my boss is trying to find out who wrote an anonymous sexism report

A reader writes:

I am a woman working in a male-dominated industry. My current (very large) company makes me “feel my gender” much more than any other company I’ve worked. I was even part of an investigation against a sexist boss that escalated to HR and management, only to have my great-grandboss shut down any disciplinary action against the offender. The offender is still a boss and still sexist, but they transfered me to a new group.

The company recently instituted a quarterly culture survey which allows anonymous comments. My current, not sexist, genuinely well-meaning boss sent out this email (identifying details removed):


In the survey, a comment was posted from our department that warrants attention. If you are the author of the comment, or have knowledge about who posted it, you are not in trouble. However, we need to address the behavior described in the comment. Please see me by the end of the week. If you prefer anonymity, you can also go directly to HR.

Here is the comment: “I have heard from female coworkers recently that there are still pockets of blantant sexism/harassment in the company. Some of these instances have been reported to HR and those employee’s management and little to no action has been taken to address the complaint.”

As the only woman in my group, I guess I feel some kind of obligation to explain to my boss that this was not an okay email to send out? I think he’d be genuinely open to feedback, but I’m struggling with phrasing. It feels kind of like nagging him for failing to dust the chandelier, while meanwhile actively ignoring rotting garbage his coworkers left in the corner. Is it worth addressing? Am I overreacting? Do you have a script I could use?

I’m also concerned that addressing it will make me look like I”m the one who wrote the comment. For the record, I didn’t write this comment, but I easily could have. Every female coworker I know could have. So while I could say “I did not write the comment,” if pressured I’d also have to say “I am aware of many accounts of sexism, both subversive and blatant, but grandboss and great-grandboss are main culprits, so I don’t exactly want you to escalate this to them.”

Ugh. It would have been different if he’d said, “In the recent survey we heard some concerns about sexism and harassment, which we take very seriously. We can’t act without having more information, so if you’re willing to talk more with either me or Jane in HR, we’d be grateful for your help. You should also know that it’s illegal under federal law for an employer to retaliate against anyone for making a good faith complaint of discrimination or harassment, and we’re committed to following that law and protecting anyone who makes such a report.”

You still might not have trusted them to take it seriously, given how you’ve seen the company handle investigations in the past, but that message would be better than “the person who gave this anonymous feedback needs to identify themselves.”

So yeah, it’s worth talking to him.

Do it face-to-face rather than in email (both because you want a real conversation here and because that ensures he can’t well-intentionedly-but-cluelessly forward your email).

You could say something like this: “I was surprised by your email about the anonymous comment on sexism, and I wanted to flag for you that it didn’t land the way I think you intended. I know you stressed that whoever wrote it wasn’t in any trouble, but when we’re told comments will be anonymous, people trust they’ll be anonymous. To be then be told ‘you need to identify yourself’ is likely to make people distrust any request for anonymous feedback in the future. I get that you’re coming from a place of concern where you want to dig into the report, but if the company genuinely wants to tackle sexism, they could investigate without saying that people who were promised anonymity need to give that up.”

You could add, “I feel like by saying this, I’m making it sound like I was the person who wrote that, and I wasn’t. But between you and me, I agree with the person who wrote it. My sense, though, from raising these issues here in the past, is that nothing will come of raising it, so it wasn’t on my survey and it’s not something I’d want to pursue.” If you definitely don’t want your boss to share with others that you said this and you don’t trust him to respect your wishes there, then skip those last two sentences.

At some point it might be that a group of women there are able to push back as a group and insist on the company taking actual action (not just shuffling people around to different teams), or you or others might decide to file an EEOC complaint, but if that’s not something you’re up for right now or have calculated isn’t in your best interests, you’re not obligated to take it on yourself just because your boss is bungling this.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 157 comments… read them below }

  1. Observer*


    How high up are Grandboss and GreatGrandBoss? Is it possible to bring it up higher?

    Also, are you in the US? If so, perhaps gather some documentation and then complain to the EEOC. Initial complaints can be anonymous. Or maybe gather the documentation to use when you leave.

    1. Jules the 3rd*

      By the time you’re trying to get above a Great Grandboss, you’re talking about people who are too high in the company for your voice to have any impact. Even at my employer, my Great Grandboss talks to the CEO regularly. I don’t. Great Grandboss has way more cred.

      EEOC / country equivalent or lawsuit’s the only realistic possibility, and that usually costs the complainant more than the company.

      Glassdoor or other company reputation management options, maybe, but male-dominated industries haven’t been very responsive to #MeToo / other harassment movements.

      1. Jules the 3rd*

        OP, I’m really thinking about this hypothetical – they find the complainant, it’s a guy, you’re the only woman in his department. That makes you a likely ‘female coworker’ that the complainant heard it from.

        I wouldn’t take this to your boss, I think his email alone is evidence that he doesn’t get it and you can’t actually trust him to protect you. I would make sure your resume’ is up to date, and poke around a little outside your company and see what your market it like. This could get *real* ugly, real fast.

        I would also document the life out of this whole scenario – forward emails to your personal account, write down any conversations you remember (date, time, audience, topic, pertinent quotes or paraphrases). Take home any hard copy documentation you have.

        Good luck, let us know how it goes.

        1. Jules the 3rd*

          And for anyone who thinks I’m being alarmist, look up:
          Cristina Chen-Oster
          Ellen Pao
          There’s tons of stories and stats about retaliation out there, and this company has not demonstrated their ability to manage harassment well.

          1. Sharon*

            Not just retaliation but in my experience when a company has had issues in the past that they don’t deal with, it comes off as deliberately hiding their heads in the sand when they then want to dig into employee surveys that bring up the same issue. Very disingenuous. In the LW’s example, all they have to do is dig a little bit into the prior complaints. Or did HR not keep records?!

        2. LW*

          I just wanted to clarify that I am the only woman in my group, which reports to my boss.
          However, the survey results role up to the department (grand-boss’) level, where there are about 20 women.
          I’ve confirmed that other groups within the department did not receive an email like this from their bosses.
          I also never spoke of the incident with coworkers (other than the ones involved in the investigation). So while I initially worried that my incident was the commentor’s incident … I’ve decided that, unfortunately, chances are there’s another similar incident out there I don’t know about.

          1. lemon*

            The fact that other teams did not receive a similar email from their bosses makes me very strongly inclined to agree with the other commenters who advise being extremely cautious about this situation.

            My read on this is that it seems that they very strongly suspect that you either made the comment yourself or have been telling others about what happened. I wouldn’t be surprised if “addressing the behavior in the comment” actually meant, “we need you to stop blabbing about this incident,” instead of “we’re going to stop gross dudes from doing gross things.” Given the situation you described, this note feels less like a misguided attempt to be supportive and more as a way to put folks on guard/on notice. (I don’t mean that this is your current boss’ individual intent behind this. He could totally be the well-intentioned person you believe him to be, but this could be coming from above him.)

            1. Avasarala*

              Exactly this. I agree it sounds like they possible suspect you wrote it, which puts a target on your back. Even if your boss wants to support you, it smells like he could Ned Stark himself into a situation where he tries to be honorable instead of savvy and gets you and himself hung out to dry.

          2. Busy*

            I feel you so hard.

            A while back under another name I cannot remember, I posted my story about retaliation and the consequences I experience from outing a hostile work place. I feel you so hard, cuz I still work in a very male dominated field in a heavily racist and sexist area (if I gave you the name of my city, you would know which small city it is).

            With that said, I will saty that in my experience, there are varying levels of “on your side” type managers regarding this. There are the sexists who don;t believe that sexism is a thing, there are the ones who recognize it and even sympathize with you but see it as part of working in that industry.

            Unfortunately it sounds like your boss is the second one. The one who sympathizes but still isn’t totally getting it. I wouldn’t go to him either giving your history here and just file this away as facts you now know about him. That is if you want to avoid more drama.

            Or you can take on my current Shewoman Hear Me Roar tactic and just start running your mouth every day all day about it. And reporting it. I know I am in a good position because they recently hired a person outside of this industry and I got put under her. And our HR finally did a site wide sexual harassment training where the were really stern and scary. Scary enough that a good bit of people have stopped the casual misogyny. But we all know people who actually do hate other people never will stop no matter how many women or men tell them to. And I am on a mission, baby. But only because I can with little to no repercussions. Worst they will do is move me.

            But I am just here to sympathize and tell you IT IS OK IF YOU FEEL LIKE YOU NEED TO LET IT GO TOO! The first time i reported shit here, they blew me off too.

            1. AnnaBananna*

              There’s a third kind: the boss that sympathizes and wants to do what he can, but if it’s between your vindication or his job/career, you’re totally on your own. :-\

              1. Devil Fish*

                Forth kind: the boss that sympathizes and wants to do what he can, but one of his bosses is one of the previous three types, so he’s … “limited” is the most diplomatic way of saying it, I think.

          3. Beth*

            Your boss being the only one to send about this COULD be him being a well intentioned doofus who doesn’t realize how it’s coming off but is fundamentally trying to do the right thing…or it COULD be him thinking that this traces back to you somehow and trying make the problem go away. Even if you’ve never talked to your current coworkers about the incident, there’s a good chance that your boss is at least loosely aware that there was an investigation based on something you reported.

            If it’s the former, well, he’ll be a well-intentioned doofus whether you correct him on this thing or not. My experience with adult men (like, over college age) who make these kinds of mistakes out of ignorance is that their ignorance exists for a reason–while they might loosely want to be the good guy, they never saw this stuff as important enough to devote much energy to learning about it or thinking it through from others’ perspectives. This kind of guy might take this one correction well and turn this one incident around…but he’s unlikely to bother to extrapolate it beyond this one incident, so he won’t really improve overall. In short, he’s not really worth risking yourself for–that works out to you sticking your nose out for him, without getting much of anything in return.

            If he’s the latter, it’s doubly not worth risking yourself. In this scenario, you’re already under suspicion; you don’t need to further associate yourself with this or remind your boss that you see the problems in the company. Keep your head down, don’t mention the email unless directly asked (in which case just say nope, wasn’t you), and maybe do some serious considering about whether this is an atmosphere that’s going to support your career growth going forward and whether maybe you’d be better served somewhere else.

            1. Le Sigh*

              He could also be the former, and when you try to explain why what he did wasn’t good…he’ll explode and talk about how much he’s supported you and supports women….and yeah.


        3. Kyrielle*

          All of this. I am a woman in tech, and I’m the only woman on my team. My coworkers and boss are great.

          And if my boss sent that email out, even if I had _no clue_ of the background of the issue and had never been involved in a complaint about harassment, I would already be cringing and worrying about my situation.

          Educating the boss comes at the cost of further associating yourself with the situation, which being the only woman on the team will already do enough of. And in your case you were involved in a previous complaint, which means this could get all sorts of ugly. I would leave it lie until or unless the boss directly questioned me.

        4. MommyMD*

          I would not take it to this boss either. And I certainly wouldn’t say I wanted to flag it for them, making Boss appear incompetent. (Which he kind of is here, but I don’t want to rub his nose in it). I can’t see any upside to bringing it up and doubtful it will change anything. If I couldn’t work under these conditions I’d start looking for another job. It seems more insidious that outright harassment and that’s hard to prove.

    2. Traffic_Spiral*

      Maybe leave a glassdoor review talking about how shitty their hunting for the reporter is?

      1. HJG*

        Ha! I haven’t thought about that show in so long…brb checking if it’s steaming anywhere so I can binge it

  2. human person*

    This is so beyond appropriate and I hope you do speak to them per Alison’s response.

    One question, though: what does “failing to dust the chandelier” mean? I’ve never heard that in my life, and if it’s a common saying I’d love to know what it means!

    1. Lilith*

      I’ve not heard it either but in context it seems the garbage is huuuuuge while the dust is small. LW can correct me if I’m off base.

      1. Jerk Store*

        That’s what I took it to mean – the LW ‘s company is focusing on one oddly specific issue when there’s a much bigger problem.

    2. Kim, No Longer Esq.*

      I don’t think it’s a common phrase; I think OP used it literally, as part of a larger metaphor, yelling at the boss for not cleaning up a small mess while you both ignore the much larger, obvious one.

        1. Future Homesteader*

          I think it was a great metaphor.

          Also, I’m so sorry for the whole situation. It sucks. Do what you have to for your sanity and preservation, whether it’s talking about it or not!

        2. Metaphor Man*

          We don’t accept your apology, because it isn’t necessary. What you wrote made perfect sense.

    3. nora*

      Another way I’ve heard this expressed is “playing with the needles while the roots are sick.” (I heard this from a botanist, sooo.) Basically, focusing on the wrong problem.

    4. Kuododi*

      I’ve heard the same idea communicated with the expression:”The house is on fire yet we are standing here arguing over window treatments.”. Best regards

  3. So extremely Anon*

    I work for a company that loves to send out surveys. These are rolled up to a certain level, but anyone with detective skills can likely take a fair guess at who says what when there are only 5 or 6 candidates for the writer. One of the questions related to something negative about the manager, and one person chose a negative response. My manager then held 1:1 meetings to ferret out who said it. I didn’t, but I did learn that I better say nothing negative!

    1. Tammy*

      My company loves to do employee satisfaction surveys too. The vendor/software we use deliberately prevents anyone (even the CEO) from creating a data roll-up that would produce a set of fewer than X people. I think X is around 20. Still not perfect, but better. Of course, if you’re trying to ferret out who said a thing, rather than just responding to/dealing with the things, that’s 127% counterproductive and you won’t get meaningful feedback.

      1. Kyrielle*

        We had a recent employee survey and management was unhappy with the response rate. Funny thing is, some people responded and hadn’t read the “your comments will be shown to management as-is, without your name, so don’t put identifying information in them” – I don’t think anyone did, that I know of, but there are now people saying they sure won’t respond to the next survey given that info.

        This sort of thing – the letter-writer’s situation – is one of the reasons why it can be hard to get data by anonymous survey of employees. Because the trust isn’t there, because too many places it’s anonymous, but not *anonymous*, and-or followed up on in the wrong ways.

        1. AnnaBananna*

          Yep. As a survey data wrangler myself, this is why we summarize comment results for our clients, so they don’t have exact phrasing, etc, to identify people by language use. Maybe the HR departments of the world should start doing this instead, since clearly management can’t handle negative feedback (their poor baby waby egos!).

        2. Pippa*

          A few years ago our IT dept sent out an ‘anonymous’ survey. I filled it out in good faith, told the truth, and was surprised to get an email from the head of IT asking my to explain and justify a criticism I had offered. (It was factually correct, relevant, and politely phrased.) I communicated my strong displeasure to him, and his justification was (no joke) ‘well it’s anonymous in that I’m not going to show your responses to anyone else, but we’re IT so we always have the info for anything you do on the system.’ I told him his data collection ethics sucked, and ever since, I’ve answered surveys at work only when I’ve already been public about the opinions being solicited.

          Surveys, sexual harassment reporting, all of it – if the organization really wanted to know about and solve problems, they’d find a way to make it safe for people to provide the info.

          1. Lepidoptera*

            “Well maybe if you can’t bring yourself to actually understand what data collection ethics are, maybe you should run this through an outside vendor next time.”

        3. CatMintCat*

          We have an anonymous survey every year. That we have to use our work login to access. I just nope right out of it every year. Except my last year in my previous toxic role. I had fun with it that year.

      2. TardyTardis*

        Yes, we were told our surveys were confidential, too, though we had to fill them out from our desks from our own accounts.

        Nobody believed for a moment that they were confidential with that laid out.

    2. Texan In Exile*

      I did not participate in the survey at my company, yet the report out claimed my group had 100% participation.

      The survey is supposed to be anonymous,but the information rolls up to the manager, so there is some tracking there.

      My [new] boss got very bad scores, so he had a meeting about it. He accepted anonymous questions via an online app, but a co-worker was interrogated later about one of the questions he had asked on the app. Soooo…. not even the app is anonymous. And my decision not to participate anymore in this kind of thing is even more reinforced. I do not trust anyone.

    3. CanCan*

      We get frequent surveys and micro-surveys. Some general public-service, some run by our organization only. They’re anonymous, but the questions at the end are enough to identify anyone, among ~450 employees: your department/group? (my group is small: only ~10) your salary classification? (narrows down to 4) how long have you been here? (bingo, depending on what ranges they give for the answers). The only consolation is that probably it’s only HR that gets to see the raw data… probably.

  4. LokiMonster5000*

    Just by sending this email, boss opened up the company to a retaliation suit that looks way better the day after he sent it than it did the day before. Boss is trying to identify commenter. Bad things happen to commenter that may have everything or nothing to do with the sexist environment in which she works, but commenter decides she’s had enough and hires a lawyer. “They pressured me to come forward in an email to all women. I think someone must have found out who I was, because why else would they have [done bad things] to me?” That’s enough to force company to litigate the case through summary judgment, in my opinion. Boss needs to know he made a mess.

    1. OrigCassandra*

      While I tend to agree that Boss made a mess and it would be good if he understood that… if OP is neither legal nor HR, she is under no obligation to educate him, and doing so could put her in office-politics danger.

      If I were OP, I might consider discussing with Legal or HR, but emphatically NOT with Boss — especially not alone.

    2. AnnaBananna*

      About that…I recently read that something like only 6% of hostile/harassment cases end up successful. It seems ridiuclously difficult to prove. Not sure if that’s a good thing or not?

      1. Devil Fish*

        How are you defining “successful”? Most of them never go to trial because the company settles because lawsuits are expensive whether the claim is valid or not.

        The standard tactic is for the company to drag things out as long as possible, hoping that the plaintiff will run out of money or time or emotional bandwidth to pursue the suit and then the company settles if it actually gets to the point where they’ll need to defend themselves in court. It’s really gross.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        As Devil Fish noted, and depending on how you define and parse the data, employment discrimination lawsuits that go to trial may have a lower “success” rate. However, the vast majority of those cases (like 70%+) settle before they reach the trial phase. Functionally, that means there’s enough there for the plaintiff to prove their case, or the cost of defending against the suit is greater than paying out a settlement. A settlement can be a “win,” but it won’t be reflected in counts of “successful” cases because those measures typically focus only on cases that go to trial.

        Generally, if a case like this goes to trial, it’s because one or both parties are being real jerks (see, e.g., WalMart). But that doesn’t mean that people with meritorious cases are unable to prove their case—it just means that most meritorious cases are resolved without going to court.

    3. TardyTardis*

      Since when do any lawsuits work out well for the employee? Even if you win you’re labeled as a troublemaker.

  5. Elspeth Mcgillicuddy*

    The phrasing sounds to me like a guy wrote it. If so, that means A) they couldn’t be you and B) they should be safer from detection in the larger crowd of men. At any rate, I’d suggest using masculine pronouns to discuss the author with your boss. Even if a woman did write it, you’ll be laying a smoke screen for her.

    1. KWu*

      I like this suggestion of using masculine pronouns to reference the anonymous comment author.

    2. AKchic*

      That is how I read it too. And then I got irritated that a complaint of s e x u a l harassment got more attention as secondhand information from a man than it did as a firsthand accounting from a woman.
      Ultimately though, I doubt that the supposedly well-meaning boss will get anything done. The grandboss will once again shut everything down.

    3. Koala dreams*

      I also read it that way, but I’m not sure it matters. If the people with power in that company are sexist misogynists, they might still retaliate against the women employees.

      1. Autumnheart*

        But, to point out a mylar-thick silver lining, now there’s a paper trail in the form of that email. It puts a target on any boss who retaliates.

    4. JSPA*

      I’d worry that even if the writer is not in trouble, the person being quoted, might be! And that OP might well be the person being quoted. Just in case, save the email, as that’s exhibit A for your wrongful termination suit.

      1. Michaela Westen*

        Be sure to print out and take home copies of everything you save. Just in case they fire and/or lock you out of their systems. Just in case there’s a glitch and you can’t access your personal email.

  6. no, the other Laura*

    OP….How are sure are you that he didn’t actually mean it exactly the way it sounds, i.e. “identify yourself so we know who to retaliate against”?

    I have seen so very very VERY many people who thought their direct boss was actually well meaning and were bitterly disappointed. I’m seeing not one but two of my MALE colleagues who reported incidents of harassment they witnessed, being retaliated against right now.

    I’ve also seen an awful lot of bosses who were previously sympathetic promptly turn into “no man should have to justify himself to an HR minion just because of some random anonymous accusation! rawr! You Girls are ruining everything for us Men!” the instant it was even whispered that perhaps a given organization wasn’t absolutely the best place ever for women.

    And his paycheck and bonus depend very much on his being….let’s just say favorably disposed….towards two guys who are the source of the problem. He has a lot to lose by supporting any inquiry into their behavior, and nothing to win. He is actively dis-incentivized from doing the right thing here.

    I think you are much better off asking someone in HR to speak to him about how to phrase this rather than speaking to him yourself. If it goes well and he’s receptive to the message, great! And HR can explain things like, this is our investigation to perform and you need to not be seen as potentially screwing it up. If he isn’t receptive and really was looking for the culprit, you’re at least one person removed from the retaliation / blowback.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      I don’t think this is helpful. The LW seems to trust him, and she didn’t write it, and . . . there is really nowhere to go with a speculation like this in the context here. She wants to address his wording, not have a bunch of people who don’t know him weigh in on his sincerity.

      1. Hey Karma, Over here.*

        I think it is a good idea for OP to take a step back and think of it from another angle. She’s new to the group. She has already been burned by the executives in this company. She does not know the manager’s purpose for sending this out, awkward wording or not. He may be a great guy. And he may have the best intentions in the world. But once she shares her thoughts with him, they are out there for him to use as he wishes. Since this is his idea of acceptable corporate communication, I would not jump quickly to tell him that he’s inappropriate.

        1. Jules the 3rd*

          I have to agree with Hey Karma and the other Laura. Approach this cautiously, OP. Maybe a printout of the email slid under HR’s door after hours (with the header cut off in case there’s anything identifying you), with a ‘thought these were anonymous’ note on it.

          1. Librarian of SHIELD*

            I do like this idea. It lets HR know that since the company has proven that the anonymous surveys are proving not to be anonymous, they can no longer rely on the accuracy of any information they get through that pathway. And I’m just paranoid enough to say, take a screencap of the email and paste it into word if you’re going to add comments to it. No point in setting your company off on a handwriting analysis crusade.

            1. lemon*

              I’m paranoid enough to suggest printing it out at home, and not at work, so that the print job can’t even be traced back to you.

              1. Collingswood*

                Our IT folks definitely track emails sent to personal addresses. If you’re worried about being tracked, maybe snap a pic with your personal phone and print that elsewhere.

          2. NothingIsLittle*

            I would very much not recommend doing that. It comes across sarcastic or snarky and is only going to ruffle feathers if you word it like that. I don’t think it would start a witch hunt, but HR’s definitely not going to view what you’ve suggested in the spirit intended.

            Based on OP’s letter, it sounds like HR tried to go to bat for her and the top of the food chain shut that down, so discreetly mentioning to that HR person that this has happened would probably elicit a better result. (This assumes that I’ve understood correctly that someone in HR was on OP’s side and would have the authority to deal with the information either because they can address it with the manager or because they are the one monitoring the anonymous survey results and need to take into account that they’re likely no longer accurate.) I do agree with Librarian that HR should know that the surveys can’t be relied upon to be accurate anymore, but slipping it under their door doesn’t seem like the way to do it.

            1. no, the other Laura*

              This is more along the lines of what I was thinking – a discreet (VERY discreet, like so quickly that if you have to say “oh I just had an insurance question” that seems reasonable) mention to a person.

        2. Kyrielle*

          There is also a chance that the boss is exactly as OP describes, but sent the email at the request/order of someone else – such as one of the people already involved in the first mess.

      2. Anon for this*

        I’ll take the OP’s word the boss is sincerely nice. That does not mean they are trustworthy or that discussing this with him will not end up being a problem for them. I’ve had nice bosses that I would not report sexism complaints or harassment to because I can’t trust how they would deal with that information. I work in an industry with a lot of sexism and harassment. I know of many instances where “very nice bosses” did not act on reported incidents. They weren’t going to retaliate directly, but they also didn’t protect you either. And so far the OP’s company has not taken steps to show they are going to handle this responsibly.

        It took years to build trust that at least HR at my job would handle the issues with sensitivity and that took a whole structural reorganization of that department to cement it. The trust is still not 100% there for direct line management, I don’t think it’s unwise to caution about this.

          1. Spencer Hastings*

            Or to paraphrase from Gavin de Becker: charm and niceness are actions that people perform, not inherent characteristics of a person.

    2. Falling Diphthong*

      FWIW, I read it as along the lines of this Stone Soup cartoon: Wally (a great guy) observes to his neighbor that he hasn’t noticed any sexism but… wait… I’m a guy, so maybe that’s why?

      That the boss hasn’t noticed any sexism (no one is sexually discriminating against him, after all) and is shocked that not only might this be happening, but that apparently when it was reported it was ignored?! That’s shocking! And clearly a rare one-off that will be fixed if they just figure out what the one singular occasion was and address it properly. Which he is trying to do with this email.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        Oh, and I agree with Hey Karma that it can be sincerely meant, and still the OP should engage with extreme caution. There’s no reason to think the company will do something to fix this, or fail to punish the complainants, even if her boss naively believes that of course they are merely seeking justice and the correct outcome.

      2. Avasarala*

        Yes, even if the boss realizes this is an issue and is genuinely trying to solve it, if this is how he goes about it he may be actually making things worse. I would not trust someone who is kind but ineffective with something as important as this.

    3. Gazebo Slayer*

      “He is actively disincentivized from doing the right thing here.” Yup. Mark Twain’s observation that “you tell me where a man gets his corn pone and I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is” is eternally relevant.

  7. Amethystmoon*

    If it were me, I would say nothing directly to boss, as he would most likely assume I was the commenter. However, I would be seriously considering looking for another position. If you can’t trust your boss to keep anonymous complaints anonymous, you can’t trust him with other things. Some companies have an ombudsman group that can be brought in, but I don’t know how effective they are.

    1. ten-four*

      I second this, also because a sexist grand-boss and great-grand boss mean that your future in this company will never be good. Even if your competence gets you promoted, you’ll run into the wall that is a company with crappy HR and sexist nonsense at the senior level. You know that wall is there and your boss just showed you that it might be closer than you thought! Time to go.

  8. Daniel*

    OP, if nothing else, forward this e-mail to your personal e-mail address. My feeling is that if anything happens with respect to the complaint, the powers that be will find a way for this e-mail to be conveniently “lost.”

    1. Liar Liar Pants Dracarys*

      This. This thissity this. Also, take screenshots of it in your work email box.

      I was burned by an “anonymous” survey at work many years ago. I wish I’d known then that nothing is every truly anonymous at a place of employment. There’s always a way to suss out the info.

      1. Devil Fish*

        Whether that matters kind of depends on how good your IT dept is. If you forward it to your personal account and then delete the sent email from your sent folder, you’re pretty much covered unless they want to look for it really hard, which they shouldn’t unless they’re building a case—and if they are building a case, there’s not a lot of point in getting really cloak and dagger to try to avoid whatever’s going to happen; being prepared for it is better.

        Example re IT: The company I worked at that had the most problems with this stuff was also the company that outsourced their IT (and HR … different story) to a company that employed lower-skilled IT professionals overseas. There were probably key-loggers installed on all the machines, there was definitely recording software (call center), the email and internet use was tracked … but it didn’t matter because the outsourced IT wasn’t trained on any of that (they mostly just knew how to reset passwords) and the previous IT guy refused to do it because they’d put him in a completely different department, taken all his IT duties away and reduced his salary by a lot when they outsourced the job.

    2. Andy*

      I would take photos with your cell phone. don’t forward or screenshot (that leaves keystroke trails)

      1. Bridget*

        If the OP gets work email on her phone, can she screenshot from her phone without a company-accessible record being made? Hmmm. Just so it’s a bit cleaner than a cell phone pic of a computer screen.

    3. TardyTardis*

      I like taking a photo with your personal phone better, or if you must have the file, save it to a thumb drive. SneakerNet can be your friend.

  9. I was never given a name*

    My brain is still trying to process the disconnect in the email between “If you prefer anonymity, you can also go directly to HR.” and “Some of these instances have been reported to HR and those employee’s management and little to no action has been taken to address the complaint.”
    Unfortunately, I agree with other commenters that boss is likely not your friend.

  10. Hey Karma, Over here.*

    “I guess I feel some kind of obligation to explain to my boss that this was not an okay email to send out?”
    I don’t see an obligation. He’s just that obtuse. He’s risen up in a company that allows people to be obtuse and rewards people who are more than obtuse and are downright rotten.
    “Please complete this anonymous survey.”
    Ok, now own up to your comments.
    Are you sure he messaged everyone in the group, not just you? (I think a man wrote it, but he may think that a woman was doing the equivalent of “asking for a friend”)
    The company has shown it doesn’t want to know. I’d wait this out for a bit.

    1. Michaela Westen*

      Hey, Karma makes a good point, OP. You are not obligated to help with this. You’re not your boss’ supervisor. It’s not your responsibility.
      Do you generally tend to feel obligated to help people even when they’re not helping you, or have worked against you? I used to feel like that. Age and therapy have helped. Your first responsibility is to take care of yourself and your life and your children, if any. Your boss and the sexist managers can take care of themselves.
      In this situation especially, I would be cautious about engaging anyone re the email. I’m not savvy enough to see all the ramifications, but knowing the higher managers are sexist and won’t address it is not a good sign.

  11. Lance*

    To be honest, I’m of two minds about whether the OP should bring up whether or not she was the one to write it at all. On one hand, it could (hopefully) make it clear that she’s not the one to conceivably retaliate against, should anyone decide to use such info in such a way (and given the company’s complete unwillingness to do anything about reported sexism… I’d be real skeptical). On the other, stating unprompted that she’s not the one who wrote that feels like it might paint a small target, and besides that, paint a picture that part of the reason she’s going to her boss is to make it clear that she wasn’t the one who wrote the message, when what she’s really going for is to make it clear that none of this is okay.

    I admit, I may be off-base on this, but that’s where my head would be going with this sort of thing.

  12. KWu*

    I do not feel it is worth giving your boss feedback on this topic while you are still working there. I find myself with less and less patience these days for managers who may be well-intentioned but let themselves remain in a clueless and ignorant state. I think it takes very very little effort to start educating yourself on common scenarios and concerns when it comes to a topic like sexism in the workplace.

    Trying to ferret out the author of that specific comment seems like it’s coming from a place of, “well if we can just address the specifics of this one incident, we’ll be fine” and this workplace seems clearly beyond that. I also assume there’s no reason to think that the new boss, however well-intentioned, will be able to be effective at improving the situation when the previous investigation was shut down by a great-grandboss. So while it would be a kindness on a personal level, the risk seems high for the low level of potential payoff.

    I would wait and see if the new boss instead asks about resources for educating himself or otherwise demonstrates a willingness to listen before trying to fix things to make them go away. This may end up looking like waiting until the exit interview, or afterwards.

  13. anon4this*

    “I have heard from female coworkers recently that there are still pockets of blantant sexism/harassment in the company.”
    Doesn’t this effectively out the OP, and possibly whomever she talks with in the group? She’s the lone female in her entire department, so everyone’s going to think she complained and whomever she talks to regularly was the “offender”. Very bizarre and insensitive way to tackle sexism in the workplace.

    1. Jules the 3rd*

      This is my worry, yeah. Even though OP didn’t submit the survey response, there’s not a lot of ‘female coworkers’ to hear about it from.

    2. LW*

      I just wanted to clarify that I am the only woman in my group, which reports to my boss.
      However, the survey results role up to the department (grand-boss’) level, where there are about 20 women.
      I’ve confirmed that other groups within the department did not receive an email like this from their bosses.
      I also never spoke of the incident with coworkers (other than the ones involved in the investigation). So while I initially worried that my incident was the commentor’s incident … I’ve decided that, unfortunately, chances are there’s another similar incident out there I don’t know about.

    3. AKchic*

      You aren’t wrong. This kind of reads as “we’d like you to stop talking to other people about a situation we ‘handled’ already. Either come forward and complain directly, or quit talking about the past. Move on already and quit with the drama because other people are talking now.”

      And really, the situation *wasn’t* handled. People have a right to warn each other about the issues they face in the workplace, and how to help each other avoid it, document it, and work around it since management won’t do anything about it.

      1. lemon*

        This was my take as well– that it’s basically a “nice” way of telling folks to shut up about what happened.

      2. Amethystmoon*

        Yeah, my take also. Silence the dissenters and try to brush it under the rug, except in this case, the rug is already lumpy with tons of stuff hiding under it.

  14. Mary*

    OP, I would disagree with Alison’s advice here. Before you say anything, I would think very carefully about what you want to achieve and whether this is likely to happen. Do you think your manager will take your comments on board, given what you already know? Interrogate that “sense of obligation”: you are not under any obligation to spend political capital if there’s likely to be blowback against you unless you’re in a senior position or have some other form of privilege. Being a member of the group that your employer is crap to does not oblige you to take on more crap. Let the men take some of that weight, or let your company suffer accordingly.

    If you think there’s genuinely something to gain, that’s different. But clarify with yourself what you want to gain, how likely it is, and how much risk you want to take first.

    1. Lindsay*

      I totally agree and think this is exactly the right advice. I grew up in a very “speaking truth to power” type of upbringing, and I do think it’s a pretty universal american thing to “do the right thing” with stuff like this. However, in my recent experience I’ve realized that sometimes a situation is far bigger than what I can really influence with a 1:1 conversation. Based on this guy’s email, he appears to be completely not-self aware and not-well-educated on the topic of sexual harassment. At this point, someone who is ignorant on this topic is CHOOSING to be – the only way one could get to this point in current society is by burying their head in the sand. So, I think this conversation has much greater risk than any potential reward. If someone was actively being sexually harassed and you knew about it, this would tip the scales in a a different direction. But most likely, you will get blowback if your intention isn’t clear. That being said, I think you need to get out of this company. Speak with your feet!

  15. The New Wanderer*

    I’d be concerned about the up front “you are not in trouble” because that shouldn’t have been a concern in the first place. Without that phrasing, it just seems like a misguided attempt to get concrete evidence of misbehavior going unpunished. Personally I don’t think it’s worth talking to the boss about this, I think the OP’s analogy of dusting the chandelier (phrasing of the email) while ignoring the garbage (the actual harassment dismissing issues) is apt.

    Ultimately the survey comment speaks for itself, it doesn’t need a face to go along with it. HR already knows, both about the incidents and about the fact they did nothing to make it right. Having the commenter talk to the boss or HR is not going to change anything if it’s been quashed by someone 3-4 levels up. If the boss really wants to know what happened, the boss can pursue it with HR directly. If anything, that’s the message that should be conveyed to the boss.

    1. Massmatt*

      This puts it very well, knowing who it is serves no useful function, the only reasons for it would be idle curiosity and likely retaliation.

      I had a boss that was overall decent but when I mentioned people were concerned about something (once rumored layoffs, another about moving the office) both times he grilled me “who asked that?!”. I stopped bringing issues to him.

      This was a woeful misstep by the boss, and unfortunately it will likely have a chilling effect (whether intended or not) on efforts to change sexist behavior.

    1. FD*

      One trick that I’ve seen people mention is replying to the comment with a link (e.g. a link to Google) to force it into moderation so that Alison sees it and removes it. (I did so on this comment.)

      Not sure how the top post got through.

  16. WellRed*

    I don’t know whether the OP should say something, or what I would do in this situation. But, if no one (generally speaking, not just at this company) ever spoke up we’d still be in the really dark ages with regards to sexual harassment and other rights that women have had to fight for.
    In this case, a group of coworkers speaking out might be more effective, or at least feel marginally safer. OP, thanks for speaking up before, and being willing to consider following this up.

  17. Katherine*

    “You aren’t in any trouble….” um, ok, then why would you even mention the possibility of me being in trouble?

    1. 2 Cents*

      ^exactly. It’s like when my parents were like “We’re not mad; we just want the truth.” Then I’d tell them the truth and they’d be mad!

    2. RC Rascal*

      Whoever comes forward may not be in “trouble” for this. But, my hunch is they will suddenly find themselves failing to meet thei KPIs, or given goals are unnecessarily high, or in trouble for their soft skills. Perhaps they will suddenly develop an issue with conflict , or self awareness, or any other subjective impossible to document behavior.

    3. Marthooh*

      “…or if you just want to rat out the person who wrote the comment, that’s fine too!”

      WTF even, boss-man?

  18. Liar Liar Pants Dracarys*

    OP: get your backup in order. Copies of your report, of the actions/inactions taken (official or just your personal documentation), copy the email to your personal email account, take screenshots of it’s presence on your work computer (I’d do digital screenshots as well as a phone photo with company-identifying background showing). Back everything up. Twice. Maybe three times. Then go see a lawyer. And get your resume out there.

  19. SK*

    Back when I was living in a dorm, there was an anonymous survey sent out asking about our experience with our RA (residence advisor). She was not a good RA and the responses reflected that. Somehow she was given the comments from the survey (I heard by a friend on the inside) and proceeded to hold an all-floor meeting where she read out the negative comments and asked whoever wrote them to explain themselves. This feels… only marginally better. I would personally not say anything just yet and wait until you’ve been there a bit longer, to get a better sense of how he generally handles this kind of thing.

  20. MB*

    It would be great if there were male allies that OP could get to go to the boss to have this conversation, particularly if they keep her name out of it. If the boss is a sexist jerk (which seems entirely possible in a place like that), then another guy calling it out might be listened to, and less likely to face retaliation.

    1. Librarian of SHIELD*

      Yes! OP, is there a guy on your team you trust enough to check in with on this? Maybe he could go to the boss and talk about the inappropriateness of this request and leave you out of it entirely.

  21. QueenintheNorf*

    I wouldn’t say anything. Yes, you should be able to. But even if the boss who wrote it is a good guy he may say something to his bosses, who are not. And there is absolutely no way for it to not look like you sent it. Saying you didn’t will only look like you did more.
    The more broad issues should be addressed through a group or the EEOC or whichever state version of that you have.

    1. MarsJenkar*

      Agreed. Even with the most charitable interpretation–that your boss is as well-meaning as he appears to be–he is not handling the situation well at all, and I would not trust him with the information.

  22. Blunt Bunny*

    I don’t think there’s any point saying anything. It sounds like sexism is pretty overt in your workplace and industry that the comments shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. If he wanted to address the concerns of sexism highlighted from the survey he should have spoken to HR. Not hunt out the one commentator when the sexism’s affects multiple people.

  23. Mop*

    Bluntly, this is a pattern and you should take it to the EEOC. Even if your boss and HR dearly mean well and wish to help you and other women, they are more easily able to build a case for “this is a real problem” with the CEO when a very real charge is pending.

  24. only acting normal*

    Ooh! I’ve been in a similar situation. Yearly anonymous survey, I answer “yes” to having experienced bullying (briefly, by a member of a different department, but the survey didn’t ask that). Grandboss goes on a panic mission to find out who said it. I most emphatically did not own up!
    The company-wide bullying stats were up and all the managers were panicking.
    Fast forward a couple of years, HR produce a video of actors acting real cases that were “dealt with” by our company… by moving every single one of the victims, other than those who were driven to quit, and doing nothing about the bullies. And this was supposed to reassure us they were acting on the bullying problem. Glad I never spoke up!

    In your case OP you have first hand experience how well it would go if the anonymous commenter or you speak up.

  25. Christmas*

    It appears that your boss missed the point\opportunity. Per the comment that he quoted, the main complaint was that *previously reported incidents* have not been properly addressed or consequented. Why is he asking people to come forward with new information, when he can revisit the prior complaints?

    Obviously your boss would also want to encourage staff to speak up regarding any incidents (hopefully using worded like AAM suggested) but the comment was specifically about things that were already reported. Shouldn’t boss start *there*?

  26. animaniactoo*

    Some of these instances have been reported to HR and those employee’s management and little to no action has been taken to address the complaint.

    “Boss, I think there’s an inherent contradiction between this statement, made under the safety of anonymity, and the idea that the person who made it would feel comfortable revealing themselves or that anything useful would come of it. Trying to find them feels to me like the safety of anonymity is not truly safe. I think that if you want people to feel safe using the anonymous reporting, you have to find a way to pursue this that doesn’t rely on knowing whoever wrote this is and being able to talk to them.”

  27. Geek history*

    Might polish your resume too and find some place new since you can’t trust the conpany?

  28. Malty*

    This is such complete duckery. OP i wish you the best, but reasoning is for reasonable people and these are perhaps horses wearing people suits? By all means please do talk to your boss if you can take on that emotional burden, I know I too would see that email and respond oh no, this cannot stand, but that email is so tone deaf and so.. put upon? I just read a tone in the bosses email of look, anon you’re not in trouble but we have to tick some boxes now because you said the ‘sexism’ word so just come forward so we can get this sorted and I can get back to my job. Sorry this burden is falling to you, it’s not fair and your company sucks

  29. Sigh*

    1 million percent agree with Alison’s advice here. OP, I was in a similar situation at (what I thought was) my very inclusive, non sexist job. One of our staff submitted an anonymous comment to our “suggestion box” describing harassment by one of our male coworkers. Our higher ups responded by calling all the female members at that staff level into a confidential meeting. They promised support, etc., but at the end of the day, nothing was done and he was later promoted. I wish I had said something like Alison did here, but honestly I lost my nerve after I was later scolded for “accusing” someone of sexism (when in fact I simply reported that the man in question would not listen to his female managers, but his male managers didn’t report similar issues – which was true).

    Good luck to you, I hope this turns out well!

  30. LGC*

    As the only woman in my group, I guess I feel some kind of obligation to explain to my boss that this was not an okay email to send out?

    …I apologize if this comes across as blunt or blaming you (because I’m terrible at words), but LW, you are not responsible for all knowledge of how to handle sexual harassment because you are a woman. And it reflects equally poorly on your coworkers – both male and female – if they aren’t aware of just how off your boss’s message was.

    I can’t speak as to whether you should speak up or not – a lot of people here are suggesting that you don’t, which is a good choice. Alison’s answer suggested ways to do so, which is also a good choice. But I’m more than slightly bothered that you’re in a culture that makes sexual harassment an issue that only women deal with, as opposed to an issue that everyone is responsible for fixing.

  31. Shax*

    My favourite experience with anonymous survey feedback was the time our CEO got terrible feedback, which luckily was actually anonymised by the survey company, and promised in an all-company meeting that if the staff survey feedback wasn’t better next year he’d resign, before telling us how our feedback was wrong and just negative and he wasn’t going to act on it anyway.

    Then in the next monthly meeting telling us we were “either with him or against him” and if we were against him we should resign.

    There was never another staff survey in the remaining years I worked there.

    There was a three month period where he was off sick, and things never ran more smoothly.

    He’s since failed upwards into a bigger company.

  32. Phil*

    You know, if these companies spent the time trying to solve this sort of problem that they spend assigning blame and finding culprits it would be a much nicer world to work in.
    That said, in the TV business we used to have a saying,”What’s The First Rule Of TV? Assign blame.”

    1. Sacred Ground*

      I must be thoroughly socialized by television because my first thought was, “who made up that rule?”

  33. MommyMD*

    That’s utterly horrible. A supposedly anonymous survey. The poor person who wrote it must feel like they are being hunted down.

    1. RUKiddingMe*

      Because they are….

      I really support the idea of OP getting a different job if she at all can.

  34. Elizabeth*

    If the men who received this email aren’t feeling at least as much obligation as the OP is to figure out how to address it, well, I’m judging them pretty harshly too.

  35. Luna*

    I must still be very tired because the mentioned comment does not sound sexist. It’s mentioning how sexist issues have been brought up. And how some have been pretty much ignored. Sounds more like a complaint, than about it being sexist…

  36. NotTheSameAaron*

    Concerning. This is right up there with “Will the person who dented my car please report to the principal’s office? You are not in any trouble, but we need to have a word with you.” (ominous emphasis on “word”)

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