my boss emailed us a racist meme

A reader writes:

I work at a branch office of a nonprofit (roughly 150 employees over 10 states). Today, my branch manager (vice president in the overall institution) sent an offensive and racist political meme to all employees at our site.

I was shocked and disgusted, as were many of my front-line colleagues. My immediate supervisors, however, shrugged it off. They agree that it is distasteful, but not enough to confront the prickly branch manager about it.

I believe that this sort of communication (which has nothing to do with the purpose of our nonprofit) would be seriously frowned upon by the overall organization’s CEO, were he aware. If this email was leaked to the press, it would reflect very poorly on our organization.

I feel compelled to speak up about this – but how? Confronting my branch manager directly – by myself – is pretty much guaranteed to go poorly for me. And organizing colleagues to action will no doubt be seen as troublemaking.

We have no HR to speak of. I’ve thought about forwarding the e-mail directly to our CEO, but that feels like tattling. Please help me!

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 97 comments… read them below }

    1. Karen from Finance's Work is Full of Bees*

      Yes, I came here to say the same thing! Way to go, OP! That must have been scary. So proud!

  1. Fortitude Jones*

    Alison, did you ever get another update from the letter writer after the initial one where she advised she spoke to the CEO about it? I’m curious to know what, if any, action was taken.

  2. une autre Cassandra*

    Oh, I’m so glad the writer took action, and good on the CEO for recognizing the gravity of the situation.

    What possesses racists to inflict their memes, Hell-spawned “FW: FW: FW:” chain emails, and other garbage on their workplaces? Is it a territoriality thing, like “I’m in charge here and you will absorb my bullshit”? Ugh. Exhausting and demoralizing to deal with. Glad it’s being handled appropriately in this case.

    1. NerdyKris*

      They don’t think it’s racist. They aren’t doing it as a power play, it’s because they’re racist and think the joke is funny.

      1. Karen from Finance's Work is Full of Bees*

        Exactly. If you call it racist, they’ll roll their eyes and complain about the “PC police” and about how everyone is “too sensitive” and how “you can’t say anything anymore”… because they don’t think it’s racist at all. It’s just jokes that are aligned to how they genuinely see the world.

        1. Pebbles*

          In reply then: “No, you can still say it, you’ll just have to also deal with the consequences of being a racist jerk. It’s your choice.”

          1. Karen from Finance*

            Oh but then you get stuck in an endless loop:

            – But I wasn’t insulting anyone, I was just *expressing my opinion*. You’re insulting me by calling me a racist
            – I am just expressing *my* opinion that your opinion is racist. It is your opinion that is insulting, mine is factual.
            – No, my opinion isn’t insulting, it’s *my opinion*, but you’re insulting me.

            Rinse and repeat, forever and ever. Same if you replace “racist” with “sexist”, “homophobic”, “xenophobic”, etc.

            1. Pebbles*

              Yeah, I’ve been in that loop once and shut it down with “if you’re insulted by my opinion that you are a racist jerk, then you are being the too sensitive one.” I may have also added something deliberately insulting after that, though. YMMV.

              1. Karen from Finance*


                I get into this loop routinely with my family, point is they’ll NEVER stop or even admit what they’re doing, no matter what you say. It gets even trickier in work situations where one can’t really take the discussion that far because one has to be professional.

                1. Pebbles*

                  Oh I understand that! And the sad thing is that facts don’t matter to these people. I had this problem with one of my family members, and it made holidays rather tense because I felt like I was always on guard when I was near him. I completely blew up at him Easter 2018, then hosted last Thanksgiving and didn’t hear this sewage from him, so maybe he was on his best behavior because it was my house? Good luck!

            2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              Yeah; the favorite derail when someone engages in racist behavior is to try to argue that they’re not racist and that you’re the real racist for calling them a racist.

                1. Vicky Austin*

                  To which I reply, “Why is it a bad thing to be PC? It just means that you treat people with respect.”

                2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

                  My favorite rebuttal to that is “I’m not being politically correct, just regular correct.”

              1. Massmatt*

                And also the “I was just kidding” excuse. Racist or other bigoted jokes are a key way for bigots to inject racism etc into the workplace, just as they do with online forums etc. they send a signal to see who responds and what they can get away with. If it goes poorly they hope to suffer no consequences and paint YOU the person objecting as the problem person. Don’t let them play this game!

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      It is often rooted in the fact they don’t realize that it’s racist AF or that they are the “it’s funny, it’s just a joke!” mentality. Most of the time it’s sheer gross ignorance.

      It doesn’t make it less exhausting but yeah, that’s the only glimpse I’ll ever get into their minds because my mom taught me to just get the heck out of there if there’s racism going around. We both have disowned relatives for their idea of “funny” memes on FB.

      1. Armchair Analyst*

        This is what I’ve taught my son, too. If someone is racist enough to be racist in front of you… chances are, they’re coming for you, next.
        Instead of “racist” put in: homophobic, anti-Semitic, ableist, misogynist, hateful, anti-Muslim, anti-Christian, whatever, etc. etc.

      2. cmcinnyc*

        I have also noted that these people have no working definition of racism. At all. They think everything they think/do is automatically right/good, and they know racism is bad, so… yeah, can’t be racist. Anything short of outright murder. It’s impossible to reason with people like this because they have no reasonableness about anything at all outside their own (usually very narrow) experience.

        1. Pomona Sprout*

          Or they do have a concept of racism that equates it with only the most extreme behaviors like burning crosses on people’s lawns–and all they did was send an “innocent” little joke around, so how dare you call them racist. *weary sigh*

          1. Vicky Austin*

            Yeah, that’s pretty much it.They think that as long as they don’t use the N word, join the KKK, or fly a Confederate flag, they can’t possibly be racist.

            1. Massmatt*

              A video surfaced recently where a woman working at a campground pulled a gun on a black family looking for a place to picnic because they hadn’t made a reservation. Man working in the office was confused because the camp doesn’t require reservations. People on a comment board seriously argued that it wasn’t racist “because she didn’t use any racist epithets “. OMG did you miss the point where she PULLED A GUN? The level of denial was unbelievable.

    3. TardyTardis*

      My brother used to be pretty liberal, but too many decades in the Navy cured *that*, unfortunately (still hating thinking about the racist thing he sent over Harry and Meghan’s new baby).

  3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    I love that the update was positive! Now I want an updated update that says this fool was fired but I will take what I get and appreciate it! The good news is with 150 employees and everyone at a branch getting it, it’s hard to pick out the person who forwarded it. I bet you weren’t the only one, tbh.

  4. Scandinavian Vacationer*

    Side note: an organization with 150 employees over 10 states without a decent HR function?? Just the number of employees alone justifies HR, not to mention tracking 10 different state laws. That seems like a much bigger issue.

    1. De Minimis*

      It happens a lot with non-profits, HR is often combined with functions like finance/operations. You’re right, though, having that many employees requires either full-time HR or using a consultant firm.

      I worked for a nonprofit that operated in several states, we just had California law be the default since most of our operations were there and we figured since that was the most strict of the states we were in that we’d be okay everywhere else. We only had a handful of things where we couldn’t apply the California rules to everyone.

    2. mlem*

      I work for a company with over 3000 employees across three states and no formal HR department. (You work with payroll/accounting, or with your management team, or with *their* management team, or with the somewhat recently added ombudsman/employee manual.) It’s ludicrous.

    3. One of the Sarahs*

      I’ve worked for a couple of big public sector organisations that got rid of most of their HR. In both cases, it was pitched as a cost-cutting measure – so rather than having a dedicated HR team of 4-6 people, they expected all the managers to take over HR functions.
      Of course, it was a false economy, as it wasted a ton of managerial time as they all had to look up every answer, and then take time out to look for advice etc etc, not to mention dealing with fall-out when they got things wrong.
      And at the same time, the admin staff would be cut, so again, rather than having 1 person being an expert at (eg) arranging travel, keeping the office supplies in order etc etc, managers would spend far too long dealing with things.
      It’s one of those things where “cost cutting” is seen purely in terms of cutting posts, rather than building in efficiencies. And in this case, if it happened here in the UK, it could cost the organisation big time, not just in terms of losing good staff, and donations/funding if it went public, but also with constructive dismissal payouts, if it was seen by other managers and nothing was done.

    4. OyHiOh*

      A non profit I’m aware of has around 50 full and part time employees, plus another 100+ independent contract teachers (arts, dance, music, cooking, etc etc etc) who teach 6 week to 3 months at a time. They do not have a dedicated HR person. Their head of finance runs HR. Finance is chronically 60 to 90 days behind reporting to the board, staff are chronically unhappy about various personnel issues left unaddressed. “Nobody” can understand why both these problems exist. Board members whispering “HR, Hr, hrrrrrrrrrr” in the ear of the ED cannot seem to influence the situation.

  5. LaDeeDa*

    Loved the update! I am so glad it worked out.
    Over the last two years, I have had to deliver the kind of sensitivity training that hasn’t been done/needed/necessary in the US since the 70s/80s. It is heartbreaking the things I have seen and heard the last couple of years. People seem to be emboldened now.

    1. Veryanon*

      That is very, very true. I’m no longer on FB mainly because of the ugliness that seems to have become so prevalent on there. I use Twitter mainly to get news updates and follow sports things I’m interested in. I don’t use Instagram or Snapchat, and I can’t say that I miss them at all.

  6. Magenta Sky*

    It could always be worse. A friend of mine was working as the IT guy for a factory, and had occasional problems with the mail server crashing because the owner would send porn videos to all employees. Big porn videos. (He also refused to allow a firewall to be installed, because that would log all his porn downloading. Friend quit when he found out the company had put in a bid to build air liquification equipment (which makes rocket fuel) for Saddam Hussein.)

    In my experience, when talking to someone who has done something like this (and you’re not their boss, taking them to task), it’s usually more useful to approach it as “Some might consider that offensive” in a sympathetic way, rather than “that’s offensive.” They’re more likely to listen that way.

    1. SweetTooth*

      Was this friend’s job the inspiration for Arrested Development? Because for heaven’s sake – that’s a ridiculous way to run a company! Good on your friend for getting out of there.

      And agreed – how you put it is collaborative instead of accusatory, even though the message is basically the same.

      1. Magenta Sky*

        He had, at the time, a security clearance as a member of the National Guard. It concerned him that he might have trouble keeping it if he stayed around. Mind you, at the time, it wasn’t, so far as he could tell, technically illegal, but it was beyond obvious that it would be soon. (I suspect he actually reported it to appropriate authorities, but he’s never said, and wouldn’t.)

        The non-confrontational approach works if it *is* the same message. Sometimes, the real message is “I want make certain that you know I think you’re an ass” rather than “don’t ever do anything like that again or there will be consequences.” That’s not a *good* message to be trying to send in the workplace, but people will be people.

    2. Vicky Austin*

      Or even better, “I consider this offensive and disrespectful.” If you say “someone might consider this offensive,” they are likely to push back with, “I don’t make decisions based on what hypothetically *might* happen. If someone has a problem with it, it’s on them to speak out.”
      If you are a member of the group being mocked by the email, then you could also add, “As a black/Mexican/Jewish/gay/disabled/whatever person, I find this email to be hurtful. It is very important that this workplace be a place where I feel respected and valued as a gay/disabled/Black/etc. person; and this email makes me feel disrespected and devalued.”

      1. WinnaPig*

        As a person with a disability I would never, ever expose myself by saying to the person sharing or saying the hateful things that they personally hurt me. That is like catnip for a bully.

        Most things are not so blatant, in any case, so trying to confront them by saying how one is personally affected just opens the door to being labelled sensitive, which even if others agree with you will eventually start to influence how you are viewed and treated by said others.

  7. LaurenB*

    See how well it works when everyone just uses their words? Thanks to Alison for providing a clear statement of the kinds of words to use.

  8. OP*

    Hi guys! I’m the original writer from years ago. It’s fun to see my question still getting interest!

    You all will be pleased to hear that the branch manager in this story “retired early” less than a year after this incident. I do not think that the retirement was entirely voluntary. The CEO has since replaced him with a younger, African-American man who is FANTASTIC at his job. He’s doing a ton to update our organizational communications across the board, and I’d especially pleased to see that he’s making a concerted (and well-received) effort to promote minority voices within our organization.

    Years later, I’m still thankful for the encouragement I received to speak up about this.

    1. Justin*

      Thanks for speaking up. Assuming you’re not black yourself, we really, unfortunately, need support from others to root this stuff out. They… don’t always listen to us.

      In fact, they rarely do.

      1. Phoenix Programmer*

        Im not sure what being black has to fo with it? I looked and we don’t know which group was targeted by the meme anywhere I can see. Did I miss something?

        1. SeluciaMD*

          They didn’t specify in the letter but let’s be honest – in the western world, its not generally white people being targeted for their race. It’s white people targeting people of color. So it doesn’t seem like a huge leap to assume that the “racist meme” was targeting black people specifically or people of color more generally.

          OP, thanks for the second update – always so nice to get that happy ending! And it’s empowering to know that there are companies who will do the right thing and shut this stuff down. Awesome!

          1. Vicky Austin*

            It might not have been targeting Black people specifically. It could have been targeting Mexicans or Arabs, for instance. But I agree with you that it probably wasn’t targeting White people.

          2. Penny Parker*

            It was a letter from years ago and a meme which involved the president! It was racist against Obama. Get real here. I also had a boss who handed me a paper with an extremely racist meme on it back in 2009. I was unable to get the same result as this OP because it was a very small business (under ten employees) and my boss was the owner. The racism against people-of-color started from the republicans when Obama took office and it has only gotten worse under Trump. I wish life-long republicans would start addressing the racism within their party!

            1. Gazebo Slayer*

              Racism is unfortunately far older than that.

              (Though the vicious backlash after Obama’s election is absolutely real!)

        2. EinJungerLudendorff*

          It was explicitly about a racist meme. In the US (and many other western countries) that almost always means anti PoC.

    2. OP*

      Oh, and one more thing – those two supervisors of mine who told me not to speak up? Yeah, they are gone too. I don’t think that this incident alone has anything to do with their departure, but it was one small episode that was indicative of their entire approach to management. The CEO has really cleaned house, removing ineffective leaders like these, and it’s great.

      I am no longer employed by this organization, but a few years after I left (for unrelated, family reasons) my spouse was hired as the branch’s director of operations. So I still have a handle on what’s going on, and I’m delighted with how it all worked out.

      1. Amber Rose*

        I’m also delighted with how this worked out. Thank you so much for updating us!

      2. learnedthehardway*

        That’s fantastic! Not only that the CEO was responsive and cleaned house, but also that he/she brought in qualified people who happened to be minorities, and that your spouse now has a role at the organization.

      3. RJ the Newbie*

        OP, this a great overall update. I’m so glad the CEO was able to change the culture of your former company!

      4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        This is such a gratifying update! Hooray for the CEO cleaning house!

      5. Observer*

        This is the best part to me.

        The fact that you had one racist manager who thought this was ok was BAD, and presented a deep culture problem. The fact that you had more than one OTHER manager who didn’t see that this was worth rocking the boat over really made me wonder how deep and far the rot went, and if the culture was heading to the point of no return.

        The fact that your CEO cleaned house and got rid of this is REALLY heartening.

      6. The Redshirt*

        The updates just keep getting better. The Problem and Problem’s Henchmen are no longer with the company? Epic.

      7. EinJungerLudendorff*

        Y’all are amazing! Seriously, this is the sort of action we need much more of in this world!

      8. Scandinavian Vacationer*

        Please tell us that this org now has an HR function, especially with a super COO in charge. :)

    3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I’m glad you are still around to give us the final update. I’m so glad to see the CEO took action and cleaned house, that’s a relief.

    4. Banana Pancakes*

      Thanks for not standing for this, OP. People can minimize and dismiss all they want, but ultimately this is how fascism always begins, with propaganda.

    5. pleaset*

      “replaced him with a younger”

      This worries me. Clearly the older dude was making problems, but I can’t help but think about how younger employees often come cheaper, and ageism in the jobs market. Not saying that’s the case here, but it worries me.

      1. Close Bracket*

        Another way to frame this description is “replaced the racist guy with a guy who is not racist and happens to be a young person of color.”

        1. EinJungerLudendorff*

          “And also great at his job”

          Let’s not pretend like the guy wasn’t deservedly fired.

    6. Gazebo Slayer*

      It’s disappointing that they took a whole year to fire this jackass and let him save face by presenting it as “early retirement” rather than taking swift action to make it clear to the whole organization that this behavior is unacceptable.

      But I’m glad he’s gone.

    7. Greg*

      “The CEO has since replaced him with a younger, African-American man who is FANTASTIC at his job. He’s doing a ton to update our organizational communications across the board, and I’d especially pleased to see that he’s making a concerted (and well-received) effort to promote minority voices within our organization.”

      It’s not clear if the CEO’s decision to hire an African American was at all driven by the incident with the meme, but if I were the CEO, I would treat something like that as a real wake-up call. Not that he had a racist person on his team — you can’t know what’s in the heart of everyone you hire — but that the boss felt comfortable sharing the meme at work and no one outside of the OP seemed to raise much of a stink. That would be a big red flag about the lack of diversity on my team. The more you can bring a range of voices and backgrounds into leadership, the less comfortable people will be around intolerance.

  9. TyphoidMary*

    I would like to add, OP, that even if the CEO HADN’T been receptive, even if nothing had happened…. it was still the right thing to do. Thank you.

  10. AFPM*

    Now THIS is a situation where a lot of reply-alls (as mentioned in today’s other post) could be beneficial (or result in a email screaming match that would force the managers to take action), but of course I understand the power dynamics and why it didn’t happen. But a chorus of “THIS IS HORRIBLY RACIST. WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?!” might have shut this guy down and would have been fun to watch.

    And interesting that the Branch Manager didn’t include the CEO in his email…

    Glad it all worked out, OP!

    1. Arctic*

      I’d also fear that some people would chime in “it’s not that bad” or “some people can’t take a joke” or dumb stuff like that.
      I suppose it’s helpful to know which of your co-workers are racist. But I could see that becoming a nightmare thread pretty quickly.

      1. Seven hobbits are highly effective, people*

        Yeah, and then I’d feel conflicted between replying-all to be the 263rd person to also say THIS IS HORRIBLY RACIST. WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU? so that everyone would know where I also stood on that point versus following normal “don’t feed the reply-all storm” etiquette, and the whole reply-all storm would take even longer than usual to resolve if everyone felt the need to say “I also think this is unacceptable” in reply-all form just in case.

        1. AFPM*

          Yes – I was partially kidding/daydreaming that this would be satisfying to see so many people shut down this jerk (and force the managers to act once it got out of control), but in practice would be terrible.

  11. GreenDoor*

    I just want to reiterate that I love Alison’s advice. It’s really easy to say that we “should all speak up” when we see stuff like a racist meme. But that’s a LOT easier said than done when speaking up could cost you your livlihood. I think it’s a smart idea to frame the pushback on why the meme, joke, whatever, is bad….for the company. Because, sadly, if you focus on why you are personally offended, you will have the “Oooh it’s the PC police” kind of blow off. But focusing on why the company shouldn’t ignore it is a really smart strategy. Sounds like OP had great luck with this and I’m so glad!

  12. MissDisplaced*

    I’m really glad this had a good outcome for the OP. It is not easy to speak up when you see someone act or do something like this, especially if that person is a higher-level manager or executive.

  13. Skeptimist*

    This is such a great update! I’m going to celebrate by “yodeling in the parking lot,” cuz that completely cracked me up.

  14. That Girl From Quinn's House*

    I just saw the attached “more reading” letter about the Pepe the Frog meme, and now I have to have a chat with my husband, whose favorite animal is a frog, and who’s accumulated a ton of frog paraphernalia and frog-themed usernames on the internet since the late 90s.

    Time for all new logins, I guess.

    1. Bryce*

      I don’t think it needs a complete scrubbing, but definitely give him a heads up so that if anyone starts whistling around him he knows the tune.

      1. Bryce*

        …that seemed less opaque in my head. So that he can shut down anyone who tries to put him onboard with the racism. Assuming it is just generic frog stuff and he hasn’t already picked up some Pepe without knowing better.

      2. Jasnah*

        Agreed, I don’t see why you have to pick a new favorite animal just because racists online have picked up a specific frog meme (not even frogs the animal in general!). They’ll move on to emus or geckos or whatever is fresh, and then your husband can still have frogs. Don’t let them win!

          1. Gazebo Slayer*

            Yeah, nobody’s going to mistake Kermit for Pepe.

            Don’t let the fascists have anything. Don’t let them win.

            (I feel really bad for the cartoonist who created Pepe and saw the worst people on the internet hijack a character he’d made as an everyman lovable-loser stoner. They’ve stolen and poisoned his creation and they’ve dragged his name through the mud by association – that has to feel horrible.)

Comments are closed.