed to have a disability. And your organization is violating the law by knowing about it and not putting a stop to it.”

    Thank you – I am disabled and this has been an issue. Fortunately I have not encountered this in several years. If the company does nothing about it, it leaves a festering sore. OP, please do something about Festus.

  20. TotesMaGoats*

    Firing Fergus is long overdue. It’s sounds like you’ve got plenty of documentation (I hope). Get rid of him. Not because it’s a liability. Because he’s being a jerkface and is bringing down morale and it’s the total right thing to do. Consider, if Jane leaves and Fergus doesn’t, who will be his next target? Someone’s religion? Race? Gender identity? Because that’s what will happen.

  21. Emmie*

    Treat this like you would harassment on any status. This is as problematic as Fergus making comments about Jane being the only woman, or the only person of a specific minority on the team. “You’ll know who Jane is, she’s the ________.”

    1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

      Yes, unless that sentence ends with “…one sitting at the desk next to the potted plant” or “…one wearing green,” then this is a problem.

    1. TotesMaGoats*

      Personally, I’d probably ask her to document any time that this happens, especially if I wasn’t there to hear it.

  22. CR*

    I wonder if Fergus is one of those amputee fetishists and that’s why he can’t stop mentioning it. What a weirdo.

    1. Artemesia*

      This was the first thing that occurred to me. Either he is actually obsessed with this OR he is obsessed with showing the OP who is boss.

  23. LadyCop*

    I somehow have the feeling that Fergus wouldn’t say this stuff if Jane was in a wheelchair, or more obviously disabled…but that’s just what makes this extra weird…

    1. OhNo*

      Speaking as someone who uses a wheelchair: I’ve met people like this before, and they absolutely would do this, regardless. In some cases, the fact that the disability is obvious actually makes the behavior worse (since they assume it being visible means it’s open for discussion). Fergus sounds like a particularly bad example, but a lot of people do some variation of this.

  24. boop*

    What’s the deal with this guy, anyway? Is he just clueless or is he actually using the jerkass tone we’re all imagining in our heads? Is it verbal diarrhea? I’m having serious difficulty understanding the motivation for this.

    1. Rusty Shackelford*

      That’s what I’m wondering… is he this bad about everything? Or is he only fixated on Jane?

    2. Jillociraptor*

      Some people are really uncomfortable with folks who are different from them and try resolve that discomfort by talking about it constantly. They lack the self-awareness or empathy, perhaps, to see how alienating and uncomfortable it is for the people around them. That’s the most generous explanation I can come up with.

      I think there are also a lot of people who say offensive things and genuinely believe that we’d all be saying them if we weren’t so caught up in being “politically correct.” It could be that Fergus thinks he’s just “telling it like it is” and everyone who’s telling him to stop is merely posturing, rather than telling him that something is genuinely inappropriate.

      1. Dynamic Beige*

        I was thinking that maybe (just maybe) Fergus has a phobia about losing a limb. And he’s never been around someone who needed a prosthesis before. And he was raised by wolves so he doesn’t know how to keep his yap shut about pointing things like this out and making other people feel bad/exposed/different/the centre of unwanted attention.

        If he does have some sort of issue, he could be the one to transfer out. Unless he would prefer losing his job, that is.

      2. Koko*

        In college I befriended a guy from a fairly conservative/sheltered background. He was open minded in the sense that he relived believe in a live-and-let-live philosophy, but his practical experience applying this was with upper-class straight white people who had varying interests and lifestyles.

        Initially I was pleased to be able to expose him to a wider variety of types of people when he spent time with me, but it didn’t take long before it became insanely frustrating that my friend couldn’t just mention her girlfriend in passing without his eyes going wide and him probably specifically talking to me about it later. Although what he was saying was not directly insulting or offensive, it was offensive because he was othering people and derailing social situations by taking such notice of their differences and calling attention to them instead of just quietly noting them and moving on.

    3. Merida May*

      I wonder if he would be making these comments if Jane wasn’t an office manager/admin person. Some people speak to support staff in a very different way.

  25. Student*

    Be both specific and general when you tell Fergus what he cannot do. Basically, make sure he knows several specific examples of what he’s said already that’s not acceptable, and make sure he knows any new conduct that further offends Jane is also going to be off-limits.

    1. JessaB*

      Yes make sure it’s not about specific words but about “mentioning Jane’s prosthetic, “disability,” any words or actions that do this…” Because otherwise he’ll letter of the law you til the very end.

  26. sparklealways*

    Wow… Sometimes I seriously wonder how people make it through 20+ years of their life without getting the crap beaten out of them. I doubt this is the first time Fergus has pulled something like this and without seeing any real consequences it won’t be the last.

    1. Sketchee*

      I think that’s the real answer to your question. Most of the time, people do say and do things like this. The companies, friends, family, and managers around them allow it without consequences. A lot of individuals don’t notice and observe the choices they have, while someone like Fergus does.

      Go to a Fergus type and say “It’s your choice, you do X and continue to work here. You do Y and you’ll be terminated.” That’s pretty much a neutral situation for the manager. Both are acceptable outcomes from the company’s point of view since the problem behavior is gone. Many people are afraid to do “Y” type actions for some reason.

      1. Sketchee*

        One situation doesn’t necessarily translate to another. If a school bully beat him up, then it’s smart to know that to give that individual his lunch money. And they’d still know that other different individuals are no threat. (One reason why victims often become persecutors.)

        One possibility is that he notices that with the individuals involved here – Jane and the OP – their actions won’t match their talk.

        The OP going forward will hopefully be clear on the actions on issues across the board. If suddenly OP is consistently enforcing consequences in most areas, that’ll send a strong message that the firing will be followed up just as strongly =)

  27. Kyrielle*

    And, OP – if Jane still wants the internal transfer after it’s addressed, help her with that, please. I know it will be hard on your group to lose her, but at this point she may not be comfortable in the group even if it is addressed. It may feel like “only because I was trying to leave” to her.

    But yes, shut Fergus down hard, and fire him if he does it again. (I’d be tempted to fire him even if he didn’t, and if you can get your HR to respond, they may advise that.)

    And if Jane does transfer and Fergus is still there – watch for him starting in on someone/something else and shut it down as hard as you can if (probably when!) it happens.

    1. Sketchee*

      That’s a fair point. It would be fair for Jane to want to have a more experienced manager. After all, it’s understandable that the OP was new at this. From Jane’s view it still turned out that it was very difficult for this to be taken care of.

      It was Jane who had to create consequences to get both the manager and Fergus to put a stop to this.

      1. AMG*

        Yes, I think the OP owes Jane an apology for not having gotten a handle on this more quickly. Not to beat anyone up. Live and learn, and own your mistakes. :)

  28. AdAgencyChick*

    OP, if you think you’ll be given any trouble about firing this tool — whether because your manager wants to be wishy-washy, or because HR is out of the picture — I’d make sure to use the words “illegal harassment” and “lawsuit potential” when you talk about it. Hell, given that HR is out of the office so much, I would put those words in writing, in an email with “URGENT” in the subject line, to HR after you’ve talked to your manager.

    Lots of companies drag their feet about firing people, and will make you jump through all kinds of bureaucratic hoops to fire a merely ineffective employee or one with a poor attitude. But if you make it clear that keeping this person around is opening the company up to far worse trouble than firing him would, I think you’ll be able to do it without difficulty.

    You can warn him once more (with consequences attached, as Alison said). But as often as this tool makes these comments, I bet he’s not going to change, at least not 100%.

    I want to hear the update on this one, very much.

  29. Venus Supreme*

    I left a job because my boss was making terribly offensive remarks to our intern who was born and raised in China and was pursuing higher education in America. Terribly offensive. I don’t wish to repeat what he’s said. I am now at a much better – and healthier – job, and I got my intern an apprenticeship at my old university.

    People like Fergus and my boss need to be stopped and feel the weight of their consequences before they find themselves in a position of power and still don’t understand the gravity of their actions, perceptions, and attitudes.

    OP, I look forward to an update where Fergus is put in his place.

    1. Venus Supreme*

      To clarify: this was one of the reasons I left. My boss was an overall rude person and this situation was the best example of who he was. Essentially no respect for people who didn’t look, act, or think like him.

  30. Observer*

    OP, you’ve gotten a lot of good comments. I want to highlight something here. The problem her is not just the clearly illegal harassment of an employee. It’s the fact that this guy is a first class jerk AND he apparently sees no need to do more than pay lip service to the instructions you give him.

    “playing nice” and “following instructions your boss gives you unless they are illegal or clearly immoral” are both legitimate workplace expectations. It’s one thing to demand that people join after hours social activities, or “smile more”, etc. It is another to expect common courtesy (or, as Alison puts it “will behave like a decent human”). That’s a baseline in any workplace that wants to be functional and healthy.

    And, make no mistake – if he can do this to Jane, he can do this to others as well, including other “rock stars” who might be even harder to replace than Jane. No one with options is going to put up with this kind of garbage, and those are the people you WANT to keep. And, if he can say “yes, yes, yes” and then do the exact opposite on this issue, he’ll do it again when it suits him next. So, even if your boss and the Grand bosses don’t care about decency, there are a number of very practical issues at play here that they need to be concerned about.

    And, although I’m not a lawyer, Fergus’ behavior presents another legal risk to the company. If Jane were to complain to the EEOC, you would be blown out of the water in a second – there is a clear pattern of harassment, there is no way you could NOT have known about it, and it’s still going on. But beyond that, if someone ELSE came to the EEOC with a complaint, the fact that you allowed this to go on would count very heavily against you. The thinking being that this shows that you (as in the organization) doesn’t take illegal harassment seriously.

  31. Artemesia*

    It has been said, but I can’t help myself. It is imperative to go to Jane today and tell her ‘I know this business with Fergus has been outrageous and I want you to know I will be doing whatever it takes to shut this down. I apologize for not having been able to do this faster.’ Let her know she is valued.

    And then go talk to your manager with the goal of authorization to fire Fergus or fire him the next time he transgresses. Once this duck is in line, let Fergus know he is fired or if you can’t do that, let him know that he will be fired if it is repeated even once. If you can’t get managerial leave to do this then you need to escalate it to HR very insistently framed as a liability risk to the organization for harassment and for created a hostile work environment. Make sure when you go to your manager that you make clear this is a repeated offense in spite of your requesting that it stop and thus the need to end this rather than just begin a warning process.

    Hope you can do it. This is intolerable.

    1. CS Rep By Day, Writer By Night*

      I agree that Jane needs an apology, stat. There is nothing that makes me respect someone more (especially a manager) than straight up admitting you screwed up but will do everything in your power to make sure it doesn’t happen again. A sincere apology and promise to do better goes a long way with me, as long as it’s obvious it’s not just lip service.

  32. kate*

    OP, just FYI, if I were your manager I would be extremely unhappy with your handling of the situation and considering firing you. It is baffling to me that you have talked to Fergus six (!) times about this with no change and are only now considering attempting to contact HR.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Really? I would certainly have a serious conversation with the manager about laws around harassment and discrimination, the legal obligations they have around that stuff that they didn’t have as a non-manager, how to assess how seriously to treat a situation, and how to handle insubordination, but I wouldn’t be thinking of firing a manager over this. If it were part of a broader pattern of bad judgment, that’s different — but this is an “intervene, course-correct, and coach” situation, in my opinion.

      1. Leatherwings*

        Agreed, especially given the context around the ineffective HR department. It’s also not like OP has been ignoring the situation entirely or something, it’s just that the management of the situation can be more effective than it has been.

        1. kate*

          It’s not clear to me that HR is ineffective. From OP’s phrasing it’s not obvious whether they’ve tried to contact HR, or whether they’ve concluded that it’s not even worth making the attempt. If it’s the latter that is seriously concerning.

          1. Leatherwings*

            Well they’re difficult to reach – so best case scenario HR guy is highly effective in the rare times he’s in the office. If he’s not around often enough to help OP address this, though then the result is the same – she’s been on her own in dealing with this situation.

            And like Alison said, that’s reason for OPs manager to course correct her and help her figure out the best times to reach out to HR (and hopefully make reaching out to HR easier as well).

        2. Megs*

          Plus, the OP says she is new to management, and I suspect that learning to deal with insubordination is one of those tricky skills that most people need time and coaching to develop. Most of us are conflict adverse and it seems clear to me from the question that OP is still working out what authority she does and doesn’t have.

      2. kate*

        OP has totally let down one of their direct reports, and also opened their company up to risk of a lawsuit. It’s especially concerning to me that they haven’t handled the situation effectively, but also haven’t looped their manager in or asked for help at all. I wouldn’t fire OP right away but I would have serious concerns about their leadership and judgement, and would be checking to see if their mishandling of this situation was part of a larger pattern.

        1. Observer*

          The thing is that when HR is generally MIA, it tends to become irrelevant in people’s minds. The OP makes it clear that she wouldn’t have a problem with contacting HR, except that she expects zero results out of it. That’s not bad judgement on the OP’s part. It may very well be bad judgement on the part of the HR person.

        2. Leatherwings*

          I think it’s beyond silly for commenters to criticize an OP (who IS trying) this much. OP wrote in for help. If she takes Alison’s advice, she’ll be in a good position. Suggesting that a new manager handling something less than perfectly but who is working to fix it needs to be fired is pretty reductive.

          If I were managing OP, I wouldn’t see this as a major breach considering that she’s been trying rather than ignoring the situation. I would consider it a sign that I needed to coach her a bit more on how to handle issues like this.

          1. Jillociraptor*

            Totally agree. It’s so easy to look at a difficult situation from a distance and feel certain you’d know how to handle it perfectly. It’s so much harder when it’s immediately in front of you, subject to the whole panoply of complex contexts in the real world, competing for limited mental energy with all of the other things you have to do as a leader.

            OP wants to resolve the situation and wants to do so in a way that’s fair to everyone involved. They’re learning, like we all are.

        3. Mazzy*

          Well, every time she told him to stop, OP probably thought it was the last discussion. I can’t believe space is being wasted bashing the OP for not being able to prevent every possible thing from happening.

          1. Jennifer*


            I’m serious about this question and not kidding: What is the universal standard for “how many times do I have to repeat myself and say NO before you actually take no for an answer,” anyway? At what point should the OP have started going to the non-available HR or other higher-ups? After three times of asking and he’s still not doing it?

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              In a case like this where harassment is involved, after he ignored the first request.

              In less severe situations, it’s more of a judgment call — it’s more when you see there’s a pattern. The exact number of instances that will make you think “pattern!” can vary depending on the circumstances. (But in those cases, you also wouldn’t necessarily ever need to involve HR or your own manager; you could just deal with it yourself.)

              1. Bookworm*

                I think this can be especially confusing because sometimes large amounts of time can lapse between incidents. So, the manager will have the talk and think: “great, I really got through to him”….and then time will go by and the behavior will resurface.

                Depending on how much time elapses, it could hard to distinguish if discipline is an *overreaction to a series of isolated incidents* or an *under-reaction to a pattern of behavior.*

                (Although it sounds like not that much time has gone by in this particular scenario.)

            2. fposte*

              There isn’t a universal standard–and wouldn’t it make life simpler if it were? In general, I really hate repeating myself, and if we’re talking stealth insubordination rather than, say, slipping into an old habit for the company name, they’d maybe get a second time because the ground has shifted from the first time, when I thought it was a mistake and not a self-indulgence. However, if we’re talking insubordination by breaking the law, it’s probably either out immediately or a stern warning that firing will happen with any repetition of the behavior.

              (My staff are on contract rather than at-will so it would be more complicated for me; fortunately, I’ve never encountered anybody persisting in anything but good-faith errors so I don’t know exactly how it would work.)

          2. Isabel C.*

            Yeah. There’s also a sort of Lovecraftian-sanity-loss reaction to egregious behavior like this sometimes, where you freeze or otherwise don’t take appropriate action because…this can’t really be happening, right? Nobody actually says that, do they? THE ANGLES ARE ALL WRONG I DON’T REMEMBER DROPPING ACID TODAY SEND HELP.

            This is especially true if you’re new to the situation or your position. (I’m not management, but the first few times I had super-obnoxious customers in retail, or had That Guy hit on me on the subway, or whatever, I had a similar “…” reaction.) OP’s a new manager and it sounds like HR’s not being helpful, and this is really deep-end-of-the-pool shit.

      3. Katie F*

        It’s such a bafflingly strange situation (“Really, SIX TIMES and he still hasn’t even tried to change his behavior?”) that, while I’d think the manager needed some training in the ADA and in being proactive and workplace harassment policies, I’d also give them some slack – nobody expects a grown adult to behave this way.

        But I think i would have escalated to HR/My own boss as manager after, say, time number three he was warned and ignored it. Then we start discussing documentation and possible firing procedures.

        Nobody wants to be the bad guy, but part of management training is learning how to be when you have to.

      4. AdAgencyChick*

        Agree, especially since I think OP might be new to managing? (She says “promoted into a management position,” which makes me think she wasn’t in one before.) A new manager might not know yet which offenses are grounds for immediate firing, which ones get you put on a PIP, and which ones she might want to just try to work around. Sometimes even the “obvious” cases turn out not to be so cut-and-dried upon closer examination.

        If I were OP’s boss, I’d have a talk with her about believing in her own authority as a manager, and about coming to me sooner than the sixth time if something like this were happening (even if it’s not about illegal activity!), but I wouldn’t fire her unless this became a pattern.

      5. memyselfandi*

        A contributing factor here is that Fergus does change his behavior for a while when spoken to. I can imagine thinking, “This time he got it” and then suddenly realizing that it has been 6 time and he still hasn’t gotten it. I think it is especially easy for a new manager to do this when it is a behavior that seems so obviously offensive.

    2. Elle*

      It’s within HR’s scope of responsibility to make sure that managers and supervisors are properly trained in recognizing harassment and knowing what to do when it occurs. If the OP had this training, she would have been better equipped to handle this situation. This is as much as fail on HR’s part than it is on anyone else. Just my opinion from my perspective as an HR manager.

      1. Liane*

        I mentioned earlier that I suspect it is one of those “HR Departments” that consists of 1 person who just does routine paperwork for benefits & hiring (I have worked at a few places like that), and may also have other hats to wear. Not that this makes it okay.

        (Not an HR person)

  33. NW Mossy*

    OP, your HR person “being out of the office a lot” might increase the difficulty of getting his attention, but his schedule doesn’t mean he doesn’t care or can’t help you/the company deal with Fergus. I’m going to assume he’s a decent human being and cares about doing his job at least somewhat well, so do what it takes to get him on-side because protected-class harassment is something he should know about. This might mean setting a phone meeting, escalating to your boss and/or his, or figuring out who can act on his behalf if he’s unavailable. Yes, you’ll probably feel like you’re being annoying or pushy if it takes multiple attempts, but sometimes, that’s what it takes to do the right thing.

    Think about this from Jane’s perspective – would you like her to see you as a manager that will do the work necessary to create a safe and productive environment for her, or as a manager that sees structural barriers as a reason not to act on serious issues? If you can stand up for her on this, you’ll not only earn her respect but also give yourself valuable experience in how to get around/over/through obstacles that will help you as you grow in your role. This is an opportunity for you to build a critical skill – take it!

  34. Cáilín*

    I always think/say put black in place of gay/fat/disabled to show/get just how offensive and wrong it is. OP would you tolerate Fergus saying “given that to Jane, she’s the black one you know” and “Jane what’s it like being black” and “Jane how do you play sports with people who aren’t black?”

    1. LQ*

      I think this only works if people are actually sensitive to one of these things. I’ve seen it done and tried to do it and had it fail because they cannot possible see anything offensive. I think this is a know your audience. If it is someone you think you can get through to, then yes. But if you know this person is going to double down and be like “I wouldn’t care if you called me –whatever–” then don’t bother because it will only make it worse. “If I can handle it they should be able to too, you’re just sensitive.”

      1. Mazzy*

        I pretty much agree with Cáilín, except that asking someone “what’s it like to be disabled” actually is a constructive conversation. Just not worded like that and not at work. With an acquaintance or friend, yes

        1. Cáilín*

          I agree Mazzy; with a friend as an honest conversation based to help understand so as to help be a better friend. ..definitely valuable.

          1. CR*

            Yes, I have a deaf co-worker and while it has no bearing on her job, it is interesting to talk to her about it in a friendly way.

            1. OldAdmin*

              I also have a new colleague who is disabled (but doing very well at work). When she started the job, we talked about possible limitations in a matter of fact way, as in impacting any processes. Disability sometimes comes up in general conversation, and I’m not afraid of it, but we leave the topic as soon as relevance is over.
              I in fact once advised her (she’s new to the workforce) not to confide medical details to colleagues during her probationary period, as to not put ideas in anybody’s head if she “couldn’t do the job”.
              It’s nice to see the degree of ease we’ve reached in our group.

      2. Cáilín*

        I wasn’t meaning to use it in a conversation with Fergus; I agree he wouldn’t “hear it”. I meant for OP to see just how hostile and unacceptable it is. I would presume/hope he wouldn’t tolerate so many episodes of open racism so why tolerate blatant discrimination of this type?

        1. LQ*

          Yes, it might be a very good way for the OP to really see this. I know I’ve used it with a few people who’ve shut up really fast when it clicked for them. It is sort of a when it is good it is very very good and when it is bad, it is very very bad tool. (And I use it with myself. How would I feel about this situation if it was different. It can be really helpful when I’m too close to the situation. Someone calls me a name and I swap it in for if they did this to a coworker with something similar how would I see it. It is much easier to go “Oh that’s really offensive” and to not feel like well I’m just being over sensitive.)

    2. New Bee*

      As a Black person, I really don’t like this for a few reasons. For one, it turns racism into a “gotcha”/talking point that’s oftentimes oversimplified. (I’m speaking from a US context; an example is that racism affects all POC, but our country was founded in part on anti-Black racism specifically, so swapping out groups ignores the racial hierarchy.) Plus it ignores intersectionality–some of us are Black, disabled, gay, and fat, and it’s not up to others to decide which identity is most salient for us. And of course, as others mentioned, recent events certainly demonstrate that it depends on the person whether anti-Black sentiment will be interpreted as a bad thing.

  35. Katie the Fed*

    OP – you’re a new manager, so this is going to be uncomfortable, but you’re going to have to get comfortable with it. Ideally you would have done it before you asked 6 times – but that’s ok. You can fix it now.

    Be aware that because Fergus is a jerk, Fergus is almost certainly going to try to deflect and derail this discussion. You might want to rehearse with a friend. Here’s what to expect from him (I know because people have tried this with all of me):

    – I was just joking!
    – God, people are so sensitve/politically correct
    – Jane doesn’t mind, so why do you care?
    – Wow I guess I can’t say ANYTHING around here

    Your response to all of that should be “It doesn’t matter/this is not a debate. It has to stop immediately.” Rinse and repeat.

    1. fposte*

      Excellent advice as usual from Katie the Fed. The OP sounds like this is her first big managerial obstacle and “at risk of firing” conversation, and it can be easy to get derailed when you’re not prepared for it. It’s okay to interrupt him; it’s okay not to answer digressing questions; it’s okay to declare the discussion at an end even if he wants to keep talking. If it goes another way and he cries, hand him a Kleenex, give him a moment, and finish saying what you need to say. You are the boss of this. (Also follow up in email with a summary.)

  36. Bowserkitty*

    Wow, how long has Fergus been in this role working with Jane? I’d be livid if I was her, and I think Alison’s advice is spot-on.

  37. The Drop-In*

    So, Fergus’ behavior seems so baffling that it made me wonder…could he possibly be on the autism spectrum? Could this be an example of repetitive behavior, with Fergus having latched onto his unfortunate first impression of Jane and now repeating it like a tic whenever she’s around?

    Don’t get me wrong–the harrassment is not OK and should NOT continue. But I can see how the situation might become complicated if this were the case.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Nope, it wouldn’t be any more complicated. The advice would be the same, and actually the chances of Fergus taking the instruction would probably be higher.

      I ask people not to armchair-diagnose others here, particularly around autism, because these statements often stigmatize people with those diagnoses. They imply that being rude, awkward, or a jerk is likely to mean autism, which is neither true nor helpful. Plus, it’s generally not useful to focus on disorders rather than practical advice for dealing with the person in question anyway.

        1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

          Since lots of people (and I include myself in that group!) get frustrated at comments that suggest autism or other diagnoses, and you’re getting kind of a pile-on of frustrated regulars, I wanted to say I appreciate you listening and apologizing instead of getting defensive.

    2. Observer*

      My first reaction is mirrored in all of the other responses you got.

      I’ll also point out that you are simply incorrect. Lack of empathy (evident in spades here) is not especially associated with ASD. And anyone, on the spectrum or not, who is capable of functioning on the level Fergus apparently is, is capable of understanding and following a clear directive that says “this is not ok, and you need to stop doing this.”

      And, by the way, allowing illegal behavior (which this is) to continue is NEVER considered a “reasonable accommodation.”

      1. Brogrammer*

        Very true!

        Also, if Fergus really did struggle with saying inappropriate things, he’d be saying inappropriate things to everyone, not just to Jane. The fact that he’s only doing it to Jane suggests that he knows exactly what he’s doing.

        1. Charma*

          He could have just be raised poorly. Unless I misread LW’s descriptions of his reactions, he sounds like a young child seeing something for the first time and fixating on it. But then, he probably would never stop staring or wanting to follow her around, so I’m willing to bet its malicious.

  38. Megs*

    I’m really torn on the “fire immediately” vs. “final warning” approaches. Yes, this behavior is appalling and in an ideal world, the OP’s first comment to him about it would have included the consequence of a second offense (which, yes, firing is 100% appropriate). But that didn’t happen, and I can understand why the OP, as a new manager, struggled with this. I generally don’t believe it’s good practice to fire people without warning in any but the most out-there situations. I understand why some people would put this in that category, but I think it’s more appropriate for a “one strike, you’re out” warning as it is something that Fergus *should* be capable of correcting immediately.

    I think it’s less about whether Fergus is redeemable or not (I suspect not), but about letting everyone *else* in the department know that they will not be fired out of the blue for behavior that was previously tolerated – and since this has been allowed to continue with only verbal rebukes, I would consider it to have been tolerated. So the correction here is to make it clear that this will not be tolerated any longer, set out the clear consequence of any further violation, then stand firm.

    1. JessaB*

      Except at this point the OP is in a place where all Jane has to do is call a lawyer, and she’d win on the merits. As far as I’m concerned that’s a firing offence. If your behaviour can instantly open up the company to a lawsuit that they cannot win in any reasonable court in the world, then that’s a “pack and leave, now,” issue.

      1. Megs*

        If it’s never been made clear that something is a fireable offense, that meets my definition of “out of the blue”, and allowing this to go on as long as it has with no repercussions sends the message that this isn’t a fireable offense. That absolutely needs to be rectified.

        1. neverjaunty*

          That does need to be rectified, but when behavior is this egregious, I really can’t see that the other employees are likely to think “whoa! I might be next!”

        2. Natalie*

          If they have a standard employee handbook it presumably has a section on harassment, in which case I think it has been clear this is a fireable offense.

        3. Anna*

          If one of your employees stabbed another with a knife at work, would you say she should get a warning unless someone had specifically told her previously that she would be fired if she stabbed a coworker?

          There are some things that are beyond “warnings.” I think this is one of them.

          1. Evergreen*

            I think the point was more that this is like he stabbed a coworker, was told ‘please don’t stab coworkers, back to work with you’, stabs a coworker again, is told ‘please don’t stab coworkers, back to work’ etc – it’s not unreasonable to expect he might be confused by the mixed message here. Likewise with the coworkers: why did this escalate to a firable offence overnight? What else is about to escalate from verbal request to termination?

  39. Jessie*

    It sounds to me that Fergus is oddly fascinated with Jane’s prosthetic limb and that he probably doesn’t see himself as harassing her. He sounds to me like someone who grew up in an extremely sheltered environment and things like “disability” weren’t something he saw much of. There was a girl in my dorm my Freshman year of college who had been raised in a very sheltered environment and had never met a gay person (that she knew of) before going to school. She was so excited to make a gay friend that she wouldn’t shut up about the fact that Susie was a lesbian. Which, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t the worst reaction to have … but it was certainly uncomfortable for everyone around her. I feel like that’s what might be going on here.

    1. Aurion*

      Even if that was the case, I still have zero sympathy for Fergus. Jane has repeatedly requested Fergus to shut up about this, and OP, Fergus’ manager, has spoken to Fergus no less than six times about it.

      It doesn’t matter if Fergus was so sheltered he grew up in an underground bunker. At this point he’s so far over the line of decency and respect he’s somewhere in the stratosphere. People have repeatedly told him to stop, and he won’t stop. That’s shitty no matter what his upbringing is.

  40. Henry H.*

    I agree that Fergus needs to stop regardless. I also wonder if this would have gotten handled differently and quicker if Jane was offended at being called disabled (which she is for whatever reason). If Jane said someone was harrasing her because she is disabled people including OP might be quicker to react vs. Jane saying she feels harassed because she doesn’t like the word disabled. Incidentally if I were disabled I would be offended at Jane’s offence of the word. The whole workplace there sounds dysfunctional.

    1. Aurion*

      I don’t understand; how does Jane not identifying with the word “disabled” affect anyone else in any way, shape, or form?

    2. Leatherwings*

      A lot of people don’t like the term disabled. If you aren’t a part of a community that has conversations like these on a regular basis, it’s probably best not to turn it around and talk about how you would be offended if you were.

      I don’t think your language here is quite right, either. Jane doesn’t “feel” harassed because she doesn’t like a word exactly, Jane IS being harassed because a guy repeatedly refers to her body in interacting with her AND uses a word that she doesn’t ascribe to herself to refer to her.

      To me, the only dysfunction here is Fergus.

      1. Jayn*

        Yeah, Generally speaking it’s rude to refer to someone in a way they don’t like. I don’t think in this case it’s necessarily offense, just not being affected enough by her condition for Jane to feel like ‘disabled’ is a term that applies to her, so by using the term Fergus is basically trying to define her identity for her.

      2. Charma*

        I once read a book for school about two women. One had an internal disability, and one was in a wheel chair. The first lady felt guilty, refused to seek the help she needed, and was harassed for not “looking disabled”, while the other lady was frustrated by everyone treating her like she was helpless, even if it was meant in kindness. Everyone is a different person with different circumstances, which is why labeling just about any group or condition has harmful effects in some capacity. It’s hard to say what would work best in the real world, but ideally, I think people who appear well-intentioned should get one mulligan for screw ups, and then if they don’t make an effort to listen, learn, and respect people’s wishes, they should be held accountable. Fergus should have been told authoritatively to stop and punished, if need be, long ago.

    3. Elizabeth West*

      Jane doesn’t like the word disabled as it applies to her. According to the OP, she doesn’t consider herself disabled and doesn’t want or seem to need any accommodations. That doesn’t mean she or anyone else at the company has any animosity toward other disabled people.

      The only one acting in a dysfunctional manner is Fergus. OP is a new manager and is seeking advice on how to handle a situation she hasn’t dealt with before. I agree it hasn’t been effectively done, but now, armed with excellent advice from Alison and the commentariat, she can proceed.

    4. Katie the Fed*

      She doesn’t need to be referred to as anything. She can be called “Jane” – no further description is required.

      1. Kelly L.*

        Right, this! The way I read the letter, it’s not even the word “disabled,” per se, that bothers her*, it’s the fact that Fergus can’t go a whole sentence without bringing it up. He’s like “Hi, disabled Jane! How are you doing today, considering you’re disabled? Is there any disabled coffee left?” It’s not relevant to the work and he’s pestering her about it constantly.

        *though it might, and that’s her right.

        1. Leatherwings*

          I think it’s both – that he can’t manage to speak to her without mentioning the prosthetic AND that he uses the term “disabled” – which she isn’t.

    5. Anonamee*

      As someone who is disabled (and housebound), I have no problem at all with Jane not considering herself disabled. Jane’s attitude is perfectly fine and normal because for her, her physical difference is not disabling. Those with differences like Jane’s, who are still as capable as those without such, find that the label ‘disabled’ can limit them at work etc, so why should they have to put up with such a label being stuck on them by the ill-informed. The mere fact that Fergus was using the term disabled / prosthetic in his harassing, was all that the OP needed to know to deal with him.

  41. Mimmy*

    Wow. Fergus sounds like a piece of work. I wear thick glasses and hearing aids (though the hearing aids are always under my hair), so I too would be highly annoyed if someone kept saying, “Oh go talk to Mimmy; she’s the one with the thick glasses since she’s blind!”

    I haven’t read the comments yet so apologies if this has already been addressed: I’d be prepared for pushback from Fergus. He may either invoke the “free speech” card (which we know is not applicable) or otherwise ask “what’s the harm?”

    Good luck with this – I hope you do not lose Jane over this. Disability harassment is not fun to deal with.

    1. Artemesia*

      No one needs to explain or justify why this is inappropriate to Fergus. It is not open for discussion. Pushback needs to evoke only ‘I am not going to discuss this further; this stops now and permanently or you will be fired.’

      Or better yet, ‘this was made clear several times and you chose to ignore my direction on this and so you need to go clear out your desk. I am not discussing it further.’

    2. Liane*

      “He may…otherwise ask ‘what’s the harm?’”
      Answer: That isn’t the purpose of our meeting. The purpose of this meeting is to tell you straight out “You are never to do ABC unacceptable & illegal things again or you will be fired.”

  42. Dust Bunny*

    Why was there even a question here? Fergus needed a kick in the pants and a direct order to cut that out, or else.

    This is the kind of thing my father would do, but that’s why nobody wants to socialize with him. He’s a jerk.

  43. TootsNYC*

    Not saying this is the best route, but just throwing it out there.

    If transferring is an option in the company, maybe Fergus should be transferred.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s kind of like just transferring a sexual harasser though — they’re not doing it because one particular coworker brings it out in them; they’re doing it because they’re inappropriate/jerks/incorrigible/whatever. You tell him clearly to stop harassing someone, he doesn’t stop, you get him out of your company.

      1. AMT*

        That could end up as a series of letters, all from different managers:

        “Help! My subordinate won’t stop discussing another staff member’s glass eye!”

        “How to stop an employee from pointing out another employee’s cleft lip?”

        “Help me talk to a staff member who is obsessed with someone’s colostomy bag!”

        1. Jennifer*

          I thought of glass eye right off the bat as something else Fergus would fixate on.

          I wonder if he calls out people’s zits too.

          1. TotesMaGoats*

            Direct quote from a parent to a student in a band trip: No, I will not hold your glass eye while you ride the roller coaster.

    2. Katie the Fed*


      When he does it to someone else, the company’s liability is even worse because they knew the problem and just passed him along.

      See also: Boston Archdiocese.

    3. Observer*

      If Fergus doesn’t stop, then he poses a risk to the company. Transferring doesn’t reduce the risk. It increases it. Next time he pulls something like this, his victim is going to be able to say “My company KNEW that he was bad news, but put me in his path anyway.” NOT a good position to be in.

    4. Master Bean Counter*

      Transferring this guy to an innocent and unsuspecting department will cost this manager major political capital in the company. Nobody will trust her judgement or take a transfer employee from her in the future.

  44. Saucy Minx*

    Give Jane an airhorn.

    Or fire Fergus immediately, in which case Jane won’t need to endure any further airhorn-worthy nastiness from Fergus.

    1. Leatherwings*

      Haha! The idea of an airhorn going off in the office to alert everyone that Fergus being an ass is sort of hilarious. Now I want one for That Guy in my office.

    2. JennyFair*

      I want this, so badly, for New Guy in my office, who uses the word ‘retarded’ all. the. time.

      1. Rookie Biz Chick*

        Such a gross word. I struggle to be professional when I hear this word in the workplace or even if overhearing in public with randoms. Airhorns would help so much!

    3. Isabel C.*

      I always like the suggestions of water-and-vinegar cat spray bottles in situations like this: “Say, Jane, what is–” *PFFFFFT*.

      But also firing. All the firing. Forever.

  45. teclatrans*

    Alison and commenters above have given great suggestions for what to say and how to love forward. My observation may be off-base or unnecessary, but I am going to give it a shot…. OP, your letter went to great lengths to demonstrate that Jane does not see herself as disabled, and I find myself wondering why that is relevant to the management question you sent in to AAM. Sure, it gives us some contect, but it shouldn’t change how you perceive or respond to the problem. This leads me to speculate (though I recognize it may be overreaching) that this aspect of the situation has tripped you up in how you are thinking about or responding to the problem. Is there any chance you have said to Fergus something like, “Please don’t refer to Jane as disabled, she doesn’t see herself that way?” Or something else that framed the problem as his *incorrectly identifying* her as disabled? I suggest this interpretation because a) Jane’s self-identification figures prominently in your description, and b) because Fergus’s harassing comments could conceivably be understood as his way of doubling down and refuting Jane’s (and OPs) assertions that there is no disability. I could also see focusing in “he keeps calling her something she doesn’t want to be called” could make it less clear that this is full-on ADA-violating, hostile-work-environment harassment.

    Again, this is purely speculation, and doesn’t change what you nees to do next, OP. I only bring it up on the chance it might help in your introspection and assessment of your response and how to improve as a manager going forward.

    1. Observer*

      Let’s say that you are correct that this is his way of pushing the “correct” designation. It’s not really relevant, nor is it useful in understanding his behavior or how to stop it.

      He’s been repeatedly told that Jane doesn’t like it. It’s incredibly rude to insist on YOUR designation for a person, even if you are “right” in the face of someone who has told you specifically they don’t like it.

      He’s been repeatedly told by his manager to stop it. It’s insubordination to refuse to follow your manager’s instructions.

      The ADA is clear that you cannot discriminate or take negative action based on perceived disability. So, it makes absolutely no difference whether he is trying to correct a perceived wrong or not – he is harassing a person based on his perception of her having a disability.

      1. Aurion*

        I’ve never understood the pushback on individuals deciding whether or not to apply certain labels to themselves. If a person with a prosthetic doesn’t use the term “disabled” for themselves, so what? If an ace person doesn’t feel like a part of the LGBTQ+ community (and is comfortable with that), what difference does it make to anyone else?

        People should not be reduced to taxonomies.

        1. Lissa*

          Yup. I have a vision issue that technically qualifies as me “disabled” but I don’t identify with the term, so I would object to somebody else using the term for *me*. Has no bearing on how I feel about disabilities in general, or even other people who had a similar condition who *did* apply the term to them. If somebody wanted to ask me questions about why I felt the way I did I would be more than happy to have that conversation. Not at work.

      2. fposte*

        And it’s quite possible that there are people in the office who *do* identify as disabled and Fergus doesn’t know it (and maybe the OP doesn’t either). This is the classic hostile workplace–you don’t have to be the direct victim to be affected by the harassing behavior.

        1. teclatrans*

          Yes, and I am suggesting OP missed this point initially. (And hooray for Alison and this site serving as a resource for well-meaning but inexperienced or undertrained managers.)

      3. teclatrans*

        Right, and my point here is that I am getting to impression from OP’s letter that s/he got mired in pushing back at Fergus from a standpoint of “don’t call her what she doesn’t identify as,” when the core issue is “you are harassing on the basis of perceived disability; you may not harass, period.”

        The fact that OP has said something six times and is only at the point of “I feel awful, this is clearly hard on Jane and I eoyld hate to lose a good worker over this” and not “I feel helpless to enforce ADA-level harassment and I have inadvertently become complicit in the creation of a hostile work environment” led me to think it could be helpful for OP to interrogate why/how this has gotten stuck at the gentle-rebuke stage. My interpretation is that OP lost sight of (or needs better training to see) the larger picture.

  46. Employment Lawyer*

    Easy solution: Call your HR attorney, who will tell you to fire Fergus. Problem solved.

  47. Some2*

    My god how do you not terminate Fergus TODAY? Repeated violations of federal law are generally pretty good reasons to term someone without playing footsie with progressive discipline like they were back in high school

  48. AW*

    He is an otherwise good worker.

    I think it’s more accurate to say that he *could* be a good worker if not for this issue. Do not think of this as firing a good worker with a flaw, think of it as firing a bad employee who refused to follow simple directions, make an easy change, and not harass co-workers.

    I don’t know if you felt wary about firing him because you really just wanted permission (nerves about being in a new management position), if you just felt like this should be otherwise fixable (because how hard is it to not say something, right), or were just unsure of what the next step was, but I think framing this in terms of how he’s a bad employee will make this easier for you.

    Or even just reword that now that you know this qualifies as harassment, “He’s a good worker other than the harassment.” Easier to feel confident that firing is both OK and necessary.

    1. Adlib*

      Yep, it seems there are a lot of letters that say someone is a good worker when they have a deal-breaking flaw which = bad employee. Glad you highlighted this because I think it’s important in people’s minds to make that connection.

      1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

        It parallels how advice columnists who focus on personal relationships are always getting letters that begin “My significant other is a wonderful significant other, and we’re perfect for each other, except–” and then they describe some huge issue like “they stole $6000 from my checking account” or “they constantly belittle my children” or even just conflicts like “they absolutely 100% want to live in Paris and I 100% want to live on a small farm in Iowa.” It’s very human wishful thinking… but it is wishful thinking.

    2. Rusty Shackelford*

      And even if he is a good worker, there are lots of good workers out there who won’t harass their coworkers.

  49. kapers*

    OP, if Jane were writing this letter, she might say “my coworker is continually harassing me about a perceived disability. I have brought this up directly with my coworker, who refuses to stop, and my manager, who has not stopped this behavior. It’s gotten so bad that I don’t think I can work there anymore. What to do? Do I have to leave my job?”

    What would you as an AAM reader tell her?

    1. Leatherwings*

      To go to her boss again and/or HR and use language like:
      “I’ve told you before that Fergus makes these comments, and it hasn’t let up at all. At this point, he’s creating a hostile work environment for me. I need this to stop immediately.”

  50. Stellaaaaa*

    OP, this is a really important lesson for you to learn: sometimes you can’t work a solution that has everyone being pleasant and conciliatory here, and what’s going on is that you’re trying to make it so everyone reaches a point of being nice to each other. There’s no compromise to be made here. Jane is right and Fergus is wrong. Jane is standing up for herself to Fergus, something a lot of people are not brave enough to do, and you are only ASKING him to stop. You need to understand how horrible he’s being and how your efforts to appear neutral and kind to Jane’s harasser are doubling back on the victim. You should be okay with Fergus thinking you’re an @sshole, since his impressions of people are clearly off base and he’s not someone worth impressing.

  51. SallyForth*

    I would add one thing. In the conversation, have notes in front of you. Add this *one part* “Fergus, I’ve spoken with you *in October 2015, January 8 of this year, April 15th* about the inappropriate remarks you’ve made about Jane. You’ve continued to make those remarks.” Having the notes will stop conversation dead about not realizing you were serious, etc.

  52. Menacia*

    You don’t want to lose Jane as she’s a valuable staff member yet your lack of action has forced her to consider moving to another division. At this point, it’s probably going to be either she leaves or Fergus does, I get the feeling Fergus does not think there is anything wrong with what he’s doing, so he will continue this harassment. He’s just gross.

  53. Ted Mosby*

    You let this go on for way too long. After the second comment, this really becomes as much your fault as fergus’s. Would you have reacted the same way if he were calling her racist terms or sexually harassing her? You need to give him exactly one more strike and then he’s gone, no apologies, no questions, no explanations.

    1. Katie the Fed*

      OP is a new manager. For people who aren’t managers, or who have been at it so long that this is second nature, it’s an easy fix. But when you’re new to it, you don’t necessarily have the tools handy to deal with this, because it’s so obvious that people just don’t act like Fergus is acting that you never stopped to think about how to handle it. Which is why she wrote in to Alison for advice, so let’s not browbeat her, ok?

  54. Whats In A Name*

    I know this is late in the day so I haven’t read through all the comments, but I would be getting this guy out of there now. Basically it sounds like a her or him situation and his behavior should be enough to warrant a strict “one more time and your out” warning.

    I really am sorry that you are dealing with this guy, but I can only imagine how Jane feels – not just about his comments but about your lack of commitment in really getting anything done. I also noticed the OP mentioned not wanting to cross the management line by calling Jane a good employee – the management line you shouldn’t be crossing is the one where you try to make a falsley harmonious environment instead of fostering a healthy one.

    I’m not trying to attack OP at all…but I worked for a manager once who rather have us apologize for things and pretend to get along than deal with conflict or make a hard stand against someone’s behavior – kind of sounds like your situation. Over the course of 3 years we lost a lot of good employees because the atmosphere was filled with tension and there was never any resolution of problems, just some glossing over.

  55. Marcia*

    The OP mentions that Fergus makes these offensive comments to couriers and to others within the company who come into the office for any reason. I’ve been thinking about how I would react if I went into someone else’s office and comments like this were made to me. I suspect, and hope, that once I’d got over the initial shock of someone being so incredibly rude and offensive, that I’d make a comment to Fergus himself and then ask who his manger was – as in who is the person who can fire you!

    Not only is his repeated behaviour creating a hostile work environment for Jane, but he is creating a terrible impression of the OP’s section/company for any outside visitors or anyone who works in other sections of the company.

    1. Observer*

      Good point. It’s both a legal issue and a PR problem – because there are tons of outsiders that can’t be pressured to keep their mouths shut who know about this.

      OP, do you really want to be at the receiving end of an internet hate campaign? If you think your manager is not going to be happy with you coming down on Fergus, how do you think she’s going to feel when you get hit by a #JerksAtOP&Co and #BoycottOP&Co campaign on twitter, facebook etc? That kind of mud sticks. And you will be in a much worse place than most, because this is happening AT WORK. And, the people who see it KNOW THAT YOU KNOW ABOUT IT. Because THEY saw it in your workplace, in full view and vision of the staff. So, how could you NOT know about it.

  56. Marmalade*

    I wear splints that come almost up to my knees on both legs. People like Fergus are, irritatingly, not a rarity. It’s like they think you’ve chosen to make your impairment visible just so you can spend your days endlessly answering their questions on the topic.

    It’s human nature to be curious and some people seem to think it’s their right to know whatever they want to know.

    1. Katie the Fed*


      I think past the age of 8 you should know better than to comment on or ask about other people’s physical impairments. But I seem to consistently overestimate humanity.

      1. Isabel C.*

        In the last ten years or so, I have come to learn that there really is no upper limit to the number of things some people think are any of their business. Intrusive disability questions, comments on pregnancy, asking people why they’re getting divorced…it’s pretty appalling. Like, this is why we developed conversational rules, guys, and if you don’t knock that shit off maybe we should just go back to Victorian etiquette standards where you can only talk about, IDK, the weather and cricket.

      2. Bowserkitty*

        This reminds me of the first episode of Master of None where Dev takes his friend’s kids to an ice cream store and the younger girl points at every single person who is a different race and says out loud what they are. It’s even worse to think adults do similar things.

    2. New Bee*

      As a POC, I call it Racial (sub in any “other” category) Pokemon. Those people essentially “gotta catch ’em all” and treat people and their identities like collector cards–“Can you believe I saw/met a fill-in-the-blank today?” Describing it that way has made some people I’ve encountered more self-aware, but not enough unfortunately.

      Ftr, I was calling it that before the current Pokemon resurgence. /hipster

      1. HannahS*

        Hah! That’s a good name for it. As a kid, I remember hearing a fair amount of, “What kind of name is THAT?”* followed by “Oooh I’ve never met a JEW before!” Like, glad to have ticked that box for you?

        *my (real) first and last names are decidedly foreign sounding.

  57. ben*

    I looked and did not see this. (sorry if you did mention it upthread.) In this case, it does NOT matter that Jane is a good employee. If Fergus and Jane both wanted to go to a training and you only had one spot, think about who is the better employee. If Jane was hard working and telecommuting, and Fergus, a known goldbricker, wanted the same flexibility….think about who you trust.

    Jane could be a mediocre employee. She could have her own issues that could lead to firing.

    She would STILL deserve a harassment free workplace, and management has a legal/moral obligation to provide it.

    1. CEMgr*

      +1. Freedom from harassment is not something you have to earn by being great at your job. It is every worker’s inherent right regardless of performance, place in the hierarchy, or scarcity of skills.

  58. Rookie Biz Chick*

    Thinking about these interactions seems like one of the more puke-worthy episodes of The Office. Don’t be Michael Scott!

  59. The Juice*

    OP: “But he’s an otherwise good worker.”

    Me: “Yeah, but he’s making you and your company look bad and, more importantly, bothering another good worker who is, presumably, not an asshole. One time could just mean he’s awkward, but if he does this every time he sees or refers to her, I can only assume that he is acting maliciously.”

  60. I GOTS TO KNOW!*

    OP, thanks for writing in and trying to improve your skills as a manager. As others have mentioned, yes, these needed more severe consequences MUCH sooner, but it’s not too late to correct now. Meet with Jane, apologize and assure her you are handling it. Tell her she needs to come to you IMMEDIATELY the next time it occurs so it can be met with swift action. Meet with Fergus. My feeling is he should be fired but I understand that’s not always feasible, especially if it hasn’t occurred recently. Meet with him, make it clear in no uncertain terms that one more comment about Jane that even remotely addresses her prosthetic will result in his immediate termination.

  61. Unegen*

    The more I read this question the more convinced I become that Fergus has a stash of porn at home featuring disabled persons. Really, he’s giving off quite the creep factor here with the whole *can’t stop talking about it* thing.

  62. Norman*

    How long as this been going on? If it was more than a few weeks, I’d recommend that LW find some better way to resolve this situation ASAP and not tell her manager. She basically hasn’t been doing her job if this lasted more than a short period of time, and it’s not a great idea to point out your huge professional failings to your manager.

  63. stevenz*

    Can you require someone to go to EAP?? I have no idea. But there is a mental problem here as well as a behavioral one. He’s not just being rude, he’s fixated. I’m not completely on board with firing him right away, But he does need to be convinced that consequences are dire: he’s on the edge of the cliff and people are lining up to give him a light push.

    I suggest it comes down to a cost-benefit judgement. Even if he stops this particular behavior, is he worth the risk of keeping him around? I.e., can he change? Are there other problems you have to put up with too? Or go through the termination process, and the recruitment process to replace him.

  64. Sunny Days*

    Fire Fergus now. That’s a HUGE red flag. Anyone who would harass a co-worker with a perceived disability is probably doing a lot of other troubling things. You don’t know what you might be dealing with.

    You also need to set an example. Show your team that harassment isn’t tolerated. You want to create an environment where everyone feels welcome except for harassers, not the other way around.

  65. Igg*

    LW no offense but I’m amazed you had to ask what to do. He is violating the law and you are allowing it this creating a liability for the company!!!! Holy cow! He’s got to go at this point bc you’ve let it go on forever and you still may not cover your bum by firing him now but it’s the best shot you have. Aside from that. Holy cow why. Why???? Would you allow him to harass your employee in such a mean and hurtful way? And then to object to her transfer? Good lord are you trying to keep her in hell? I’m sorry to sound harsh but you’ve lost perspective sovegere if you can’t see how bad this makes everyone who tolerated it look.

    1. Elspeth*

      Yeah – however, the LW was a new manager when she wrote in to AAM in order to learn how to handle the situation, which means she was willing to learn how to manage effectively (being that new managers rarely, IF EVER, get any actual training on how to do so)!

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