my intern told a horribly offensive joke at a meeting with other companies

A reader writes:

Every spring, the company I work for hires interns. This year I was assigned an intern to train and manage for the first time. Two days ago I had a project meeting at another site and my boss said I should bring my intern as it would be a good experience for him. Up until this point, my intern’s behavior had been nothing but professional.

Before the meeting started, when people were still arriving and getting settled in, my intern told someone he was speaking with a tasteless, disgusting joke (about people jumping from buildings on 9/11). He said it with a normal level voice and everyone around him heard, including me. I immediately told him to stop talking. The person sitting next to him went off because she had a family member who died on 9/11 and may have been one of those who jumped. She had to be pulled out of the room by three of her colleagues in tears and still yelling at him over their shoulders. No one could blame her for her reaction.

My intern was kicked out of the meeting and took a cab back to our office. I texted my boss to let him know what happened and profusely apologized to everyone on behalf of the company. There were people from two other companies and the government at this meeting, and they were all appalled. The intern was fired and at least two complaints have been filed against him to the association that governs those who work in our industry. Multiple people from the meeting have called my boss and other higher-ups to complain.

I am worried that my intern’s behavior will reflect badly on me. I think what he did was disgusting, but he was here for a month before this happened and he was nothing but polite and professional. I was so embarrassed at the meeting.

My boss and the higher-ups are furious and doing major damage control. Should I say something to them or try to explain I had no idea he would do anything like this? Should I apologize again? I’m afraid to show my face at the next meeting because I am so embarrassed.

You aren’t responsible for someone else’s offensive joke.

Actually, I’ll caveat that: If you’d seen earlier evidence of problems with him and not addressed it, then sure, you’d have some responsibility here.

But that’s not what happened here. You’d seen nothing but professional behavior from him previously, and you had no way of knowing that he was about to bust out a horrible offensive remark.

When it happened, you immediately told him to stop talking. You apologized profusely to everyone who was at the meeting, and you alerted your boss to what happened. Those are all the correct actions to take.

Sometime people turn out not to be who we thought they were. As long as you don’t pretend you’re not seeing/hearing it and as long as you don’t let bad behavior continue, that’s not your fault.

I don’t know what you’ve said to your boss and other higher-ups so far, but if you haven’t told them how appalled you are and that you’d seen no signs of problems from him before, tell them that now. Emphasize “appalled.” Also, tell your boss that you’re really embarrassed and ask for her advice about whether there’s anything else that you should be doing.

But really, this sounds like an intern who ran amok in a particularly awful way. Sometimes that happens. You deal with it, you apologize to anyone impacted, and then you get to move on.

{ 592 comments… read them below }

  1. Ask a Manager* Post author

    Hi, all —

    Two things before you read/comment:

    1. Others have pointed out that the stories people are sharing below about the day itself are upsetting, and it’s taking us off-topic, so I’m asking people not to share more of those.

    2. Be aware that if you read, you may encounter those stories.

    1. zora*

      Thank you for the warning up front, I am glad I could stop before I got to those stories.. I still have a hard time hearing/talking about it.

  2. Doodle*

    I think as long as you make it clear that you had no idea (and I agree that “appalled” is exactly the right word), no one will blame you. I do understand the awkward feelings, though. Hopefully those will fade with time.

    I’m sorry your intern was so horrible.

    1. Helen*

      OP please don’t fall into the trap that you are responsible for the actions of others. Many women I know (myself included, a behavior I’m trying to break) feel the need to apologize and smooth things over and be peacemaker. Don’t do it. The intern is a grown man and you are not responsible for his behavior.

      1. Mallory Janis Ian*

        I had to learn that with my grown-ass direct report who is now formally one probation for his unfiltered, inappropriate remarks and behavior at work. I kept asking the HR guy how to frame my talks with him so that they’d be more effective, and he said, “Sometimes we do all the right things, and the other person just doesn’t correct their actions; you’ve done all you can do at this point.” I kept thinking that of the guy’s behavior wasn’t “solved”‘ that meant I wasn’t doing something right.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          I used to say that we throw out our safety nets, “Stand over here and you will be okay”. Some people accept the help and are even grateful. Other people accept the help and then stop accepting the help. And others just plain ignore the safety net entirely.

          We don’t get to pick who belongs to which group. Too many times the person I thought would come around and they didn’t. And the person who I thought was hopelessly lost turned out to be one of the most teachable. Both ways it reminded me never to judge, offer the same level of support/opportunity to each person and hope for the best.
          I agree it’s difficult to watch the choices some people make.

  3. Leatherwings*

    At the point that you’ve fired the intern, expressed horror at what he said and multiple higher ups have done damage control I would think people would move on, particularly since the dude was an intern. The joke sounds horrible, but most people understand that bosses are not responsible for employees jokes.

    1. AMG*

      Your correct reaction makes all of the difference on this. Being sufficiently appalled takes the heat off of you. Anyone who does not understand that is maladjusted.

      1. Artemesia*

        Be appalled but not apologetic i.e. it is not your fault don’t do that ‘girl thing’ and apologize over and over as if it were your fault. They probably aren’t thinking it is, so sharing that you are appalled and asking for advice about next steps is professional and appropriate. But any hint that you feel ‘responsible’ may convince some people that you are responsible.

        1. Augusta Sugarbean*

          This is where I landed with the situation. I really, really don’t like the advice that the OP should apologize or accept blame in anyway, even by association. The OP didn’t do anything wrong. Far from it. She did everything right. Stopped the behavior, kicked him to the curb, notified the appropriate people, agreed that the behavior was appalling. But do not shoulder the burden of the intern’s bad behavior. Acknowledge but do not apologize. “Yes, absolutely, intern was an ass. We fired him immediately and notified that organization.”

          OP, you did not hire this person and he is a grown ass man and you handled the situation as well as anyone could have. Do not take take responsibility for this person. Put yourselves in the other peoples’ shoes: you wouldn’t blame them for their intern’s bad behavior would you? So assume that they are reasonable people and would behave reasonably. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that once they calmed down, they might even feel bad for you having to be saddled with such a jerk.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I think failing to apologize on behalf of the organization for the intern’s behavior is going to come across really tone deaf. Folks are so upset that they reported the intern to the professional board for their industry. OP doesn’t have to accept blame, but failing to acknowledge that the company understands that harm was done and that they’ve handled it is crucial to smoothing things back over. And that at least requires an open expression of sympathy for the pain/horror the intern caused, usually in the form of an apology.

          1. Annonymouse*

            I agree with this and what people said above.

            You apologise (“I’m so sorry this happened, absolutely appalled, never behaved like this, does not reflect our company or values and taken appropriate steps to make sure they won’t be working in the industry again.”)

            But at the same time don’t make it YOU personally apologising

            As in “I’m so sorry my intern behaved so badly at a meeting I brought him to. I’ll take responsibility for what happened, I’ll make it right.”

            Because those actions are outside of your scope/pay grade to do and YOU DIDN’T DO ANYTHING WRONG.

            Don’t let how bad and appalled you feel lead you to shoulder blame that isn’t yours or make promises for amends that aren’t yours to make.

            1. The Strand*

              Amen. You make it clear that this is counter to your company’s values but in no way take personal responsibility for this disgusting behavior by your former intern.

              I am sorry that people appear to be looking for a scapegoat, when you did everything right!

              The Princess has great balancing act advice, but I have noticed that many good leaders tend to personalize and internalize the egregious mistakes of their reports, eg Mallory Janis Ian’s comment above. I’ve been there, to the point where being thanked for turning around a problematic report still had me thinking, “but I couldn’t fix Max and Janine’s behavior”.

              Please know your immediate action marks you as a sane manager dealing with an insane situation.

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I do think it will be important for OP to be careful about how they message this, though. I think OP has done everything right at this point, but here’s what I would recommend:

      1. As Alison noted, emphasize that you are appalled.
      2. If your bosses are furious, tell them you share their anger. Tell them the intern had never said anything problematic before, and you have no idea where his “joke” came from.
      3. Emphasize that what he did was completely reprehensible, and if they push you, note that you took corrective action immediately.
      4. Lie low with higher up’s at your company. Don’t ghost, but I think being a little subdued for a few weeks is ok (i.e., don’t immediately go back to “normal” as though nothing happened).
      5. Keep going to the meetings. If there were people who are especially close contacts and/or who were disproportionately affected (e.g., woman with family at the site), consider apologizing to them individually and privately, ideally by phone or over coffee.

      You don’t have to make this a massive deal, and you do get to apologize and move on. But you also want to be careful not to look like you’re trying to skirt responsibility/blame. I know, OP, that you are not to blame in any way, but when people are enraged, they sometimes start dividing the world into “me v. them,” and you want to try to align with “them” while also gently pushing against the idea that this was your fault or that you could have prevented it (you could not have).

      But please don’t beat yourself up. It doesn’t sound like you hired the intern, that you had warning that he was terrible, or that you could have prevented or improved on what you did in the moment (or after). Under these circumstances, you’re not to blame for the sins of your intern.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Also, if they keep pushing you, ask them what they would have done in your situation. Use a genuinely curious, “can you help me figure this out?” tone of voice. I’ve found that sometimes when people are in a rage, getting them to step back and put themselves in your shoes can help them realize they’re yelling at the wrong person.

        1. MegaMoose, Esq*

          Yeah, this is really good to keep in mind. The OP might end up with people who are only yelling at her because they feel moved to yell and the intern isn’t there. This sounds like a great way to defuse things.

        2. Aveline*

          You could also write an email listing what you have already done and simply ask them if there’s anything else they want you to do.

          The company’s reputation is their’s to manage.

        3. Magenta Sky*

          Or ask them what they want you to do next. That will often break through the thoughtless rage, when they realize they don’t know either.

      2. paul*

        Yeah, at this point I can’t really think what else the OP can do. If someone holds you at fault over this after the initial hubbub (when everyone’s had time to process it and you’ve done what you can to handle it) at that point it’s more on them. *Particularly* if you didn’t even hire the intern yourself and they’d been OK until then.

        I mean, it may still bite you in the ass a little–people can be unreasonable–but at that point there’s not a lot of other actions you can take.

  4. The Supreme Troll*

    OP, Alison is correct; you did all that you could do in minimizing the damage from that supreme jerk of an intern. You demonstrated your honorable ethics & compassion to you colleagues and fellow attendees – something he clearly could not comprehend, but hopefully (maybe) will grow up and someday can comprehend. Stay strong, and wishing you the best.

    1. Tuckerman*

      Yes. You telling him “stop talking” in the moment made damage control much easier for your boss. Imagine how much more of a mess this would have been had you been too embarrassed to reprimand him in front of the meeting participants.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Seriously. I’m really impressed that OP had the presence of mind to be able to say “stop talking.” I’m trying to imagine my reaction, and I think it would have been slack-jawed horror (but silence). It would have taken me several seconds to realize that what I was hearing was really happening.

        1. Sara without an H*

          Yes, I could see myself standing there with my mouth open. And then yelling, “Are you drunk???!!”

        2. Mallory Janis Ian*

          Same here; I’m tucking “Stop talking” up my sleeve in case I ever need the presence of mind to use it. Otherwise I’d just freeze with shock and horror.

    2. Annonymouse*

      I can see why intern MIGHT not realise how big a deal this is – assuming intern is 18 and by the time they were old enough to be aware of news and events (12 to mid teens) most of the media coverage around this had died down.

      But joking about any major situation where people died is never ok.

      If anyone is inclined to give him feedback /alert him to his blacklisted status point out this joke is on par with:
      Joking about Sandyhook in severity and the Boston Marathon for how fresh those wounds are.
      Or the Holocaust. Some things are not joked about. Ever.

      And this one thoughtless action has caused him to be blacklisted in the industry permanently.

      That’s how serious people take this.

      Hopefully he will use it as a wake up call to become a better person instead of bitching about how one little joke ruined his career.

      1. Flurtisho*

        Not that I think it really matters, because the damage is done, but I was thinking the same thing. 9/11 memes have been a thing for a while (I can’t even begin to understand them as I am an Old) so these kids are growing up with a very warped, weird vision of 9/11 where joking about it has somehow become appropriate and they don’t have any real life memories of the event. I would hope that the kid got the message that it’s a very real tragedy not to be made light of at work! around a group of people from all different age groups! But I do think he legitimately didn’t realize how offensive it was especially since he didn’t exhibit any other misjudgments like that.

        1. Candi*

          I think you’re giving the intern too much credit. Net memes aren’t the only source of information on 9/11.

          What I personally have done is educate my kids-including videos- on 9/11.

          Their schools through the years, especially middle and high school, have spent part of history/English/advisory/etc. on 9/11 or the closest school date educating him.

          Where comments are available, memes usually attract people discussing just how big a deal 9/11 was.

          A ‘lazy’ unspecified 9/11 search kicks up far more than just memes.

          My son has learned several awful ‘jokes’ at school that I’ve had to curb/educate him on over the years. But. None of them have been 9/11 jokes. Ever. High school kids get it.

      2. Annonymouse*

        I retract my previous comment.
        OP has commented that intern is 27 (meaning they would have been around 11 at the time) AND LIVING IN NEW YORK STATE.

        There really is no excuse unless they’ve been in a coma from before 9/11 until recently.

        Because that’s showing a childish level of judgement (say something cool/edgy/shocking to impress older kids and make them think I’m a grown up too).

  5. Cambridge Comma*

    Once the immediate impact has died down, I would hope that reasonable people would realize that there is no way you could have foreseen this. It sounds like you reacted well in the moment and the appropriate steps were taken.
    The only slight improvement that might have been possible would have been contacting the attendees to say how appalled your organization was and that the internship was immediately terminated before they contacted you to complain, but perhaps there wasn’t time for that. I imagine that people were calling in pretty quickly.

    1. Jessesgirl72*

      The OP wrote to Alison when the incident had happened only 2 days ago. That’s pretty early on.

      1. NK*

        Ah, I missed that. I was going to say that I’m surprised at all the complaints given that the company took swift and (entirely appropriately) harsh action, but given the timing it sounds like word may not have gotten around that he was fired.

      2. Cambridge Comma*

        Right, but the meeting attendees weren’t told proactively that the intern was fired, they contacted the organization themselves to complain. Telling them proactively might have forestalled some of the complaints, reducing the pressure on and from the higher-ups.

        1. D.A.R.N.*

          I’m confused why just telling the people calling with complaints that the offending intern has been fired isn’t taking the heat off of OP already. You can’t ask for more resolution than that.

          1. Instruct Not Destruct*

            Because not everyone is going to call and complain. I personally wouldn’t call to complain because it looks like OP had it under control in the moment. A summary from OP is the difference between me telling my co-workers about the crazy thing XYZ Corp’s employee did and what XYZ Corp did about their crazy intern. It’s a small but important difference.

  6. Temperance*

    LW, as hard as it is, I think you need to keep going to these meetings, and if anyone mentions it to you, you can apologize, let them know how horrified you are (because you are!), and let them know that your org took swift, immediate action.

    I don’t think anyone can hold this against you because you aren’t the one who made the joke, and you had him removed and fired immediately. I’m just … amazed at his poor judgment. Wow.

    1. Instruct Not Destruct*

      I would probably go a step further and open the next meeting with a summary of the actions the company took in firing him, how appalled everyone is at his comments and note that complaints were made to governing board. Full transparency goes a long way in these situations. The last thing you want is for someone to leave with unanswered questions or to have them fill in blanks themselves.

      1. Dinosaur*

        I agree with this. If I had been in the room when that “joke” was told, a brief and clear summary of how the employer handled the situation at the next meeting would put the matter to rest for me. It would remove lingering doubts that maybe the situation wasn’t dealt with or questions about the integrity and professionalism of the other company.

      2. Anna*

        I don’t know if I’d start the meeting with that. It tends to make the meeting’s focus about that awful incident. It might be better to let people know beforehand that if anyone has any questions, the OP would be happy to answer them after the meeting. Also, I tend to think it will get around pretty quickly how it was handled anyway, but it wouldn’t hurt the OP to let everyone know she’s open to discussing it after the meeting.

      3. General Ginger*

        I might not start the meeting with this; it might color the rest of the meeting tone. But I think bringing it up proactively and letting people know how the company has handled the situation is great advice.

        1. Liz T*

          Actually I think better to get it out of the way at the beginning, rather than let it hang over people. Don’t treat it like an afterthought.

          1. LBK*

            Agreed. I’d say something like “I just want to get this out of the way before we start so there’s no linger questions – I was appalled by Joe’s comments at the last meeting and he was immediately fired on returning to the office. I’m incredibly sorry for him making such an offensive remark and we dealt with the situation promptly, so I hope this will allow us to move on and not have that hanging over us at these meetings going forward.”

            1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

              I definitely agree. You don’t have to, like, grovel on the conference table, but I think a brief statement along these lines would do a lot to dispel the last lingering bad feelings.

            2. Elizabeth West*

              I like this wording, and I agree with the timing. I wouldn’t want to sit through the entire meeting wondering about it.

              And before I read down any further, it really makes NO difference what the offensive joke was about (there are equally offensive things he could have said). At this point, what’s important is that the company dealt with him immediately. That’s what the meeting attendees are going to want to know.

            3. Annonymouse*

              Also mention the industry blacklisting in how seriously this has been taken.

              If you feel it’s worth it add “and that you don’t want the risk of anyone here ever having to work with them again.”

            4. Not So NewReader*

              Agreeing with saying this at the start of the meeting. People are not going to hear a single word that is said until this confronted.

      4. HumbleOnion*

        I love this, though I might send it as an email before the meeting. I’d probably send it ASAP in fact.

        1. BritCred*

          I’d send it straight away as well. “Further to the incident at the last meeting the Intern in question, who had been professional up to that moment he shocked us all, has been duly fired. (insert apology for his actions here whilst maintaining it came as a total shock).”

          The sooner the better!

        2. Detective Amy Santiago*

          Depending on how often the meetings are, it might be good to send an email, but I would also consider making a verbal apology again at the next meeting and making sure everyone received the email.

      5. Kate the Purple*

        Just want to chime in and offer my $.02 as someone who personally lost someone on 9/11. I’ve had to deal with similar (and arguably worse) inappropriate jokes/comments about the event, and I would suggest that you speak first with a supervisor or someone who knows the woman to get a read as to whether she would appreciate an apology before a meeting. Doesn’t have to be a big formal meeting, just a quick, “hey, do you think it would be alright with X if we opened the meeting with an apology?”

        I say this because I would not want such a public apology, nor would I even want the subject brought up again. Whenever situations like this happen, the people associated with the offender often feel guilty (understandable) which can sometimes lead to excessive apologizing. I understand that these people mean well, but there were times when I received so many apologies that it made me feel uncomfortable, and it sometimes felt like an additional burden.

        1. Instruct Not Destruct*

          OP commented below that the woman has asked to be removed from the project and that no one contacts her. You offer an interesting perspective on the apology front though. You are right that we can get so wrapped up in our own mortification that we lose sight of what others may be feeling.

          What honestly conflicts me is that there are two things I’d want to accomplish. First, and most important, is making sure that woman who lost her family member is ok. Secondly is the business relationship with the rest of the group. They probably all fall in different places on the ‘offended spectrum’ but even those who weren’t horribly offended have been affected by a disruption in the project and have probably told others about the incedent, which could affect the company’s reputation.

          Speaking to the issue in the next meeting addresses the elephant in the room and gives people the complete and correct narrative of the company’s response and mortification. It basically serves as a formal mental ‘end’ to the incident and helps ensure the stories being told include the company’s correct handling of the situation.

          1. Kate the Purple*

            If your concern were to ensure that the individual who lost her family member is okay, I would still advise that you stop to consider her feelings on the subject. She has already asked to be removed from the project and that no one contact her. Respect her wishes. Regardless of whatever concern may feel, by reaching out to her after she has expressed that she wishes for no contact, you are essentially indicating to her that your need overrides her wishes.

            The second issue regarding the maintaining the business relationship is a bit different. I agree that some sort of apology to the coworkers (but not with the woman present) that’s framed in a way to communicate that they understand the gravity of the mistake and have taken the appropriate steps to rectify the issue can beneficial for the goodwill of the business relationship.

            1. Instruct Not Destruct*

              I agree, for her specifically, follow her request to the T.

              I would only work to smooth over the relationship with those who remained on the project and hadn’t made a request to move on..

    2. Annie Moose*

      Yeah, it seems like it would be a good idea for OP to be open about this, and not try to sweep it under the rug if someone brings it up (even if it’s very awkward!). Saying something straightforward and non-dramatic when the topic is brought up (e.g. “I’m still so appalled that happened, we’ve fired the intern, etc.”) would probably go a long way to making people think highly of you and your company in the aftermath of this incident.

      (by “dramatic” I mean going into a lot of details, going on and on for a long time, explaining the joke in detail, etc. None of that is necessary, IMO)

    3. Lilo*

      Adding my vote to this suggestion. Make it clear he was fired and that you and your company took it seriously, and I think you are 100% okay. You acted immediately and I don’t think it will end held against you if it’s clear you were appalled and acted swiftly.

    4. INFJ*

      I don’t know. Part of me feels like OP already apologized, so bringing it up again at the next meeting is overkill. Since multiple people called to complain, I’m sure OP’s company made it a point already to let them know that this intern was fired. I don’t think anything good could come from rehashing it again.

      1. Instruct Not Destruct*

        If it were a run of the mill off colour joke, I might agree but someone was offended to the point of having to be removed from the room. I don’t think there is such thing as overkill when it comes to making people comfortable in working with you again. The last thing you want is for someone who didn’t complain to have to piece together the company’s response themselves from second-hand stories and get it wrong.

      2. Falling Diphthong*

        I’m sure OP’s company made it a point already

        This is a situation where I would not assume. You want to be absolutely certain that message got out and didn’t miss anyone, even if it means facing some awkwardness.

        There IS a lot of benefit to letting it drop after–people can’t move on if you keep dredging it out. But before that phase you don’t want to risk any “Oh I thought Belinda told Cersei… no?” misunderstandings.

        1. INFJ*

          I agree that everyone present at the meeting should know that the intern was fired. I don’t think OP’s the one nor is the meeting the place to do that.

  7. Amber T*


    Just… why… what?

    OP, it sounds like you and your company are handling this appropriately. And to reiterate, you did nothing wrong. Your intern displayed an absolutely moronic moment. As someone who lived in NY during that time, I don’t even want to think about what that joke could have possibly been about. But that’s not on you.

    1. Anna*

      Next week, a letter from someone who was fired from their internship for telling a truly awful joke, upsetting an organizational partner, and wants to know how to come back from it.

      1. Amber T*

        To be honest, it’s a good and challenging question. I don’t think the intern has any chance of being hired full time by the company (or probably by any company that had attendees in the room). OP writes: “The intern was fired and at least two complaints have been filed against him to the association that governs those who work in our industry.” I’m not sure what sort of association and industry this is, but given that there are professional complaints about him at the governing level of the industry, there’s a good chance the intern wouldn’t be hired in the industry in general.

      2. Pwyll*

        To be honest, I’m trying to figure out a licensing board that would care about an intern telling an offensive joke. Notifying the licensing board seems an extreme step; in my mind, unless he targeted the joke at the person knowing that she lost a family member, I just don’t see what it has to do with licensure. I mean, I expect my interns to show bad judgment once and awhile, we’re there to coach them on these types of things so they learn. This was spectacularly bad, and I also would have fired the intern, but I’m not seeing why formal complaints would be necessary (he’d have to disclose the firing anyway, in most licensure situations I’m familiar with).

        1. Emi.*

          I’m also confused about this. It just seems to me like a “SCORCH ALL THE EARTH”-type emotional reaction, but I don’t know how the board in question actually operates. Anyone have any ideas?

          1. this is my letter*

            It is not a licensing board. It’s a professional association that governs those who work in our industry and use certain titles. There are character and conduct requirements to be a member in good standing.

            1. Emi.*

              Thank you! It still seems extreme to me, though. Does this sort of thing usually get punished by the association?

              1. this is my letter*

                There have been investigations and hearings into people for things they have said or put on social media in any context related to work or the industry. If he had made the joke on his own time the professional association would not have gotten involved but since it was at work they will look into it.

              2. Astor*

                I also find it useful to think of it as that looping the professional association isn’t about making sure that the intern gets punished, but about making sure that this incident is recorded in case it becomes relevant later.

        2. Nerfmobile*

          There are certain professions with strong ethics requirements where I can imagine this sort of reporting to the licensing board. Given the loose description of the project, I can imagine at least two that might apply (law or architecture).

          1. Pwyll*

            In law, pre-licensure, while still in law school, I don’t think this is something reportable to the Bar. To the school? Yes. But not the bar. Post-licensure, though? It’s certainly conduct unbecoming.

            1. lawyer*

              I’m a lawyer and I’m positive that the bar association isn’t going to censure someone for a bad joke, no matter how bad. The standard is typically something like “conduct that tends to bring the legal profession into disrepute,” and even a very offensive joke in the circumstances that the letter-writer describes likely wouldn’t meet that bar. Just being a total jerk is not an offense that the bar takes action on, at least not in the US.

              1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

                Oh god, the number of lawyer jokes I could make right now is overwhelming.

              2. Pwyll*

                I’m also a lawyer, and I think there are scenarios where it would cause an issue combined with other inappropriate activities. I do agree that a bad joke alone wouldn’t be actionable, but it’d be relevant evidence if there is other misconduct (as to a lack of proper judgment). I imagine the bar overseers receive all sorts of complaints like this, but I agree it wouldn’t rise to censure on this alone.

                What does worry me is that there were representatives of the Government present at this meeting. I can tell you that if I said anything like this in a meeting with our regulators, I’m fairly sure my employer would have filed a complaint with the bar as well, as it would place our hiring controls in an incredibly negative light.

              3. Aveline*

                Actually, I have seen someone officially disciplined over a joke. It was a really, really bad joke made to a group of attorneys working for a rape crisis center.

                It wasn’t a fine or disbarment, it was an official reprimand.

                Those do happen for one act of bad conduct. And there are some jokes that are that bad and inappropriate.

              4. Aveline*

                ” I’m positive that the bar association isn’t going to censure someone for a bad joke, no matter how bad.”

                You are wrong on that. I’ve seen someone get official discipline for a rape joke made to a group of attorneys (some of the servicemen and women who had been raped and sexually assaulted themselves). I was there when it happened.

                1. Database Developer Dude*

                  I’ve personally witnessed someone in the military get disciplined for repeating George Carlin’s rape joke. No, I won’t repeat it here, but rest assured, in the right circumstances, one bad joke can get you in lots of hot water.

              5. Anonymous 40*

                I’m not a lawyer, but I worked for the disciplinary arm of my state’s bar for several years. At least in this state, the bar investigates and possibly disciplines behavior that violates the Rules of Professional Conduct, which the general public (and an unfortunate number of attorneys) are unfamiliar with. Some jerky behavior that’s perfectly legal is covered by the RPC, but a lot isn’t too. So the lawyer could possibly be sanctioned for things that make no sense to most people because it violated the RPC and not sanctioned for things that seem like they call for it because the action doesn’t violate the RPC.

            2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              Sure, but other disciplines have more aggressive ethics codes and review than we (lawyers) do. Let’s just take OP at their word that this is a normal thing for someone to call the licensure board about.

        3. Pwyll*

          Just read the OP updates: I completely change the above if the intern was already licensed and already graduated. Wow.

          1. Dan*

            Even still… there’s such thing as an error in judgement that we should allow people to move on from. Inappropriate jokes are vastly different than fraud, embezzlement, or what have you.

            1. Pwyll*

              Depends on whether the professional association’s rules regarding the designation require proper professional judgment. If we make up an example, I’d have pretty serious concerns about someone holding a Professional in HR (PHR) designation (which has minimum non-internship years in the industry requirements) who thought it appropriate to make this kind of joke in a meeting. I don’t think this would be enough to remove the designation from the person, I agree that people can make errors in judgment sometimes. But I do think it’s relevant information for the accrediting body for someone currently licensed/holding a designation/whatever.

            2. Jessesgirl72*

              Then you let the licensing board decide the proper action. They can’t do that if they aren’t told.

              The OP’s bosses and others thought it was appropriate to tell the organization.

          2. Taylor Swift*

            I’m not really sure what that has to do with it. It still sounds like the intern is young, no? You don’t gain judgement and critical thinking skills automatically just by being conferred a degree.

            1. Jessie the First (or second)*

              Intern was close to 30. He is well past the “should know better by know” stage.

        4. Anna*

          I think it really depends on what the internship was for. I may be way off base and if any of our lawyer commenters want to correct me, if the licensing board were a bar association and an intern did something unethical, you’d probably report that.

          1. Aveline*

            What is this guy was a grief or trauma counselor or he was working a child abuse victims?

            I can think of many professions where this would be such a sign of bad judgment as to call into question the ability of the intern to do the job

        5. Dan*

          I’m with you on this, TBH. When I first read the OP’s letter, my thought was “holy overreaction batman.” Sure, fire the intern. I’m 50/50 on that, but getting fired from an internship is super easy-peasy to bounce back from. (For one thing, you never admit to having it. And if you do, you say, “I made a gross error in judgement and I learned from it.” It’s not a mistake that will follow you for the rest of your life.)

          But the licensing board? Over an inappropriate joke? Jeeze.

          1. Anna*

            OP states there are certain conduct requirements to be licensed in this field, so it’s wholly appropriate to report it.

            1. this is my letter*

              Yes. There are conduct and character requirements. It’s also not a licensing board. It’s a professional association.

        6. Mazzy*

          No…..that would be way to extreme of a reaction, and while the reaction of the deceased family member was distressing and the interns behavior dumb….I definitely wouldn’t call this spectatularly bad. I may just be jades but I’ve seen worse.

          Also the whole idea of formal complaints:….usually is flawed from the get go. You are assuming there is some body to take th complaint, that the complaint is relavent to them, and that it is actionable.

    2. Justme*

      As someone who was an adult during that time, and not even living in NYC… I don’t even want to know what that was about. Crap on a cracker, that was horrible of the intern.

      1. Anna*

        Seriously. I had just come back to the US from a summer-long study program in Spain and the visual that is burned into my mind of the whole day is the footage of the people who jumped. I am anxious and sad just typing this right now.

      2. Bits and Bytes*

        Keep in mind that, while not the case for this intern, folks who are 16 and under will only know about 9/11 as a historical event. Given the average age of interns, this person was likely at most five years old at the time. It’s insensitive and deeply inappropriate, but probably didn’t seem as horrifying to someone who really only learned about the event in history class.

        1. this is my letter*

          He was 10 or 11 and living in New York state at the time. He or his family admittedly didn’t know anyone who was there or who died, but he didn’t live far from New York City and he did see it on the news as it happened and the aftermath.

          My company across the country in a different state and has no connection to New York. Out of everyone here he is the only one who was living anywhere close to New York City.

        2. JS*

          Agreed to a certain extent. I was 12 during 9/11 and grew up on the other side of the country. I knew it was a “Bad Thing” but didn’t know the full extent of it until this year (I am now 28) when I moved to NYC and went to the memorial which sparked me to watch youtube videos. I am now horrified. I don’t think I will EVER get the images of jumpers and stories of survivors, victims and their families out of my mind, especially as I work in a high-level skyscraper myself. Regardless of not growing up knowing the impact I don’t see how anyone could know as much about 9/11 to reference jumpers and make that joke. To me it’s more than a jerk or asshole and speaks to someone having a social or psychotic disorder cause no one with a working sympathy function could make that joke.

          1. Elizabeth West*

            I have a long story about that day, and I was nowhere near NYC, but trust me when I say it was a very frightening and awful day for a lot of people. You didn’t have to be nearby to know how bad it was. The decision to ground ALL planes across the US scared a lot of folks because for a long while, we had no clue how many compromised aircraft there were, or where they were. We were at work and the phone only rang twice and we had a TV on all day. Nobody got anything done and I doubt we were the only ones. Of course, those who lost friends and family and those who survived the attack have to live with far deeper horrors than I will ever know. :'(

            I agree with you—though some people use humor to cope with upsetting situations, there are some things you just don’t really joke about. Because they’re not funny. At all, ever.

            1. Symplicite*

              I remember that day vividly. Buildings in downtown Toronto, Canada shut down; mine even shut down around 2pm to let staff go home and I worked in the Greater Toronto Area at the time. My sister and brother-in-law who were visiting from overseas had to reschedule plans, and it was all over the news. I came home and hugged family members. Agree that this is not something to joke about, ever.

            2. Old Admin*

              I was working in Europe at the time, so we saw it all in the afternoon on live TV during work in the boss’s office. We saw the buildings fall in real time. I was babbling and swearing in English the entire time while the (foreign language) colleagues stared at the screen.
              Anxious calls to relatives in Pennsylvania followed. They were safe, but that call revealed my favorite relative had her cancer recur.

              I truly thought at that time that I might have to give up citizenship to be safe in a very changed world… we know differently now.

        3. Emilia Bedelia*

          Frankly, I don’t think it matters.
          I wasn’t born when Kennedy was assassinated, but I have the good sense not to make jokes about him getting shot, because making light of death is incredibly inappropriate in almost any work environment, especially considering the context of this meeting. This is not a difficult concept to grasp.

        4. HollyTree*

          I dunno, I’m British and I’ve never been to the US, and I was 6 at the time* and I’d never dream about making such a joke. The footage has been burned in my brain. There are just things you don’t make jokes about, especially, especially if there’s ANY chance of someone or their family being involved present – which, given that this meeting appeared to be in the same city as it happened, is statistically very likely.

          Some people might not realise not only how important something is but how horrific it was, and that’s to do with emotional maturity, not age. I wouldn’t make jokes about the IRA, and that’s before my time.

          (*Didn’t see all of the news coverage on the day, because my Dad had his first stroke that day, but saw it later in the week. Apparently his Mum got him to go to the hospital because when she rang him to tell him about it, he was really confused and insisted it was a really boring spy thriller he’d turned off after three and a half hours.)

    3. Slow Gin Lizz*

      I can’t imagine what would possess any human being to make a joke about such a thing… and even to bring up 9/11 at a work meeting with people he’d presumably never met before. How moronic do you have to be to do that???

    4. JS*

      Agreed. This is not on OP at all. I can’t even begin to think what could go through someones head to make them think that that joke would be OK or go over well.

      A sidenote: I’ve only recently moved to NYC and was in middle school during 9/11 on the otherside of the country. While I knew it was bad and our school did go into a brief lockdown, the full impact did not hit me until I moved to NYC earlier this year and watched youtube videos of it (including last phone calls and jumper videos) and it was very jarring and upsetting for me now (I have anxiety and it even triggered an episode). I can’t begin to comprehend the emotions of people who lived here and who had family who either survived or fell victim. I don’t know how any one could make a joke about it or reference the jumpers in any way with other than extreme reverence and respect.

  8. Celeste*

    I think it’s natural to feel some shame over your association with the intern. You did all the right things in the moment. It’s just going to take some time for things to settle down.

  9. Spreadsheets and Books*

    My blood ran cold at even just reading the nature of the joke. Wow.

    Luckily, you are not your employee and it’s unlikely anyone will blame you. It sounds like the situation was handled appropriately and you did everything correct in the aftermath but if you’re still worried, perhaps schedule some time to sit down with your manager and discuss your concerns. Assuming you have a good relationship with your boss and are able to talk openly, it could help you alleviate any fears about your role/perception.

  10. Virginian*

    This is not your fault at all, OP. It seems like it will be very difficult for the intern to work in the industry again and I hope this a lesson learned for him.

  11. Jessesgirl72*

    I’d add that a formal complaint should be made to his university, assuming he was a college age intern working with a university program.

    Making him stop talking immediately and doing your own damage control after he was sent back to the office in disgrace is the only thing you could have done- even the higher ups couldn’t have done more than that, except maybe firing him on the spot in front of everyone.

    I can understand being worried there will be fall out on you because of it. Fair or not, it happens. I hope you can report that your boss has reassured you that this wasn’t your fault- who could have guessed he was going to do something so outside of acceptable?

    1. Anna*

      Yes, definitely report it back to the university if that’s how this internship was structured.

      I think it’s more likely the OP’s coworkers will sympathize with the OP for having had this happen, and there may be some curiosity about whether or not anyone saw any indication of this intern’s complete lack of…emotional intelligence? But overall I don’t think there will be any direct damage done to the OP. Everyone from the OP to the higher ups at her company handled this exactly right.

      1. this is my letter*

        He’s 27 or 28 and has already graduated from college and graduate school. He did not get the internship through any school or program related to school.

        1. Justme*

          That means he was a teenager when 9/11 happened (I had to do some mental math with my own age). And cognizant of it. I just… woah.

          1. thebluecastle*

            Yeah I was in junior high at the time (I’m 29 now so not much older than OP) and just…wow. I cannot imagine someone my age who lived through that and saw the video footage of how horrible it all was, making a joke about it. Just. No.

            1. A Bag of Jedi Mind Tricks*

              I saw the horrors up close and personal and in my wildest imaginations I can’t see ANY humor in what happened.

            2. Venus Supreme*

              Yeah, I was 9 years old when 9/11 hit, and I remember that day vividly. We watched the news in class that day. My friend lost her uncle. My sister worked in Manhattan and came home covered in soot. A neighbor lost his life because someone profiled him as a terrorist and shot him. While I didn’t formally comprehend everything around me, I was still aware enough to know that This Is A Big Deal and it’s scary. Of course, living so close to NYC had a lot to do with it. And I could understand why the one woman reacted so viscerally.

              However, I don’t think this intern’s age or location excuses the fact that his joke was disgusting. OP, I think your reaction and follow-up were good and I agree to reiterate that you’re appalled by all this.

              1. JS*

                Wow. I am so sorry. Agreed. I lived literally across the country in pacific northwest and was 12, so while I knew 9/11 was a “Bad Thing”. Until I moved to NYC I didn’t really know the impact of it, I didn’t even know about jumpers until I moved to NYC. I just dont see how anyone could make that joke and have grown up around it.

                1. Old Admin*

                  I watched the jumpers in real time on TV.
                  I was so shaken and out of it at that moment all I could say that it was a mercy they were able to open a window and end it quickly.
                  I read the text messages of that time when they were published.
                  Anxiety comes up when thinking of this to this day.

          2. Manders*

            Yep, that’s my age and I definitely have a clear memory of that day. I was imagining someone in their teens or very early 20s with no memory of a pre-9/11 world (not that it would have made his remarks ok, of course).

            Wtf was he thinking?

        2. sunny-dee*

          What the actual f***? I was reading this as a kid, like, maybe 20, who is young enough to have zero perspective on 9/11. Still horrible, but at least it would be in a “maybe he’ll grow out of it / we all make stupid mistakes when we’re young” type situation.

          But this is a grown man who should be several years into the professional world. This is all on him.

          Jaw –> dropped

        3. paul*

          Holy crap. That’s worse. I mean what they did was bad regardless, but (while I’d still support firing them and would do so myself) be a bit more understanding when it’s a 20 year old…

        4. k*

          That makes it even worse! I’m 29 and was a freshman in high school at the time, so he had to be in 7-8 grade. That’s well old enough to remember it. Even if he wasn’t directly impacted, he must remember how it effected the adults and world around him at the time.

          And he’s well old enough that he should have a grasp on some professional norms, or just human adult norms for that matter.

          1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

            Yeah. Even at 13, 14 you had enough sense to remember your parents and teachers staggering around shocked and weepy that day, even if you didn’t really know what was going on.

            1. Gandalf the Nude*

              Some people just do not get it. I grew up in the DC Metro and was 13 at the time. I don’t remember the actual words said, but one of the popular boys came back to school the very next day and told a joke about it. The science teacher ripped him a new one, and the kid just rolled his eyes the whole way through. More recently, he made a joke about Newtown in a Facebook comment on a mutual’s post and took folks’ appalled responses as an opening for a rant against PC culture. Seriously, some folks just do not and will not get it.

              1. Nea*

                and took folks’ appalled responses as an opening for a rant

                He gets it. That kind of thing is Bully 101: hurt the maximum number of people with the minimum effort.

              2. Lissa*

                Yeah, people make jokes about things even if is a lot closer to home. When I was 14 there was a very high profile murder of a girl who was the same grade/age as me (different school), by other students, and I remember people in my class joking about it. I mean, we were all young teenagers but still — I remember being super horrified by it. I don’t keep in touch with any of them now but I sure hope they grew out of it, and aren’t making Facebook rants like that one, though nothing would really surprise me.

                1. The Strand*

                  I think the jokes made about the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster shortly after the explosion were first studied with the perspective that people joked about something they could barely understand, and were uncomfortable with. That helped me understand why, when one of my friends attempted suicide in high school, several of the boys in our homeroom openly joked about it in front of our teachers. I wanted to kick their asses at the time, but I’ve come to realize that people can use humor to distance themselves from the inexplicable…that’s why those same people, if called on it for an atrocious comment, will sometimes turn around and blame “sensitivity” rather than acknowledge bad behavior.

                2. Mallory Janis Ian*

                  A boy at my son’s high school was recently killed in a car accident, and a couple days after his memorial service another boy was joking about it at school and got his ass kicked by the boy’s two best friends. I didn’t think about it at the time, but he was probably using humor to distance himself and process the inexplicable.

              3. The Strand*

                That’s sounding like sociopathic behavior. I think he enjoys toying with other people’s emotions.

            2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

              Hell, and students! I was going to school in a bedroom community of DC, and had classmates whose parents worked in the Pentagon. They were losing their minds with fear!

          2. Marillenbaum*

            I was 11 at the time; it was picture day at my middle school, which was just down the road from BWI–we were all terrified that our school was going to be hit. The entire building was on lockdown, no leaving your classroom or anything.

          3. shep*

            Same. I was in eighth grade and I remember it vividly. Every teacher who had a TV set in the classroom pulled it out so we could follow the news. Everyone was terrified. It was horrific. Never in my wildest delusions would I even think about joking about that day.

        5. Don't tell bad jokes*

          Welp – there goes my theory below that he was under 6 when it happened. That makes him my age and it is seared in my mind. I’ll still stand by my over exposure to Reddit theory. Please tell me he at least wasn’t from NY.

          1. the other Emily*

            OP said in another comment that horrible intern lived in NewYork state at time (but that OP and the company are in a different part of the country with no connection to New York)

        6. Admin Assistant*

          How did he react when he was immediately & vehemently reprimanded at the meeting and when he was fired? Did he apologize or give any explanation? Did he seem apologetic at all, or understand the consequences of his actions? I am just so bamboozled by your letter.

        7. Snowglobe*

          Wow, I also was expecting him to be around 19-20. At his age he should remember, although at the time he may not have fully grasped what was going on.

          I just recently had a conversation about 9/11 with my two sons, who are 19 and 22. The 19 yo doesn’t have any memory of it at all, the 22 yo was in kindergarten, and only remembers the school being locked down. He says he really didn’t know any of the details until he was in middle school and they learned about it in history class. Strange to think, but college kids today really just think of 9/11 as a historical tragedy but don’t have much emotional connection. They should know better than to make such tasteless jokes at work, but I bet a lot of kids that age make similar jokes amongst themselves without thinking about it.

          1. Snowglobe*

            And, to be clear, I’m not saying that all kids that age would be making such ‘jokes’ or excusing this in any way. Just pointing out that I think we are facing a significant generational divide-between those too young to remember 9/11 (or too young to have really understood what was happening) and those who still have a very visceral reaction to the thought of it. Kids in their teens/early 20s have no memory of a world in which the US wasn’t at war and when we didn’t have constant threats of terrorism. The different perspectives will show themselves in many ways, I think.

  12. Menacia*

    I am curious, was the intern ever questioned as to *why* he felt it was perfectly okay to tell this joke to people who were a) in a business meeting, and b) perfect strangers to him? I think a root cause analysis is needed here. Granted the firing was warranted, but what the heck was he thinking?

    1. Temperance*

      I definitely agree with you, but I think that, in the moment, all I would be able to ask is “are you high?”, followed by angry words and expletives.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Yeah, I agree. If this person had a longer work relationship/history, I would theoretically care about the “why” after I cooled down.

        But under the circumstances OP’s described, I’m ok with not wanting to follow up or question the intern. I think he should follow up on the “why” questions with his own therapist.

        1. Hiring Mgr*

          I think the OP would want to know the “why” if it turned out that others at the company had made similar remarks so maybe that’s why he thought it was ok…You would want to understand if this was just one isolated incident by a clueless intern, or there was more behavior like this going on that you were unaware of

          1. JS*

            I would want to know the “why” as well. Not that it would change the outcome but I am just plain BAFFLED by the logic or lack of here. I would just need to know for my own curosity how someone could be so obtuse. Literally the only half acceptable answer would be a mental disorder and the only other plausible (though unacceptable) would be drugs.

        2. Anna*

          Yeah. Sometimes the transgression is SO bad, there really isn’t any need to follow up with why and make it a teaching moment.

    2. Gwen Soul*

      I would love to know how the intern reacted when he was told.

      Sorry OP, it does sound like you did everything you could. Unfortunately it probably will leave a temporary stick on you, but the best was is to keep going forward and above and beyond so that the last memory this group has of you isn’t about the horrid intern you brought to a meeting but the great deliverable or insight you had. I am sure your reactions did put the right distance that this was not something you condone so you have already done the correct first steps.

    3. NK*

      I don’t know that a root cause analysis is possible here, nor do I think it would accomplish anything. This intern had been there a month, and based on the OP’s letter it sounds like this was completely out of sync with the company culture. If it were a situation where the company culture encouraged behaving in very poor taste I’d agree with you, but I think this is just an intern gone rogue.

      1. Menacia*

        I used those words more facetiously than anything…just really wondering why anyone would think these actions were okay.

        I think the OP handled the situation very well, btw.

        1. NK*

          Ah, sorry I misinterpreted! I completely agree. I think the intern should be doing some self-reflection on the root cause of his actions for sure.

      2. Falling Diphthong*

        My guess: After prior bad experience with ‘those PC snowflakes’, he had his inner jerk on a leash for that first month. Grandboss suggests taking him to the meeting, he figures it means he’s got it made and people love him at this job and he can relax and let his great sense of humor shine while he networks with the new contacts.

    4. Archie Goodwin*

      I agree. I mean, yes, he should have been fired…everything on that score was done completely correctly. But I’d be curious as to his thought process regardless.

      You seem to have done everything correctly; based on what you’ve described, I doubt very much that a reasonable person will hold it against you. Especially as there seem to have been no red flags earlier in his employment. (Which point is why I’d be curious about his thought process in the first place.)

    5. NotTheSecretary*

      I’d guess that youth and inexperience had a hand in what he was thinking. 9/11 is still recent for a lot of us but a college aged intern might be fairly young and perceive 16 years as “a long time ago”. An 18 year old today would have been a toddler in 2001 so the idea that people are scarred by 9/11 might not occur to him.

      But, also, this is an indication of his lack of professionalism and breathtakingly poor decision making. Hopefully he will learn from this if it hasn’t already blackballed him from the industry.

      1. Will "scifantasy"*

        An 18 year old today would have been a toddler in 2001 so the idea that people are scarred by 9/11 might not occur to him.

        In which case he very badly needed to learn that people older than him exist.

        (Not disagreeing with you. But if he actually didn’t realize it, he desperately needed a reality check.)

        1. Liane*

          My 21 year old has said he doesn’t remember a lot about it, like a little memorial parade at his school. I don’t think, but not sure, my 19 year old daughter remembers anything. But neither of them would think about making a joke about it!
          W T FFFFF

        2. KP*

          I was thinking the same thing, that maybe he was a toddler during 9/11. Definitely NOT an excuse, just trying to wrap my mind around why he would make a “joke” like that.

          BUT, the letter writer wrote in the comments above that he is actually 27-28, not a college student.

      2. Will "scifantasy" Frank*

        An 18 year old today would have been a toddler in 2001 so the idea that people are scarred by 9/11 might not occur to him.

        In which case he very badly needed to learn that people older than him exist.

        (Not disagreeing with you. But if he actually didn’t realize it, he desperately needed a reality check.)

        1. Amber T*

          That’s just it – I would hope the majority of people wouldn’t make flippant jokes about Pearl Harbor (a “recent” (not ancient history) comparable event), even though the vast majority of people who were alive and old enough to have strong memories about it aren’t around anymore.

      3. Kate*

        Note: My tone here is honestly bewildered. I am asking these questions to try to understand. I hope I don’t sound aggressive or angry or as though I think you are like the intern, because I don’t intend to and that is the farthest thing from what I mean.

        I technically understand what you are saying, but I don’t really get it. I mean, Pearl Harbor was a “long time ago”, but I have never heard anyone make jokes about it. Not even once, but maybe I don’t hang out with the right crowd or something?

        1. Kate*

          Edit: By “right crowd” I mean people who make a lot of jokes, or teenagers or something, I am not even sure what kind of people make jokes about tragedies, but I guess there must be some out there?

        2. RVA Cat*

          Yeah, in my mind it’s right up there with making jokes about the Holocaust. Just…don’t. Ever.

        3. Liz T*

          I was about to say I could imagine someone making jokes about Pearl Harbor…but not mocking the people who were killed!

          I suspect this is someone used to internet edgelord “humor” who only now understands that jokes that play on his favorite subreddit probably aren’t great for work.

          1. Lynxa*

            I was thinking the same thing too. He got too comfortable and forgot he wasn’t on Reddit.

            I see Edgelords making these jokes all the time on the internet, but I always assumed they’d have enough sense not to do it in public. Silly me!

            1. Mallory Janis Ian*

              I find it hard to believe that he’s learning this just now for the first time. I mean, my kids have watched the mild sitcoms on Nickelodeon and have ended up hurting their friends’ or siblings’ feelings by trying out the smart-alec one-liner style of interaction on them. I’ve had talks with them about how sit-com or other tv humor often doesn’t work in real life. It’s just surprising that people get through life without learning that some humor doesn’t translate from the screen to live and in person.

        4. sunny-dee*

          Well, there were Pearl Harbor jokes in Animal House. There’s the whole “Springtime for Hitler” thing in the Producers. People make jokes about that kind of thing, and I think the point is that a young kid may not have the experience or wisdom to recognize the appropriate context and audience for that.

          I think NotTheSecretary was just noting that to a lot of high school and college students, 9/11 is something that happened in the past, and they don’t have an emotional connection like those of us that actually saw it happen. (I made a joke once about a JFK bobble head to my dad, who saw the assassination on TV as a kid … did not go over well.)

          1. Emi.*

            I agree with this–it’s not like “jokes about horrible things” are all verboten to all people in all situations. This sounds more like a guy with no perspective on when you should bite your tongue on a dark joke, not like a guy who actually thinks mass casualties are themselves funny.

          2. NotTheSecretary*

            Yeah, that’s what I meant. It’s definitely not ok but younger people may not really comprehend how truly horrific and how *recent* 9/11 was.

            But OP updated above that this guy is close to 30 so there’s not even this amount of “excuse” for his behavior.

          3. Nea*

            Can’t speak for Animal House, which I haven’t seen, but I don’t see Springtime for Hitler as remotely the same kind of thing for two reasons:
            1) It’s not insulting the victims, it’s insulting the perpetrator of the crime.
            2) It’s not an offhand comment in a business meeting (!!!), the whole *point* is that it is intended to be horrifically over-the-top offensive to the audience within the play-within-a-play and the actual audience.

            1. Epiphyta*

              For a bit of context, Mel Brooks was a seventeen-year-old combat engineer during the Second World War, who served during the Battle of the Bulge; he worked clearing land mines. (He also was on the receiving end of a fair bit of anti-Semitism from his fellow soldiers.) In an interview for 60 Minutes, Brooks stated that his life’s goal was to reduce Hitler to a figure of such ridiculousness that no one would ever take his ideas seriously again.

              1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

                Likewise, Werner Klemperer and John Banner – both Jews who escaped Germany – played German soldiers in Hogan’s Heroes – their characters were those of stupid people, albeit likeable but still stupid people. Banner, especially, would only play buffoons.

                Alongside them – Robert Clary – in real life, a French Jew, a Holocaust survivor, and member of the underground resistance. Played a guy who continually foiled the Germans.

            2. Amber T*

              Your first point I think is the important part – who is the joke making fun of? I’m perfectly in support of making fun of someone with ridiculous ideas (even when/especially when those ridiculous ideas caused significant harm). I like Mel Brook’s point of painting him in such a light that he is just a ridiculous figure, as long as the consequences of his actions (the genocide of multiple groups of people) aren’t posed in the same light.

              Jokes about Hitler – funny. Jokes about the Holocaust – not funny.

              In this instance – jokes about Osama Bin Laden – funny. Jokes about people jumping out of windows because of a terrorist attack – not funny.

              1. Marillenbaum*

                This is an important point: comedy needs to punch up, not down. That means you can totally make jokes about horrible people, but you don’t joke at their victims’ expense.

      4. Alton*

        I don’t know, I think it comes down to empathy and common sense more than anything.

        I was 13 when 9/11 happened, and I was aware that it was a big deal. I’m old enough to remember what things were like prior to it. But it didn’t personally affect me. I didn’t know anyone who was injured or killed, or who lived close to where the attacks happened. I don’t feel a stronger connection to 9/11 than any similar attack. But I wouldn’t find it appropriate to joke about people dying horribly, and I’m respectful of the fact that there are people who lost loved ones or who witnessed the attack who may still be grieving.

        1. Emi.*

          My father worked in DC (we lived in the suburbs), an uncle was one of the firefighters who responded at the Pentagon, and it still didn’t have a personal effect on me. I thought it was sad and horrifying, but not more so than any other event where lots of people were killed. Honestly I’ve never understood why people who weren’t present or personally connected felt/feel so personally affected.

          1. Elizabeth West*

            Well think about it this way. We live in a fairly secure bubble–despite movies like Red Dawn, a direct invasion of the continental US is unlikely. We’ve been in wars before, but they always happened elsewhere, and most people just went about their day. We’ve not experienced anything like the London Blitz, for example. We live in a giant country with two oceans on either side, and it’s pretty difficult to physically attack us short of firing a missile at us.

            Planes, on the other hand, are everywhere. We had no idea that day how many attackers there were or where they were. It was an act of war like we see on TV, happening overseas, not here. We thought we were safe from that sort of thing. It popped that little security bubble and that was pretty scary for a lot of people.

          2. Alton*

            I give people the benefit of the doubt that their feelings are genuine regardless of their own level of personal investment, but I’ll admit that it bothers me a little when people act like being deeply affected by 9/11 is a universal experience and that if you don’t have strong feelings or memories, it’s because you didn’t understand the significance. I remember being nervous on the day of the attack because we didn’t live that far from DC, but there were major events that took place prior to 9/11 that made a bigger impression on me, even at a younger age. When I think of the effect that 9/11 had on me, I think more of coming of age during the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the changing culture here in terms of things like airport security.

            And again, that doesn’t mean I’m not sympathetic toward the people who were severely affected. It would just be appropriative and inaccurate to claim that I can relate. And I know that even among survivors, there can be conflicting feelings about how 9/11 is remembered and recognized. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all reaction, which is really why it comes down to common sense. You don’t have to be personally invested to know that joking about a major tragedy with people you don’t know well isn’t safe to do.

          3. Chinook*

            I am one of those people for whom 9/11 should never had had a personal affect on. I was a teacher in Wainwright, Alberta, and it happened half a continent away. But, we were a military town and it was on the news everywhere. The base was even locked down (which never happens because it is mostly wide, open space on the prairies that is difficult to secure.

            And then our school burned down 10 days later, during school hours. We teachers had to spend part of the evacuation explaining to the younger kids that, despite the fire starting on the roof, we weren’t hit by planes or under attack. And that the fact that we had the military come and help put out the fire just meant we were a small town with a base next door, not that we were under attack.

            It was at that moment that I realized exactly how much younger kids pick up from adult conversations and the news because some of the little ones honestly expected to see part of a plane in our burnt out building. And, for me, those two experiences will be forever combined (though luckily everyone escaped ours unharmed and we had a new school building within two years).

        2. middle schooler at 9-11*

          Same. It didn’t have any personal effect on me other than realizing it was a very sad and tragic thing. I think this is because a) I was on the West Coast, so almost everything had happened by the time we were awake. Unlike my husband, who is the same age, but was in a different time zone, so he was more aware of the course of the event (being a live thing versus a past piece of news) and views it as a significant event that he remembers (b) I didn’t know anyone who was injured or killed. I barely even knew anyone who had ever been to New York. New York didn’t seem like a real place to me, or seemed as distant as London or Paris. Other than my father getting off work when the planes were grounded and the fact that we couldn’t visit him at work anymore, life went on pretty normally the next day.

      5. A Teacher*

        Just read it to my careers class (17 and 18 year old high school juniors and seniors). They were appalled. One student “that was asinine to say.” A lot of “Wows” and a few “whoas” were said as I read it. Next to the person that basically called her boss’ daughter a whore letter, this was deemed super inappropriate by my students. Age has nothing to do with lack of empathy in this specific letter.

        1. sunny-dee*

          Wait, what? I gave up the Internet for Lent. What was the whore letter? I so want to read that now!

          1. Temperance*

            The LW was raised in a particularly strict form of Christianity that forbade dating, and her boss is also Christian but apparently allows his daughter to date. Boss made a comment that LW must have been very popular with the boys, just like his daughter, and LW said that her parents wouldn’t let her date because she’s not a whore.

            It’s as awful as it sounds.

        2. Marillenbaum*

          Just want to say, you’re doing the Lord’s work bringing AAM to these young people. If we stop one future manager from acting like a Mayan shaman and trying to get their nonprofit employee to do shaman stuff on office time, it will have been worth it.

          1. A Teacher*

            I don’t use AAM daily in the discussion section but sometimes, especially since we’re talking about communication, the topics presented are too good not to share. Even students that usually don’t engage, were engaged by the letter last week and this one today. The dead horse letter from last year is also one that we still talk about.

            1. Annonymouse*

              But do you talk about liver donor boss or chemo interrupter boss as well?

              Or the person who just decided to rock up to an exclusive industry conference after being told “no.”?

              I’m leaving out noro virus and vaccine letter writers because it’s too easy to be side tracked by the other issues.

      6. Observer*

        Come on. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, it’s kind of hard to avoid the knowledge that 9/11 was a BIG deal to people who lived through it. Furthermore, at 18 (which this guy is not) you are old enough to know that jokes about people jumping out of the windows to escape a burning building are just not funny – especially when the fire under discussion took literally thousands of lives.

        I don’t think that anyone alive today was an adult when the Triangle Shirtwaist factory burned. But I would still be appalled at anyone making jokes about the young women who jumped out of the windows there, too. You just don’t DO that kind of thing.

      7. Sylvia*

        I feel like if a young person knows enough about September 11 to talk about people jumping from the buildings, they know enough to keep their mouth shut.

    6. LBK*

      Not really sure it makes any difference; it would only be to satisfy the OP’s curiosity, and I don’t think the answer is going to be anything particularly redeeming. I’d imagine just something along the lines of “it was only a joke, people are too sensitive, political correctness, etc.”.

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        Because of course, if anybody is offended by a butthead being a butthead, it must be because they’re too sensitive and politically correct. The discourse around that kind of thing lately just infuriates me.

        1. Liane*

          Yup. It’s never because the butthead was actually being A Really Offensive Stupid Butthead (who badly needs smacked into next YEAR, but that’s unprofessional.)

        2. LBK*

          I agree but I think that’s going to take us down a rabbit hole that will lead to political conversations Alison’s asked us to avoid.

    7. Elemeno P.*

      Depending on the age, the intern might have been a toddler during 9/11 and not understood how recent it feels to people older than him, especially if he and his family have no connection to NYC.

      I agree with firing him and apologizing to all people involved, but it’s pretty easy to see how a very young person might think of it as some far-off historical event. This is a very clear lesson to him that it’s not the case.

      1. Tom*

        Definitely. It almost begs the question “How soon is too soon?” but the subject is also an issue. Nobody’s likely to have much personal reaction to a joke about the time of the Vikings or the Crusades, but if the joke’s all about death, it’s understandable that some will find it offensive. Hopefully a lesson was learned here.

        1. Lablizard*

          Personally, I don’t think tragedies, no matter how far in the past, are appropriate joke topics, especially not at work or in any group where you don’t know people well enough to know how it lands.

          For example, I good, solid chunk of people from North Africa or are Muslim are never going to find a joke about the Crusades anything but offensive, so it will always be, “too soon”

          1. Blue Anne*

            Yeah, I dunno. They *can* be – I have made one or two 9/11 jokes. But I lived pretty nearby, had classmates who lost parents, had family members involved in emergency response, etc., and knew that no one I was telling them too had worse experiences than me. These things CAN be okay, as coping mechanisms with people you know really well.

            But at work? Uh. No. No no no.

            1. Emi.*

              I’ve seen some rape victims make pretty funny jokes about their own rapes (and thought “oh, no, am I allowed to laugh?”), but I’d definitely side-eye them at work.

              1. Lablizard*

                I think the difference with that is you are joking about your own tragedy vs joking about the tragedy of others.

            2. PlainJane*

              This. I love dark humor (and, I’ll admit it, some humor that plenty of people would find offensive), but it doesn’t belong in the workplace. My 18-year-old son has shared some pretty awful jokes he’s heard online–he’s even more into dark/offensive humor than I am–but he knows they don’t belong in polite company, let alone the workplace. I wonder if this intern was so immersed in his own subculture that he didn’t realize that kind of humor shouldn’t be shared at work. That’s the only way I can make any sense of this.

            3. Lablizard*

              This might be a cultural thing. I am not American and in my country the past isn’t really past and never will be. Joking about a tragedy would be like taking a crap on the grave of someone’s parents. Never appropriate

          2. Tom*

            Agreed. I worded my comment poorly, and meant to say that just because it’s been a long time since those tragedies, doesn’t mean they’re a great idea for a joke to everybody.

          3. Chinook*

            “For example, I good, solid chunk of people from North Africa or are Muslim are never going to find a joke about the Crusades anything but offensive, so it will always be, “too soon””

            I agree. I remember showing a clip from Bush Jr. talking about a crusade to fix something in the Middle East (I can’t remember the wording or topic, but it was a throw away line in the speech that I didn’t catch in my preview of it) to my World Religions class. One of my least empathetic students who I thought wasn’t paying attention to the video actually asked if the guy understood what he just said because there was no way that could go unchallenged by a Muslim.

        2. babblemouth*

          A millenium is maybe the cut off? I sometimes joke about the fact that pretty much everyone in europe is a descendant of Attila the Hun after he pillaged his way through the continent about a millenium ago, and I don’t think anyone finds it offensive. Or maybe it’s because it in no way reflects any current day conflict?

          1. Lablizard*

            There are places that are still bitter about both Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun because they are blamed for the destruction and downfall of empires. On the flip side, some parts of the world consider them national and ethnic heroes and a joke would be taken poorly. So still a “know your audience” deal

        1. Kate*

          Agree. To be quite honest I think anyone who makes jokes about Pearl Harbor, the Holocaust, 9/11 or other tragedies is at best extremely self-centered and unable to empathize with anyone other than themselves, or at worst a sociopath. Oh, wait, that is the definition of a sociopath, if I am remembering my psych classes correctly.

          1. Statler von Waldorf*

            Ok, I understand that humor is subjective, and people being different makes the world a more interesting place. However, not everyone who enjoys black comedy is a sociopath, and I’m fairly insulted by that statement. When life has dumped more than its share of pain on you, and things are just too terrible to handle, sometimes you just need to be able to laugh at it or it will break you.

            So please refrain from armchair diagnosing huge groups of people as sociopaths because you disapprove of the jokes they tell.

            1. paul*


              Some of the darkest humor I see comes from a friend that’s a nurse. Who works in pediatric ward.

              She’s a good caring person that uses humor as a coping mechanism.

              Most of the “caring professions” are replete with dark humor, at least IME.

            2. aebhel*

              This. I think the intern’s joke was in terribly poor taste and his punishment wholly deserved, but black humor is not the sole purview of sociopaths. My grandmother, who grew up in a desperately poor and violently abusive family during the Depression, could keep you in stitches laughing at stories that were, as soon as you took a step back, objectively horrifying. Pretty sure she wasn’t a sociopath.

            3. Creag an Tuire*

              Yes, as someone with a rather morbid sense of humor (when among friends who appreciate it), let’s not go diagnosing Intern with sociopathy when he may “only” be guilty of incredibly, horribly, tremendously bad judgement.

              (That said, I’m also curious whether, once a woman had to be led sobbing out of the room, Intern realized that he’d need a colonoscopy to get the foot out of his mouth and tried a too-late-now apology, or if he was surprised and bewildered by his firing. One is merely stupidity, the other is stupidity and a pretty distressing lack of empathy.)

                1. Stanton von Waldorf*

                  Liz T – It’s spelled Woah by the letter writer, who is using the name “this is my letter” if you want to search for him.

            4. PlainJane*

              Thank you. Some of us process horrible things through humor, because it helps make them bearable. If we were sociopaths, I’m guessing we wouldn’t feel any pain at horrible things and wouldn’t need the humor. It doesn’t belong in the workplace, but we don’t need to sanitize everything.

            5. Health Insurance Nerd*

              I totally agree. As someone who deals with sad and uncomfortable situations by making (sometimes inappropriate) jokes, I can say that humor is subjective. What’s funny to me may not be to someone else, and vice-versa, and that doesn’t make me or them a sociopath!

            6. Elizabeth West*

              Thank you. I too enjoy it–one of my favorite films is a terribly dark comedy about cannibalism, but I would be horrified and saddened by it in real life. And no, I’ve never made a joke about the rugby players whose plane crashed in the Andes in the 1970s and had to eat the dead to survive. If they themselves want to joke about it, okay, but that’s not my prerogative.

              1. Stanton von Waldorf*

                Yeah, the movie “Alive” is tricky for comedy. There’s not much to chew on.

                (I’ll let myself out.)

          2. Oranges*

            The line for ME is if it insults the victims in any way shape or form. Eg. Concentration camp “joke” about not needing a diet. NOT OKAY.

            If it’s about how tribalism can warp societies into horrible things then sign me up. Or making fun of the people in power. Eg. Joke about how Nazi’s are afraid of anyone else getting their precious DNA ala Golem from Lord of the Rings. Dark and you need to have a background with the people you tell it to (because they know you’re not a Nazi) but not 100% off limits.

              1. SarahTheEntwife*

                Exactly. I recently saw it phrased as “gallows humor is only ok if you’re the one standing on the gallows”.

                (And even then that’s a coping strategy for friends you know are ok with it. Not, y’know, business meetings.)

        2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          There are some events that will never be okay. I feel like accidents get okay quicker than most – Titanic jokes can be funny if dreadfully off-color.

          1. Anna*

            And there’s a little bit of mankind’s hubris thrown into the Titanic situation that makes it a bit more fair game, I think.

            Ugh. I cannot even fathom what the guy thought was a joke to share much less why he would have actually shared it.

        3. Elemeno P.*

          There’s a longer discussion here about the application and use of dark humor to alleviate grief, but I feel like that will be a big tangent.

            1. Elemeno P.*

              Ha ha, it’s okay- we posted at the same time. I have the same feelings you do, though, and also come from a Jewish family that uses dark humor to get through tough times.

        4. Will "scifantasy" Frank*

          It’s hard to lay down hard and fast rules for “what it’s OK to make jokes about.”

          For the record: I am a Jewish New Yorker. I say this because I have made jokes about 9/11, and indeed about the Holocaust. (Probably more about the Holocaust.) There are some really good ones out there, for values of “good” equal to “cathartic, if you’re the sort of person who gets catharsis through gallows humor.”

          Of course, I’ve only made them to people whom I already know are that sort of person.

          The off-Broadway show Old Jews Telling Jokes, which yes, was born from the website, has a really wonderful vignette at the end about a son and father bonding over humor, including cancer humor, after the father calls while the son is on a date to say that he (the dad) was diagnosed with fatal cancer. The son goes back to his table after the call, laughing madly, and tells his date that his dad has cancer. The date gets very flustered and even upset, saying some things are not OK to joke about.

          (There’s probably something to be said for how both regionality and culture affect this–black comedy and self-deprecating humor is part of Jewish culture, see also how Mel Brooks is probably one of the only people alive who could do as many Hitler jokes as he does, and have everybody accept take his logic on the matter seriously. And New York City…well, in addition to being heavily influenced by Jewish culture, it has its own strong feelings on such coping mechanisms.)

          The one truest hard and fast rule of jokes at all is “know your audience.” And the degree to which this intern didn’t do that is…astounding.

          1. Sara M*

            Anyone with a twisted sense of humor (myself included) needs the really important lesson of When and Where. I definitely use dark humor to cope with things too terrible to think about, but I try hard not to include another person in that unless I know they’re similar to me in this way.

            1. Emi.*

              I know a number of very funny, very dark jokes. And I keep a very, very short list of people I tell them to.

              1. Anna*

                Exactly this. He may be a perfectly fine person who has a gallows sense of humor that in specific instances is great. He is clearly also someone who doesn’t understand what those instances are and that they are almost never a work meeting with only one other person you know in the room.

          2. Jessie the First (or second)*

            I also have a dark, gallows humor. I indulge in it with my husband and literally no one else. Because I understand that my way of processing the world would be hurtful if heard by a person who does not share my processing method. It’s “know your audience” but also “have some damn empathy and remember people have feelings about these things.”

          3. Anonymous This Time*

            How timely, PBS just aired an Independent Lens documentary “The Last Laugh” this past Monday. (Check you local listings for repeat broadcasts, or watch on-line) This film attempts to examine whether the Holocaust should be off-limits to comedy, and includes a profile of an Auschwitz survivor remarks from comedians, including Mel Brooks; footage of cabarets from the concentration camps; and clips from “The Day the Clown Cried,” Jerry Lewis’s never-released Holocaust comedy. 9-11 is also touched upon, including a clip of the Cold Open from the 1st SNL after the attack. Brooks explains why he feels the Holocaust itself still seems out of bounds, but it why it was OK for him to poke fun of Hitler ……….and the Spanish Inquisition. “Tragedy + Time = Comedy”

            That said, I agree your intern was wildly inappropriate and horribly cruel.

            1. D.A.R.N.*

              I figure you can summarize it as “punch up, not down”. It’s ok, in theory, to make jokes that punch up (Hitler), but not down (Holocaust victims).

      2. this is my letter*

        He was 10 or 11 when it happened. He lived in the state of New York at the time, although he and his family don’t know anyone who died or was hurt that day. This happened in a state and city across the country and our company has no connection to New York. I have no idea why he would say such a thing.

      3. Lilo*

        I was in middle school when 9/11 happened and that particular aspect that he joked about was one that was particularly hard on a 14 year old (we watched it in the news). I realize intern must be even younger than me but, yikes! I can’t fathom that at all.

    8. The Supreme Troll*

      Maybe he had emotionally distanced himself from it (possible if he was too young to have seen the news reports first-hand). But I am just guessing, and am in no way excusing his atrocious behavior.

    9. Mononymous*

      I’m also mildly curious why anyone would make “jokes” about this particular subject matter, but I don’t think I’d have been able to phrase the question any better than “What the %*&! is wrong with you?!”

    10. Don't tell bad jokes*

      If I had to guess why he thought it was appropriate my guess is that he is a young male who spends too much time on Reddit and doesn’t understand the effect 9/11 had on people. He was most likely under the age of 5 when it happened. I would even guess that he is not from NY and interning in the city. That distance, combined with exposure to a sub culture that can glorify shock humor leads to a skewed sense of what is appropriate.

      Just a note, this is in response to the question on his thought process, not a defense. Everything the OP did was 100% correct.

      1. this is my letter*

        I’m not sure about the Reddit part, but as for the rest: he would have been 10 or 11 on 9/11. He grew up in New York state although he did not know anyone personally who died or was injured or witnessed it in person.

        We are not located in New York, but in a state and city across the country.

        1. The Supreme Troll*

          I am reaching the point where my life is about to begin (the joke about “life begins at 40″…which I’m about to turn later on this year). So I never experienced nor saw first-hand news reports of major events life the Vietnam War, the Korean War, or World War 2 obviously.

          However, even when I was in grammar school and high school (a lot less mature or wise than I am now), I still knew that these situations involved death, destruction, and a lot of human suffering. It would never have crossed my mind to make jokes about this stuff even back then. I was more emotionally distant myself because of my age and maturity level…but still (I am being totally honest).

        2. Lilo*

          10 or 11 is definitely old enough to remember and know better. I remember when I was 11 reading in a news magazine about an ethnic cleansing being carried out as a school and being extremely upset. I was a bit precocious, but 9/11 was everywhere. I am a few years older and I remember talking about the jumpers and the falling man picture and the ethics of those pictures. Age is no excuse here at all.

          1. Elizabeth West*

            I was in middle school when the Jim Jones People’s Temple mass suicide happened. They had an issue of TIME magazine in the classroom, and I picked it up and read it. The cover photo was very graphic. For some reason, that incident really struck me, and it stayed with me.

            I was endlessly fascinated by the psychological ramifications, as well as frightened. The expression “drinking the Kool-Aid” (it was actually Flavor-Aid) has a much deeper meaning to me than just “hey, you’re going along with the ideology.” I’m not sorry they put the magazine in the classroom. From it, I learned how dangerous it is to blindly follow ANYTHING.

        3. Sylvia*

          Hm. I was 10 when it happened. I remember seeing the thing he joked about on TV news very clearly. IIRC you said he’s 27-28 so he’s definitely old enough to remember it.

    11. EA*

      So I don’t mean this as an excuse, but college is sort of a bubble. I used a lot more off-color humor in college than I ever would now, and looking back I am embarrassed. Nothing that bad, but crass things I wouldn’t say in mixed company. I think when you put a bunch of 18-22 year olds together things can go in that direction.

    12. Anon Accountant*

      My eyes are tearing up just reading about his “joke”. I think I might have said “what the &@$; is wrong with you! Get the hell out of here now!”


    13. Emmie*

      The Letter Writer said the Intern grew up in NYC area, but didn’t know anyone who died. Some people who are close to a tragedy use humor as a coping mechanism and to depersonalize the pain (even if removed, it could have been hard at one point for the Intern.).
      It’s feels somewhat akin to people who make jokes of a family member’s passing. (Obviously way different in degree and appropriateness.) I still think the Intern was horribly wrong.
      Moving forward, the OP was correct in addressing it right away. If appropriate, I might consider sending a short letter to the person with a 9/11 victim; however, I also might convey to that person’s boss how horrific the situation was, that the intern was fired immediately, had no prior history of this behavior. I also second others who say to report this to the Intern’s college office if this person was to receive college credit for the position. Depending on the school’s response, I might consider terminating my relationship with the school. I’d also inquire about any training the college gives to Interns. (My college requires a few advisor meetings or an actual class when Interning.)

      1. JeanB*

        “Some people who are close to a tragedy use humor as a coping mechanism and to depersonalize the pain (even if removed, it could have been hard at one point for the Intern.).
        It’s feels somewhat akin to people who make jokes of a family member’s passing. (Obviously way different in degree and appropriateness.)”

        That’s exactly correct – I can make jokes about my siblings being in bunk-bed graves (two buried and the next two were cremated and their ashes were laid in the other sibs’ graves) but I would never make that joke outside the family. (We’re kind of a weird family.)

        But that anyone would make that kind of a joke amongst people he didn’t even know?! That’s just stupid.

        1. Anna*

          And it’s your joke to make. If someone else made it…that would be incredibly insensitive and offensive. I can joke about my mother’s alcoholism, but woe to the person I’m not related to that thinks they can get away with it.

          1. Emi.*

            Since it happened far away from New York, I wonder if he thought he, being from New York, was the “closest” to 9/11?

      2. this is my letter*

        He had already completed college and graduate school, and this internship was not related to a school program, or I would have made certain it was reported.

        The woman he upset asked to be removed from the project and no calls are getting through to her. My company attempted to call and apologize but her boss took the call and said she asked not to be contacted or hear anything about it and they are respecting her request and screening all her calls, emails and letters.

        1. animaniactoo*

          I give them top marks for protecting her from any further fallout of this situation.

          1. JS*

            Agreed. They are really looking out for her here and I appreciate it. Also appreciate OP company for wanting to make sure she was OK but in this case it would be best to leave it be if that is her wishes. I would be sure to let the company she works for know what measures have been taken so they can be passed along to her.

        2. Observer*

          Good for them for shielding her. But, it’s also a good thing that they know that you are making a good faith effort to deal with it appropriately.

    14. General Ginger*

      Hmm, the only reason I might wonder about the motivation here is to ensure that there isn’t anything about the company culture that made him feel like this was at all appropriate. Something along the lines of “Bob in AP makes jokes like this all the time”. Other than that, nope.

    15. Backroads*

      I think it shows a whole lotta lack of judgment if he didn’t think that joke was inappropriate for a professional setting. Most adults can read the room better than that.

  13. Mike C.*

    I think the fact that you took immediate and public action absolves you of any blame. Like AaM says, unless you knew this person told really dark jokes at work, no one can reasonably blame you for not knowing this could happen. Had you said nothing or otherwise tried to sweep it under the rug there would more serious consequences for you.

    And yes, that little sh*t should have been fired immediately. I certainly have a dark, crass sense of humor but I have enough humanity to know my audience.

    1. AMG*

      Yeah, I was prepared to giggle at an inappropriate joke, but jokes are funny. This is just disgusting.

        1. Hey Karma, Over here.*

          With you…I read the title and expected something off color and inappropriate to the workplace, but hey, if I’m just reading it at my desk, I can laugh a little a the joke, feel bad for LW and intern, but these things happen.
          Never imagined anything like a 9/11 joke. That’s pretty much an oxymoron. I just feel bad for everyone in the room.

      1. The Supreme Troll*

        Exactly. There never will be a time when we can find humor or a “silver lining” so to speak in something so horrific, god-awful, and disgusting as the September 11th attacks were. I fully trust the OP’s sincerity in how appalled she was with the intern’s behavior. I am sure any of the fellow meeting attendees will be able to see that as well.

      2. Anon Accountant*

        Me too. I was prepared for a dirty joke that was of a sexual nature.

        Not something like this. Ugh how awful of the intern.

    2. Anon Accountant*

      Completely agree the letter writer did all she could do. I don’t think it reflects poorly on her because she took swift action and appropriate action with firing him.

  14. King Friday XIII*

    OP: Asking your boss for advice if there’s anything else you should be doing will catch if there’s anything else you need to do in this specific situation, but I can tell you in my experience when a front line employee has been awful and I watched a boss/company react in a way that indicated they were as appalled by the behavior as I was, I’ve never held that against the boss or company as a whole.

  15. MuseumChick*

    Wow. Just…wow.

    You did everything right. I won’t worry to much. Not really relevant to your question, but I’m curious, what did the intern say when confronted about his terrible, awful, disgusting, “joke”?

    1. Old Admin*

      I imagine what the horrible colleagues I’ve encountered in my career said when confronted with an offensive statement: “Don’t you have a sense of humor??”

      They wouldn’t have told their jokes if they weren’t delusional to start with…

      1. MuseumChick*

        Yeah, I’ve meet those kind of people. Though, the most amusing, IMO, are people who think they can’t get fired for saying offensive things because “FREE SPEECH!!!!”

        1. Amber T*

          In which case they (hopefully) learn a fun lesson that “free speech” applies to the government not being able to censor them, but a private company can fire you for whatever dumbass crap comes out of their mouth.

          1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

            As xkcd put it, “when the best thing you have to say about your position is that it isn’t actually illegal for you to state it…”

      2. Gen*

        Our city had a nationally famous disaster nearly 30 years ago. A guy hired to do mass training on the new IT system started his presentation with a really dark joke about it. The temperature in the room plummeted when everyone gasped. He just looked around and shrugged “ah chill everyone in [event] retired or died years ago!” One of our managers lost his father in it. The guy was removed but it took several escalated phone calls to get a different trainer in to replace him

        1. Liane*

          The only thing worse than One Person thinking it’s fine to say something like that–is that there’s at least one more running around making those “jokes.”

  16. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

    Quoth I, upon reading yon post: “OHHHHHH DAAAAAAAAAAAANG”

    Seriously, I’m shocked to the point of amusement that someone would ever, ever think that joke was appropriate in any context, let alone at a meeting in what sounds very like New York attended by people old enough to have been personally affected by 9/11. Wow. WOW. WOOOOOW. I’m just laughing incredulously here.

    You could also say at the beginning of the next meeting, “Folks, I just wanted to apologize, again, that our intern derailed the meeting so disastrously last time. He was let go immediately and I just want everyone to understand that my superiors and I were just as shocked and appalled that he would make a comment like that as you all were. Again, we apologize.” And I might send the lady who was so personally offended a note, apologizing personally again.

    I think you’ve already covered the rest.

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      And sorry, just to make clear: I’m not amused at all by the comment, which was revolting. I’m amused, mostly, that someone can move through this world presenting as polite and professional and still think that’s a Thing That Is Done.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I hear you—I’m a person who laughs when things are this insane because otherwise I would cry… not because I think it’s funny.

        It looks like the intern learned an important lesson about the importance of having basic human decency. Jeez.

        1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          “And have we learned an important lesson about how not to be a leaky sack of infectious medical waste, Joffrey? Good!”

      2. Allison*

        You know what I just realized? 9/11 was 17 and a half years ago. Very soon, people born after that tragedy will graduate high school and start college, and then they’ll enter the workforce . . . we’re going to be working alongside colleagues who won’t have a “where were you” story.

        Right now, we have a group of people going to college and working internships who were alive at the time, but had no idea what was going on. They might remember the grownups being sad or acting funny that day, they might remember the news being on more than usual, and people trying to tell them that some bad things happened, but they didn’t learn the whole truth until years later when they were older. I was 12 and even I didn’t comprehend the full weight of what happened until a little while later. So to this young lad, this was something that happened a long time ago, not a thing that happened to the people around him.

        Not that I want to defend him though, what he did was wrong, especially because it was in a business setting. The holocaust happened so long ago there are hardly any survivors still alive, yet joking about it is still considered crass and inappropriate in most contexts.

        1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          You know what I just realized? I was a freshman in college then. I watched the planes hit on what would have been my second day of classes. I’ve got almost as much time between now and then, as then and birth.

          /keeps shuffling along mortal coil, bemusedly

          1. Allison*

            My boyfriend was in college too. I was in middle school. I avoid this topic with him because of it. We’re in the same stage of life now, but the fact that we absolutely weren’t at such a critical time in history is so bizarre to me.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Putting this up here so people will see it before commenting further: Others have pointed out that the stories people are sharing below about the day itself are upsetting, and it’s taking us off-topic. Thank you. (Posted this at 12:45 despite the time stamp, which I note to make it clear that comments before that weren’t flagrantly ignoring this.)

            2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

              I feel like it struck people around my age (34) especially hard. I’d literally moved out of the house I grew up in the week before. I was taking my first shaky little step out into the adult, independent world, and then that entire world got rocked to its foundations by basically the worst thing that’d happened in the US in decades. I remember stumbling out of my dorm, unable to watch the news anymore, to this perfect, glorious, cloudless Colorado late-summer day….and wing of F-16s fully loaded with missiles screamed overhead, flying combat air patrols over an otherwise funeral-silent Denver. That’s how people my age started adulthood, and I think a lot of us are still a little messed up by it.

              1. Allison*

                Oh wow. Wow. I never realized that, but yeah, that would make coping with the events extra bad, regardless of how far you may have been from Manhattan.

                1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

                  Yeah, I don’t want to imply that I experienced even 1% of what people actually in New York at the time did, but the loneliness magnified the shock.

              2. A Teacher*

                Yep. I went to Iowa State, I’ve never been on such a silent campus. We walked out of our bio lab that morning and had missed the first plane hitting. We were talking and laughing and people asked us what the heck we were doing. Nothing is more eery in the dorms than all of the dorm doors open with nothing but 9/11 replaying OVER and OVER again on the TV.

                1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

                  Yeah, it was surreal. Everybody silent, nothing going on, endless loops of insane horror, just funeral quiet everywhere, amid this glorious sunny fall day. It was gorgeous almost everywhere in the country that morning.

                2. General Ginger*

                  Our professor had gotten maybe halfway through a lecture, and then there was this just… kind of horrified trickle of people into the auditorium, telling our prof to turn the TV on, and then sitting there just stunned. And then being herded out onto the green where they had some TVs set up also, and everyone huddling together in groups. People with family in NYC going for dorm phones, professors’ office phones, just trying to get a hold of someone, and yeah, all the doors open everywhere in the eeriest way.

                3. Elizabeth West*

                  The most eerie thing–halfway through the day, I left work to run get a special supplement from the newspaper, and pick up some cookies for us to eat at the office.

                  I had never realized before how much air traffic we had overhead until there was none. And very little car traffic, either, because people were all inside watching the news. That level of quiet in the WHOLE CITY just freaked me the hell out.

                  It’s raining today, I’m in my house in the middle of a workday, and there is more noise outside right now than there was in a business-heavy area on that day.

              3. Red Reader*

                yup. I had moved cross country away from my hometown and my whole family less than a month before.

              4. Sparkly Librarian*

                Yup. 9/11 the week I was supposed to leave for my freshman year, and then the market drop that meant my/my parents’ college savings would only cover my freshman year. And then the slide into economic recession! No wonder that people my age are more cautious in their career development/conservative with financial risk.

                1. nonegiven*

                  My son had his first _good_paying_ job with a big company, he’d been there a little over a year. He was laid off by the end of the month with several weeks severance, along with several thousand other employees worldwide.

              5. CaliCali*

                35 years old here, and I’d agree. We’re old enough to remember the Cold War (though not necessarily its full effects), then the Clinton impeachment debacle, then 9/11. My university was in a high-tech hub about 10 minutes from an airport, and I distinctly remember warily eyeing the skies to see if any future horror was about to visit us.

              6. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

                I’m a little older than you (39) but it really shook me too. We were finishing up our wedding plans (I got married a month after 9/11), thinking about kids within the next few years and then suddenly it seemed like everything was so uncertain. It felt like the whole world changed. And this was the perspective of someone far from NYC/DC. I can’t imagine how awful and devastating it must have been for someone that was there and lost loved ones.

              7. Amber Rose*

                My mom was part of the crisis team at the airport. I didn’t really see her for a couple days, as they desperately tried to find places for people on diverted/grounded flights, and tried to figure out security and stuff.

                Since I ended up out of school for reasons that week, I spent some time at the airport. It was hard.

              8. Anon for this*

                Can we please table this, it’s starting to derail the discussion. And it’s getting very triggering. I was in the Midwest when it happened and my entire family lives in NYC, which included at the time, police officers and firefighters.

              9. DevAssist*

                I don’t remember it very well…I live in California and think I was 5 or 6 at the time. I do, however, remember my teacher on that day being very serious about preparing for lock-down, earthquake, and fire drills. I remember the adults around me being very distressed and the news as the events unfolded. Lots of confusion, shock, and distress.

              10. Rookie Manager*

                Yes! I’m 34. It happened on the day I visited my uni with my parents. The journey there was so differernt to the journey back!

          2. Jadelyn*

            I was 16…and I’m turning 32 in a few months. I’ve literally got exactly as much time between before and after. Hadn’t thought of it that way…wow.

          3. MegaMoose, Esq*

            Same, except I think my classes had started a week earlier. I realized and had a fun time teasing people last year about how 2016 was the last year only people born before 9/11 can vote for president.

          1. KG, Ph.D.*

            Dangit, I even got it wrong! It was 15.5 years ago! 15 years was September ’16, and that was about 7 months ago. Gah. Anyway.

            1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

              Well, that makes me feel a few years further away from my inevitable death, then. YAAAY

        2. NCIS Crazy Town*

          You’re right about that. Just yesterday, a coworker made a joke about the Titanic in reference to some difficulties we’re encountering on a project. It’s just past history to us, something neither of us were directly affected by, so the joke didn’t seem terrible.

          Framed against this story, there are people coming into the working environment now who 9/11 is just history to them, something they learned about in school that doesn’t directly affect them and so may be fair game for joking. I don’t agree with the intern’s sense of humor at all but when you think about it that way, it makes a little sense.

          1. RVA Cat*

            Yeah but speaking as a Gen-Xer, the Vietnam War was history to me but I know better than to joke about it when there are still plenty of people around who were personally affected.

          2. Observer*

            There is also a difference between making a joke about the titanic and a joke about people drowning.

            1. Forrest*

              I think the actual difference is you’re not going to come across many people personally affected by the sinking of Titanic.

              The same can’t be said for 9/11, “recent” wars (aka living service members), or other horrifying events that people who are still with us lived through. Like, the Oklahoma City Bombing seems so long ago to me, a 32 year old, but I still remember it and if I, on the younger side for that event, do, than obviously other people do as well.

              Jokes only work when you know your audience. People tend to not share their targies to strangers.

              1. nonegiven*

                My sister and BIL worked in that building in the 80s for a short time. BIL is still working for the same agency. He was required to see a counselor after the bombing because he had met at least one of the victims 15 years before.

          3. Amber T*

            I think part of what makes Titanic jokes “okay” (and I use that term loosely) and 9/11 firmly in the NOT OKAY category is what caused the event in the first place. The Titanic was an accident (conspiracy theorists aside). 9/11, the Vietnam War, Pearl Harbor… those were events planned and done on purpose with the intent to cause harm. Idk, if you’re joking about a large group of people dying, I find that difficult to be funny. If you’re joking about someone not being able to steer a ship (and avoiding the mass death for humor’s sake)… okay?

            I say this with the caveat that I have laughed at Titanic jokes but the thought of a 9/11 joke makes me sick. I guess this is how my brain defines one being okay and the other not?

            1. De Minimis*

              This reminds me of what Gilbert Gottfried said about the idea of it being “too soon” for some jokes.
              It’s either okay to joke about it or it isn’t. It’s hard to justify saying “Don’t joke about 9/11, but screw those people on the Titanic.”

              The Oklahoma City bombing anniversary was last week—it’s still a huge thing in Oklahoma of course, but I wonder how many outside the state still think about it.

              1. De Minimis*

                Oh, and that wasn’t directly in response to Amber T’s comment, that’s just what Gottfried himself says, that he can’t justify the thinking. I’m not sure how I feel about it.

                Also, sometimes tasteless humor is a way to try to keep from feeling vulnerable about an event, especially when it’s just happened. I don’t know how many astronaut jokes I heard back in junior high right after the Challenger disaster, and I think it was kids trying to show they weren’t upset when they really were.

                1. Observer*

                  The thing is that it’s hard to use that explanation in a situation like this. It’s not like he was in a situation where 9/11 or burning buildings were something he needed to deal with so that he needed to process the whole thing somehow. And his reaction (saying “whoa” to the woman who went off on him) says that he’s got nothing to process anyway.

              2. Anna*

                Probably a lot more of us than you think. The thing about that particular tragedy is that the date was selected for a specific reason AND it coincides with other tragedies that happened on or around that date. There are a LOT of really terrible things that happened during that particular week in April. My friend hates celebrating her birthday because of all the bad stuff. It makes her feel like she’s being disrespectful.

        3. Lily in NYC*

          I have to remind myself of this pretty often. I lived a half a block from the WTC on 9/11 and lost 6 friends that day. I saw horrible things and that’s really all I can bear to write. Most people who lived through it never talk about it so people who didn’t know me then have no idea (it feels crass for some reason – it’s almost a verboten subject in NYC). Everyone in my dept. was just a little kid then and none of them are native New Yorkers. They just don’t get it and it’s not their fault. But it’s definitely something I need to repeat to myself when I hear a boneheaded comment. I don’t know if I could have restrained myself if I had been in the room with that intern.

          1. animaniactoo*

            I was across the river, on a rooftop watching as my sister and I were on the phone frantically trying to figure out everyone we knew who lived or worked near. I only know people who had close calls, they got out or hadn’t gotten to work yet. But yeah… there’s something that’s still unbearable about talking about it. The closest I’ve come to being in the area is driving past on the west side highway (and it’s not an accident that I’m there instead of the street). Hugs. Many many hugs.

            1. Lily in NYC*

              Thank you – I actually felt very strange even writing the comment yesterday. I regretted hitting submit. It just feels wrong but I can’t articulate the reasons.

          2. Spreadsheets and Books*

            Working in NYC (lived in the Midwest and was 11 in 2001), I noticed this right away. Our department’s EA worked a few blocks away and besides telling us about how she ran for blocks in heels and it was the last time she wore them to work, she won’t say a word. She gets up, shakes her head, and walks away when the subject comes up.

            I’ve seen all of the documentaries and read all of the books in an effort to try to wrap my head around the gravity that I didn’t understand as a 7th grader, but I consistently remind myself not to talk about it or make comments at work. It’s not fair to those around me, especially as I don’t know most of my coworkers’ stories or how it affected them.

            I’m sorry for your loss and your experiences on that horrible day.

            1. Lily in NYC*

              Thank you for your kind words – I was actually thinking about this last night (how people here in NYC don’t talk about it). I used to get annoyed because my grandparents would never talk about the Spanish Civil War (we were on the losing side and bad things happened to my family). But now I realize that I do the same exact thing over something that was less traumatic than what they went through.

      3. Amber Rose*

        I am laughing also. Comedy often relies on the unexpected, after all. Isn’t that why The Aristocrats is so popular?

        It’s not that it’s funny, just that it’s so surprising that I kind of default to laughter.

        1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          “And then, he made a joke about 9/11 in a meeting, did a backflip, and said, ‘and that’s why I call it The Aristocrats!'”

          1. Statler von Waldorf*

            100 points for the Aristocrats reference, double that for actually making me laugh with it. Well played.

            1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

              I adore The Aristocrats. It’s probably the best joke ever.

              1. Emi.*

                I got really confused because I don’t remember this scene in The Aristocats at all, and it’s one of my favorite Disney movies.

                1. Doreen*

                  It’s not about the movie-there’s a mostly ad-libbed joke and the punchline is “The Aristocrats”

                2. Statler von Waldorf*

                  I agree with the Aristocrats being a great joke, and I find it’s one of the ones that separate the casual from the serious students of comedy. That said, you almost certainly do not want to google that joke at work. Most tellings of it are HIGHLY NSFW. You have been warned.

      4. Purest Green*

        I get it. I’ve laughed at some horrible things not because I derive humor from them, but just from disbelieving the sheer chutzpah involved.

    2. KG, Ph.D.*

      “…people old enough to have been personally affected by 9/11.”

      And you don’t even have to be that old! Many people killed on 9/11 had young children at the time. There are presumably a few 15-year-olds walking around who lost a parent that day.

      1. blackcat*

        Yep. my dad was close friends with someone who died who had a 2 week old at the time. There are also kids who were fetuses at the time who lost a parent before they were even born (I think there are like 10? I remember a piece being done on them at some point, maybe for the 10th or 15th anniversary?).

        But I will also say that I have younger cousins who were between 5 and 10 during 9/11, and honestly don’t seem to understand what it was even though they have ague memories. At the time, their parents tried to shield them from it all. So there are definitely folks in the early 20s who are pretty clueless.

    3. Merci Dee*

      Funny — that’s exactly the reaction I had: “OHHHHHH, DAAAAAAAAAAAANG!”

      I was about a year and a half out of college that day (graduated in May 2000). I was on-site at an audit client’s location, and someone ran upstairs to tell me that a plane had flown into one of the towers. I ran down to the superintendent’s office with everyone else, thinking some kind of weird accident happened. And then you’re watching all this smoke everywhere, and here comes the second plane. And then news of the Pentagon. And a report of a plane down in a field.

      There were about 30 of us crowded around a TV for what seemed like hours, nobody talking, but faces showing shock and heartbreak and disbelief as the reality starts to sink in. And then, naturally, we started to wonder if there were other targets for attack. Which made us all scared as hell — I was working in Anniston that week, where the Army Depot is located, and they had a massive amount of ordnance on site, including chemical weapons. If someone targeted that, we all would’ve been scrubbed from the map before we even knew we were in danger.

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        Funny how we can all remember exactly how we learned and when. I was heading for a shower when the funny stoner dude in the next room dashed out and incoherently spluttered something about a plane hitting the Twin Towers.

        1. Amber T*

          Yup. I was in middle school and they announced over the loud speaker (I remember being confused because I thought it was an accident – how could a plane accidentally fly so low and hit a building?). I live just north of the city and many of my friends’ parents (my father included) worked in the city. I remember one girl I *hated* as only a middle schooler can hate got up and left, crying, because her mom worked in one of the towers, and I remember feeling so guilty about that (thankfully she was okay).

        2. Marillenbaum*

          Picture day, sixth grade. My middle school was down the road from BWI airport, and I was in math class. Our teacher got a call, then turned on the television. Kids kept crowding around the windows until they finally sent us home early.

        3. Oranges*

          I heard it on my radio alarm clock when going to the shower and it didn’t register AT ALL. Like I was thinking accident and a little building somewhere. I come back more awake and it hits.

          The most vivid thing I remember about that day is everyone clustered around TVs. There were TVs in all the halls at college. Any classroom that had one put it out. Classes were cancelled or just a place for people to gather.

          1. Blue Anne*

            Yeah. I left school with my mom at the end of the day and all through the town center, people were listening to radios. A construction crew had turned their radio onto the news and were just sitting, listening, with other people gathered round. People playing the radio in their cars with the windows open so others could hear. It was surreal.

        4. jamlady*

          Sixth grade – I wandered out to the living room to see my grandparents and parents with their nose to the tv. My best friend’s mom picked me up for school and her sixth grade teacher (born and raised in NYC) left for NY hours earlier, so my teacher had a classroom of only about 15 students because most kids stayed home, and I remember she spent the morning with her back to us crying. She was Palestinian and her husband was Syrian, and I didn’t understand how much her life was about to change – but I knew it was monumental and that I needed to go home. Something Very Big was happening and I wanted to see my parents. I was sitting on the floor holding my best friend’s hand and we just looked at each other with this sort of child-like understanding that everything was going to be different. And it was of course different – our country was completely changed by 9/11. I just can’t imagine someone telling a joke about it.

        5. Discordia Angel Jones*

          I was…14, not in or from the US, but I still remember that day.

          We were just coming back from lunch at school and first the news came from the art department, who always had a TV on, and then essentially all of the TVs at school were turned on, we all watched the news for the next hour, before being sent home in case someone attacked our (major, capital) city as well. My dad worked near my school, I went to his office, we went home together and watched in mute disbelief and horror all the news footage.

          Even in my country it is something we wouldn’t joke about.

          Back on topic – OP, you and your company had the absolute correct reaction.

        6. Blue Anne*

          Seventh grade. We were in a NJ town with a lot of NYC commuters. There was a rumor during math class, then kids started getting picked up by their parents, then in English Dr. Nelson put the news on for the whole period. We weren’t allowed to go outside for recess the rest of the year in case of chemical follow-ups.

      2. Pippa*

        A friend of mine worked for ESPN at the time, and they had major security because of the satelite uplinks, especially on that day after the towers went down and took their’s with them. Staff were told that if security had to choose between people and the uplinks, the uplinks were the priority.

        My husband was active duty navy at the time, and we lived in off-base base housing, and the kids attended a school which was mostly navy kids. It was tense, though the main affect it had my kids was that it meant that daddy’s 6 month deployment turned into 7 and a bit, and he missed elder kid’s birthday. When they finally got home he couldn’t say anything (though the battle flag kind of gave it away), but it was all declassified a year or so later since it had been all over CNN at the time. I’d been busy with the birthday party, but one of the attendee’s dads was there watching it all, and my aunt asked “Isn’t that your husband’s sub?” a few days later. I’ve never had much truck for CNN since then.

  17. Tom*

    OP, sounds like this was about as well handled in the moment as it could have been.

    I find myself hoping the intern took a lesson home from this experience, aside from just everyone’s gut reaction that his joke was horrible and being canned. Some people are into edgy/blue/offensive humor, and I could easily see someone who is still getting to know workplace norms in a new environment screwing up like this… although it maybe goes beyond “workplace norms” and straight into “how to act in public”.

    (Not that I think that should have been the main focus of OP or OP’s company’s reactions… just seems sad all around for the internship to end so quickly and negatively.)

  18. Allison*

    I wonder if he immediately apologized when he realized he hurt someone’s feelings, or if he defended himself by insisting it was just a joke. Either way, I hope he learned an important lesson.

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      Sounds like his career may have been seriously derailed as well. As it should have been.

      1. paul*

        I don’t know, I hope that it was a one off bad judgement and this is a useful slap in the face for them…but I also hope that this–by itself if it isn’t part of a pattern–isn’t having serious repercussions 20 years down the road.

        1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          If he’s getting complaints to the professional org/board, it well might.

        2. Amber Rose*

          This goes beyond just being bad judgement though doesn’t it? Bad judgement to me is showing up to said important meeting wearing jeans, or letting a mild curse slip out. This dude just torched his whole reputation, and I literally can’t even conceive of a reason anyone would not know that you should never do this.

        3. Kate*

          Normally I would agree with you, but this is such an egregious show of bad judgement (who honestly thinks it is okay to laugh about the horrible deaths of hundreds of people?), and so obviously not okay (no one goes around making jokes about the Holocaust, Pearl Harbor, or 9/11, not comedians or anyone really) that I think the right punishment is that his career is ruined.

          Not that he has to live alone in a cave for the rest of his life, but that he has to pick a different career. And really, this is a natural consequence of what he has done.

          This is going to spread like wildfire, and considering how deep this goes, into basic empathy and human decency, not just stealing credit or something, I don’t blame anyone who would refuse to work with him, period.

          1. Full Stack Bossy Pants*

            Some people are just oblivious.

            The very first time I met my now BIL July of 2014, was extremely uncomfortable to start with, so I tried to break the tension by asking how their day trip to Boston went (We live less than an hour away). His reply is still burned in my memory, “I don’t know if this is PC to say or not, but after dealing with the traffic, I can see why the terrorists bombed the place.”

            I was horrified, we knew people who run the marathon every year, a woman I know would have died if she hadn’t been distracted by a puppy that drew her away from the finish line, we have friends in law enforcement who were involved, helped organize a local blood drive to boost numbers for the people who still needed transfusions, and the chase of the suspect ran through our backyards. The rest of my family was shocked into silence, I said that his comment was disgusting and inappropriate and walked out. My sister said “What your husband hasn’t ever said anything dumb?” I can’t comprehend they type of self centered-ness that thinks nothing of comments like that. My brain just doesn’t compute.

            To this day he doesn’t understand why I reacted so strongly, and to this day I have a facial tick and urge for physical violence upon utterance of his name. So if your name is Steve or any variation therof and I punch you in the face during introductions, apologies in advance.

            1. Allison*

              Oh no. Oh nooooo. HELL no! No no no no no no!

              First of all, that was SO not the reason.

              Second of all, that was a horrendous day for a lot of people, and left us in shock for days. Almost everyone knows someone who either was there or might have been there if some coincidence hadn’t kept them away (sister’s friend was late to meet the group on campus, so they never made it over, but if they had . . .). We do not joke about the bombing, and we’re not okay with non-Bostonians making light of the tragedy for their own entertainment.

              I mean yeah, the traffic here stinks. Our infrastructure stinks. It would be awesome if more people would/could park outside the city and take public transit the rest of the way, freeing up the streets for cyclists and pedestrians, but until we make that a reality, we have traffic. It makes people cranky, but we manage. It certainly justify terrorism. Don’t crap on my city like that.

              1. Full Stack Bossy Pants*

                I agree. It was beyond comprehension that anyone could think that was ok. We had just had the one year anniversary. Plus he’s the idiot we told not to drive in Boston in the first place.

                After I left my husband apparently told him, “Just so you know, if you have the balls to repeat that **** outside of this house, there’s a really good chance people would beat you to death.” They haven’t come back since.

            2. Troutwaxer*

              I think one of your relatives is in my Dungeons and Dragons group, because he hates people named Steve.

      2. Statler von Waldorf*

        I disagree with this. I’m not defending his behaviour, and yes, he deserved firing. However, one tasteless joke from an intern leading to a derailed career seems a bit .. excessive to me.

        1. paul*

          Further down the letter writer states the intern was in their late 20s which kind of changes my stance on this; if someone’s 28 and still pulling stunts like this I’m very doubtful of them growing outo f it.

          1. Emi.*

            Well, from his reaction, I would guess that none of his jokes have ever gone over so badly before. If so, he could still learn from this.

        2. Lablizard*

          Sometimes, if you mess up in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong people, there are long-term or permanent consequences.

    2. this is my letter*

      He didn’t apologize but he was kicked out pretty swiftly. He was really taken aback by the person going off on him and kept saying ‘woah’. But her boss threw him out almost right away.

          1. SophieChotek*

            Yeah not apologizing straight away and being utterly mortified…suggests he’s out of touch!

        1. LBK*

          I mean, even if it was 100% your fault and totally warranted, I think few of us would react perfectly if someone started suddenly shouting in your face.

          Not justifying it in any way, and if he didn’t apologize at all after the initial shock then that’s obviously still terrible. But I don’t necessarily judge him as harshly on that one small piece of this debacle; it’s a minor sin compared to saying the joke in the first place.

      1. Just Another Techie*

        Wait. The other boss kicked him out of the meeting? I had the impression from the letter that you were the one who kicked him out though?

        1. this is my letter*

          I was not running the meeting and it was not on my company’s property. I would have told him to leave, but the boss of the woman he upset (who was running the meeting and we were in their office) beat me to it and kicked him out.

          1. Annonymouse*

            The only way you could have handled this better is if after intern got kicked out you excused yourself, called your office, advised them of what happened, told them to fire the intern upon his arrival back and report it back to the meeting.

            Which I assume you don’t have the authority to do, so really you handled this as well or as perfectly as you could in the given circumstances.

            I’m surprised the intern wasn’t:
            Smacked upside the head
            Dragged out by his ear

  19. bopper*

    Also make sure to let the college (or whatever) that the intern was from know that this happened so they can coach future interns.

    If you are around anyone from the meeting and they bring it up, then you say “Yeah, that came out of nowhere! He had acted professionally up until that point and of course we fired him…just appalling.”
    So you are showing that you had no knowledge of any previous behavior issue and the person was dealt with.

    1. this is my letter*

      He’s around 27 now and already done school and graduate school. This internship wasn’t through any school, although if he was I would have certainly reported him or made sure that my boss did.

      1. Katie the Fed*

        I’m really confused how a 27-year old who is out of school gets an internship in the first place.

        1. Susie*

          If he went to grad school he could have just graduated and was looking to gain experience. It’s common in my field for people to finish school between the ages of 25 and 27 and to be new graduates looking for their first time job.

  20. Bend & Snap*

    I’m so sorry this happened, and on such a terrible topic.

    This is part of the reason I hate to see movies, works of fiction etc. on things like this (the World Trade Center movie came out in 2006!). It both normalizes and dramatizes what happened. There are kids in high school right now who weren’t even alive on 9/11, and I doubt they grasp the gravity of the attack unless their parents have talked to them about it. It’s about as real to them as the Titanic.

    Nothing, nothing, nothing excuses this intern’s behavior; this is a topic I feel strongly about so I got on my soapbox for a minute.

    OP, I think you handled it as well as you possibly could, and you were both professional and empathetic. I hope you get that same feedback when you approach your management.

    1. AMG*

      Yeah, my son is 10 and thought that 9/11 happened as part of WWII until I corrected him. He doesn’t really grasp it yet.

      It must be the same feeling my mom had when I was little and tried to understand why it was a big deal that Kennedy was shot. I understood that it was sad that someone was murdered and that he was an Important President, but some things are inexplicable unless you actually went through it.

      1. paul*

        Not looking forward to when my kids cover 9/11 in history class. I wasn’t personally deeply impacted or anything but I remember the general atmosphere and I remember going to work at the grocery store that night after school and seeing full fledged panic buying-people filling up gas cans, buying canned and dried food en masse, just truly convinced WWIII was about to start. That sort of system wide panic was a new one to me at the time.

        1. Gandalf the Nude*

          If their school district is anything like the one I grew up in, you’ll need to teach them that yourself. We never made it past WWII in any history class I ever took, and only barely then. Everything I know about The Korean, Vietnam, and Cold Wars (and, really, most of the World Wars) is from cultural osmosis and Wikipedia.

          1. LadyKelvin*

            I surprised you made it that far. We never made it past the Civil War and maybe the Reconstruction. I took Recent American History my senior year which covered the end of WWII to Nixon, but everything between the Civil War and the Reconstruction is pretty much a big mystery to me.

          2. Forrest*

            In Virginia, we sped through the Civil War quickly (jeez, I wonder why) but it was still a race to the finish to get to Vietnam. Korea apparently never happened because we spent, like a day, on it.

          3. JAM*

            We tended to go America is discovered!, Revolutionary War, a day of War of 1812, Civil War (end of first semester), Reconstruction, a week of WWI but most of the week is a movie, skip ahead to WWII and hit Pearl Harbor and the Holocaust but nothing else, here’s some random state history, prep for annual testing, take a field trip that applies to one of those areas of history and finals. I took a summer class on the events lifespan of Harry S Truman that covered more history in 3 weeks than I did most semesters. I didn’t learn about Vietnam till college, completely missed most geography, and spend most of my free time reading historical non-fiction books. I’m not sure if it’s to fill the gap or if I just didn’t get burned out on history since we never studied it.

          4. Elizabeth West*

            I don’t remember anything other than a cursory reference to Korea, but I started school while the Vietnam War was still going on. So it wasn’t a history thing; it was a current event.

          5. Blue*

            In grad school, I TA’d a survey course (“US History, 1865 to present”) for a professor who actually made it to “present.” This was fall 2008, and he ended the class with the Obama election(!). It was amazing. The ’80s and ’90s were in that blindspot where it was too recent for me to have learned about it in school and too old for me to remember it, so I learned a ton! (Modern US History was clearly not my area of emphasis…)

          6. Candi*

            Our district makes time on the anniversary, or closest day. It’s mildly disruptive to the main lesson plans, but only one high school teacher ever pushed back. (He had other professional and work ethic issues) and moved on after a year.

            I specify high school because ours is an eight period, four periods a day, alternating. Which means not everyone will be in history on that day, so whatever class they’re in covers it.

            In general, though, no history class I’ve heard of or been in makes it much past WWII, regardless of where the end of the textbook lands. Which is really sad. (And misses a lot of Cold War and Civil Rights history.)

      2. Mazzy*

        My sister lives in a town that had an airline accident in the late 80s she says it boggles her mind when people well into their 20s from the town or neighboring towns never heard of it. I understand not knowing much about it, but at least that it happened. Pretty shocking history for most towns

    2. RVA Cat*

      There’s a world of difference between making a good film about recent events (Apocalypse Now came out only 6 years after Vietnam ended, and Hotel Rwanda was 10 years after the genocide) and making something quick that feels exploitative.

      1. Emi.*

        Honestly, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close did more to make me understand the horror people went through than actually being alive at the time did.

      2. Bend & Snap*

        That’s true. I loved Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close even though it was heart-wrenching. But I read a book called Windows on the World that came out maybe in 2005? And it was awful.

        There’s a different between honoring and exploiting, to your point.

        1. LBK*

          Were you not particularly thrilled with the Patriots Day movie, as was I and many of my other fellow Bostonians I talked to about it? Too soon and too dramatized. I know Mark Wahlberg has some sort of monopoly on all things Boston, but…ugh.

      3. Chinook*

        If you “enjoyed” Hotel Rwanda (I hate that word because it should be an uncomfortable movie to watch), check out “Shake Hands with the Devil” as it shows the perspective of the Canadian peacekeeper General Romeo Dallaire and how hand tied he was by the U.N. Hotel Rwanda was good but they made him into useless clown when the reality is that he tried everything he could to intervene and has paid the price mentally since then. He is literally the poster child for PSTD among soldiers in Canada.

  21. Katie the Fed*

    OP – you handled this well. Really. Not a lot of people would have handled it as well in the moment.

    I would recommend that you or your boss get in touch with everyone who was at the meeting, as well as with the association, and tell them that the intern was immediately fired. That should spin them down a little.

  22. Megan M.*

    OP, I can understand why you feel horrible, but this isn’t on you and I think you handled the situation the best you could. You can’t go can’t go back in time and make him not say that horrible thing. I’m sure your colleagues realize that you were just as shocked and disturbed as they were.

  23. Amber Rose*

    I have no advice, because I can’t get over my bewilderment. I can’t stop wondering what was going through his head at that moment.

    Perhaps a tasteful offering of coffee and pastries at the next meeting would help? /not serious

    You did the right things, so just duck and cover for now. As my mother would say after every meal, “this too shall pass.”

    1. Polar Bear Don't Care*

      I’m stuck here too. What part of “project meeting” made this guy think, “Ooh, yeah, time to trot out my best 9/11 joke!”? There’s zero excusing it no matter what made him do it but I also can’t stop wondering why he said it.

      I feel so sorry for you, OP – this is absolutely not your fault but I know in your shoes I’d also feel like it somehow was something I could have prevented. I hope Amber Rose is right and this does pass quickly!

      1. Annonymouse*

        I’m guessing the only thing this 27-28 year old learned is “Hmm. Probably should have gone with a Holocaust joke. Much safer.”

        It’s that kind of cluelessness or wilful ignorance that I find staggering.

  24. KG, Ph.D.*

    “…people old enough to have been personally affected by 9/11.”

    And you don’t even have to be that old! Many people killed on 9/11 had young children at the time. There are presumably a few 15-year-olds walking around who lost a parent that day.

    1. PepperVL*

      There were something like 7 babies born that day to women who lost spouses – the shock sent them into labor.

  25. anna green*

    Based on the letter, it says that OP was assigned the intern and OP’s boss told them to bring the intern to the meeting. So, there is no way this is OP’s fault! It’s totally understandable that the company is freaking out, but OP shouldn’t feel like it reflects on them personally.

  26. Here we go again*

    I read then headline and thought this would be a sexual joke and the intern just heard about some people doing it in the supply closet and just took it a step too far. Boy was I wrong!

    OP – I think you have done what you can and in a few weeks this will all blow over and everyone will move on. You’ve fired him, you didn’t see anything earlier to indicate that he would behave this way, so there was nothing to address before then. It sucks to be associated with people like this, but you’ve disassociated yourself as much as you can. Now the only additional thing you can do is wait….

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      This is a pattern lately. “Oh, this will be an interesting stor-OH MY.”

      1. SCAnonibrarian*

        Seriously! Between the horrible comment about the boss’s daughter and this, I get halfway through and there’s just this involuntarily shocked whisper ‘oh noooooo!’

        I wish I could see my face.

    2. Allison*

      I prepared to comment that this sort of thing happened to me a few weeks ago, someone made a joke pegging me as a sexual deviant when I was talking about the kind of dancing I did, but this is about 20 times worse. At least.

  27. Statler von Waldorf*

    Is it terrible that my first thought is wondering what the joke was? Seriously, letter writer if you are out there, the curiosity is almost killing me.

    I’m a lover of black comedy, though I have never been fired for it. The secret to black comedy is to know your audience, which the intern critically failed on. A business meeting in strangers calls for either jokes that you would tell your grandma or nothing.. Save the 9/11, dead baby and Holocaust jokes for people who you know well, and who you know have similar senses of humor.

    An analogy I have used before is that black comedy is like the act of shooting an apple on somebody’s head. When done correctly, the “danger” of it makes it even more entertaining. However, if you miss the mark and shoot someone in the face, trying to claim it was just an act doesn’t undo the damage you did, does it? The same goes with potentially offensive jokes.

    1. Allison*

      Yes, absolutely. I like Cards Against Humanity, and Cyanide and Happiness, but I’m careful with that comedy even around like minded people, because even then, it is so easy to go a step too far and upset someone. Just posting an off-color joke on social media can get you in trouble at work if the wrong person sees it.

      1. Statler von Waldorf*

        That’s the biggest part of why I don’t mix work with social media. Also, have you tried joking hazard. the C&H board game? It’s funny as hell, though it’s with cards against humanity in the list of games I’m never playing with co-workers.

        1. Allison*

          I want to! One of my friends got it recently but we haven’t had a chance to play it yet. It looks awesome!

          I have played CAH with coworkers, but it was with the IT guys off in a corner of a company party. We weren’t bothering anyone, no one was pressured to join, and I didn’t have to see them every day afterwards.

      2. Karyn*

        I was just going to bring up Cards Against Humanity. My family plays it together all the time, because we all have sick, gross senses of humor (although sometimes I have to explain to my mother what some of the cards mean… and my mother is a very progressive person, but it is awkwardsauce every time). But when my former mother in law would come to dinner, we’d play Apples to Apples instead, because she was very much NOT a sicko like us.

        It is ALL about knowing your audience and your environment. What I’d say during a CAH game is not something I’d say at work.

        1. Imaginary Number*

          There was a letter-writer a while back who was rightfully offended when CAH came out at a work party.

          1. paul*

            as they should have been. There’s stuff that’s A-OK in my own time (morbid humor, sex, target practice, lots of things!) that’d be grossly inappropriate at work.

      3. Imaginary Number*

        That’s funny. I just brought up cards against humanity as well!

        Some people need to understand that certain humor needs to be kept among friends you know really really well.

      4. Elizabeth West*

        Yes, and even with Cards Against Humanity, a game we LOVE, there are jokes my group won’t laugh at! I would never play it at work. Nope nope nope nope nope.

        1. Imaginary Number*

          Not only would I never play it at work, but I wouldn’t play it at a party I was invite work acquaintances to unless I knew them really well from non-work socializing.

    2. paul*

      Exactly. I have an incredibly dark sense of humor and come by it honestly; my grandmother cracked jokes about cancer and cancer patients while she was dying of it after all.

      But…damn, time and place.

    3. DrPeteLoomis*

      See my comment below. I did a quick Google search and I think I found the joke (or a similar one). Like you, I tend to believe that “black comedy” can be effective; however, if the joke I found is the same as the joke the intern told, it’s honestly really, really bad. Not just a “know your audience” bad but a “what is actually wrong with you” bad.

      1. Statler von Waldorf*

        I did that same google search, and I found several jokes that fit. I laughed at most of them. Nothing that qualified as “what’s wrong with you” in my book. I still wouldn’t tell any of them at the office though.

        1. Emi.*

          Well, I would say “What is wrong with you that you thought it was appropriate to make that joke to strangers at work?”

          1. fposte*

            Yeah, that’s where I come down. I don’t need to make a moral judgment on the joke itself; derrieres are perfectly fine, but I’m going to hold it against an intern if he starts showing his at a meeting.

            1. Emi.*

              Ha, that’s a great analogy! I do suspect that the people who reported him to the professional association for bad character and conduct are making a moral judgment, though, and it bothers me that his career might be ruined for that (partly because I don’t actually think dark and off-color jokes are generally immoral, but also because I don’t think the morality of your sense of humor is relevant to work).

              1. Lablizard*

                His career isn’t ruined because he told a joke, it is ruined because he had such bad judgement that he told the joke in a professional setting. Careers should be ruined by bad judgement, especially when exhibited by someone in their late 20s (age from OP update)

                1. Emi.*

                  But it sounds to me like the consequences of his bad judgment are being deliberately amplified for moral reasons–i.e. as punishment, not just consequences. That’s what bothers me.

                2. Stanton von Waldorf*

                  I’m with Emi on this one .. there’s a lot of people asserting in this comment thread that anyone who tells a joke that could be offensive is morally deficient and thus deserves punishment, and it bothers me too.

                3. Lablizard*


                  Oh I agree that this is nothing to do with morality and tasteless jokes have nothing to do with morals. I’m just speaking to the letter, not the comments. He is being punished for bad judgement, not a joke

                4. Annonymouse*

                  There’s telling a joke that’s poor taste and then there’s
                  “Seriously? WTF are you thinking? It is NEVER appropriate to bring that up especially in a business meeting!” (Where you’re expected to sit down, shut up and observe as an intern.)

                  I could see it being on par with asking a lady coworker or meeting attendee what she did on the weekend, her saying she went to the dr and replying “I didn’t know the a*******n clinic was open on weekends.”

                  Sure it’s a “joke” but the fact your judgement said “This is an appropriate thing to say to anyone at all, especially someone I don’t know that well.”

                  Speaks volumes about how much you’ll trust them in the future.

                5. Fushi*

                  I agree with Lablizard. Especially because that bad judgment (predictably!) leads to a woman reliving her trauma. It’s not like he just was unprofessional, his judgment was SO BAD that it actually hurt other people. I wouldn’t want someone who thinks what he did is ok to be a part of my professional organization, either.

                6. Gadfly*

                  We like to pretend jokes are harmless, but they never have been. Jokes define assumptions in a way that bypasses reason, and they are power plays. You don’t find things funny that you aren’t to a degree in some sense accepting as being true. And the thing about punching up is that it is to bring them down

        2. Jessie the First (or second)*

          I googled and found two that made me horrified – just literally said “oh God” out loud. I really do think I have a pretty obnoxiously dark humor, but those two made me stop short. I cannot even begin to imagine a world in which I would think saying those out loud, in public, in front of anyone, would be okay.

    4. Relly*

      I feel weirdly like there’s a difference between enjoying black, gallows humor and being an internet edgelord, smirking about who you offend. It might even be the distinction between punching up and punching down, or in groups being self deprecating vs out groups mocking them.

      It’s not something I can quantify very well, but the former is very “wow, no, time and place” while the latter is “wtf is wrong with you.”

    5. Ramblin' Ma'am*

      Yeah, I have a pretty dark sense of humor at times, but there’s a time and a place. I have a customized Facebook list just for black humor–either jokes I think up, or shares from “The Onion” and similar sites. I only add people to the list by request. This way I can share my dark sense of humor without upsetting people.

  28. Pen and Pencil*

    Maybe your company could make a donation in honor of the woman’s relative to the 9/11 museum? Obviously it does not solve the issue, but it might at least smooth things over with the woman. I would call her personally or have coffee with her and tell her that in light of recent despicable events, the company has decided to give a gift in her relatives honor in order to help educate more people about the terrible event etc. etc. Then I would never speak of it again. If she brings it up to the others at the meeting, then it can only help your image, and if she doesn’t then you can only hope that everyone forgets and moves on.

    Also for everyone saying that he was a toddler when this happened, that’s true, but as a millennial myself, I know better than to make 9/11 jokes at work to people who I don’t know. This was just extremely poor judgement and taste.

    1. this is my letter*

      He was not a toddler when it happened, he was 10 or 11 and living in the state of New York (although admittedly he didn’t know anyone who died or was there). The woman he upset has asked to be removed from the project and the company is not letting anyone contact her at her request.

      1. blackcat*

        10 or 11 is young enough that is parents could have really sheltered him from it. My cousins in that age range have mixed experiences. Some were given explanations more appropriate for younger kids, particularly if they had younger siblings.

        This isn’t at all to excuse what he said, though. He 100% deserved to get fired immediately.

        1. Annie Moose*

          FWIW I was 9 when it happened (young enough that they didn’t even tell us at school–I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for our teachers!), and I absolutely would not make jokes about it. Of course people’s experiences do differ, but I agree with you that it’s no excuse.

        2. fposte*

          It is, however, a spectacular piece of misfortune that he told it within earshot of somebody who was essentially a victim, rather than just people who were offended. I don’t mind the learning experience that will be for him, but it’s too bad it had to come at her expense.

        3. Liane*

          “This isn’t at all to excuse what he said, though. He 100% deserved to get fired immediately.”
          Yes & this guy has had about 10 years of Adulting 101, which does cover “Things you should never say at work, or anywhere near work.”

        4. Observer*

          Come on, as a parent of kids that age, and one without TV in the house, I can tell you that it was quite hard to shelter kids from all of it. Sure, I was able to avoid the endless pictures of people jumping out of the windows, etc. But the fallout in the tri-state area was huge. And while some of it was more aggravating than tragic (eg the impact of shutting down all of the airports with no notice is not tragic, but it’s pretty big), you really couldn’t get away from it.

          So, you have two things here. One is that he had to have known, even the, that something BIG had happened, even if he didn’t really understand exactly what. And secondly, making jokes about people jumping out of burning building is bad enough. But, if you know enough to reference that in particular, then you have to know enough about 9/11 to know that this was a REALLY big deal.

      2. Pen and Pencil*

        He is just insanely insensitive then. I think you handled this as best as anyone can handle this situation. I can’t believe a fully grown man would think this appropriate in any work related circumstance. I was definitely picturing an 18 year old college freshman with no business world experience.

    2. Buffay the Vampire Layer*

      A donation is a nice idea but fyi that museum is not a neutral selection. A lot of us are horrified by its commercialization of that day.

      1. animaniactoo*

        Agreed. There are victim support funds that would be better. There are people who have developed medical aftereffects and some don’t have money to cover the costs of ongoing treatment, etc.

  29. animaniactoo*

    That was… spectacularly awful.

    You’re going to need to go to that next meeting as part of your own being professional. However, it would also be entirely appropriate to take a moment *if there’s an opening* to mention your embarrassment about what the intern said and apologizing once again, as a way of emphasizing that YOU know how inappropriate it was. But only if there’s an opening. If there isn’t, don’t bring it up. And do move on quickly from it because you don’t want to be stuck in the role of “person from company whose intern said” or “person who was with intern” – you want to distance yourself from it with professional behavior in both your actions and your comments and just be a little extra careful to be on top of your game with your professionalism at the next meeting or 2.

    As long as people involved are reasonable and professional (as you should expect them to be) they’ll move on as well and won’t hold it against you.

  30. DrPeteLoomis*

    Ugh, sometimes I’m too morbidly curious for my own good. I was really curious what kind of joke one would even make about 9/11. I think I found it, and it was indeed disgusting, and now I kind of ruined my own day. I can’t even imagine how someone would think it appropriate to tell such a joke, and to tell it in front of people you JUST MET. Such incredibly bad taste and bad judgement. It’s kind of mind boggling that someone who would display such poor judgement had never shown any signs previous to this.

    That said, OP, I think you handled it about as well as you could.

  31. spek*

    I would make the effort to ensure that when your Boss has to address complaints about this, both internally from his superiors and externally, that he let’s everyone know that you are not to blame. If necessary, don’t hesitate to bring up the point that your boss is was the one who told you to bring the intern to an offsite meeting….

  32. Augusta Sugarbean*

    I have zero experience with interns so I’m curious if people here really think that the OP will continue to be seriously blamed for this by others? I mean there are so, so many stories and jokes about how awful interns are and how hard it is to get rid of them. I mean I get that in the moment, people might associate the bad behavior with the OP and her company but really after even a few days, would they still think “ugh, OP” instead of “ugh, another garbage intern”?

    1. Temperance*

      Some people, who might have been really upset by his horrifying comment, might transfer their anger to the LW because the craptastic intern is no longer there to take the brunt of the upset. I hope that because it’s a workplace, and because LW is truly innocent in all this, it doesn’t happen, but I have seen it before.

    2. H.C.*

      Based on this alone – no. But if the person has a history of bringing on bad interns, I’d worry about his or her ability in hiring/onboarding/managing.

        1. Augusta Sugarbean*

          You are correct, Elizabeth. The letter says “This year I was assigned an intern to train and manage for the first time.”

  33. k*

    Wow. If nothing else, it’s a good thing this guy showed his true colors before his internship was over. I would hate to imagine OP giving this guy a great reference only to find out later he did something like this at his next job.

  34. TootsNYC*

    I think the likelihood that anyone will blame you is SO VERY small.
    And I worry that if you ask too many people, “What should I have done differently?” or “is this my fault?” that you will put that idea in their heads.

    So, don’t dwell on it too much with other people

    And, letting other people “own” their actions–and not trying to own them yourself–is respectful. To you, and to them.

    So, have some respect. Let all the blame and ownership for this lie on him, completely.

  35. De Minimis*

    I’m always on the fence about how much interns should be allowed to do, and this unfortunately makes me think they may be best left stuffing envelopes in a back room somewhere.

  36. Imaginary Number*

    This is a problem I see with a lot of “internet humor”. There are some really tasteless, awful, memes/jokes out there. And then those people start to feel comfortable with those jokes and one day end up using one in real life without realizing just how bad it is.

    Kind of goes along with “don’t play cards against humanity with coworkers.”

    This guy learned that lesson the hard way.

    1. Allison*

      I do figure that there are workplaces where dark humor is commonplace. Maybe OP’s former intern worked at some fast food joint or at a tech startup where it was really normal to tell jokes like that, and this internship was more buttoned-up than he was used to and he failed to adjust accordingly.

  37. De Minimis*

    I’ve shared this before, but I once told a very tasteless joke [that I’d heard on Howard Stern] at work, and a coworker was so upset that she quit on the spot. I still feel badly about it.

    It was just a side job I was doing for extra money, so I wish they had just let me go and had her stay, but she left immediately.

      1. De Minimis*

        I won’t share it, but it made light of child abuse and my guess is she was triggered by it. It was a one-liner type of joke.

  38. Curious*

    Is anyone else curious about what the joke was? I can’t be the only one who is. Alison, did the OP include the joke in their letter? If not and OP is reading, is it possible to say what the joke was? For the record I am appalled that the intern made a joke about 9/11 and it’s definitely not funny. But I am still curious as to what the actual joke was.

      1. bunniferous*

        I did a little googling and if it is the one I found you made the right call. Appalling.

        1. bunniferous*

          Of course I assume you made the right call anyway! Just noting that that is about the worst thing in the world I could imagine anyone joking about.

        2. JS*

          I think I found it too, wont share it, but I totally agree its not something that should be on your blog.

          1. Venus Supreme*

            Yup. Now I’m upset that it now lives in my memory. I’m glad it wasn’t included in the letter.

      2. Polar Bear Don't Care*

        Thank you for doing that – I was just coming to request that it not be shared here.

      3. Stanton von Waldorf*

        I’m personally disappointed, just for the record. Your blog, your rules of course, but still disappointed.

        1. Merida Ann*

          I’m very appreciative that it’s not included. That’s the sort of thing I never want to hear and don’t want to have sitting around in my memories. There’s no need to include the exact wording that was used. Thank you, Alison.

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I don’t see any benefit to printing a deeply offensive joke when it doesn’t change the OP’s situation or the advice. I’m okay with people disagreeing with that, of course.

        3. LBK*

          Per other comments it sounds like it’s pretty easy to deduce what the joke was with some brief googling, if you’re really dying to read it.

          1. Stanton von Waldorf*

            That’s my problem. I did, and I didn’t read any jokes that would justify the extreme reactions I am seeing here. Now, it’s quite possible that my standards for offensiveness and societies didn’t match in this case, but without knowing what the joke actually is, I can’t actually tell. Thus my curiosity, and thus my disappointment when my curiousity wasn’t satisfied.

        4. N.J.*

          Why are you disappointed though? If this is a joke that got an intern summarily fired, then it’s safe to say that a significant number of people on this blog would be offended by, disgusted by or even emotionally harmed by this joke. Considering a handful have even said they lost friends etc. during 9/11, repeating the joke here would be doing the same thing that the intern did to a captive audience. If it’s not ok to say a this joke about people dying from a terrotist attack at work, without even knowing if the meeting attendees have personal experiences with this tragedy, then is even more not okay to say it here in the AAM comments where it has been established that at least some readers have strong emotional trauma related to 9/11. I’m pointing this out because it requires the same sort of emotional and empathic calculations that the intern did not use when telling his joke. I am personally a fan of certain types of dark humor, just depends on the delivery, the deliverer, the audience and the subject matter, and it wouldn’t be appropriate or kind, at all, to repeat the joke here when we have kind of estsbliahed that this is not the audience for a 9/11 joke.

    1. MoinMoin*

      I also was, mostly because I can appreciate some very dark humor and I still for the life of me couldn’t find anything about people jumping to their deaths that could be made into a joke.

      1. animaniactoo*

        I used to collect Challenger explosion jokes – I was in the 10 to 11 age range at the time. Now I’m kinda horrified by the jokes that I told so gleefully then. Based off of those, I’ve got a good general sense of how the joke probably went, and it will probably always be “too soon” for me even though others may find the humor of it as a way to cope with the crap that life tosses at us.

        1. Anon for this*

          Good point. You never know where life will take you. I have moved around and have ended up practicing law in a state where I regularly appear in front of one of the victim’s husband’s a federal judge. You might not know someone today who your joke will offend but you may end up knowing them in the future. You don’t want that on your conscience.

  39. Ravenclawesome*

    You did exactly right- I wrote in years ago about an intern I had to fire, and Alison’s advice then still applies now! In my case my intern and her friends started posting negative things about the company on twitter, tagging my company, and the higher ups saw. I was terrified this would reflect poorly on me, but in the long run, it was the opposite. People saw how I handled it and respected me for that. I bet it’s going to be the same with you. And hopefully, this intern has learned an important lesson.

    1. Annonymouse*

      Oh my God!
      You’re the person with the intern from hell that stole your spare phone!

      How has your career been going since then? I always wanted to sincerely wish you well and tell you that you handled it well.

      And of course you are very well qualified to tell OP how you dealt with this.

      1. Ravenclawesome*

        Yup, that’s me! Things are good: I stayed at that job another two years before moving back home (I was overseas) for grad school. I’ve been in my current job post school for a year and I just got my second promotion yesterday actually! As for the intern: she now works in PR. XD

        1. Annonymouse*

          And the Twitter fiend friend?

          I’m allowed to giggle at the irony of bad intern who caused you/your company a bad PR event now works in PR themselves, right?

  40. MI Dawn*

    I work just over the river in New Jersey, and watched the 2nd plane hit and the towers fall. I didn’t lose any family, but my lovely neighbor across the street died saving her employees. I would have probably gone off on the intern, too, especially given his age (my children’s age). I can’t watch any of the videos, films, and totally disengage on 9/11 from social media because even now, 16 years later, it’s still a horror to me.

    OP: your reaction was appropriate. If he’d been younger, college age, I might have given him a little (VERY LITTLE) slack, being young and immature. But he’s cooked his own goose in your world.

  41. Karyn*

    You know, this letter… it kind of brings up a similar situation that I recently heard about. My best friend is a corporate attorney, and apparently at a meeting with some of the legal department (not lawyers, but staff members) one of the guys in the meeting (about 10 years older than her) told her to go look up the “sloth meme” on Google. She had no idea what he was talking about – she’s only 35 but neither of us tends to follow internet humor – but she’d had a great relationship with this guy in the past, so she looked it up, thinking maybe he thought they had similar senses of humor.

    I am warning you now, if you don’t know what that meme is, I don’t advise looking it up (it is particularly NSFW). Suffice it to say, it is EXTREMELY disturbing – I’ll just be blunt, it’s a series of rape “jokes.” She’s not quite his manager, so she can’t discipline him, but she also doesn’t want to be seen as a delicate flower in her high-level position. Nevertheless, she was really, really creeped out by the meme itself but also the fact that apparently he thought she would get a kick out of that kind of thing. She is still unsure of how to approach him, even in a working relationship.

    I’m not sure how I’d have handled it either, in her situation, but my only thought was, “Why in the WORLD would you send that meme to a company lawyer? And PARTICULARLY a younger, female company lawyer?

    Once again, this is a case of KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. Because now you’re just the creepy guy that the lawyer doesn’t want to work with.

    1. KiteFlier*

      I think this one could have been misinterpreted – I’ve seen a lot of cute and amusing sloth memes out there. I can’t recall one being about rape. Maybe there are just so many that she found a horrible one?

      1. Karyn*

        I thought the same thing, but I just went back in my texts to where she told me about this, and he apparently told her, “Don’t look at these on your work computer.” That makes me think he actually did intend for her to see the less appropriate ones.

    2. paul*

      you’re talking about the cute picture of a sloth smiling?

      I’ve seen that with pretty much every sort of everything under the sun. My personal favorite was “when you get up and realize you’re off today”

      1. Sylvia*

        I just Googled it – there’s another meme with a picture of a sloth near a woman’s ear that’s being used for jokes about sexual violence. Know Your Meme says it’s from 2012.

        There are plenty of other, harmless sloth memes, which are probably what the guy meant!

        1. Karyn*

          See above comment – I thought the same thing, but I looked at my texts about it, and he apparently told her, “Don’t look at these on your work computer.”

          1. 574Girl*

            Yes, but I’ve advised against that when someone wanted to look up something harmless that has other less harmless things attached to it. It doesn’t always mean the person meant to reference the more offensive content. Just another POV on the matter. Without knowing the guy, I have no idea what the guy might have been referencing.

            1. Karyn*

              I do appreciate the opposite point of view, and that’s certainly worth noting. Although, I do think that if you don’t know someone well at work (i.e., you don’t hang out on weekends and literally only see them M-F 9-5), you probably shouldn’t tell them to Google anything that might bring up those kind of results – instead, if you want them to see a meme, just email it to them.

        2. Falling Diphthong*

          I have googled ‘sloth meme’ on a private browsing window.

          I cannot state too strongly how you SHOULD NOT tell anyone you work with to google ‘sloth meme’ if you expect to retain their respect and not have the office view you as a creepy rape apologist.

        3. paul*

          I must have totally missed that one :( When someone says sloth meme I think of this little adorable sloth that looks like it’s grinning. no person in the photo.

    3. Lissa*

      The only sloth meme I know is the one about the wet sloth looking terrifying (photoshopped I think). Now I’m afraid to look up cute/scary sloths!

  42. Whichsister*

    I am not sure how anyone can use 9/11 and joke in the same sentence. I too googled to see if I could find the joke and found a list of things so offensive I now feel physically ill. And I have a dark sense of humor.

    I agree, I don’t think what the intern said will reflect on you as much as how you handled the aftermath.

    And I agree, a follow up should be done with the school or college he is associated with (if any.)

  43. aebhel*

    OP, I wanted to add, since this is your first time training and managing an intern, I can see how you’d feel especially blindsided by all this. I think you handled it completely appropriately, and it doesn’t sound like there was any way to predict that he would have behaved so inappropriately. It’s possible that people will vent at you because the intern isn’t around, but if you continue to conduct yourself with decency and professionalism, I think that will die down shortly.

    Signed, someone who likes black humor but NOT AT WORK.

  44. a girl has no name*

    I graduated from college not too long ago, and I remember people telling Holocaust jokes and other “anti-jokes” is what I think they were called. I certainly did not find any of it funny and did not participate, but I do want to point out that this type of “joke” has been around campuses for awhile now.

    Since managing crisis situations is part of my job, I can tell you that I think you handled this well. You immediately condoned his words and your timing was important here. I think you should have some type of statement (not formal) ready if anyone asks you about it going forward, but I don’t think you need to say it again without prompting.

    What a difficult situation. I’m sure you are mortified, but this is not a reflection of you and you have said such. It will blow over.

    1. Turtle Candle*

      Yep, I graduated quite a bit longer ago than that and there were those kinds of jokes going around some circles… often as a kind of “chillness test.” If you laughed along or at least didn’t object, you were a ‘cool girl/cool guy;’ objecting or finding them offensive meant you were uptight. (I have never in my life been remotely close to ‘chill,’ so I didn’t have a lot to lose by refusing to play along… I just hung out with my similarly unchill friends.) I know that there are also Internet communities that work along similar lines, where you prove your ability to ‘fit in’ by not objecting to grossly offensive statements or jokes. I suspect that many of the people sitting by are secretly are sickened or at least unsettled by the jokes, but peer pressure is quite strong in those situations. And being in a social group that does that kind of thing can normalize it, which sort of helps to explain why someone could be so incredibly stupid as to say one of those jokes at work.

      This is not in any way to justify it. The situation was horrifying, I feel especially awful for the poor woman who’d lost a family member, and this was a well-deserved firing. I hope it serves as a wake-up call.

      1. aebhel*

        I also had this experience in college, and it’s very prevalent in some online communities.

        I hope this is enough to wake Intern the hell up, at least for the sake of anyone else unfortunate enough to work with him.

      2. Oranges*

        I stopped being “chill” about some jokes when I learned that they’re used by predators to gauge if they’ll get a “free pass” with the social group.

  45. Professor Ronny*

    Not to defend the intern, what he said was terrible. However, one of the reasons for interning is to learn to behave like a professional. This is not a skill students are born with. I can just imagine this type of joke going over well at a frat party and the intern needs to learn that the world is not a frat party.

    While the OP needs to do the things that have been suggested to give herself a clear mind, I think this company needs to consider how it is training their interns and how this slipped through. When I have taken graduate assistants with me to meetings, I have always been very clear with them about how to behave and how to act professional. I’ve never had an issue. It sounds like either the OP or the firm failed to do that here.

    1. Observer*

      Even if the intern was not in his late 20s, but actually 19 years old, this is still not on the company.

      By the time you are ready to intern, you should understand that there are some jokes you make ONLY with people who will understand what you are getting out. Those jokes include rape jokes, jokes about Holocaust victims (or the victims of any genocide or mass murder), and jokes about committing horrible crimes.

    2. Turtle Candle*

      I agree in general with the idea that internships are usually to teach people to be have in a professional fashion, but the LW has said elsewhere that this intern is in his late 20s and has already finished both undergrad and grad school. I’m not sure it would occur to me to do that kind of very basic ‘offensive jokes are not appropriate for the workplace’ coaching on someone in that position either, whereas I probably would provide more guidance to someone who was still in undergrad or straight out of undergrad.

      1. Professor Ronny*

        I have a number of graduate assistants work for me. I was constantly surprised by just how clueless some of them were. The vast majority of graduate students come straight out of an undergraduate program and either have never worked or only worked in retail/food services. In both cases, the majority of people they worked with were their own age.

        I once pulled together a bunch of graduate students to go with me to a conference room for a photographer to take promotional photographs for the university. He wanted me to pretend to lecture so I started talking about the basics of looking for a job, basic AAM 101 stuff. I noticed that all the GA’s were busy taking notes. After the photographer was done, I asked why they were taking notes. Everyone told me they had never heard this stuff before.

        The intern absolutely should have known better but, as someone who works with students every day, I completely understand that it was possible that this student simply did not know any better. Of course, he does now!

      2. Alton*

        Right, it sounds like this internship might be more focused on entry into a specific field as opposed to giving a young person both general and field-specific experience.

  46. Detective Rosa Diaz*

    I am trying to even think of what context this intern thought it was OK to bring up. Like were they telling a variation on a knock knock style joke? Because that would be super lame and weird for a meeting. Or was he making a joke of his own? Either way terrible.

    I am a comedian and comedians are some of the darkest people who you will ever meet, generally. At least humor wise. Comedians tell each other jokes like this all the time. But NOT ON STAGE and NOT TO OTHER PEOPLE who are not severely jaded. I cannot imagine ever being like yep this is OK to bring up at work unless it was privately to a co-worker that you knew very well who shared your dark humor?

  47. Kate the Purple*

    I find it particularly upsetting that the joke was about people who jumped from buildings on 9/11 as they tend to be some of the forgotten ones. There’s a lot of mixed reactions towards them based on personal religious views, the reluctance of the media focus on this aspect of the tragedy (out of sensitivity and respect), and the fact that many of the identities of these people are unknown. I find all jokes about 9/11 offensive, but jokes about individuals who jumped to be particularly offensive and unkind.

    And to OP, I commend your company for taking the steps they did to fix the situation, not all companies are this sympathetic. I can understand your continuing guilt and worry over the situation because the core of the problem is that the harm has been done, and it’s not something that can be undone. Moving forward, I would respect her wishes that she not be contacted. If you feel you can, I would communicate this to the higher ups and let her be the one to reopen communication on her own terms.

    1. Karyn*

      The images of people jumping from those towers was incredibly disturbing to me, and I can’t imagine anyone making a joke about it in a professional setting. I can’t make a moral judgment based on one’s sense of humor (unless you’re Bob Saget. Then I judge you.) but in a professional setting, this was particularly gross.

      1. RVA Cat*

        Yes. The 9/11 aspect aside, it’s also gross to joke about suicide. I had to look it up, but 44,000 Americans commit suicide every year, plus the many more who attempt but survive.

          1. Kate the Purple*

            Out of respect, I think it would better to not judge or interpret the intentions of these individuals.

            1. Observer*

              Oh, for crying out loud! No one is “judging”. But there really is no place for “interpretation” here, either.

              What I really don’t understand is why you would think what I said was “judgemental” and why you think that anyone jumped in order to commit suicide, considering that they could just as easily have just stayed where they were for the same effect.

              1. Kate the Purple*

                I wasn’t calling you judgmental. I was just pointing that out that we don’t know exactly what caused people to jump. Referring to the act as suicide is an interpretation (and by some, viewed as a judgment of their actions). It’s a sensitive issue for many of the family members that I’ve encountered in support groups and we all make a conscious effort to not refer to the actions as suicide. We can agree to disagree, but I felt it was a worthwhile point to make.

          2. MJ (Aotearoa/New Zealand)*

            I read somewhere that legally/officially, the people who jumped off the towers were considered to be murder/terrorism victims — not suicide, which would have rendered many life insurance policies void.

    2. JS*

      This 100%!!! I mentioned it briefly earlier but even though I knew so many people died on 9/11 (I was 12 at the time) it was until about a year ago when I moved to NYC I even heard about the jumpers, who just didnt die by smoke/fire but were completely obliterated and firefighters died on the ground from having them fall on them. Any 9/11 death/plane joke would have been still wildly disrespectful and inappropriate but to know about who the jumpers were I feel means you have a pretty good understanding of their situation/dilemma and the strong feelings around them and yes, how they generally are forgotten when 9/11 comes up. Makes everything that much more sickening imo. I hope the intern has a LONG hard look inside and figure out the depths of what he just joked about.

  48. Student*

    So, going forward, it’s probably a good idea to set some expectations for interns in meetings like this. When I was more junior, I went to plenty of meetings where I was told that I was there to listen and not to talk. It was meant as a learning experience for me and not a meeting where I would give input, and where it was not appropriate for me to try to get to to know the other important people like the client personally.

    However, this has to be conveyed beforehand and explicitly to be effective. Most meetings I attended to give input and be an active participant, sometimes with similarly important people, not to sit quietly. I remember one meeting in particular where I was invited as a “sit quiet and learn” experience, but nobody bothered telling that to me and I also had significant technical expertise and project investment in the topic of discussion. I started participating, and suddenly got hauled out of the room and told to shut up and sit quietly, because I had told somebody important (no one had introduced us) that an idea wasn’t really feasible (it was not feasible at all) that happened to be from the important guy (nobody told me ahead of time). I was technically right about the issue, but I wasn’t the right person to hear that from (not important enough) and it wasn’t the right setting for the important guy to reconsider it (too public to back down from a bad idea without losing face), so we ended up stuck with the implausible idea. If anyone had told me anything useful ahead of time, I would’ve gladly shut up and listened in the corner and given my boss a list of issues later to deal with – but I had no clue it was that delicate of a situation, and no clue they expected me to stay quiet as they promised to do impossible things, so I blew it for us all.

    1. Observer*

      The problem here was not that he should not have spoken up, though. It’s WHAT he said. By the time you get to the stage of being an intern, you might not know how to read the hierarchy to keep from stepping on the big guy’s toes. But you SHOULD know enough not to make ridiculously outrageous jokes. Do you need to warn interns not to use words like n**, c** etc? Do you need to warn interns no to make jokes about nooses even if there are not any black people in the room?

      1. WPH*

        Yeah, I kind of feel like this common professional sense (although clearly it isn’t). You can be as funny as you want on your own time but no off-color jokes in the office. A late 20 something professional SHOULD know that and we should not have to define off-color down to the nitty gritty of “don’t tell jokes about any country’s national tragedy or global war or genocide in the office or around clients.”

    2. TootsNYC*

      This was also not during the meeting; it was during the “handshake” period before, where it would almost always be OK for an intern to say hello and participate in small talk.

  49. Former Employee*

    The OP was assigned this intern. It’s not as if she selected him herself. While I realize that she was the one there representing her company when this happened so she may be on the receiving end of some lingering negativity from outsiders, I wonder if internally there will be some repercussions for the person who chose this person to be an intern.

  50. Zip Silver*

    I realize that this is buried in the comments, but Gen Z is too young to really remember 9/11 or grasp it’s significance, or remember the world before. They’ve always lived in a post-9/11 world. For better or worse 9/11 are as popular among them as French “white flag” jokes.

    1. LizM*

      And even if he was a toddler during 9/11, that’s not an excuse. Most working people today weren’t alive during WWII, but it’s pretty well known that Holocaust jokes aren’t acceptable.

  51. Matt*

    I’m curious as to what industry this is where a “formal” complaint to a regulatory agency is necessary because an offensive joke was said at a meeting. I don’t mean to sound like I’m downplaying how horrible the joke was (and the intern should have been fired) but when I think of “formal” complaint to a regulatory industry, I think of criminal activity, or health/saftey.

    1. Kyrielle*

      OP has said in several comments that this is a professional organization, not a regulatory agency – and that membership in it has code-of-conduct type standards.

      1. Matt*

        Thanks. That makes more sense. I tried looking for the OP’s comments but couldn’t find them.

          1. Apparently not the only fashion designer here*

            Whoops, I should have refreshed before commenting, my apologies.

      2. De Minimis*

        I could see that happening—professions such as law, etc. have super strict rules of conduct, though with law that can sometimes be hard to believe.

        The most recent monthly newsletter of my state’s CPA society consisted almost entirely of disciplinary notices.

  52. LadyPhoenix*

    Interns take note: if you would find this joke in Cards Against Humanities, Reddit, or 4chan… there is a high chnace that the joke should never be mentioned at work.

  53. Lee*

    1- How can that topic ever be a joke? I know “jokes” regarding 9/11 do exist, but that is not a joke to me (or anyone, hopefully with empathy).

    2- I was just curious if the intern was British or from a different country? I know for a fact people from other countries are nonreactive or take 9/11 very seriously. The British TV show “Skins” had a episode (no joke people!) where high school kids put on a musical play about 9/11, even had someone in a plane costume crashing into the buildings, while everyone else was dancing/singing about the whole ordeal, and it was incredibly offensive to me as an a American, but not really anyone else. I guess my point is cultural differences made lead to this actually occurring.

    OP, you shouldn’t assume guilt when you reacted appropriately and obviously had no way of knowing what was going to happen. The mistake was the interns.

    1. Annonymouse*

      OP commented upthread that the intern is about 27 and actually lived in New York State (but not city) at the time of 9/11.

      Both instances where they should have known better.

      I’d be willing to be more tolerant if they were younger or foreign as you suggested. This person really has no excuse.

    2. msmorlowe*

      Regarding the play in ‘Skins’, that was actually satirising how inappropriate school plays usually are*: the viewer was not supposed to think that the choice of play was in good taste.

      *Schools do not usually put on plays about 9/11.

    3. Another Amy*

      I’m Australian and was 15 in 2001. I don’t think it’s fair to say that people from other countries are non-reactive about 9/11. Although the personal impact on me was very, very small, if there was any at all, we saw all the same footage over and over again and in some ways the world changed forever on that day for us too, even though we weren’t the ones attacked.

  54. Anony*

    I agree that a joke about 9/11 was in poor taste in a professional setting, but considering that the OP’s company immediately fired the intern, what more do these people want? Is the company supposed to go out of business as a sign of contrition? I think some of these people just want an excuse to get on their moral high horse with a big dramatic show of how offended they are.

  55. Nieve*

    I feel that the intern’s age or where he is from/where he was during the time of the tragedy shouldnt matter that much. ANYONE who has a good sense of professionalism and ‘normal’ moral compass as well as empathy, should know full well that you do not make jokes about fatal tragedies. And ESPECIALLY not ones that were internationally widely broadcasted, and hit a country so hard.
    I was 9 when 9/11 happened, didnt even speak English back then as I was still living in my native country which doesnt speak English. But I still remember coming home that day, seeing my mum stand up from the couch with a weird look on her face, and me sitting in her spot watching the live stream of the event. Now I still live far from the US, never even been there, but understand to the full extent that this is very tragic, serious event that never should be talked about in the light manner. And I am far from being an uptight person, with open mind to black comedy…
    No matter his age or background, the intern doesnt sound like someone that any company would want to hire. What a display of extremely terrible judgement.

  56. Database Developer Dude*

    I can’t even think of what someone could possibly use to joke about people jumping from buildings during the 9/11 attacks. Something like that is so far beyond the pale I would question the intern’s sanity. Why would anyone even think it’s something to joke about?

    Can you imagine the choice someone had to make in order to jump from a 100+ story building??

    This is nothing to joke about.

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