my manager named Joseph Stalin employee of the month

A reader writes:

Wouldn’t mind your take on this, as in all honesty I’m flummoxed by the most recent act from a manager who has, in my view, made a pretty major error of judgment.

Unbeknown to us, she has began running an “Employee of the Month” program. No rewards other than an email, and no idea what the criteria is, as it’s split across three different teams with three completely different functions. The winner this month was someone who is seen by colleagues to be given preferential treatment — going out for evening meals with just the boss, being constantly given the best projects despite their inexperience and then needing bailing out by others, being the only person the boss speaks to on a social level etc. Not really too much of an issue with this award, as I just dismissed it as a case of favoritism.

But in sending the email out, she’s listed “past winners” of the award:

Chart of employees of the month, listing Putin for January and Stalin for February, March, and April.

Chart of employees of the month, listing Putin for January and Stalin for February, March, and April.

I’m unsure if I’m being overly sensitive. What do you think would be the best way to approach this subject with my manager?

I wrote back to this letter-writer and asked, “Is your sense she did it as a joke or …?”

I’m not sure if this was a really poor attempt at humor, juxtaposed in with the remainder of the email which was completely serious in tone. She’s never really been the person to joke around from what I’ve seen either. Naturally, the whole thing has been a bit of a talking point today.

Well then.

I think she has to have intended this as a joke, since the alternative is … what, that she believes a brutal mass murderer is alive and working for your company? That seems unlikely.

But what is the joke, exactly? Is it “haha, we reward people who are strict task-masters” as a reference to Stalin’s forced labor camps and general brutality? I can’t come up with anything else.

In any case, it’s in inexplicably horrible taste. I can’t imagine what she was thinking.

Whether and how to address it depends on a bunch of different factors. In some cases and with some relationships, you could respond, “I’m guessing this was meant to be funny, but I think this is in really bad taste!” or “I don’t think this landed the way you intended” or “I know this must be a joke but I don’t get it!”

But it depends on what your relationship with her is like, how well she takes disagreement, how much standing and capital you have, and whether there are other battles you want to save your capital for.

In theory, you could also forward the email to someone above her or someone sensible in HR with a note that it seemed in really bad (and weird) taste.

But it’s also reasonable to just hope this was a one-time weirdness and leave it there. If it turns out to be the beginning of a pattern of, uh, glorifying brutal dictators (or, more likely, tone-deaf management), you can always address it at that point.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 399 comments… read them below }

  1. Amy Sly*

    Only thing that comes to mind:

    Homer: Mr. Burns’ reign of terror is over. [the workers cheer] And today begins my reign of terr… [the workers gasp in fear] …iffic management! [the workers sigh in relief]

    1. MassMatt*

      And another Simpson’s reference–the “Employee of the month” wall at the nuclear plant was photo after photo of Wayland Smithers.

        1. charo*

          There’s an internet saying that the first one to mention Hitler in a debate loses.
          This is a really unfunny, tone-deaf joke. I’m surprised the answer isn’t tougher.
          But the whole monthly gag is really dumb.

  2. MicroManagered*

    I don’t know if the “joke” (and I use that term loosely) is probably intended to express a political opinion about recent events. I’m not sure how recent the letter is, but I’m assuming at least during many states’ stay-at-home orders? And in that way, I think it’s inappropriate no matter what. OP should forward to the manager’s manager or HR.

    1. Person from the Resume*

      My best attempt to put myself in the mindset of a really weird boss is that joke is that the person who got this month’s award didn’t deserve it just like Putin or Stalin would not deserve such an award. Still doesn’t quite fit because if the problem is the winner is a suck-up and nothing more, there are funnier more on point options like Smithers from the Simpsons than brutal dictators. So, yeah, flummoxed is a great word about how to feel about this “joke.”

      1. MsM*

        I think she’s the one who’s choosing the winners, though? But honestly, that interpretation makes it fifty different shades of worse. I’d find it much easier to deal with someone who just has a weird dark sense of humor and doesn’t know when or how to express it than someone who thinks it’s okay to compare their office nemesis to even one of your less controversial examples and then hide behind humor.

      2. HoHumDrum*

        Yeah, like not only is it wildly offensive and insensitive, it doesn’t even make sense as a joke. Joseph Stalin wasn’t an employee, he was a leader. It would make more sense if the boss had picked a famous underling to a dictator. But obviously that wouldn’t fix what’s really wrong with this, which is the callous joking at the expense of people’s lives. All of it is just a clear indication this boss is a horrible person.

        1. Double A*

          And this is really beside the point but… why did Putin win once and Stalin won 3 times? Like, there’s no pattern to the joke, either! It fails on so many levels, it’s almost impressive.

          1. selena*

            Putin only won once because there is now a new winner who is better than Putin?? Maybe??

          2. Istanzia*

            I think the ‘joke’ is that Putin is the new Stalin. It’s more political commentary then a joke. At least, that’s how I’d read it if I saw it as a meme on the interwebs. Completely does not explain why she has attached this to her employee of the month thing…

            1. Junger*

              But then Putin won before Stalin. So is the joke that the ghost of Stalin took over Putin or something?

        2. TardyTardis*

          Also, Stalin was a terrible employee to Lenin, and is thought to have been somehow complicit in Lenin having a stroke and then being replaced. Not really the sort of message a manager ought to promote.

      3. Ann O'Nemity*

        That was my take too. The manager thinks this month’s winner is 100% undeserving of the award, and made a “joke” about it.

    2. Purt's Peas*

      No, I think the joke is that these are highly exaggerated versions of things like “helping your coworkers” and “growing the business”. It’s not funny and it literally took me ten minutes to figure out what the manager could possibly be saying, but I think that’s it?

      1. Traffic_Spiral*

        That or just some absurdism going on. Like having a “the floggings will continue until morale improves” sign, or something.

    3. Wonky Policy Wonk*

      This is definitely one question where the location of the LW is really important. Where I live there is a large Ukrainian community that immigrated here in the ’30s and ’40s to flee Stalin and the Holodomor. Putin’s attempts to clean up Stalin’s imagine is also viewed as a slap in the face of the Ukrainian diaspora. If the LW’s manager was from a community like mine, this would 100% be seen as an insult to any employees with Ukrainian heritage and discriminatory.

      1. WellRed*

        There is nothing to suggest they are located in an area with a large population of Ukrainians.

          1. JSPA*

            There are about a million people of Ukrainian descent in the US. About 1/3 of 1% of the US population. There are only a few states with Ukrainian immigrant clusters, and only a few locations within those states.

            That’s the logic to default to, “not,” unless otherwise specified.

            Just as I would not assume (unless specified) that an area is rich in people of Haitian descent (also about a million) or Swiss descent (ditto) or even Welsh-Americans (twice as many) or Filipino-Americans (4 times as many).

            Avoiding silly stereotypes is easy. Knowing history / background / special cultural sensitivities for every group who make up a half a percent, a percent, even 1.5 % of the US population is not. We expect people to feel abashed and make apologies if they hit a sore spot; we don’t expect them to know every potential sore spot in advance.

            1. Wonky Policy Wonk*

              I am not in the US and in my particular city just over 15% of the population has Ukrainian decent. We also have numerous monuments to the victims of the Holodomor and it is a topic covered in our public school curriculum.

              Like I said in my original statement, the context of this “joke” depends on where the LW is from. Putin and Stalin aren’t people you joke about lightly here. I also find it interesting that she picked two Russian dictators, instead of putting Kim Jung Un or Castro in one of the duplicate Stalin months.

      2. tiasp*

        Stalin killed MILLIONS of Ukrainians. You don’t have to be Ukrainian to feel pretty strongly that the poster was in extremely poor taste.

        1. Ace in the Hole*

          Not just Ukranians either. It’s hard to get an accurate count of how many deaths Stalin was responsible for, but it’s in the ballpark of 10-20 million (possibly more) throughout Russia, Ukrain, the Baltic states, and other areas of the former USSR. That’s not even counting the tens of millions exiled or imprisoned. I have family in Lithuania, for example, where roughly 10% of the total population was forcibly deported or put in the gulag system. Only a small portion ever made it home. Ethnic/religious minorities were disproportionately targeted.

    4. Chinook*

      I just hope that said employer has no children of Ukranian immigrant on staff. If that “joke” had been attempted at a company on the Canadian prairies, the backlash would have been one of shokck and horror, and not just by those who call someone Baba or Guido or whose name ends in “-ski”. I don’t fall in that category but know enough who do to be horrified. Who gets praise next month? Tito? Milosevic?

      Even jokingly praising someone who may have caused the death of an employee’s family member is ALWAYS in bad taste and probably opens the company up for an investigation from the labour board for possible discrimination claims.

      1. JSPA*

        Uh, we regularly and non-jokingly praise US and US-ally historical figures who are on historical record as having slain (or enslaved, or raped, or imprisoned or tortured) distant ancestors, current or recent family members or the employees themselves. We bury them at Arlington Cemetery; we build statues; we support continued implementation of their ideas with our taxes.

        We all know this, right? Not comfortable to think about, but even our most revered figures (and all sorts of everyday people) did intentional harm to people. In your office, you have people related to the perpetrators, people related to the victims, and (of course) people related to both perpetrators and victims of one or another slaughter, enslavement, or act of torture.éguin/5aa7335a745b42521d1d4509ba356132aff62615#paper-header

        And of course, people change; Gandhi was a racist before he was an anti racist. Hugo Black was a dues paying Klansman before becoming a strong anti-segregationist, solid supporter of Due Process for black defendants, and vocal opponent of the “red scare” while on the Supreme Court (where he, however, upheld Japanese Internment).

        1. Lady Heather*

          John Oliver’s LastWeekTonight did a piece on (the?) confederacy – that there’s a lot of people in the US who raise statues from their great-great-grandparent who was a confederate grandparent “and that’s not racist because they fought for our freedom!”

          (When watching that piece, I had to do some serious headscratching of ‘I thought the confederate army was in the war about slavery, not the war about independence from England?’ And that turned out to be the case – apparently ‘they fought for our freedom’ was shorthand for ‘they fought for our freedom to enslave other people’.)

        2. Fikly*

          So because we praise some bad people, it’s ok to praise all bad people?

          The answer to doing problematic things is not to double down and do more of them. It’s to do better.

  3. introverted af*

    TBH, my first thought was that maybe she used placeholder pics of clearly not-employees to make sure everything formatted right and didn’t change it for the final draft. That’s still a massive stretch though, and still in very poor taste.

    1. EPLawyer*

      I was thinking that too. But why not kittens or bunnies or Joan of Arc. Why brutal dictators?

      If it was someone mildly controversial, I would ignore it. But since she had to deliberately choose those pictures, joke or not, I think this needs to go to HR. Presuming you have a functioning HR.

      1. Lady Heather*

        Removed a lengthy (23-comment) off-topic thread about Joan of Arc here. – Alison

      2. WellRed*

        If they had a functioning HR, I doubt they would even be having this recognition, at least not without some sense of criteria.

    2. lost academic*

      Yeah, I think this is really the most likely situation. Whatever image/design template she found used those as placeholders and she never replaced them. it was likely her first thought that they were just placeholders so she never probably considered that they might really send the wrong message. Bad judgment, but I doubt I would let it continue to distract me because her bad judgment in this wouldn’t be my purview.

      1. AP*

        It’s possible that she is one of those people who knows nothing about history or current events and doesn’t even have any idea who Stalin or Putin is.

        1. MassMatt*

          Well, maybe… but then why did she pick them? These are oddly specific people that, unless the company deals with Russian history, political analysis, monuments or the like, have nothing to do with business. Or being employees, for that matter.

          She could have picked Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, or Babe Ruth and Joe Dimaggio (all more deserving, no doubt) but she didn’t, she went with two Russian/Soviet dictators, one of whom is infamous for mass murder and both infamous for murdering and imprisoning their rivals.

          1. Anax*

            I suspect that she may have gone with “the first old political figures that came to mind,” and it could equally have been Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, or Napoleon, depending on what she saw on TV last night.

            I’ve definitely known folks that tonedeaf – folks who are proudly “colorblind” while simultaneously saying that racism is soooo long ago that people can’t possibly be affected or offended anymore. They seem to think that anything that doesn’t personally harm them also can’t possibly harm anyone else – like not being a visible part of their life makes it incredibly long ago and far away, despite what the numbers say.

            (Yes, this happens over Thanksgiving dinner a lot. And yes, I know that Putin is still very much around – but I suspect this manager might not.)

          2. AP*

            I was replying to the comment from ‘lost academic’ that she may have just found some design template online. And then, if she wasn’t really familiar with Stalin or Putin, she may have thought nothing of sending it out with those photos and descriptions still attached.

            But the whole thing is just so strange…

            1. foxinabox*

              Ten minutes of moderately creative googling says this isn’t a template that comes up easily if at all, so you’d still have to be working very hard and be very decisive to find and choose those dictators.

        2. Avasarala*

          The inclusion of the word Gazprom suggests this is not the case. That’s not a history/politics 101 level detail.

    3. Blue Anne*

      Oh, that’s plausible. And maybe a poor choice to use dictators as placeholders instead of stock photos because of her feelings about management? I know I’ve worked plenty of places where I’d be tempted to use pictures of Mr Burns or something.

      Bad judgement no matter what.

    4. HarvestKaleSlaw*

      I like this interpretation and hope it is correct. But the whole “services to workers” x3 and then “gazprom” makes it seem like it was supposed to be a joke. Not a funny one, though. More like a joke shared on Facebook by that one weird aunt who posts nothing but QAnon stuff and “bet you won’t share” memes.

      1. JustaTech*

        I had a boss who once compared himself to Jim Jones (the cult leader) and Josef Menegle (the Nazi doctor) . He thought he was being edgy/funny/trying to lighten up an unpleasant situation (we were not killing people), but honestly it just made everything worse. And I was very junior and very intimidated and didn’t feel like I could say anything to him about it.

        And now that’s one of the first things I remember from that job, and not other, better things.

        As author John Scalzi said “the failure mode of clever is asshole”, which is 100% my old boss. The OP’s boss? Way worse.

        1. HarvestKaleSlaw*

          Wow! I have a dark sense of humor, but those jokes are so far over the line, the line does not even intersect their plane of reality.

          Some people, man.

        2. JSPA*

          I still make offhand comments about “not drinking the kool aid” even though I once made the comment in the presence of someone who’d had a family member die at Jamestown. I rationalize it as, my point actually is that buying in to lies / not escaping from those who force lies upon you CAN have lethal consequences. If my only point was, “conformity is over- rated,” I wouldn’t bring up kool aid.

          And there’s something very wrong with a person who’d compare themselves to either of those people. That’s not an edginess – fail or irony fail; there’s nothing ironic or edgy about torture, human vivisection, mass murder, brainwashing.

          1. JustaTech*

            It was a culling day. But you’re not wrong that there were things weird with that boss. But he was better than his boss, who liked to make people cry in public.

            I’m not doing a great job of making academia sound like a healthy environment, am I?

    5. FuzzFrogs*

      FWIW I did a reverse Google Image search of the screenshot and have come up with nothing but AAM. If this were a widely available graph or image template I’d assume it’d bring up other results.

      1. Lilyp*

        Well the suggestion is that she was using the individual widely available stock portraits (of….dictators) to check formatting on the customized template she was making herself, so it still makes sense that the entire thing isn’t available from somewhere else.

        1. FuzzFrogs*

          Yeah, I was looking under the semi-charitable thought that she pulled this from some online course on templates wholesale, where this was more obviously a joke. It seems like the only possible explanation that’s simply stupid as opposed to absolutely tone-deaf.

      2. FuzzFrogs*

        Have now tried straight keyword strings. “employee of the month template stalin putin “services to workers” gazprom” has only one result, and it’s this page. “photo template stalin putin “services to workers” gazprom” is the same. Searching “photo template stalin putin “services to workers”” brings up 7 pages of results, but they’re all about Russian historical economics as far as I can tell.

        1. COBOL Dinosaur*

          I did a reverse image search and I didn’t find anything that had all of those pictures already together. Found the images separate in stock images.

      3. Pennyworth*

        I just searched ‘Stalin employee of the month’ and found an article about Stalin working for a Rothschild company in the oil port of Batumi in 1901, possibly being involved in burning down the refinery and some years later being paid by Rothschilds in Baku to stop a strike. Strange sort of ’employee’!

    6. Dawbs*

      yeah, I’m thinking back to college when I (multiple times, if I”m honest) submitted a paper with the title “*insert witty title here*”.
      In fact, I turned something in @ work for publication recently with a picture of a flower in place of the necessary picture because I was waiting on an item.

      I might contact her and leave that as the assumption. “hey Hildegard, I think you accidentally used your dictator picture placeholders in your email. You may want to re-send it with corrected pictures–I’m sure otherwise it’ll look like it’s in poor taste to have it look like we employ despots.”
      and that gives her the chance to have some plausible deniability and fix it.

      (and I HAVE learned that it’s far FAR better to make the place-holder be “here’s a picture of my cat” than “here’s a picture of me flipping the bird.)

      1. starsaphire*

        Yep. Kittens and flowers make GREAT layout placeholders. Other stuff, not so much…

      2. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

        So so many times. I got a paper back where the feedback was something like “I really enjoyed your evocative description in the title!” I was like “The heck did I even call this piece of junk?” and sure ’nuff, the placeholder “Witty Title Goes Here” was still there on the title page. (It was a dance appreciation class and the instructor was a little weird, so for all I know, she actually meant it.)

        1. NoLongerStuckInRetailHell*

          There is actually a Broadway musical called “ [title of show] “ brackets included lol!

      3. Environmental Compliance*

        That’s better than the papers I accidentally turned in:

        “Why did I choose this major”
        “Not Enough Caffeine for This”

        My program advisor was a very good sport with a very good sense of humor, thankfully. In my defense, the professor who was teaching that thesis composition class was incredibly thoughtless and would often send out a large assignment at 8PM expecting it done by 7:45AM the next day. As in, he wanted me to rewrite 100 pages and redo all graphics. But my program advisor also had to ok all the changes, so he got to be part of the nonsense as well, and also wasn’t appreciative of the ‘requirements’. Actually clapped back a couple times for me. He was my favorite professor I’ve ever had.

        1. KaciHall*

          My group in an OBHR class in college had been emailing drafts of our report back and forth for a week (I’m so glad there are other options now!) and when it was at a final draft, it was sent out as “Finished Sh**, Bi***es”. Somehow this is what it was submitted as. I’m so glad that professor used it as a learning experience instead of marking us down – I would bet NONE of us have sent expletive laden documents out accidentally since.

          1. JustaTech*

            I had a roommate in college turn in a group report where she’d left the comments on and about half of them were things like “this professor is a moron”.
            The professor had generously given her an extra week (into Christmas) to finish the report because she’d been sick, which made the professor (who was super nice and good) late with grades.

            The other people on the report were in near hysterics trying to apologize. The professor didn’t mark them down at all, not even my roommate.

        2. Fikly*

          My sister once turned in a paper for AP English in high school with its working title of “This stupid poopy paper about this stupid poopy book.”

          Later that year, she was presented with an award in front of the entire senior class, by that teacher. She is so lucky her teacher was too easily embarassed to tell that story.

    7. George Clooney*

      The first thing that came to mind was that the layout work was fobbed on someone else (an intern, maybe?) who perhaps felt that they were being put upon and used appropriately passive-aggressive “jokey” placeholder images that they then forgot to switch out.

      1. old curmudgeon*

        I could see that as a very plausible hypothesis. Maybe an intern with attitude problems? Or an intern who really doesn’t like the manager?

        Still boggling that the manager didn’t notice and correct it before sending, but I do have to admit that I know some really, really air-headed people who could have done something like that.

  4. Sharikacat*

    Oh, no no no. I desperately want to know what this is about. Never before has there been an AAM that demands an update than this.

  5. Just J.*

    1) Was her account hacked?

    2) I’d reply (reply all?) with a message of “Dear Manager, I am really confused by this. Can you explain your meaning here?” Polite, but hopefully gets the explanation you need. And you can decide from there is need to be sent on to her manager.

    1. nep*

      I like the idea of replying with an obvious question–put the person on the spot to explain this.

    2. juliebulie*

      Or, framing it as, of course it’s a joke, but I don’t understand it, can you please explain?

    3. Falling Diphthong*

      I did think of hacking first. Is this a disgruntled person trying to do something edgy and instead flailing around in the swamps of jokes that don’t land?

    4. Laura*

      That was my thought “I’m sorry. I’m not understanding the joke. What am I missing?”

      1. Mona*

        I agree. All this mind reading and polite confusion is bonkers. This is an advice blog; why not teach people to be direct. Just ASK, lol, wow! What a concept?! Like “hey boss, got the info you sent us, what was that weird picture about past winners? I do not understand the image. Please advise what we should do with this info.” Like I can’t believe that wasn’t the first bit of advice?!?!?

        1. MissBliss*

          Alison very frequently directs people to just ask. In any case, one of her suggestions WAS to say “I know this must be a joke but I don’t get it!”

        2. Two Dog Night*

          The thing is, though, any boss who would list Stalin as an employee of the month probably has plenty of other issues and might not react well to perceived criticism. If asking directly would torpedo the employee’s relationship with her boss, I don’t blame her for being wary.

        3. pancakes*

          Same here, I don’t see any good reason to spend much time trying to decipher it.

        4. Yorick*

          Alison did suggest that, and “please advise what we should do with this info” would be a weird thing to say anyway, since the sender obviously didn’t mean for anything to be done with the info

    5. The Original K.*

      That’s a tactic I use when confronted with a racist or sexist joke at work. “I don’t get it, can you explain?” Which forces them to say out loud that the joke is funny because women are bad drivers, or whatever. Usually (but not always), when they realize that they’ll have to say something like that out loud, they back off.

      With this, I legit don’t get it because it makes no sense, especially since OP said nobody understands anything about this employee of the month program. But it sets my “this is messed up” spidey senses tingling. So I’d be that person who is all “Susan, I’m confused. Can you explain?”

    6. Dust Bunny*

      I probably would have gone with hacking first: “Hey, I think your computer was hacked–somebody’s posting genocidal dictators under your name.”

    7. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s definitely not hacking. The OP sent me more of the email (which I didn’t print here because not the point) and there was lots of work-specific stuff that makes it clear it’s really her.

      1. Peachrock*

        I hate it when you hope that someone goofed (I was hoping for “grabbed an unintended image”) and really, they are just showing you who they are.

        1. valentine*

          I was hoping for “grabbed an unintended image”
          You don’t unintentionally end up with three different pictures of Stalin.

          I doubt she put a lot of thought into it, but I think she’s doing what it looks like: making some comment on her sycophant.

      2. Butter Makes Things Better*

        Maybe not hacking, but sabotage? Easy enough for someone (in IT, for instance) to keep the entire email the same except for the images. What better way to make the manager look like a complete loon/sociopath? Obviously, this would be an extreme outlier case, but still a possibility.

          1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

            oh please Alison we’ll need a link to the moonlighting twin pharmacists !

            1. SusanIvanova*

              Search for “ my coworker is breaking her paid quarantine” – the speculation got quite inventive.

        1. Keymaster of Gozer*

          I’d say you have more chances of being hit by lightning 4 times in a row than IT doing anything that bizarre.

          (We’d never risk our careers to put a bad taste image in a management email. It simply isn’t worth torpedoing our jobs and future jobs over something like that)

    8. Folklorist*

      Is it bad that I kind of want you to change that email header to “Dear Leader,”?

  6. Mainely Professional*

    Doing Stalin three months in a row shows a real lack of creativity for this joke.

    1. Rikki Tikki Tarantula*

      Indeed. If one is going to go full EdgeLord McGee, one should commit to it.

    2. kittymommy*

      I know, right!! At least commit to the joke! Three months in a row is just laziness.

    3. Lilyp*

      Oh I thought that was part of the joke? Like Stalin took over and now the employee of the month is just mindlessly glorifying the Fearless Leader over and over

    4. MusicWithRocksIn*

      True. It also makes it harder to interpret. Like if Hitler was in there too at least we would have more information.

    5. RussianInTexas*

      See, if you doing the joke for real, you should select Stalin forever, because you would not be allowed to select anyone else, just like no one wanted to be the first to quit clapping after Stalin’s speeches.

    6. Anne Elliot*


      I have this mental image of Pol Pot throwing his Big Box Store name tag across his apartment as he sees he’s been overlooked again.

      1. Glitsy Gus*

        Then Pinochet comforts him in the break room, telling him, “you’ll get ’em next time, buddy.”

    7. Trixie, the Great and Pedantic*

      Really. If you’re going to be that crass, you have to *start* with Trotsky for Month 1, then Lenin for Month 2, then Stalin for Month 3. Follow it up in Month 4 with Lenin, Lenin, Lenin, Stalin. Complete the joke in Month 5 with Stalin, Stalin, Stalin, Stalin, Stalin.

      Stalin no longer looks like a word, but instead like a subclass of medications.

  7. Peachrock*

    Not trying to be Pollyanna here – but perhaps she thought she was inserting a particular image and inserted this one instead in error?

      1. Gloria*

        Yeah, I’d like to give her the benefit of the doubt, but there are 3 different photos of Stalin. That’s got to be intentional.

        1. Yorick*

          But it looks like she created it by combining the 4 photos into 1 image. Commenters have been looking for it on the internet and don’t find it.

      2. another Hero*

        Also didn’t they just institute employee of the month? Wasn’t that part of the letter? So there are no past winners, and the whole concept of past winners is a joke?

    1. 867-5309*

      I’m trying to imagine why someone would have 3 photos of Stalin saved on their computer unless they are taking a History of Dictatorship class or something.

    2. AnyaT*

      But there are actual comments on their achievements! She would have had to put in Stalin’s “Services to Workers” as the reason for this award.

      This is utterly wild. Please, please have someone ask her what it means.

    3. Hadespuppy*

      With three different pictures of Stalin and names and “reasons” below all four pictures? It had to have been on purpose, the only question is what she thought her purpose was.

    4. LSP*

      That’s very generous of you, but if you look at the text under the images it says the names, and under Putin it says “Gazprom”, a Russian gas company, and under Stalin it says, “Services to Workers”.

      This manager clearly thought she was being funny. She was very wrong.

    5. Person from the Resume*

      … with their names beneath them?

      No. Possibly a copy and paste template error, but not I picked the wrong photo and put a matching name 4 times.

    6. Vina*

      When I was in law school, one of the Profs – advisor to a group of minority students – asked them to dress up like Che Guevara and “jungle-based revolutionaries.” He thought it was hilarious. I didn’t. I have a friend who was kidnapped and tortured by Sendero Luminoso.

      A lot of people don’t think this stuff is anything other than hilarious if it didn’t happen to him.

      I also had a friend (now deceased) who was an American citizen who was in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped. I have little to no patience with people who use that as a a metaphor.

      There are a lot of things in language and culture that have deeply disturbing roots (e.g., use of the word lame in the 80s). We should all endeavor to do better.

      1. Vina*

        And don’t get me started on the use of Geronimo as an exclamation in Doctor Who. Really, deeply offensive colonial racism.

        1. UKDancer*

          Yes. Dr Who always makes me cringe deeply when it tries to deal with issues like racism as well as some of the gender issues. When we next have an off topic thread I’d be well up for a long discussion of how it fails at this (as well as how it sometimes succeeds).

          1. Vina*

            Oh, I’ll try and pop in Friday. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the 50th Anniversary train wreck of a special.

      2. DiscoCat*

        Some people in Germany like(d) to use the metaphor that references the holocaust in a particular way, I won’t repeat it here, but anyone who knows a bit more history about the camps would understand. So imagine my shock at a very straight laced, Christian colleague using that…

    1. LGC*

      Like, I know time means nothing anymore but I wasn’t expecting it to be WTF Wednesday today …

    2. Matilda Jefferies*

      That was pretty much my response as well, which is why Alison is a paid advice columnist and I’m not. Thanks for being so articulate and level-headed, Alison!

  8. nep*

    What the actual…
    Seriously what is wrong with people?
    I’m sorry your manager is such a…
    No words.
    (I hope this will be reported, and I really want to hear what happens.)

  9. I'm A Little Teapot*

    I would tend to send the whole mess to the nearest competent manager/HR who has standing to address this, assuming it’s not you. You’ve got an employee who’s widely viewed to be the favorite, then this email? Multiple issues there. Reign in that employee favoritism, and make it really, really clear that this email wasn’t funny, wasn’t ok, and to cut it out.

    1. Liane*

      It’s not Email Writer who is the favorite; it’s the Employee of the Month.
      “The winner this month was someone who is seen by colleagues to be given preferential treatment…”

      1. I'm A Little Teapot*

        “You’ve” was meant broadly, not that OP is the manager. I was trying to address the whole situation as I see it. OP probably can’t address any of this mess, other than dropping it on some unlucky manager/HR person’s lap.

    2. LunaLena*

      Not only that, even if it is a joke and the employee of the month sounds suspiciously like a nepotism hire, isn’t it a bit mean to compare the current employee of the month to Stalin and Putin? I mean, how was this supposed to land? “We have Putin, then Stalin, Stalin, Stalin… and you!”

      I desperately need an update to this one, if only because I want to understand how this corkscrew of a manager’s mind was working.

  10. Archie Goodwin*

    I find it interesting that nobody has commented on the fact that Vladimir Putin is apparently a winner as well.

                1. Archie Goodwin*

                  He used to be so good at it, too. Whatever you threw at him he just Zhukov.

              1. Princesa Zelda*

                As long as people keep on this thread, people who want Tolstoy out of it can, :)

            1. WantonSeedStitch*

              A friend just recommended that to me after I saw how much I liked Jojo Rabbit. I ought to check it out.

                1. Amy Sly*

                  It’s incredibly dark, though Beria still comes out less evil than he actually was, as hard as that may be to believe after you watch it. Granted, showing him in his full evil would turn it into a “Caligula” like snuff film.

                  As for historical accuracy, it’s about 40% of what actually happened (e.g. Stalin lying passed out in a “puddle of his own indignity” for 12 hours because no one wanted to take a chance on waking him up), 40% things that happened during and after Stalin’s premiership though not necessarily at the time shown in the movie (e.g. Stalin’s son trying to hide the fact that the hockey team had been killed in a plane crash, the concert at the beginning), and 20% made up for the movie (e.g. Stalin’s daughter wasn’t exiled by Khrushchev). The cast is great — Jason Issacs actually resembles Zhukov a bit — and it really gives one a sense of how banal and petty those men were. And how their little petty power games among themselves resulted in so much death and misery for everyone else.

                2. UKDancer*

                  Death of Stalin is brilliant in highlighting the fear he engendered. It doesn’t pretend to be an accurate depiction of everything that happened but it’s very darkly funny and is pretty clear on how awful the regime was even if as Amy Sly says it underplays what a complete scumbag Beria was. It’s a very successful black political comedy.

                  Also Jason Isaacs steals the show as Zhukov (but then I love him in every role he’s ever played).

                3. Amy Sly*

                  “I [fornicated] Hitler. I think I can take a flesh lump in a waistcoat.” In that lovely scouse accent so different from the cultured version he uses for Lucius Malfoy.

    1. MassMatt*

      Yes, Putin is a monstrous person who imprisons and intimidates his opponents, invades other countries (during the Olympics, no less), and poisons his critics. He is less monstrous only by comparison.

  11. Sunrise Ruby*

    I just read the headline. I haven’t read the letter or any of the comments yet. Jaw. Just. Dropped.

  12. irene adler*

    I’d hate to be on the receiving end of this award. Folks might see me as being in the same company as Stalin and Putin.
    Or think that this boss views me as such.
    That’s one award that will be turned down flat.

    1. Batty Twerp*

      But the co-workers already don’t hold this month’s “winner” in a favourable light. Not Stalinist, but certainly not positive.


      No… I can’t wrap my brain any further around this. It’s just *weird*!

    2. Phony Genius*

      Sort of like the Time Magazine Person of the Year. It is not an award. It is just an acknowledgement of the most important person. Look at the history of the title, and you will see many of those named were not chosen for positive reasons.

      But that’s not how Employee of the Month usually works.

  13. Tink*

    As I recall Joseph Stalin was not an enthusiastic recipient of honest feedback. I would be careful as if he is her hero it may not end well for you, now matter how it is communicated. There are some people who are impervious to professionalism , common sense, kindness, motivation, call it what you will. Perhaps let it stand for itself.

  14. New Job So Much Better*

    From the headline I expected some version of that episode of “Friends” when Joey didn’t realize who Stalin was and wanted to use his name.

    1. Former Young Lady*

      I was just thinking of that! Maybe the manager has about the same level of awareness as Joey.

        1. RobotWithHumanHair*

          That was probably what puzzled me the most out of this image. The image itself is a whole lot of “I don’t get it”, but Gazprom? That’s the most befuddling part of it.

    2. ainnnymouse*

      I remember the first time I saw that episode I was like 10 and like Joey didn’t know who Stalin was.

      1. EvilQueenRegina*

        I misheard the name when I first saw that one, so it wasn’t until Joey actually found out and confronted Chandler that I got it.

  15. KEG*

    Is the joke meant to be some sort of take on how terrible the past few months have been for the world, so terrible that you put infamous people from history as the faces of the past few months?
    Very odd.

  16. Tyche*

    I literally can’t picture a situation where this is ok. Even if they were placeholder pictures and she intended to fill it with something else, why dictators? It would’ve been funny had the fill ins been employees from The Office, Parks and Rec, Office Space, etc. Honestly, anything would’ve been funnier than this. Maybe the Hang in There motivational poster.

    And that’s even assuming it’s appropriate to joke about past employee of the months. It’s not really a funny situation.

    1. Captain Raymond Holt*

      Exactly. I make placeholder data for part of my job (Salesforce sandbox testing). I’ve included references to Harry Potter, Hamilton, Parks and Rec, Brooklyn 99 (duh) etc. They’re funny if you understand the contexts of the reference.

      And all of those references are appropriate for work. If there’s a part of the work that’s less appropriate for work I don’t use that. For example, I have one Reynolds Pamphlet floating around without any HIGHLIGHTS!

      Go be an edgelord on your own time.

      1. Naomi*

        I used to have a summer job writing practice questions for a test prep center, and used lots of names from my favorite TV shows.

    2. Kelly L.*

      Right? Or if you want to do bad people, movie supervillains or something. Thanos: Cut payroll by 50%!

    3. MissDisplaced*

      I know. They’d have to be pretty clueless to not see the pictures they attached.
      But then again, I’ve had some really lame Luddite managers who could barely use Word or operate email. Which is a whole other set of problems.

  17. Alton*

    It might have been meant as a joke, but it sure doesn’t make the employee of the month program look good. Who would want to be in the same league as Stalin?

    I wonder if she did use these as placeholders as a private joke and forgot to edit it before sharing, but that’s a pretty weird oversight.

    1. Archie Goodwin*

      “Who would want to be in the same league as Stalin?”

      Khrushchev, perhaps?

      1. LifeBeforeCorona*

        Pol Pot? Idi Amin? Mao Zedong? Muammar Gaddafi? Maybe there should be lunchtime history lessons.

        1. Vina*

          Have you seen Death of Stalin? It’s high camp and absurdist, but I think fairly accurate on how terrified all of his retinue were when he died.

          I don’t think Khrushchev would ever want to be lumped in with him.

          Also, bad as he was on some things, K was no Stalin.

          1. Amy Sly*

            Yeah, when you find yourself siding with the guy who boasts about shooting German POWs for grins and giggles at the beginning of the movie because he’s not the rapist ordering firing squads, you realize that the Politburo were all terrible men, but that being terrible didn’t mean they agreed with each other.

    1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

      In the current climate I would enjoy an Employee of the Month bit where each month is a different employee’s “coworker”.

      1. LunaLena*

        Earlier in the pandemic, my department made a COVID-19 org chart featuring all of our pets that was pretty well-received (and even inspired a few other departments to do the same). My cat, for example, was the Meowing Coordinator in charge of naps.

        I may have to pitch a similar kind of “Employee of the Month” scheme now.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          That reminds me of something we did at a testing laboratory I used to work in. We were always doing silly stuff with/to each other. So one time, somebody bought this little stuffed duck for one of the chemical analysts and put it on her desk as a stand-in for her when she was out sick. We named it Bertram.

          I made Bertram a little desk and chair out of a shoebox, a little green felt coat, and some tiny wire glasses like the ones the scientist wore. We also put a picture of him on the org chart with a title—a special consultant, or something; I don’t remember.

          When the lab shut down, she gave Bertram to me. I still have him somewhere around. :)

      2. Third or Nothing!*

        That would be adorable and I would definitely enjoy that. My pup Hermione could win for being the clingiest (most loyal?). She never leaves my side. She’s worse than my toddler, and that’s saying something.

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        I do tech writing, often with lots of screenshots. A few years back, after I caught myself putting WAY too much thought into choosing a placeholder image, I started using a graphic that says “Image Goes Here” or something similar. But it’s not just text – it really is a small jpeg or png, so I can apply all the image formatting, like borders and sizing. (It just saves me so much trouble, especially when I’m requesting feedback on something. I save the fun references for when I build fake databases.)

    2. Anonny*

      If you want to do something a little more humourous, goats work well. They’re adorable but they act very weird sometimes.

      1. Bob*

        But Picard only has two hands.
        But it is the 24th century, perhaps they can attach a few more?

  18. Dust Bunny*

    I can’t think of any innocent or well-intended-but-clumsy explanations for this, just ones that have a lot to do with politics (external and internal). So far she’s picked one perceived kiss-up and two dictators?

    I know (not in a friendship context) people who would do something like this but they would absolutely mean it as commentary on . . . being encouraged to wear masks in public, for example. And since my workplace is not run by sociopaths their supervisors would absolutely have something to say to them about it.

  19. LifeBeforeCorona*

    An old manager had this posted on his door. “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” This sort of humor is very subjective. Stalin? Don’t know what one could say.

    1. KoiFeeder*

      Ah, yes, my dad’s favorite phrase. Given that he usually followed it with a trip to the ice cream place, it didn’t have the same impact.

    2. Archie Goodwin*

      I will be honest – I make a fair number of jokes about Stalin, given the opportunity. But my mother is a Soviet emigre who grew up during the tail end of his regime, and I make that very clear early on.

      They can work, in context, but I wouldn’t go off making them at the drop of a hat. This isn’t the sort of thing I would do, generally. It’s…well, it’s bizarre more than anything else to me. I can’t figure out from the context what the point is supposed to be.

      1. JustaTech*

        After the time I commented to a classmate I didn’t know well that a building was so hideous it looked like a Soviet prison and she said “I’ll have to ask my dad” I swore off ever making any kind of Soviet jokes ever.

          1. JustaTech*

            Never in all my awkward life have I so wanted the ground to eat me.

            Oh, and this was grad school for working professionals, so I don’t even have the excuse of youth.

      2. Amy Sly*

        In the Great Courses Plus lecture series on the history of Eastern Europe, Professor Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius peppers his lectures with jokes from the appropriate periods. My favorite is that it’s the day after the Warsaw Pact was signed, and two Poles are walking down the street. “Comrade, are the Russians our friends, or our brothers?” “Why Comrade,” the other says loudly, “the Russians are our brothers!” He looks around, then whispers, “You get to choose your friends.”

      3. Pennyworth*

        There is an unwritten rule that you can make jokes about stuff you are personally involved in which would be offensive if made by others. One of the darkest, funniest jokes I ever heard was about the terrible consequences of discrimination against a minority, told by a member of that minority. I would never repeat it.

    3. Lilyp*

      Right? I can’t figure out of this would even be a joke in the “I genuinely just thought this was funny” way or a “”joke”” that she’s trying to use to make some sort of passive-aggressive point about something. But I can’t begin to figure out what that point would even be!

    4. RussianInTexas*

      We often used another version of this:
      the meetings will continue until morale improves.

    5. Vina*

      Maybe. But it still has no place in the workplace.

      You have no idea what everyone’s history is. There are some clients I have worked with that would find that very, very triggering because they have lived through trauma.

      That type of humor should not be in a workplace.

  20. KoiFeeder*

    For “Services to Workers,” no less!

    The council has allotted this image one, singular yike.

    1. MA marketing assistant*

      “one singular yike” is very very good. +1

      (it’s like my favorite joke about Jame, singular)

  21. voyager1*


    This part is a bigger problem then the nomination of Stalin.

    “The winner this month was someone who is seen by colleagues to be given preferential treatment — going out for evening meals with just the boss, being constantly given the best projects despite their inexperience and then needing bailing out by others, being the only person the boss speaks to on a social level etc. Not really too much of an issue with this award, as I just dismissed it as a case of favoritism.”

    1. Observer*

      I don’t know if it’s BIGGER problem, but a serious problem that should not just be dismissed.

      1. voyager1*

        The Stalin thing is just dumb and juvenile. Yes the LW should address it, but knowing that your direct report is blatantly favoring an employee and it is no big deal? Special projects, not completing work plus dinners out! Come on! Any other letter that would be all over Alison’s response. It is almost like people are reading the title and looking at the picture and responding.

        1. Chinook*

          Nope. Imagine the bos using the image of a Klan leader instead. For those of Ukranian (and other SSR states) background (and their allies), the implication is the same. Stalin literally killed thousands as well as anyone who opposed him. Putin lead an invasion of a foreign country as well as previously being high ranking in the KGB. For those who are related to survivors of their horrors, praise of them is not a joke and could be considered praise of their actions and views.

          1. BenAdminGeek*

            Exactly. Stalin is a literal mass-murderer. That’s worse than favortism.

            Voyager1, I think maybe you mean the employee favoritism is more directly impactful on the LW’s day-to-day work?

            1. Emi.*

              Mass murder is worse than favoritism, but I don’t think it’s at all clear that failed jokes about mass murder are worse than favoritism.

          2. voyager1*

            Actually for me I was thinking this more like the Alice Cooper video. People complaining about the Stalin picture are like then folks who were talking about the dog on social media in that video.

            The actions of this person with the favoritism is directly impacting folks.

            Folks are welcome to disagree with me, but that is how I see it.

        2. Elsajeni*

          But I don’t see anything to suggest that the OP manages the person who sent out the email — if anything, I think they report to her (they’re asking about “how to approach this subject with my manager”). Given that, the most they can do is complain to someone above her about the favoritism, and even that is tricky to manage, since without pretty clear and objective evidence it’s easy for it to come across as sour grapes that someone else got a cooler project than you or whatever.

    2. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      Yes that’s a problem, but not much the OP can do about it, other than keep this knowledge in the back of her mind when trying to decide if they want to continue working for this company.

  22. General von Klinkerhoffen*

    The only thing I can think of is that she’s used an app or template and just blindly copied over the template without changing the images. That’s the most charitable read I have.

    I mean, even putting HERSELF as EOTM for the previous months would have been in better taste than choosing to do this.

  23. Thankful for AAM*

    I’d be so tempted to make a boss of the month award, replicate the pictures she used, and add her as the current winner.

    Or I’d be tempted to write to her saying how shocked I was that she had been hacked and someone sent inappropriate content, did I need to take any steps to protect my account from hacking?

  24. NoviceManagerGuy*

    The most defensible reason for doing this that I can think of is that it was a dumb joke she thought of while high.

    Not a great defense.

  25. Elspeth Mcgillicuddy*

    I think the joke is that Stalin would actually be a terrible employee. Not a particularly funny joke, but not offensive.

    Maybe also poking fun at the concept of “employee of the month”, which is a bit weird from someone who is running it. Perhaps it wasn’t her idea?

    1. Pennyworth*

      Apparently when Stalin worked at a Rothschild oil company in 1901 the refinery caught fire…

  26. I Will Steal Your Pens*

    If this doesn’t make worst manager of 2020 I may have to reassess my measurement of a bad boss.

    1. CmdrShepard4ever*

      The year is still young, and while this is bad it is not, trying to force employees to be an organ donor bad, or peeing in a cup and dumping it in the kitchen sink, or not letting an exceptional employee off for their graduation and being shocked they quit bad. Ask a manager is a blog the generally skews towards bad boss/managers/coworkers/employees based on the nature of being an advice blog, the same way other advice columns skew towards bad relationships. Most people don’t write in “Dear Alison, my boss and coworkers are great I don’t need any advice just wanted to let you know.”

      1. Traffic_Spiral*

        Yeah, this one is definitely weird, but not exactly harmful. I’d take a stalin joke over someone who yelled, peed in the sink, asked intrusive questions, or just generally was crap at their job.

    2. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      This year has been a dumpster fire and we’re less than halfway through it. Don’t jinx it…

    3. BenAdminGeek*

      This is a boss who seems to be a terrible person with terrible views on either what’s appropriate or what’s funny. But this isn’t bad “boss” behavior in a direct impact perspective. Just a person with what appears to be a malfunctioning moral compass.

  27. Indigo Terra*

    Maybe it wasn’t meant to be sent to the whole team, but just the one employee the manager is friendly with and won the award..? So it could reflect an inside joke..? Still makes zero sense and not funny, but possible..?

  28. FuzzFrogs*

    What’s Putin listed as doing? “Gazprom” it looks like? Which, upon Googling, seems to be a government-owned company with an overwhelming monopoly on gas utilities in Russia. Which is a weird pull if she was simply using these as jokey placeholder images. The best (best!) interpretation I can think of is that she’s a Russian history nerd, but even still, very tone deaf.

    Given the other info about the manager, who clearly has favorites, I would categorize this as almost definitely a joke, but one made by someone who has a very different view of what the “joke” might be than you do. I mean, you already know this is a giant red flag, but yes, take this seriously as a GIANT red flag about how this manager views the world. Her sense of norms is clearly WAY off.

    1. Delta Delta*

      She might be a Russian history nerd. If that was the case there are many many other famous Russian humans who could be used in the placeholder “joke” who are not these guys.

      1. FuzzFrogs*

        Right, exactly. Even the kindest interpretation speaks badly to her ability to read a situation. Which might also be indicated by the fact that she is very visibly favoring another coworker–she can’t seem to understand how her actions come off in a work setting.

    2. Batty Twerp*

      Gazprom also provides gas to Europe. A standard “threat” from Putin was to cut off the gas so that “the lights go out”.
      (In 2009(?), Gazprom cut or threatened to cut (can’t remember which) gas supplies to Ukraine, sparking concerns over the dependency on Russian-monopoly-owned gas supplies across Europe)

  29. A Genuine Scientician*

    Not particularly important, but a typo:

    You want general brutality, not generally brutality.

    1. fhqwhgads*

      There’s a link right above the comment box for reporting typos. Alison doesn’t necessarily read every single comment so it’s more likely to get fixed if you use that channel than doing so in a comment.

  30. Stella70*

    She sounds like a person not typically “joke-y”, so when people like that take a stab at humor, sometimes it falls very flat.
    I know this is subjective, but I can think of a few people who would have been worse to use, so there’s that……

  31. Martine*

    My grandfather and two of my uncles were ordered executed under that man due to their political beliefs. My family members who survived him were affected by the horror for the rest of their lives. I don’t care if people think I’m sensitive or overreacting but I would refuse to work for someone who did this or thought it was a joke, full stop.

    1. OOOFSTER*

      You are absolutely entitled to that opinion, and correct, and this person needs to be severely reprimanded. What a horrible thing that happened to your family and millions of others. Why anyone thinks there is a joke possibility here astounds me.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        No one is saying it’s funny. We’re saying the manager just have intended it as a (terrible, not funny, offensive) joke because nothing else makes sense.

        1. OOOFSTER*

          Right. You call it ‘horribly bad taste’.
          If something is extremely not appropriate,vile, refers to mass murder of innocent people, let’s not call it a terrible and offensive joke or bad taste. Let’s call it what it is-pure workplace aggression, racist, anti-semetic, etc. When managers allow people to hide atrocious statements behind the ‘well jeez it was a just a poorly thought out joke, what bad taste’ it continues to open the door for it. I would hope that more managers would have the guts to say ‘There are things that are absolutely not jokes, whether you meant it as a joke or not. It will not be treated as such, and we’re hauling your ass to HR now, just as we would if you called someone the N word.”
          You dropped the ball on this mealy mouth response.

          1. Littorally*

            I think you must have misread the email. This was sent by the LW’s manager, not by someone they manage. They don’t have the standing to take their manager to task with anything near the kind of language you’re using.

          2. Ask a Manager* Post author

            She’s not a manager. She reports to this person. Power dynamics are a thing, and people pick their battles. There’s a range of responses suggested in the post.

        2. Chinook*

          Unfortunately, there are people here wondering why it is a big deal. Part of it is cultural – those of us who grew up around friends like Martine know that this is more than a bad joke. It truly would be on the same level as using an image of Hitler in that line up (because the man really did know how to organize and inspire large groups, too bad he was pure evil).

        3. FaintlyMacabre*

          Unfortunately, I do think there is the possibility that it is not meant to be funny. There are definitely people who support Putin and would like a return to Stan’s time period. Which this person may also feel. It worries me that so many people see this as a joke, when it may very well not be one.

      2. Mack*

        Those of us from former Soviet countries & immigrant families *do* make occasional Soviet/worker jokes though, I’ll admit (yes, I had family in the gulag too).

        It’s dark humour. I wouldn’t suggest it among people who aren’t very familiar, let alone in the workplace – like ant dark humour. This… yikes.

    2. Archie Goodwin*

      I know many people who would not hesitate to condemn anything related to Nazism, but don’t treat the behaviors of the Soviet state in nearly the same way; I have always been appalled at this. And I’m INCREDIBLY lucky; my immediate family survived his regime, though they knew people whose lives were shattered.

      1. Texan In Exile*

        I was at a party at someone’s house. (He was not a friend! He was hosting the party for an organization.)

        He had photos from contemporary China all over and was telling us about a Chinese co-worker who was bothered that he had a giant art print of Mao in his office. I wanted to yell at him that the co-worker probably didn’t have any living family because of Mao but realized that people like that cannot be told.

      2. Texan In Exile*

        I also want to ask the people who wear the Che Guevara t-shirts if they have Hitler and Stalin t-shirts at home. Because they all represent the same thing: mass murder.

      3. Lissa*

        Yes, I was going to say this – I don’t know why but there’s a weird internet “thing” about making Stalin/Soviet jokes. I’m not saying it *should* be a joke, I’m just saying that it is. I do not understand it at all, I’m not saying it’s terrible widespread but I have seen it more than once. Though it seemed to be more common a couple years ago – someone I know made a weird Stalin post on his facebook and seemed legitimately surprised when people were like “WTF, dude? No!”

    3. Jess*

      I do hear you, Martine, my grandfather spent age 14-30 in the Gulags and was insane by the end. Not to mention family “disappearing”. That said, I am also fully aware that many people are completely clueless as to the actual history behind Stalin. Seems like everyone talks about Hitler, but Soviet history is often swept under the rug. I’d try to approach this as ignorance first, and hopefully educate. We can only move forward by educating. Education requires compassion too.

    4. RussianInTexas*

      My grandfather went through a GULAG camp, and my grandmother have barely survived the Holodomor.
      Not funny. Not funny at all.

      1. LutherstadtWittenberg*

        The European history we learn in the U.S. school system tends to focus on Western Europe; the manager in this letter seems completely unaware that joking about Stalin is no better than joking about Hitler. I don’t find it an excuse, but I’m more aware of my genocidal maniacs.

        1. UKDancer*

          In the UK it’s also focused on Western Europe. We studied the Holocaust pretty extensively and the growth of fascism in Germany and Italy. I didn’t know much if anything about the Holodomor until I went to Ukraine as an adult on business and was reading up on the country beforehand. I went to the memorial and museum by the Dniepr in Kyiv while I was there and I couldn’t stop crying, it was so moving.

          I have visited Ukraine 4 times now for work and each time I fall more in love with the country and the people.

          All that said, even before I went to Ukraine I would not joke about Stalin any more than I’d joke about Hitler, Pol Pot or any other tyrants.

  32. MechanicalPencil*

    I mean, if I were to do an employee of the month thing, it would be different photos of my dog. But this…is not that. I’m agog.

  33. Delta Delta*

    Wait. Were there actual prior winners and the boss is either a) concealing their actual identities or b) somehow comparing them to Putin and Stalin (and also, did the same person win 3 times?)?

    Imagine the person who was the past winner. They’re feeling pretty good about things. Then they realize the boss actually mentally metaphorically has made them into Vladimir Putin or Josef Stalin. How’s this?

  34. Psych0Therapist*

    Oh my gosh I can’t even believe people these days… PLEASE provide us with an update

  35. Jubilance*

    Surprised but not surprised by the number of comments here trying to explain this away as a hacking or perhaps a test draft for formatting, etc. Yall will come up with the most implausible scenarios to avoid calling a thing a thing. Seriously yall.

    OP, your manager is terrible. Why have you not forwarded this email to HR yet?

    1. Gloria*

      Hacking and accidentally sending a draft email are things that happen sometimes, not implausible scenarios. It’s not crazy to at least consider that there’s an explanation other than that the manager is a horrible person, especially since OP said she hasn’t done stuff like this before.

      1. Observer*

        Alison confirmed that it was not hacking.

        Even as a draft, this is a problem, because unlike “Insert witty title” type place holders, this actually required some thought.

      2. Elsajeni*

        Hacking seems like an extremely implausible scenario given the details, though — someone hacked her email and sent out a perfectly normal email announcing an employee-of-the-month program, giving the current month’s award to a current employee who she’s known to favor, and the only strange thing they did was change the past months’ awards to Putin and Stalin?

    2. Littorally*

      I would say there’s an enormous difference between commenters bringing up possibilities that can be discarded versus claiming that something must be or is probably the case. If nothing else, it helps brainstorm excuses that the sender might give when she’s called on this nonsense.

    3. LizArd*

      I think that reaction is because, if it is deliberate, it DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE. Not “is in poor taste” but “literally cannot be explained, at all, even as an offensive joke.”

    4. MissDisplaced*

      Perhaps it is a thing.
      But this is so utterly bizarre of a thing I also hate to automatically jump to “asshole with bad intentions” if the person hasn’t typically been known to act inappropriately or exhibit behavior like this.

    5. KoiFeeder*

      Sufficiently advanced stupidity is indistinguishable from malice! There is a point where you cannot be a level of ignorant without a level of malice involved!

    6. Koala dreams*

      People are not explaining anything away, they suggest those as pretences to use if it’s not safe to complain directly. It’s easy to be direct when you don’t need to worry about your job and perhaps your safety too.

  36. mayfly*

    This is so far outside the realm of appropriateness, I can’t imagine anyone thinking it’s funny.
    If dark humor was the goal, set it up with characters/villains from literature. Uriah Heep, Javert, and Faust would have made excellent example Employees of the Month if one were looking to skewer the concept.

  37. MissDisplaced*

    So so many questions! Stalin won thee times? Who’s up for June, Hitler? And what about friend Mussolini?

    So, very bizarre! Perhaps this is some odd, bleak, ill-expressed inside joke? But if that’s the case, it seems to be land like a lead balloon considering the photos of the dictators chosen.

    I guess it depends on your own personal capital and what you know of this manager, but I like trying the ““I’m guessing this was meant to be a joke, but I don’t get it.” language first… just in case it really WAS the wrong image that got attached somehow. I mean, that IS possible and these may have been placeholders or something and the person could be mortified. I hate to automatically jump to bad intentions if the person hasn’t typically been known to say or do this type of thing.
    I think if you’re brave enough to ask about it, their response (or lack thereof) will inform any other actions such as involving HR.

  38. rageismycaffeine*

    The only thing I can think of is that it’s a Communism joke (with Stalin) because… ha, ha… the workers????

    This is absolutely batshit crazy. I can’t even.

    1. Lissa*

      This was my first thought, because I have seen similar things posted by people I know somewhat – a lot of communism memes, that end up including Stalin or Mao. I think they got too far into their own internet subcultures to realize how this comes across to … uh, everyone else. So that was my first thought when I saw this.

  39. RussianInTexas*

    I don’t get offended often, but as a Russian Jew who’s relatives went to GULAG, this offends me.
    Also, was Pol Pot not available?

  40. NoCoffeePotUnturned*

    I feel like you have to be really conservative to understand this weirdo in-joke. It reads like a dog whistle to me, tbh.

    1. SomebodyElse*

      Can we not please… being conservative has nothing to do with this. People are idiots no matter what their political affiliation is.

      1. Amy Sly*

        Exactly. I’m quite conservative and I’m as baffled as anyone. Like, I can sort of wrap my mind around the notion of mocking the whole concept of “Employee of the Month” by creating a fake list with terrible people and their real actions dressed in corporate speak (e.g. “Nicholas II: Awarded EOOM for the costs savings created by having soldiers loot the rifles and ammunition off the enemy”) but to do it with four fake entries and one real? And with the fake entries not even making sense as criticism or praise of the “winners”?

        It doesn’t make sense if it was serious attempt to praise or mock all the EEOMs. It doesn’t make sense if it was an attempt at gallows humor. And it doesn’t make sense as some kind of meme or template that was just forgotten.

    2. A Silver Spork*

      There is an absolutely *horrifying* number of leftists (socialists/communists/anarchists) who glorify Stalin and think he had the right idea and would love to see Stalin 2.0 take over the US/UK/wherever. The vast majority of them have either never talked to a Stalinism survivor/descendant of such, or, they *have* talked (trust me, I’ve been trying to get through to them) but didn’t listen because something something propaganda.

      I don’t know if that’s what’s going on here, but it’s a thing that exists.

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        I identify as anarchist (according to the Wikipedia definition) and have been a fellow traveller of socialists and communists since I was able to think for myself. I have never heard a single person among all those I have met identifying as left-wing praising Stalin. And I live in a communist bastion with a communist mayor (poised to win the second round after getting 48% of the vote in the first) where you’d be forgiven for forgetting that the Berlin wall had fallen.
        so unless you’re horrified by 6 and a half, I’m afraid I’m going to say it’s not true.

        1. A Silver Spork*

          I’m glad you haven’t had the experience of dealing with Stalinists, truly. But I have also been a leftist for years, and I’ve run into several dozen of them by now. Maybe that’s a generational thing, maybe that’s a location thing (people in the US tend to not understand the horrors of Stalin as much, I’ve noticed, and your reference makes me think you’re likely in Germany; forgive me for the assumption if it’s wrong). Maybe it’s because people are more willing to *admit* to Stalinism in my presence than yours. I don’t know. But you don’t get to lie to me about my own experiences among leftist spaces.

          And for the record? Considering that Stalin was responsible for, by the most *conservative* estimates, a million deaths, I think that the existence of even one Stalinist would be horrifying. And if it makes you think I’m a thin-skinned delicate little crybaby clutching my pearls, well, whatever.

          1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

            well I’m amazed and sorry then, thank you for the information, looks like it’s an Atlantic divide? Who knew?!? I have hardly met an American who knows who Marx or Lenin or Stalin is, let alone support any of them. Maybe these leftists don’t travel to Europe. I suppose it’s mostly well-off Americans who spend more time in Europe than the “12 cities in 10 days” circuits and they don’t get rich touting Stalinism.
            I certainly know plenty of people who admire the Soviet Union project, considering it a good project that went wrong, but I don’t count them as Stalinists, even if I might jokingly call them that at times.
            I expect communists in the US have to be much more thick-skinned than in Europe. They’re not pariahs here, we are open to nuance, such as the notion that you can be a Marxist without condoning violence, that you can support what the Soviet Union was attempting to do without believing that the end justifies the means.
            I am personally much more horrified by neo-Nazis than even the most die-hard of communists, because none of their ideas come from a place of generosity (and to me the Marxist philosophy is underpinned by generosity).
            I’m in France actually, Germany is just next door.

            1. A Silver Spork*

              Ah, sorry for my mistake – I’m not caught up on the political situation in France, but it’s nice to hear that there’s at least one place out there where people are not going full racist-totalitarian with whatever ideology they can coopt.

              I have a lot of feelings about the Soviet Union that are beyond the scope of this letter. My feelings on *Stalin*, however, are a very simple “eff that dude to hell and back” – and unfortunately, here in the US, this is not always understood, because many people, across all parts of the political spectrum, treat Stalin and the USSR/communism as a whole as essentially interchangeable. Part of that is that history education here is utter trash. You know the joke that “Americans think they swooped in to Europe and singlehandedly won WW2”? Well, that’s pretty much exactly how it’s taught in many schools, including my well-funded liberal one. There’s a ton of propaganda mixed in with some truth, so you end up with many people falling into two camps: “it’s all true, communism is always terrible, ‘Murica rocks” and “US history classes were utter propaganda, nothing that they taught us about the USSR is true, Stalin was a perfect leader who only killed bad people” – some people do their research and find the nuance, but not nearly enough. It’s… exhausting. (Doubly so when you’re the only Russian in class so people start throwing “commie” at you as an insult mixed in with the f-word and b-word.)

    3. The Gollux, Not a Mere Device*

      If it was Mussolini, maybe. But even American conservatives who think Putin is great don’t feel that way about Communist Russia.

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        well of course not, Putin is at the other end of the spectrum on the extreme right! Anyone who supports Stalin and Putin simply like autoritarianism and don’t care in the least for any of the ideology.

  41. Jay*

    My first take on this was as an ill thought out version of something I have seen a few times before, particularly a version of “You Don’t Have To Be Crazy To Work Here, But It Helps” type joke. Some of them can actually be quite clever. This one was really not, especially if no one else go the joke.
    My favorite was a list of Employees of the Month featuring all the assorted Jokers, all the way from Adam West Batman era up until Suicide Squad.

  42. Lizzy*

    Here is what’s boggling me: the image is clearly an incomplete screencap, because you can see on the right side that another pink box has been cropped out. Alison – in the original email, was the actual Employee of the Month in that space to the right?

    1. TK*

      Just as the letter writer, what was cropped out was May’s winner, which was an actual employee. This was the first time EotM was sent. Cropped out their image as personally identifiable.

  43. ShanShan*

    Honestly, this might just be all the web development classes I’ve been taking, but my first thought was “whoever created this website grabbed some placeholder images off a random Wikipedia page to make sure the photos were showing up correctly and didn’t realize anyone else was able to see them.”

    I’ve never used Stalin in this context, but I’ve definitely used, like, Sailor Moon characters.

    1. Emilia Bedelia*

      If you want to do formatting testing with random images, that’s fine, but if you deliberately use something offensive like Soviet dictators in this context, it is then even more critical that you double check before sending out. Imagine if someone had used stills from pornography as their “test images” – why would you deliberately create such a risk? It shows insanely poor judgment to both use such an inappropriate image and be so careless as to actually distribute it. Even if this was truly a “formatting test”, it demonstrates that the sender really didn’t understand how offensive this was.

      The fact that that was the choice for something that could potentially be distributed widely is a red flag on its own. “Maybe she was just testing the format, and didn’t mean to send it” is not an excuse.

      1. ShanShan*

        I’m not saying it was a great choice. I’m just saying that it seems like far too many commenters are assuming this action was deliberate (as a joke or what have you), when it seems fairly clear that it was an accident.

        It reminds me a lot of a rude and profane cover letter that made the rounds on social media a few years ago as an example of “entitled millennials with bad attitudes,” when anyone who looked at the document for longer than thirty seconds could clearly see that it was something the author wrote privately to blow off steam after a frustrating job search and then uploaded by mistake instead of their real cover letter. So, the internet wasted gallons of digital ink analyzing the decision-making process behind something that clearly hadn’t been a decision at all.

        That’s what I mean. It seems incredibly unlikely that this was anything but a tasteless private joke that nobody was supposed to see. Should the person have been making tasteless private jokes? No, not any more than that job seeker should have been writing private cover letters that called their interviewers a-holes and insulted their mothers. But trying to figure out why this person made this joke is kind of pointless if we don’t acknowledge that they almost certainly thought they were just making it to themselves.

        1. Emilia Bedelia*

          I think we somewhat agree here – I think the reason why she made the joke is not relevant. My argument is that it doesn’t matter whether it was deliberate or a joke or not. It should be addressed by HR or her boss in the same way regardless of the intent. As a manager, she needs to be extra aware of her position and her authority, and be held to a higher standard in her communication.

          Whether it was deliberate or not, the end result is the same. If it was in fact a careless accident, she needs to know that it is a serious mistake and that she needs to seriously consider her work process to prevent something like this from happening again. If it wasn’t an accident… she needs to seriously consider her thought process that led to thinking this was okay, to prevent something like this from happening again.

    2. Daughter of Ada and Grace*

      The thing is, there are sites dedicated to nothing but placeholder images! I’m fond of placekitten (dot) com, where you can add your photo dimensions, and get an appropriately sized picture of an adorable kitten! There is no need to use pictures of actual world leaders (even ones who aren’t horrible).

    3. NoviceManagerGuy*

      Sure, but there’s a reason you used fictional characters and not Stalin.

  44. Employment Lawyer*

    I’m trying to picture someone seeing a “Stalin is employee of the month” post and wondering, earnestly, “Is this meant to be literal?”

    Clearly, it is a joke. Maybe a bad joke, maybe a new version of Godwin’s law, but it is a joke. Seeing that post has not materially harmed anyone in your company. It’s a high-risk joke which might have offended someone, I suppose, but others probably thought it was funny.

    If it’s never happened before, I would leave it alone and move on. If you think it was in bad taste and if you cannot bear to leave it alone, I suppose you could tell someone or run it up the ladder. But generally I think offices function better when people give each other a bit of leeway for occasional stupid mistakes or jokes that fall flat. Your call.

      1. A Silver Spork*

        I have. Also in the Holodomor, in traditional prisons… and not to mention the people who didn’t *die* as far as we know, but disappeared without a trace (but they’re probably dead).

        This was one of the first things I saw upon waking up, and I promptly noped under my pillows and nearly had a panic attack. If my grandma (who survived Stalin) or any of my relatives back home (currently living under Putin’s totalitarianism) had seen this… I don’t even want to think about it.

      2. Employment Lawyer*

        Well, I don’t agree that my answer to this sort of “gotcha!” question has any relevance to this; the whole “only Group X is allowed to have an opinion” thing is mortally dumb. I might even note that the idea that certain thoughts and positions are 100% verboten and cannot be talked about, ever, or held by anyone without severe social consequences, or even alluded to or joked about, is, well, a bit Stalinesque.

        But if you must know, though it’s not really your business: half of my ancestry is from that area; various folks were chased to the US by pogroms and most of the ones who stayed were murdered by either Russians or Nazis; I spent my most recent Thanksgiving listening to a lecture about which family members were killed where. So the answer by any reasonable interpretation is “yes, my family was included in bad Russian and German actions,” unless you want to No True Scotsman this to death.

        Still, I don’t subscribe to the idea that people are harmed by this sort of foolishness, any more than they are “harmed” by people who sincerely argue for the wonders of communism (does the NYT “harm” people?) or for any other kind of political position. Offense and “harm” aren’t the same.

        Can you offend me or anyone else by making in-poor-taste Hitler jokes? Sure. Can you harm me or anyone else? No. If I claim I’m “harmed” by the name Stalin in print unless you accompany it by an appropriate “…the horrible evil dictator” line, do I get to make you apologize?

        I would generally encourage people to give a bit of leeway to how others interact in the workplace, even when people say occasionally-stupid things. You should, too.

        1. LutherstadtWittenberg*

          People may not find it appropriate to make such “jokes” in their workplace, if these jokes can be deemed such. You consider that Stalinesque? For an employment lawyer, you have a consistently terrible grasp of the law. Certainly say whatever you wish outside of the office, sweet and smug little fridge magnet; keep it away from my desk.

          1. Keymaster of Gozer*

            There was once, briefly, an employee at my sister’s firm who liked to post memes that were racist on company email, but defended himself by saying nobody there was non-white therefore nobody was actually affected by it directly. He lasted a month before they booted him out.

            1. Observer*

              I know there are people who are convinced that “everyone” REALLY agrees with their racist views but is just too “politically correct” to say so. But too push it that far, is pretty breathtaking.

                1. Kitrona*

                  *perks up* Did I hear something about sloth pictures?

                  If you like sloth videos, Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, SC had a video with their resident sloth a couple weeks ago and it was *adorable*.

        2. RussianInTexas*

          I mean, replace Stalin here with literal Hitler. Or Pol Pot. Or Idi Amin. Is it still just a risky may be not funny joke? Because Stalin was no less of a brutal genocidal dictator than these three.
          None are appropriate in the work place.

        3. A Silver Spork*

          Do panic attacks and other trauma responses not count as “harm” to you? Is it only harm when money is involved, is that it? Is the fact that over half my family has struggled with suicidal thoughts – and several have made attempts – not “harm” unless someone has actually died? You think PTSD, depression, and schizophrenia, all things that my family has developed as a result of Stalin and what came after him, and which are often triggered by such careless references like what this manager did, don’t count as harm?

          Your worldview is callous, abhorrent, and egocentric. If you won’t reconsider it, you need to reconsider your position as an employment lawyer, because this sort of mentality with that sort of job ruins lives.

        4. Keymaster of Gozer*

          Aren’t there rules against causing offence to others in the workplace?

          One would say that the attitude of ‘you were seriously offended? Get over it’ to something in seriously poor taste has no business being present at work either.

    1. Observer*

      Maybe a bad joke,

      Maybe?! There is no maybe about it. IF it is a joke, it’s a TERRIBLE jke – both as “humor” and as a moral issue.

      Clearly, it is a joke

      Not at all – It is SUCH a bad joke that it’s not clear that it really was intended as a joke. Sure, it may be worth it for the OP to respond as though it’s a joke that fell flat. But it is far from clear that this actually was intended as a joke.

      Seeing that post has not materially harmed anyone in your company
      That’s something you don’t know. If you have survivors of totalitarian dictatorships on staff, it’s quite possible that this DID harm them.

      but others probably thought it was funny.
      To be honest, anyone who thinks this is funny and appropriate for the workplace is someone who I don’t want in any position that requires interaction with people.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        We met a couple who had fled Ceausescu. Even though their story was decades earlier, you could still see the fear. They told us the story of their escape. You could still see the fear as if it happened just recently.
        I don’t think it ever leaves a person, this becomes permanent. It’s part of them.
        In turn, I am sure their kids also have been hugely impacted by their story. I don’t know how to say it, but a secondary trauma type of thing? I am trying to think of what that term is when something awful happens to a person and it’s so awful that the people around them are shaken to the core just from the story.

        I am not clear on how this boss could have posted these pictures and assumed that it would be funny to all. All I can think of is that she has a very narrow life experience and she assumes everyone else does also.

        I’d be tempted to forward the email to HR and ask HR if this type of email is endorsed by the company. But if my family was impacted by these insane leaders, I dunno, maybe I’d stop reporting for work. I can’t be sure.
        Just sitting here as a reader, I want to march into this person’s office and say, “What is wrong with you?! Is your head up your butt or what?!” But do not do this.

        1. A Silver Spork*

          Intergenerational trauma is when the next generation (and usually the ones after that too) are affected by a negative event. I think when it’s a friend/colleague or something it’s called secondary trauma. And yeah – it’s absolutely brutal. No one in my family ever really “got over” communism, and those of us born after the fact also have scars from it.

    2. Chinook*

      Thought experiment: replace two of Stalin’s images with David Duke and Hitler. Now tell me how this has not harmed anyone and should be ignored.

      To those of us who know our history or are personally related to the results of their actions, this is how we feel about Stalin and Putin.

    3. SarahTheEntwife*

      Honestly, I don’t even get the joke. As in, there are plenty of hideously offensive jokes that would have me reporting a coworker to HR but where I can at least decode the basic joke format and understand why they thought it was funny. This “joke” just seems to consist of “pictures of Stalin and Putin, haha!”. Where’s the humor other than as pure absurdity?

      1. Amy Sly*

        Exactly. I enjoy a lot of dark humor — The Death of Stalin had me rolling — but there’s no joke here. Like if one of the reasons Stalin made EOTM was “Effectively reduced head count” or “reduced complaints by 99%” — that would be dark as hell, but the humor would be the juxtaposition of the normal business reasons one might become “Employee of the Month” with the very … non-business-like way Stalin actually reduced headcount and complaints, shall we say.

        If this was an attempt to be funny, it’s like they thought “Putin! Stalin! Instant edgy punchline” without any additional thought.

  45. SomebodyElse*

    Soooo many questions on this one. I’d really love to hear more of this story. I really have no advice mainly because it’s so off the wall I can’t even get past the WTF to formulate any advice.

  46. Wintermute*

    It’s important to realize the sheer extent to which Stalin has been whitewashed, especially by some elements on the far left. There’s a lot of people out there that truly believe he did nothing wrong, all the people he killed were anticommunists and fascists and thus deserved it, and believe the cult of personality that only he could save the world from Hitler.

    Yes, this does require not realizing the Holodomor was a thing, and a staggering amount of ignorance of the purges, Beria being his right-hand man, and the gulag system. But this is out there. If you trust someone won’t just write you off as a fascist and therefore below contempt it’s worth trying to educate some people, but a lot of them are just too far gone. They’re the left-wing version of the “hitler did nothing wrong” people.

    1. RussianInTexas*

      When I talk to my mom, who, herself, had family (paternal side) members not surviving Holodomor, about Stalin (she lives in Russia), she tells me that he is a controversial figure, and even those who think he was evil, think he was “evil genius” who won the war.
      Him. Not the 28,000,000 dead. Not the talented generals. Not the whole-country effort.

    2. Lissa*

      Yes this is what I was thinking too. I’m glad I’m not the only one who has seen this because I was honestly surprised most people in the comments seemed to be thinking this person is far right or a white supremacist. The people online who I have known to be all “haha Stalin” are absolutely intolerable, but they’re not far right.

      1. Wintermute*

        I am a large fan of studying military history, so you tend to see the dividing line sharply in WWII amateur scholarship. The left-wing version is “the all-conquering righteous Red Army and their armored fist” and the right-wing version is “the clean, apolitical Wehrmacht and their invincible Krupp steel tanks”.

        1. BenAdminGeek*

          Yes, I had a history professor who was very interested in WW2, but told us that he never let himself start collecting memorabilia, as he’d seen multiple friends who became increasingly obsessed with obtaining Soviet/Nazi items and it seemed to warp their thinking. This is 20 years out, so I’m not saying it as eloquently as he did, but his take was that the very act of focusing on acquiring items from these monsters seemed to make people forget/excuse what they actually did. And as he also pointed out, it could be very hurtful as a professor if students came into your office and saw the memorabilia and made assumptions about how you viewed the world, regardless of your true views.

      2. allathian*

        Far right or far left, it doesn’t really make much of a difference if you’re killed in the holocaust or the gulag, you’re just as dead. The far right and the far left may have different reasons for doing what they do, but both distrust individual freedoms and neither supports universal human rights. The means don’t really matter when the end result is the same.
        That said, this letter is making my jaw drop.

    3. Blueberry*

      … after this weekend I was figuring I’d see people push back against leftists, liberals, and civil rights, but I wasn’t expecting someone to figure out how to discredit the push for justice by calling us Stalinists. this is pretty impressive, I have to say. Disgusting, but impressive.

      1. Wintermute*

        I’m not talking about all leftists, as a socialist myself, I am on the left and I’ve not been shy about saying that here. I believe in social justice, dismantling the tyranny of the capital-owning class and an expansive view of civil rights and fundamental liberties. I am discussing a trend I have seen while moving through, discussing and collaborating in leftist spaces. These are people that self-describe as marxist-leninists and have Stalinist leanings, and they would not dispute this. They idolize the “heroes of the revolution” like Mao and Lenin, and Stalin to some extent, while at the same time horribly whitewashing their history and being willfully ignorant of their atrocities because that would cede too much ground to the anti-communists Horseshoe theory is real, you go far enough left and it starts to look a lot like the far right.

        1. Blueberry*

          All I can say is that such people exemplify the dangers of opening one’s mind so wide one’s brain falls out, I guess. I believe your clarification that such monumental atrocity-cheerleading whackaloons exist, but I’m really glad I have never met one and I hope I never do.

          1. Wintermute*

            I hang out in a lot of left-leaning internet chats and spaces and you see it in a lot of memes. Things like “world record fascist-killer” and a picture of Stalin, or a picture of Stalin or Lavrenty Beria (head of the KGB) captioned “they knew what to do with a Nazi!” One I saw recently linked in a chat had a Soviet Realism style drawing like Soviet propaganda and he had his arm around a depiction of that guy that sucker punched an alt-right guy on TV.

            1. Blueberry*

              I need to borrow some hands to facepalm with. Two isn’t enough. Don’t these dolts know ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ is a logical fallacy?

              1. Observer*

                One of my first lessons in political theory always stuck with me. The idea is that politics is a circle rather than a straight line and that the far left and the far right meet, and have little to separate them.

                1. Not So NewReader*

                  I saw this in real life when I went back to school. Some of the teachers/staff were so far on the left that they were actually conservatives. They had circled around the back of the issues and joined in on the opposite side.

                  I tried saying that. But this is like talking to someone who says the grass is NOT green and the sky is NOT blue. They can’t hear anything but their own thoughts.
                  I now challenge myself to read things that don’t line up with my own thoughts. I don’t have to believe those things, but I don’t want to become deaf like the people at school. So I have to listen. It’s a quality of life issue when we stop listening to other people.

  47. Student*

    Report it to HR or someone up the management chain. “This concerns me. Could you please look into it, and see if we can prevent a repeat?”

    There may be other explanations, but this looks like the kind of things I’ve seen from white supremacists. It broadcasts a belief that brutal, terrible people should be treated as if they were upstanding and outstanding people to the like-minded, and it can easily be hand-waved away as a “joke that didn’t land” to anyone who objects.

    AAM has already gone 75% of the way to rationalizing it away so OP can just looking away, hoping it doesn’t mean exactly what it says it means. When people tell you who they are, believe them. Your manager just straight up told you she’s a white supremacist. Start looking for a new job.

    If she didn’t want to come off as a white supremacist, there’s a whole lot of other villains handy she could’ve picked from. The fact that she picked Stalin repeatedly suggests to me that she couldn’t find more options that weren’t so blatantly “over the line;” she was trying to preserve some plausible deniability.

    1. Observer*

      Actually, this strikes me as the last thing a white supremacist would post. Most white supremacists DESPISE Russians – in their world view they are only a step up above the “truly lower” races, and bare make the cut for being human.

      1. Kelly L.*

        You’d be surprised! In recent years, they’ve latched onto Putin as being the best example of the kind of autocratic white leader they like. They don’t usually go back further into Russian history, though, but they also have a bunch of in-jokes that make zero sense outside that world, so who knows.

      2. A Silver Spork*

        White supremacists have been trying to court Russians for a decade, maybe more now. There’s a HUGE Neo-Nazi movement in Russia, for example. My brother went full Nazi a few years ago, and I’m the only person in the family who thinks this is a problem. :/

    2. Emilia Bedelia*

      I don’t think it’s necessary to speculate about her politics. Getting into that will probably only lead to further argument that she’s being singled out for her beliefs.

      This is offensive all on its own, without any further connection to white supremacy or any other beliefs. I’m not saying there’s no connection at all, but it’s not necessary to bring in anything else, because this would be very very wrong no matter what the rest of the persons’ beliefs are.

  48. Lissa*

    So, I can’t explain why the person thought this was a good idea, but I wonder if it comes from a weird genre of internet humour that’s like…communism memes, as opposed to being completely random or trying to make a specific point. I have seen this kind of thing before by really tone deaf people who have gotten so into a specific internet group that they lose the plot, and don’t realize what they’re actually doing, ie making jokey references to horrible dictators. I honestly would not have interpreted it as racist or white supremacist until I read the comments here, based entirely on my own experience with this kind of thing.

    I don’t know what I’d do in this case but escalating it seems reasonable, so someone could at least figure out WTF the intent was here.

    1. Wintermute*

      Yeah this doesn’t track as racist to me, it tracks as insufferable far-leftist that thinks the only people the purges killed were fascists that had it coming.

      1. Chinook*

        Racist is the right word, maybe culturalist? These people actually wanted to wipe out a people who look like them but are different culturally. But, the result is the same.

    2. MissDisplaced*

      Odd factor #2: Unbeknown to us, she has began running an “Employee of the Month” program.
      Photo of dictators aside… WTF? What’s that about? Who would do that?

  49. Observer*

    Alison, I’m surprised at your answer for two reasons.

    Firstly, I think that this by itself is big enough that calling it “weirdness” seems to be understating the case.

    Beyond that is the context in which this happened. This is someone who does things on her own that she probably doesn’t have standing to do- ie starting up an employee of the month award without letting anyone know. Worse, is her blatant favoritism that negatively affects staff and the company. Just a whole bunch of bad judgement and abuse of position, to start with.

    In that context, you have to wonder what she REALLY thinks about these two people – abuse of power seems to be right in the forefront of her playbook. Maybe I’m wrong about that. But, it’s a reasonable thought.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Yeah, I thought about that also, the common thread of abusing power. Interesting. OP, this makes me want to caution you to be sure to bring other people into this story here. SEVERAL other people. I don’t know what a group would look like to you, perhaps coworkers, or perhaps HR and Grandboss? I am not sure. I think a group of three or more people will be necessary to override her excuse, “I was just joking.”

  50. Coder von Frankenstein*

    Is it possible that the “award” is in fact a way of saying “This person is an awful employee,” and that Stalin and Putin were listed as previous recipients in order to signal the real meaning of the award?

    Not that that makes it any better. In fact, it probably makes it worse. For a manager to send out e-mails equating an employee of the company, however mediocre, with Stalin and Putin is… yow.

    1. EvilQueenRegina*

      As is a manager trying to engage the rest of her team with a “joke” at that employee’s expense full stop, even if it had just been a comparison to some bad employee from something like The Office (I didn’t watch so can’t easily pick an example, but I’m sure those who did can think of someone), rather than the likes of Stalin. An awful employee he may be; that doesn’t make it right for the manager to make that joke with her team.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      How is it rewarding to have one’s picture in line with Stalin and Putin? I’d be embarrassed.

      We had a much tamer thing happen at one place I worked. The employee of the month did something that was an automatic dismissal. This ended the employee of the month program entirely. And they had just started the program. No one wanted to be associated with that employee and their gross, gross, wrong-doing.

  51. Ratso*

    I’m guessing this is an attempt by the manager to see who has so much free time that they bother to complain about this trivial of an issue so she can start firing the dead weight.

    1. Observer*

      So, glorifying genocidal dictators is “trivial”.

      I hope you don’t manage anyone.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      She’s the dead weight who needs to be fired. She has time to find pics of these evil people and copy them to email???? Who does this? That is so bizarre.

    3. lazy intellectual*

      Seriously?? The manager is the one wasting time making dictator employee of the month memes. And sending them.

  52. Colette*

    The thing is, the OP still has to work with her, and telling someone in a position of authority that you were offended, disturbed, and what they did is not appropriate may feel good, but it’s unlikely to do great things for your ability to do your job. Maybe the OP is willing to take the fallout of saying something like that to a manager – but she should do so intentionally, if that’s her choice.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      For reasons, sometimes we cannot take on every battle we see. It is wise to consider that there are costs here and can you pay that price? This is why I recommend taking others with you. Do not try to fight this alone. I said up above to think about it and chose people strategically. Then work together with them. I don’t think this is paranoia, I think it just makes good sense. Protect yourself also, OP.

  53. Not usual name*

    Forward up to big bosses. Let them figure out if manager is in need of training, reprimand or dismissal.

    This incessant need to give people the benefit of the doubt is why they get away with behavior that they’d show immediate offense to if images were reversed historically or culturally.

    In a business setting there is no reason for this to be sent out to workers. We have to stop moving off standard of “does this offend me” to “would this offend one of the receivers” and resist desire to bend over backwards with excuses.

    Someone that is also showing blatant favoritism to a poor performing employee hasn’t earned benefit of the doubt for this stunt. Let HR/middle management do their job and manage situation. OP speaking to manager directly makes OP have to listen to defense of action when she has no authority to push back.

    1. lazy intellectual*

      Actually I agree with this. It might be risky for OP to directly confront her manager, but this is worth escalating.

  54. Elizabeth West*

    I desperately need an update to this one.

    Also, I would love to be the boss’s boss. I would love to call her into a meeting and say “WHAT THE F*CK, JANE???”

  55. Analyst Editor*

    I was of this opinion probably even a few years ago, that joked with Stalin or Kim Jong Il were in horribly poor taste and offensive to the people who suffered by the hand of those people — like, some thing are just Not Funny.
    I softened my stance on that, because sometimes things are kind of funny, even if you understand they’re terrible and offensive, and that makes them funny.

    I’m glad we all agree that Stalin was a horrible dictator though.

  56. JD*

    One time in a canvassing job I had a supervisor/trainer/whatever who encouraged us to “drink the kool-aid” in complete seriousness. I think she meant, you know, take the organization’s mission seriously or something? It was weird.

    I assume she didn’t know what it actually meant.

    1. LutherstadtWittenberg*

      A lot of people don’t! I heard it many, many times at ExJob, and for most speakers it bore no connections to Jim Jones.

      1. Pennyworth*

        I din’t realise the connection for a long time because I associated grape juice, rather than grape flavor kool aid/ flavor aid with Jonestown. Fortuately it is not an expression I ever use. It cropped up recently in a cartoon the Trump campaign apparently tried to have banned from Redbubble, which showed puple liquid being served out of a containaer labeled Clorox with the words Koolaid and Chloroquinine crossed out.

    2. Lissa*

      Ha, oh man. I hear a lot of people use that without knowing the actual historical context but never in a positive way.

      1. Vichyssuave*

        Almost by definition the phrase means the person doesn’t know (much about) the context since it wasn’t actually kool aid at all, but rather flavor aid.

    3. nep*

      Yes–that is used a lot and I think many people using it don’t know the origins. Horrific.

  57. DiscoCat*

    Anyone else reminded of Joey in FRIENDS when he was trying out stage names and Chandler set him up to use “Joseph Stalin”?

  58. lazy intellectual*

    Without additional context, I don’t think there is anything to do other than ignore the e-mail. The most possible thing I can think of is it’s a mistake of some sort. Maybe she made a joke template and then a real one, and sent the wrong one. Or it is a purposeful joke that sucks. Either way, ignore.

  59. Pennyworth*

    How about reply-all emailing your manager ‘Please take me out of consideration for any employee of the month awards. I am clearly not the same caliber as Joseph Stalin aand Vladimir Putin.’

  60. theguvnah*

    I really wish Alison had taken a stranger stance here.

    OP, if you are white, it is important that you use your privilege to push back on this. It is not okay.

  61. nnn*

    I’m super curious why, specifically, one Putin and three Stalins. Why not four different people? Why not two Putins and two Stalins? Why not four Putins or four Stalins?

    None of which is the real issue, of course, but it’s so…incongruous, even within the context of whatever she might theoretically be trying to do here.

    I suppose if you really wanted to find out what she’s thinking here but don’t want to confront her or tell her she’s being inappropriate, you could ask why one Putin and three Stalins and see what she says about her thought process. But that’s not really priority…

  62. Paul Pearson*

    I can see putting in fake people as a joke if it’s the first time ever (though I think Employee of the month, especially with no criteria, is dubious in the extreme) but then go with, say, Miss Piggy or Bugs Bunny or something humerous but generally non-controversial.

  63. foxinabox*

    There’s so much speculating and rationalizing in this comments section where there’s literally no good reason or excuse for this to have happened? Honestly the details don’t matter. Either you know what you’re doing and you’re at the least thoughtless, at the worst, quietly rooting for the mass murderers in question, or you don’t know who they are (which seems vanishingly unlikely since no one can find this image anywhere else and their names and reputations are incredibly famous) and you don’t think you have an obligation to check what you’re sharing with people before you do so. This is all rotten.

  64. DreddPirate*

    My only possible guess at a charitable interpretation of is is that the employee may have inserted a random historical figure without realizing Stalin’s biography and reputation.

    Similar situation – Back in the 90s I had a African American colleague who would jokingly introduce himself as Idi Amin, without ever knowing that Amin is considered once of the most brutal despots in history.

  65. Bill Johnson*

    This is so bizarre that OP should just ask directly……..hey, what’s with Joseph Stalin as an employee of the month? I don’t get it? When in doubt have a direct conversation, it saves time and speculation.

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