someone tampered with an employee’s smelly shoes and now there are hurt feelings

A reader writes:

I’m the safety manager at a small manufacturing company. Last week I was having a friendly chat with someone out in manufacturing (Fred) and somehow he got on the topic of a coworker’s (Bill’s) shoes smelling bad and how they all try to get out of the locker room before Bill takes off his shoes. It was entertaining and harmless, although I did make a mental note to see about adding an air freshener to the locker room.

A few days later, Bill came in to find that his shoes had been tampered with and he developed a rash on his feet as a result. (His shoes had been moved from in front of his locker to over in the shower area and he said they were damp. He thought the janitorial crew had just moved them, so he went ahead and wore them. A few hours later he felt his feet burning and found that a rash had developed. Our janitorial crew does not come in on the day in question, so it wasn’t them.)

There may have been no ill intent meant – even a standard shoe deodorizer spray may have resulted in a reaction. We have no reason to think Fred was involved and actually suspect a different person, although we can’t prove it.

The day after the shoe tampering, I was chatting with Fred again, so I asked him if he had any idea who did it. I made it clear I didn’t think it was him, I just thought it was a weird coincidence. He said he didn’t know who it was, that he would never do it, etc. This seemed like another friendly and harmless conversation to me – I did not approach it as if I was doing a formal investigation.

Now here’s where it goes off the deep end. Fred got upset that I left his area without asking anyone else if they knew anything. He went to his manager claiming that I said I was going to talk to everyone but then only talked to him, so he felt targeted and that it was racially motivated (I’m white, he’s not). I never intended to ask everyone about the shoes and I don’t remember saying anything along those lines. The only reason I talked to him about it at all was because he had brought up Bill’s shoes smelling just a few days before. His manager has explained that to him and also that I did ask other people if they knew anything, they were just in another area. These conversations haven’t helped at all. Today I walked through the area he works in and tried just giving a little wave hello as I walked by at a distance. He scowled and shook his head angrily and seemed to be muttering to himself.

The manager wants to give it some time and continue trying to smooth it over. They say that based on previous experiences with him, they think this is the best approach and also that he has jumped to thinking things are racially motivated in the past. I feel terrible that Fred is upset and that what was previously a good relationship seems to have been destroyed.

I can’t just avoid the area he works in – I have a responsibility in my position to walk through regularly and address issues if I see any. I obviously won’t go up to him right now and try to initiate friendly chats, but if there is an issue I need to be able to approach him and talk to him about it. I also don’t know how to act when I don’t need to talk to him. If he looks my direction and we make eye contact, it feels wrong not to acknowledge him in some way – that’s why I gave the little wave earlier. How should I act around him?

Should I just leave it in the manager’s hands for now? Should I ask for a discussion to be arranged between me, him, and a third party? We don’t have HR, so the third party would likely be either his manager or our company president (the closest we have to HR).

Why not just … apologize to Fred?

You didn’t mean to make him feel singled out but he does and you feel badly about that. Why not tell him that? It doesn’t have to be a huge thing — it could just be, “I want to apologize for giving you the impression I was singling you out about Bill’s shoes. I wasn’t suspicious of you; I brought it up because we’d just talked about it a few days before. I’m really sorry that I left you thinking it was anything more than that. I have no reason to think you would ever do something like that.”

If Fred’s manager is convinced you shouldn’t do that … well, I’d try pushing back about why. Right now you’ve got an obviously upset employee who thinks you were accusing him of something you weren’t, and you might be able to solve the whole thing by just talking to him.

{ 345 comments… read them below }

      1. Jean*

        I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who got hung up on that. If I found my work shoes damp in the locker room, the one thing I definitely would NOT do is shrug my shoulders and PUT THEM ON MY FEET. What in the actual hell. Bill sounds like he needs a remedial class in how to take care of his feet.

          1. Cj*

            He must have changed out of work shoes into the shoes that were tampered with, so he probably could have worn his work shoes home. Unless they have some type of special sole that he couldn’t wear on the street without ruining them.

            1. rubble*

              if they were work shoes (it doesn’t specify which shoes were wet) they might be ppe, steel toe caps or something

          2. nodramalama*

            But he changed into something to put on the shoes. So there must be other shoes available.

            1. Supplystring*

              Sometimes in manufacturing environments, you’re not supposed to wear your shoes outside of the building. Brings in contaminants, messes up the tread, special materials/coatings, etc. Just depends on the level of severity.

            2. Allonge*

              Why? There are perfectly good jobs where you need to change into an uniform but you can keep wearing your street shoes.

              1. Be Gneiss*

                How is this a helpful comment? LW says he had to change in work shoes. That implies that the shoes he had weren’t appropriate for the work environment. The fact that there are “perfectly good jobs” where you don’t have to change shoes is as helpful as saying “I work from home and wear slippers.”

        1. Rachel in NYC*

          I’m stuck on- okay, the shoes were damp so ick. but also what did someone spray in Bill’s work shoes that could get thru socks.

          And than realized Bill was probably not wearing socks…so that may explain the smell.

          1. Everything Bagel*

            It sounds like the shoes were damp enough inside for it to be absorbed through Bill’s socks to his feet. This isn’t really that surprising to me. Someone must have sprayed or poured quite a bit of stuff in the shoes.

          2. Chinook*

            I wear socks and steel toed shoes and, as DH pointed out after my first week, my feet stink after wearing them all day (and not just the shoes, which never leave the office). To the point that I change socks the moment I get home.

            For those who haven’t worn safety shoes, they do not breathe and can cause feet issues even with those who take care of their feet, which is why odour eaters exist (and are much more effective than dousing shoes with water). I would be concerned about the low level bullying of Bill and want to investigate whether or not this is a one off incident, especially since the cheapest pair of work boots I have seen are $100.

        2. BethDH*

          I have definitely put on a coat that I thought was dry only to find that it wasn’t as dry as I thought it was. I can imagine a situation where the surface was dry to the touch but the interior was wet still and he put them on and then gravity drew out more moisture.
          I can also imagine thinking the janitors moved them and not wanting them to get in trouble over something that seemed minor initially.

        3. yala*

          I mean, sometimes that’s all you can do, but heck, that’s enough to make a rash happen for a lot of folks

          But also, like. If someone did that because they smell…not only is that horrible to tamper with (and potentially ruin) someone’s clothing, but also, I have never encountered a shoe whose odor improved upon being dampened and left in a moist environment.

        1. Essentially Cheesy*

          My first reaction would be to go to HR first with the wet shoes and state that these are now unusable, and report that the shoes had been tampered with. Reasonably the employee could be sent to the safety shoe store with a voucher for a new pair.

          At my workplace .. there are cameras. Something would have been recorded.

            1. Varthema*

              There were cameras in our locker room, aimed at the lockers. All the women knew where its blind spots were farthest from the lockers so they could change there.

          1. KateM*

            I thought that he didn’t know that the shoes had been tampered with, but rather, that they had gotten wet due to being in shower room, or hadn’t dried off after last day’s sweating, or whatever. Only when he developed a rash that he usually doesn’t get from his shoes, he realized something out of normal has happened to his shoes.

                1. Essentially Cheesy*

                  I already said go to HR with the wet shoes. It’s not acceptable. Why is everyone so committed to wearing the wet shoes??

                2. Captain Vegetable (Crunch Crunch Crunch)*

                  I can’t reply to Essentially Cheesy, but having worked in places that required steel toe shoes and had no functioning HR- I would have worked in the damp shoes. To not work would mean forgoing a day’s wages and probably have gotten me in trouble, too. Is that fair? No, but that’s unfortunately reality in many jobs.

                3. As per Elaine*

                  I can’t imagine going to HR about damp shoes. MAYBE if it were a recurring problem and I had exhausted all other avenues, but “someone moved my shoes too close to the showers and they got a little wet,” while unpleasant, is not something that strikes me as an HR-level problem.

                  I would feel that it would be blowing a minor problem way out of proportion, and either lessen my credibility when reporting more significant problems, or (unlikely) get someone in trouble who did something unintentionally or by accident.

                4. Mongrel*

                  A lot of people seem to be missing “Not put on shoes” is the equivalent of saying “I’m not working today”.
                  If these are PPE then walking out to the floor without them is a breach of, presumably, OSHA regulations. Those rule that are written in peoples blood.

              1. Office Lobster DJ*

                My guess is it’s a setting where your outside shoes and work shoes have to remain separate for health or safety reasons, or the company provides the shoes — think steel-toed shoes — as part of its PPE/uniform and they can’t be worn home. Otherwise, why would Bill be taking off his shoes in the first place?

                1. RagingADHD*

                  If there are showers in the locker room, and they were running in the same timeframe when his shoes got damp, I’m going to take a wild guess that he might have taken the boots off to have a shower.

              2. Rectilinear Propagation*

                Was he supposed to walk around barefoot? Would they even let him go barefoot?

                I can’t see that not being both a dress code and a safety issue.

              3. Jane*

                Someone who needs to for work. There are plenty of circumstances where it is not a choice.

                When I wear wet shoes it causes issues – I know to run by the store after work and pick up anti-fungal cream if I do it – but I definitely do it when needed.

                In my case it’s that I work in wetlands and don’t always correctly gauge whether I need rubber boots that day. The next day, assuming I’m traveling for work, I may be out of luck if my shoes haven’t dried overnight.

                While this guy isn’t going to be dealing with wet shoes from wet grass and soggy ground he presumably needs to wear these shoes at work.

                Not everyone works in an office.

                1. Alrt*

                  I work the same job as you, I suspect. And yeah, sometimes my crew (they don’t let us delineate alone) carries extra gear, and will let you borrow it out of the goodness of their hearts, but I’d never assume it was an option ! If you don’t have the gear, you can’t work, so wet gear is sometimes just life, which tons of people in this thread seem to not know. That being said, we all use tons of foot powder because wet swampy boots= express route to athlete’s foot

            1. Ann O'Nemity*

              This was my read too. The shoes had been moved near the showers and got damp as a result, perhaps from the steam. I probably wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that someone had deliberately tampered with them, not right off the bat.

              1. ABCYaBye*

                I read that as tampered in the sense of moving them from the place that he had left them…

                1. KateM*

                  You read it as Essentially Cheesy meaning that their first reaction after seeing their shoes having been moved by janitors would be going to HR with “somebody has tampered with my shoes – moved them from the place I left them; now these shoes are unusable”?

          2. Rose*

            Well… that’s a very specific situation and if your HR is that responsive and helpful that’s amazing. I usually hear from HR 2-10 business days later.

        2. Medusa*

          I can think of three alternative solutions off the top of my head before jumping to “put on the wet shoes”

      2. I'm Just Here For The Cats!*

        Well if you have to wear specific shoes at work, which sounds like the case here. And you need to change your shoes at work, and the only available shoes you can use are damp, You do what you need to. What was Bill supposed to do? Go barefoot?

        1. Jean*

          Orrrr go find his manager, say “My work shoes have been moved from where I keep them and are wet, so I don’t think it’s a good idea to put them on. Please let me know what I can do in the meantime until I can get a safe pair.”

          1. Eye roll*

            And when the answer is to go home and get another pair, missing pay? Or take leave? Or miss work entirely? Or get written up for not being in uniform? Even if OPs workplace is reasonable, Bill might have already been conditioned to just get on with it from work at other companies. And that assumes OPs workplace is reasonable. OP seems reasonable, but the company seems to have a missing-stair type problem with Frank, who alleges racial issues everywhere is is now avoided as the recommended solution, so assuming employee-friendly work policies is not a given.

            1. Mallory Janis Ian*

              Some of y’all have never worked for hourly wages in a no-absence-is-excused environment where they’d laugh at your crybaby ass for reporting damp shoes. I mean, there’s what should happen in a workplace that’s worth its salt, and there’s the stuff that people in production environments deal with. And maybe he couldn’t afford lost wages to make his [very valid] point.

              1. Rose*

                Lmao thank you. The comment section has been incredibly out of touch the past few weeks. “How could you not have alerted HR or your manager, or just gone home to cry, when your shoes were damp!?” would have flown in 0/10 of the places I’ve worked, hourly or not.

                1. Avril Ludgateau*

                  Your experience with bad work environments does not make this blog or commentariat out of touch, sorry. It means you’ve been abused enough that you’ve learned to accept abuse as the norm, and for that I’m sorry, but god forbid a blog aims to improve such conditions across industries by normalizing professionalism and respect.

                2. Ginger Dynamo*

                  @Avril Ludgateau I really don’t think that Rose and Mallory are actually promoting not changing abusive work environments here. Some comments in this thread don’t seem to consider that this person would likely have to leave work without pay if unable to wear these shoes because he is probably hourly non-exempt, and that this person may not be able to afford a day without pay or the professional ramifications of leaving work suddenly, or that this outfit doesn’t have HR. Some people have even asked why he can’t just wear his street shoes while he works because so many jobs (that don’t require PPE) let you do that, which frankly is an out-of-touch suggestion because it is blatantly ignoring professional requirements that are mainstays in several industries. And in the circumstances where management *is* abusive and *does* say to suck it up, as Mallory points out, we can’t exactly fault this person for putting on the wet shoes knowing he would be reprimanded if he didn’t… and yet several commenters here are berating this person precisely for putting on the wet shoes because proper employee rights and comfort protections *must* exist with no penalty for use, right? Blaming the wet-shoe-wearer for not using non-existent supports and missing protections does not manifest those supports and protections into being or “improve conditions”—it actually ignores the truly problematic reality that the employee has found a catch-22 where he loses, or he loses.

              2. Batgirl*

                Thank you. In plenty of jobs you’d get looked at like you’re a delicate doily and asking “oh can I do something else while my shoes are wet” is going to be met with “no” and “like what?”

              3. Avril Ludgateau*

                The fact the LW is even writing in to Ask A Manager, asking how to navigate a situation where their employee lost their trust, is fair evidence that this is not an “environment where they’d laugh at your crybaby ass for reporting damp shoes”.

                1. Ann*

                  Literally anyone can write to Ask a Manager. It takes like ten minutes. And yes, the comments are ridiculous. If this guy works in construction or manufacturing, “I have wet shoes” is not going to fly, and he’ll either put them on or get sent home and not get paid for the day.

          2. Observer*

            Why would he think that they are not safe? His thought that the janitors moved it was not unreasonable. Under those circumstances, it’s quite possible that his manager would have thought that he’s making a big deal over nothing. And even if not, it’s easy to see how he might think that.

            1. Anonym*

              Yeah, a shower area was mentioned, and it’s in a locker room. I would just assume water, not someone spraying chemicals in them! Whoever did that was SO out of line. Bill’s choices were completely, completely reasonable.

              Also, I have a pretty high degree of flexibility and latitude in my workplace, but saying “I have to leave and get new shoes because my shoes are damp” would sound bizarre. Not to mention that in my case, there’s public transit involved, so I’d have to put the shoes on anyway… (we don’t know if that’s Bill’s situation, but just to highlight further that these assumptions are not well grounded or informed).

          3. rosyglasses*

            I mean – I could see someone well into the work world doing that; maybe? With the sheer amount of LWs that write in and need help with confronting or asking these types of hard questions, I lean toward this is not everyone’s first inclination. I also think anecdotally of my almost 21 year old who works in a warehouse setting – he would NOT feel comfortable doing this and would probably come home asking me what to do in that situation or just complain and shrug it off as another reason he hates his job.

            1. Beany*


              Unless the manager happens to be in the locker room too, or can be quickly contacted by phone from the locker room, Bill’s going walkabout in bare feet.

        2. Lydia*

          What I am wondering about is if he’s wearing socks. I mean, I don’t know for sure and probably someone else can answer, but if you’re wearing socks with your shoes, would you still have gotten a rash on the bottom of your feet from whatever was put in your shoes? (Not that tampering with his shoes was okay, but the smelliness made me wonder if he’s wearing his shoes without socks in the first place.)

          1. Observer*

            Yes, he could have. It depends on how sensitive his feet are, and what was in his shoes.

            The smelly feet could just as easily be happening with sock on as without.

          2. JustMyImagination*

            Well socks aren’t water proof so it could have easily soaked through his socks.

          3. Dawbs*

            If the shoes are wet, the socks get wet.

            Then the wet socks hold the chemical against your skin for 8 hours.
            From the shoes you had to wear (in spite of being wet) because they are your work shoes.

            None of this seems at all unreasonable.

            1. Lydia*

              Nobody said it was unreasonable. I just know I connected excessively smelly feet with not wearing socks. It’s a fairly common thing to have stinky feet if you don’t wear socks with your shoes. That was the reason for my question.

          4. Wants Green Things*

            Oooh yes. There’s a reason many of the reodorizers have warning labels on them – they’re strong chemicals. A layer of fabric from socks is *not* going to be enough to protect against them, especially if it was recently applied.

            1. KoiFeeder*

              I just checked my deodorizer, and can confirm that the warning is to not put the shoes on AT ALL until the shoes are dry. Not “it’s okay with socks,” or “it’s okay if it’s a little damp,” but Not At All.

        3. Essentially Cheesy*

          I would fully expect HR resolve this with Bill with no prejudice. Go to the shoe store on company time and get a new pair, or take the day off while a new pair is ordered. Because clearly something is amiss and it’s not Bill’s fault.

          1. Free Meerkats*

            From the letter:

            “We don’t have HR, so the third party would likely be either his manager or our company president (the closest we have to HR).”

          2. RagingADHD*

            I also have sympathy for Bob, but I have to ask – in what company / industry would that even be remotely considered, much less expected?

            It sounds nice, but it just isn’t at all likely to happen in most places, much less manufacturing.

          3. Calliope*

            You think that if someone went to HR and said “I left my shoes in the locker room and someone moved them to be close to the shower and now they’re kind of damp” the response would be “go take paid time off while we order new shoes”? I mean, that’s nice but hard to imagine.

      3. RagingADHD*

        Maybe his shoes are habitually damp, which might have something to do with the odor.

        As would him not noticing the smell of whatever was sprayed. I would expect that anything strong enough to deodorize shoes, much less cause a rash, would have a smell of its own.

        1. short'n'stout (she/her)*

          If his shoes have had an unpleasant odour for long enough for it to be a running joke, it’s possible that he can’t actually smell them, and therefore may not be able to smell the deodoriser.

      4. JustSomeone*

        Who puts on damp shoes? Someone whose shoes are damp! I cannot in a million years imagine taking that issue to management or expecting some sort of accommodation for it. If my shoes were by the showers and were damp, I would put them on, think “eww, they got damp inside” and then go about my business.

    1. SinnyJenn*

      I honestly don’t think that’s pertinent in this case. Maybe it would be something his manager should bring up with him, but not after he’d just gotten a rash from another coworker deciding to spray his shoes with ???? without his consent.

      1. High Score!*

        When your feet are so smelly that it’s forcing others to hurry out for their nasal safety, it’s an issue. No matter how bad the feet stink, it’s not an excuse for coworkers to mess with the shoes, but it should be addressed just as if someone is stinking up an office with BO.
        As for the apology, OP should absolutely apologize. There was a misunderstanding, OP offended a coworker and that’s the decent thing to do.
        AND someone should look into why a man felt compelled to put on wet shoes. Are the working conditions so inhumane that he felt he had no choice? Maybe his feet stink bc he doesn’t have sufficient insurance and time off to check with a doctor about it or maybe he’s not paid enough to buy new socks or foot power.
        The smelly feet may be a clue to the working conditions.

        1. DarthVelma*

          Yup. There are so many layers here. Someone needs to be in big trouble for tampering with a co-workers shoes. OP needs to try to settle Fred’s hurt feelings. Someone needs to say something to Bill just in case it’s something medical. They need to make sure as a company they have a culture where if there’s something wrong with your equipment, no matter how small, employees feel like they can say something. And they need to make sure their minority employees aren’t being discriminated against.

          1. quill*

            Yeah. If Bill’s feet are creating that much of a stink within the office… well, best case scenario his natural skin bacteria is just a smelly lot. But there’s all sorts of other potential issues and nobody did any

        2. SinnyJenn*

          Unless the OP manages Bill, he doesn’t have a say in whether or not the stinky feet issue is addressed. That’s what I was trying to get at. It sounds like he’s a coworker from the initial email. I think we’re missing the forest for the trees if we focus on this when that isn’t the question the LW is asking.

          1. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

            He’s ‘just’ a coworker but is also the safety manager. I almost wondered of Fred ‘somehow’ got onto the topic of the smelly feet hoping it would ping his radar in a health and safety capacity?

            1. Environmental Compliance*

              As HSE – people bring a lot of not-really-safety issues to us. I can absolutely see someone telling me that Bob’s feet *stiiiiiink* and can’t something be done? In which case I would suggest that they talk to their supervisor or talk to HR, as there’s not a lot I can do about it, but I totally get why it bothers them, here’s HR’s office hours – I bet they’d be able to talk to Bob tactfully and see if something is up. I’ve had people complain to me that someone microwaved fish. Unless it’s on fire, I have nothing to do with food microwaving tendencies. Same for “he borrowed my broom and now it’s gone!!1!” which started a blame game between departments that for some ungodly reason people thought I would be the best person to complain to. Fun fact: threaten to start color-coding broom handles by department in Fun Rainbow Colors if they don’t start working together to figure out usage & storage and suddenly everyone learned to work together and *talk* and everyone had enough brooms.

              From a safety standpoint, though, I would absolutely get involved over a possible chemical exposure investigation – what was brought in? Was it an approved chemical? Is there an SDS on file? Was it used appropriately? Was it used maliciously? What are the possible health effects now that we have an exposure? Is this a safety-related incident, and if so, does it fit on our matrix of disciplinary actions & what will our recommendation to HR be?

              For LW – fwiw, if someone brings something like this up to me, I usually flag it past HR just so they’re aware. Half the time it goes nowhere and someone just wanted to vent, but this is the type of thing I’ve seen go weird before, so better for me to get in front of it and tell someone who can have that “you smell” discussion before there’s a fist fight about it (yes, from experience). With the situation at hand, what you do need to do is go and talk to Fred and apologize if it came off that you were investigating him. You might have not felt that you were in investigation mode, but you’re HSE. When we’re asking questions, often people assume it’s an investigation, especially right after an incident. HSE is a very delicate tight-rope between investigating properly and effectively and being direct/transparent/approachable so that people feel comfortable bringing things to you. It took a while where I’m at now that people stopped being terrified when I was running around with a clipboard, because the previous person in my role was *vicious* with a clipboard and it meant someone was probably getting written up.

              1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

                “I’ve had people complain to me that someone microwaved fish. Unless it’s on fire, I have nothing to do with food microwaving tendencies.”

                Laughed out loud. Sorry not sorry!

              2. Kelche (Letter Writer)*

                Yes, thank you. It is a tight-rope and I’ve walked it well (at least in my opinion) for many years now. I’ve never had something like this be perceived so differently from my intention before (at least not to my knowledge), which is part of why I’m so thrown off. I’m still new to this particular company and people and working on building my relationships. I find that having conversations that aren’t directly job related in the moment are important for building trust – how was your weekend? how are things going? How about that game? These usually lead to people trusting me and be willing to bring up real concerns that I can help with. It also leads to lots of non-actionable things too and/or things outside of my area (like microwaving fish lol). I direct those where appropriate and file other things away to watch out for trends and so on.

                1. Environmental Compliance*

                  It’s a very narrow tight rope!! It doesn’t take a whole lot for someone to change their perception, which really sucks as the HSE person. It takes so much work to get that relationship going.

                  If you haven’t been at the company long, that’s part of the issue – you are still running on preconceived notions from whoever was in your place beforehand. It is not a fun place to be in. And it gets painful when these kinds of things happen!

            2. Yorick*

              I know someone mentioned “nasal safety” upthread, but that’s not actually a thing. The safety manager isn’t in charge of people’s body smells.

        3. katkat*

          Hmm, I have to say: just because people are hurrying out of his way, doesn’t mean his shoes actually smell that bad.

          Workplace bullying is a real thing. Someone is not well-liked, and suddenly every minor thing they do, are or say become offensive for everybody else. You know: someone once said that Bill’s feet smell and now people can’t even breath around him. Things get out of probotion. And it sounds like high-school

          Now, I’m not saying this is the case here, but we don’t know. And some people are being very rude to Bill, when we only have heard second-hand accuses of his smelly feet.

          1. katkat*

            “And its sounds like high-school, nut it happens in workplaces as well, a lot.”

        4. Batgirl*

          You’re right that people shouldn’t stink up an office, but they are talking about the locker room. I don’t think it is an office workplace at all actually- it’s manufacturing. I don’t know if it is a factory, or how physical the work is, but office areas don’t tend to need locker rooms. I know when I had a manual job, and was hitting the locker room at the end of the day it was more the norm than not to be pretty sweaty. It should be fresh sweat and hygiene should be maintained of course, but it’s not as surprising an issue as if it were a desk job.

    2. I'm Just Here For The Cats!*

      That can be a hard thing to address, since it could be a medical reason for the stinky feet. I highly doubt that Bill is purposefully making his feet stink to cause problems. There are some people who just have stinky feet and no amount of anything is going to help that. I know someone who tried everything there was for her stinky feet and they just stank. It is especially hard when you have to wear thick, closed toed shoes (probably like what they have to wear for OP’s job). It’s not necessarily a hygiene issue.
      We don’t know what Bill has done or is doing. Heck maybe he has something that he uses and whatever the other person did caused a reaction. No one should be blaming Bill for anything.

      1. SloanGhost*

        I would say I have an average level of foot odor but when I worked in zoos and wore waterproof hiking boots (as little mesh as possible, goretex if I could get it for a decent price, so basically as little airflow as possible)…It smelled like CAT PEE in there by the end of the day

    3. June*

      Bill needs to wash his feet, clean socks and shoes that don’t knock out people with their odor. THAT is the underlying issue.

      1. Be Gneiss*

        Bill is literally not the problem if people are tampering with his boots. Your take on this is what stinks.

      2. Niles Crane*

        That often doesn’t work. My shoes literally smell after the first wear and I rotate through three pairs of shoes. Cleanliness is not the problem. There is a great spray I found on amazon that is a few oils like tea tree and peppermint that is the ONLY thing that helped.

  1. calvin blick*

    If I had to guess, some at OP’s company might not want OP to apologize in case that implied he was admitting guilt if Fred sued. I don’t know how likely it is that would actually happen, but possible HR or Legal thinks it is.

    1. tamarak & fireweed*

      But no matter, an apology is the right thing to do here! Also, this is clearly an interpersonal thing, and the buck of apologizing would obviously stop with the OP. And I’d be much more suspicious (if I was Fred) that my suspicion is confirmed if the OP slinks around and avoids me from now on.

      Just put your hand up for being (moderately) thoughtless about how this could be perceived and assure Fred, believably, of your lack of underlying speculation.

      1. As per Elaine*

        “I asked you because I we were talking about the shoes the other day, and I felt like we had some rapport, not because I suspected you of anything,” might be good language, if it’s true.

    2. Observer*

      If I had to guess, some at OP’s company might not want OP to apologize in case that implied he was admitting guilt if Fred sued.

      As it happens, apologizing is generally NOT considered an implication of discrimination in a law suit. And, to the extent that it matters, apologies tend to lower the risk of a lawsuit, rather than the reverse.

      1. Public Sector Manager*

        In medical malpractice cases, an apology cuts down on lawsuits something like 75%. Hopefully Legal is recommending an apology!

        1. Boof*

          Yeah, it’s worse to cover up a mistake than to address it! Our hospital policy for mistakes are 1) inform the patient 2) make a plan to try to address it

      2. MarsJenkar*

        Not surprised. Miss Manners mentions that in one of her books (Miss Manners Rescues Civilization), making mention of how mention of apologies–or, more precisely, lack of a proper apology–tend to come up in mentions of lawsuits. It would hardly be surprising to know that a proper apology would be more likely to defuse the situation.

    3. LateralMove*

      Not an employment discrimination expert, but I don’t see what cause of action Fred would have for a lawsuit. He wasn’t disciplined, he wasn’t even investigated. LW asked him if he knew who had done it, he said no, conversation over. He might be offended, but that doesn’t mean something illegal happened.

      1. LateralMove*

        But I agree with Alison’s advice that LW should apologize, because Fred was offended, and LW does seem to feel bad about that. A simple, truthful apology should help to preserve the work relationship.

    4. winger*

      Guilt for what? Nothing in the scenario as presented is legally actionable, unless there has been a pervasive hostile work environment for a while and the shoe thing broke the camel’s back.

  2. anonymous73*

    Even if you have no malicious intention with your actions, they can still hurt someone, and you need to acknowledge that. I do believe Fred is blowing this a bit out of proportion and making assumptions without knowing all of the details, but a simple apology would probably go a long way. If he’s still upset about it after an apology, there’s nothing more you need to do other than treat him with respect and move on.

    1. DarthVelma*

      “Even if you have no malicious intention with your actions, they can still hurt someone, and you need to acknowledge that.”

      Well put. And wouldn’t it be a better world if we all remembered this important lesson we all should have leaned in pre-school.

      1. Coin_Operated*

        I don’t agree, it’s pretty clear that Fred is not in line with reality, and lied to his manager about what the LW said, so if anyone has malicious intentions based on what we know, it’s Fred, not the LW.

        1. Suspicious*

          I agree. Fred is also behaving like a child. Ignoring a colleague and accusing them of racially targeting you because they asked you a question about a workplace incident is infantile. Perhaps his manager doesn’t want LW to apologize because the manager knows how Fred responds when he’s led to believe his complaints are warranted.

          1. Lydia*

            Sometimes, though, the best way to deal with an issue is to just apologize and move on. I feel like we tend to get too caught up in whether or not someone “deserves” an apology. It doesn’t matter if it costs you nothing and will help smooth things over.

            1. Stevie*

              I agree, and I don’t see any indication that Frank is intentionally misconstruing anything. It sounds like he’s really upset, and it’s worth it to try and smooth things over.

              1. Yorick*

                He told his boss LW said something that LW did not say. He wanted his boss to think the situation was a little different than it really was, so he lied. That is “intentionally misconstruing.”

                1. As per Elaine*

                  I mean, not necessarily. Fred may have told his boss what he understood LW to say. If LW said something like, “I’m just asking around to figure out what happened,” or something like that, Fred may have heard that, not unreasonably, as an intention to ask other people.

                  People often remember the general sense of what they understood someone to be saying, rather than the direct words. Memory is notoriously fallible. I can easily see the Fred/LW conversation being interpreted in two wildly different ways, particularly if Fred is accustomed to being singled out as The Non-White Person, which many people of color are, unfortunately.

              2. Cj*

                I think the OP saying that they thought it was a strange coincidence that Fred had just told him about this a few days prior and then this happened with the shoes could have given the impression that he thought Fred was guilty of it, even though the OP told Fred that he wasn’t accusing him. Fred might not be upset if he had just been asked if he knew who did it.

        2. It Might Be Me*

          I’m glad I’m not the only one wondering why Fred needs an apology. He misrepresented something to his manager. LW didn’t need to demonstrate that anyone else was spoken to about the shoes. This is how we get a “missing stair” in the workplace. Someone who needs to be managed because they jumped to a conclusion and now need their feelings soothed. It’s been explained to Fred, but he’s not bothering to listen.

          1. Jennifer Strange*

            Other than this issue there is nothing to indicate that Fred’s previous complaints of racism were incorrect. If anything it sounds like his manager isn’t actually trying to solve anything and simply shrugs off the issue.

            Also, I don’t think he misrepresented the situation, I think he just had a different perception of it than the OP did.

            1. Despachito*

              Still no need to sulk and pout.

              I absolutely do not think Fred is owed an apology. What I see here is:

              – Fred assumed OP did not ask anybody else. How could he know ? OP could very well ask around without Fred knowing – he has no obligation to inform Fred, and moreover this is a sensitive issue and should be preferably handled in private.
              – OP did not accuse Fred
              – Fred told his boss something that was not true
              – Fred’s boss instructed Fred
              – yet Fred pouts and behaves unprofesionally (even if he was indeed slighted, which I do not think he was in this case, he should have complained but still has an obligation to remain civil. I can understand he would not be warm and friendly, but he should be able to say hi and communicate about work)

              The situation seems to me as if the one offended was the OP, and yet he is afraid to approach Fred. To force him to apologize would grate me the wrong way. It is Fred should be disciplined for unprofessional behaviour (not for the complaining but for the refusal to function within reasonable limits).

              1. Auntie Anti*

                You’re entirely missing the context of someone who’s experienced racism in this workplace before and had it dismissed. I think I recall from past comments that you’re not in the US and don’t seem familiar with racial dynamics here. Consider that it shows when you comment on American race issues.

                1. Despachito*

                  Yes, you are right, I am looking at it from outside, and have no knowledge of the US dynamics.

                  However, I sometimes feel the need to point out that something looks iffy to me. It can well be a big misunderstanding on my part but given I agree with most intrapersonal solutions appearing on this page I think we are not so different around the world, and that sometimes a perspective of an outsider may point out something the insiders do not notice.

                2. Eyes Kiwami*

                  I don’t know your country, but as someone who has worked internationally there are similar issues all over the world. And it would be incredibly counterproductive to discipline someone for being cold to someone they think is prejudiced against them! Can you imagine if someone said something sexist or racist or homophobic to you, perhaps a dog whistle phrase or a microaggression, and you were hurt by it and stopped being as friendly with that person, and then your boss disciplined you because you were “pouting”? That would just create a work environment where prejudice can thrive unchecked.

                3. Kella*

                  This is a reply to Despachito’s reply confirming that they are from outside the US.

                  The problem with this perspective is that, the majority of white people are viewing these situations “from the outside” even the ones that are in*inside* the US. Because white people in the US, on average, are not very good at evaluating whether race is at play and have a very strong tendency to dismiss complaints made by people of color. It is far far more common for a person in power to dismiss complaints from a poc as “making everything about race” than it is for a poc to cause drama repeatedly about issues that were not at all race-related.

              2. Varthema*

                If the OP walked into a room of white dudes and asked the only (or nearly) Black dude if he knew anything about who did this thing… yeah, I’m white, and I’d 100% read that as at the very least a microagression as well, and not so micro if he had reason to fear there’d be disciplinary follow-up. I believe OP when he said he didn’t mean it like that, but that doesn’t undo the damage.

                1. Despachito*

                  But he didn’t, did he?

                  And what about Bill, who was actually, physically hurt? It seems that Fred is making much more fuss about somebody being allegedly racist to him than Bill who had really suffered.

                  I wonder whether Bill is white or a POC? (Not that it should really matter, but I wonder whether it would change the perspective of the damage done to him)

                2. Jennifer Strange*

                  @Despachito as far as Fred could see that’s what OP did, though. Yes, WE know OP actually asked other folks, but Fred didn’t see that. Also there’s nothing to indicate that Fred doesn’t care about Bill being hurt. That’s a completely different issue, and not Fred’s to solve, so it makes no sense for you to bring it up.

    2. Boof*

      Sorta; there’s a line where one just can’t be responsible for soneone else’s feelings (see all the letters where someone got worked up over something trivial, or even when they had done the most offensive thing) – but it’s reasonable to try smooth this over at least once. I’m not sure i’d emphasize it as an apology, exactly, if i didn’t think i’d done something i shouldn’t but can certainly still have a similar tone and phrase it as clearing the air “hey i realized you felt singled out and I really didn’t mean to do that, i wasn’t thinking that you had anything to do with it a all just chatting because you’d mentioned the stinky boots before.” And then, idk, some kind of check in but i’m not sure how to phrase it

      1. anonymous73*

        I’m not advocating that OP should manage Fred’s feelings. In fact, I’m 100% against having to do that. An apology isn’t necessarily an acknowledgement that you did something wrong. It’s an acknowledgement that what you did or said (whether intentional or not) has hurt another person. That’s why I said that he should apologize once, and then let it go.

        1. Boof*

          “Apologize” and/or “I’m sorry” is kind of a weird concept in english at least because they covers some very different scenarios:
          1) acknowledging a mistake was made and trying to rectify it
          2) expressing sympathy for a bad situation you had nothing to do with it (ie, “i’m sorry that sounds awful!”
          Then there’s 3) sorta in between, where you don’t think there’s a mistake exactly, but you are sympathetic that someone is feeling bad / something went unexpectedly wrong and that you could maybe make them feel better and are looking to understand how to help

    3. Migraine Month*

      I think that non-malicious actions hurting someone particularly true with racism. I was raised “color-blind” and racially ignorant, so I’ve caused a lot of pain without intending to. While intentions do matter, so do the consequences of our actions.

      If Fred frequently feels singled-out, even if it’s not usually by OP, I wouldn’t discount his interpretation of the situation. This might be a good time to ask if that’s the case (since it sounds like there’s no HR) and if there’s anything OP or the workplace can do to make Fred feel more included and respected at work.

  3. KoiFeeder*

    Regarding Bob’s reaction, there are several shoe deodorizing sprays where you’re not supposed to wear the shoe until the spray has dried due to the ingredients. If the person using the spray wasn’t thinking (which is very likely, given that they used shoe deodorizing spray on someone’s shoes without their consent), it would’ve been easy for them to cause a reaction in anybody.

    1. Kelche*

      Thankfully his feet are back to normal. We don’t know for sure who did it, but there are suspicions and unfortunately a complete failure of management when it comes to addressing them (in my opinion). Instead of talking to the person we think is the culprit directly, they have only addressed it as a general “don’t touch other people’s stuff” conversation with everyone. Apparently similar tampering has happened in the past, also only addressed in the same way.

      1. Lydia*

        You have someone who works for your company that regularly messes with things and all management will do is send out a generalized “don’t touch things” email? Because clearly that’s working really well since it keeps happening.


        1. Kelche*

          Yeah, it’s a problem. I’m pushing really hard for more action than that, but so far no luck.

          1. Insert Clever Name Here*

            Any chance you could claim ownership of this as it pertains to health and safety? Someone suffered an injury in the workplace because their equipment was tampered with…maybe framing it that way would get your management to give you the authority to deal with it more specifically.

            1. Observer*

              It’s worth trying.

              OP, if they don’t listen, think about what they are actually saying about safety in the workplace.

            2. Environmental Compliance*

              Especially since the exposure happened at work – you could have a worker’s comp case on your hands, depending on your area & how bad that rash was. That gets expensive real quick.

              This sort of incident onsite for us would be a Very Big Deal.

            3. Not Tom, Just Petty*

              “Someone suffered an injury in the workplace because their equipment was tampered with”
              louder for the people in the back. (I’m 100% sincere about this great statement).
              I’m also realizing that the “people in the back” OP would be addressing are telling him to ignore this interpersonal conflict with Fred and let it “work itself out.”

              Forget being a corporate visionary, my dream job is to be a manager at that company. Dang, I can ignore the hell out of stuff. Pay me.

          2. Anne Wentworth*

            Sounds like that situation has a huge potential for legal liability when someone’s food, water, or medication/access to medication is tampered with. Or when someone’s injured damaged badly enough to send them to the hospital. That skin rash situation could have been so much worse.

      2. Marzipan Shepherdess*

        It may be too late to determine this, but are you certain that it was “shoe deodorant” that was sprayed into those shoes? Pranksters routinely contaminate everything from clothing to foodstuffs as a “joke”, and the advice columns are full of letters about or from people who developed nasty allergic reactions to the substances used in those “little pranks”. And yes, adults should know better than to act like that, but no, some “adults” have the mentality of spiteful middle-schoolers.

  4. BeckyinDuluth*

    Also, keep in mind that while *you* weren’t singling Fred out, the manager saying “ he has jumped to thinking things are racially motivated in the past” is a flag to me that Fred has encountered racism in the past and it’s been dismissed because people didn’t intend to be racist. This is a problem in many organizations, and it doesn’t have to be overt for people of color to pick up on it when white folks don’t think it’s anything. I agree that an apology is in order if at all possible.

    1. Velawciraptor*

      Yeah, that’s right up there with that other supervisor’s comment in an earlier letter today about “avoiding false allegations.”

      An apology is definitely in order. Whatever the intent, you now know there’s been a negative impact, so it’s on you to rectify that.

    2. Lady Danbury*

      This was my immediate thought. Just like with women and sexual assault, racial issues in the workplace tend to be hugely underreported bc POCs have to balance the potential harm of speaking out versus the harm of the actual issue. There’s a huge difference between intent versus impact and far too many companies/individuals believe that everything is ok as long as their intent is good. And let’s not forget the blatant racists who exist in every single level of the working world, all the way up to the c suite.

    3. evens*

      The problem is, it sounds like OP’s question had exactly zero to do with race, but Fred immediately jumped to a victim mentality. This type of accusation serves no purpose except making everyone take actual racism less seriously.

      I’m not saying Fred hasn’t experienced racism, but it’s too bad that he’s doing things that make people take the accusation less seriously — like accusing OP of racism when she asked if he’d dealt with a problem they had discussed a few days previously.

      I’m sure I’ll get crucified here for my non-woke statement, but so be it.

      1. Jennifer Strange*

        Just because that was not the intent doesn’t mean Fred was wrong to feel singled out and think it could be race-based, especially if he has previously had to deal with racism and has had management do nothing about it. He’s not jumping “to a victim mentality”, he’s acknowledging the perception that was created, regardless of whether OP meant to or not.

      2. Happy Thurby*

        The thing is Fred has no reason to think this isn’t racism. If people have been racist to him in the past, he feels like he’s being accused of something he didn’t do, why should he flip through a dictionary of other possibilities rather than one that fits with his past experiences at that organization?

        Saying he should only report racism if it’s “really” racism assumes that the person has perfect knowledge, when most of the time you don’t. You only know what you have experienced.

        1. As per Elaine*

          Yeah, OP’s question had nothing to do with race, but I can easily see that from Fred’s perspective it might well fall into the same bucket as being followed around stores to make sure that he doesn’t steal things, or pulled over more frequently, or having the neighborhood watch called on him when he’s just trying to walk his dog. None of those are overtly “about” race, but the fact remains that a white person is much less likely to receive the same treatment.

      3. Cringing 24/7*

        Lots of people don’t need an excuse to take accusations of racism less seriously. If Fred has been singled out in the past at this workplace and questioned about whether or not he did malicious things like this while his white counterparts haven’t, then why would he not think that this is exactly the same thing? Your statement isn’t so much non-woke as it’s simply a refusal to take into account Fred’s perspective as someone who has likely been racially profiled for his entire life..

        1. Despachito*

          How is it OP’s problem how Fred was treated previously by someone completely different?

          1. Presea*

            Because being aware of your employees unique points of view and life experiences is a good trait for someone in a position of power to have. Racism can be traumatizing, I would say its important for someone in a leadership position of any kind to approach that trauma with compassion when this sort of situation occurs regardless of anyone’s personal intentions.

            1. Despachito*

              I think any complaint should be approached seriously (which possibly isn’t in this case), but I also think it should be decided whether it is justified or not, and act accordingly.

              Racism and discrimination is a horrible thing but the blanket answer should not be “if anybody complains of racism, he is right”. He might be, and he mightn’t. I do not like the idea of people being treated badly because of their race, but the idea of being unjustly accused of doing so also does not look very appealing.

              1. Eyes Kiwami*

                Remember that the goal here is to repair the relationship with Fred. It’s OP’s problem because they have hurt Fred’s feelings accidentally. It doesn’t matter if Fred is right or wrong, the point is his feelings are hurt and OP wants to clear the air.

              2. Presea*

                What I meant is more like – you can approach someone with compassion without necessarily thinking they are factually correct in the things they are saying. You can approach someone who you don’t think is factually correct with an open mind and ask for them to explain their viewpoint. Regardless of whether they are correct or not, you’re likely to understand better if they’re acting in good faith, seeing something you aren’t, or just stirring the pot, and then you proceed accordingly. But you will lose that valuable insight if you start from the assumption that the person is definitely wrong and definitely jumping to bad conclusions in bad faith.

          2. The Gollux, Not a Mere Device*

            Because that “someone completely different” isn’t completely different: it’s someone is someone else at the same company. The context here is relevant: it’s not one random stranger at a baseball game, and a different random stranger on line at the Post Office. It’s two or more people who he was interacting with in their roles as managers at the same company.

            If I’m comparing between LW’s “problem” of being asked to apologize when he meant no harm, and Fred’s problem of having been told “that wasn’t really racist, relax and go back to work” by people who are now assuming he is exaggerating or even lying about racist treatment, one is a lot worse than the other. LW may not be able to fix things by apologizing, but they lose nothing by trying.

            1. Despachito*

              Fair point – the fact that OP is not completely unrelated does carry more weight than if he was just a random person.

          3. yala*

            …how is it not?

            People aren’t machines. Life situations and past treatment inform our current actions and attitudes. It’s worth being aware of what an employee may have experienced in a work environment previously because being aware of that can help you manage the employee in a way that’s best for you, them, and the company.

            And it’s also just kinda decent?

      4. socks*

        Not sure you can refer to disagreement on the internet as “crucifying” and also say someone else has a victim mentality.

      5. Despachito*

        You are spot on.

        I cannot see any racist motive in what OP did. It was logical to ask the one person who mentioned the problem earlier, and OP says that he did not ask in an accusatory manner.

        1. Lady Danbury*

          Racist motive isn’t necessary to have a racist effect. Intent versus impact is a key distinction that we should all be aware of, both in the workplace and in life. If the only person being questioned was a POC (as far as Fred was aware), then from his perspective it could be seen as racist treatment even if that wasn’t OP’s intent. Especially if other people also saw OP question Fred but not anyone else. They may not have even been aware of Fred’s previous comment regarding the smelly shoes, only that OP questioned Fred about the shoe sabotage.

          1. R*

            I’m a woman in a mostly male office. I’m chatting with my male manager and say hey Bill has been leaving really smelly food in the fridge, it’s pretty gross. Next week Bill has gone to the manager complaining because someone threw out his old smelly food. Manager says, hey R, you mentioned Bill’s gross food last week, do you know anything about this?

            Are you telling me that’s sexism?

        2. Jennifer Strange*

          I cannot see any racist motive in what OP did.

          Cool, that doesn’t mean your perception is the only one though.

        3. Spare Me*

          You don’t have sufficient knowledge or context to make a statement about there not being a racist motive. All your statement means is that you are blind and ignorant. Don’t comment on topics you know nothing about just because it hurts your feelings.

          You’ve been reading this site long enough to have seen the experience of racism described more than enough to take it on board. You just haven’t bothered to listen.

      6. Boof*

        Mmm. Well, we can’t know with certainty what fred’s experiences are but if someone wants to be an ally i would think they’d start off by addressing the concern seriously. Op could start by explaining why they brought it up then maybe asking if fred’s ok in some way. If fred really continues to react unreasonably then that’s one thing, but maybe fred will feel a lot better and maybe op will learn if there’s something else going on

      7. Nameless in Customer Service*

        As a meta note, I am so tired of conservatives using the term “woke” to mock Black people for not quietly agreeing that we’re subhuman.

        1. All The Words*

          To be honest, much of this comment thread has been a real disappointment.

          It’s got a bit of “I’m tired of being asked to apologize for racism” vibe to it and it’s really not a good look.

    4. FormerLibrarian*

      This is a poorly managed company, obviously, but LW is part of the problem if they consider it “entertaining and harmless” to sit around mocking their employees.

    5. LilyP*

      +1 — Try not to let this color your opinion of Fred going forward (“oh he can be so sensitive” “he’s so focused on race” etc). You know this instance was a misunderstanding, but you don’t know for sure about his other experiences, and he could still (and honestly likely will) encounter racism in the future and deserve to have his perspective taken seriously.

  5. Whatever*

    I think Alison’s advise is absolutely spot on. And honestly this seems like a bit of a manager issue more than a Fred issue. The manager is saying that any time Fred brings up race as a reason for something that the best way to settle it is to just ignore Fred’s feelings until he- what- forgets about it. That’s bad leadership. Fred needs to feel heard and he deserves to have the record set straight rather than just being ignored and treated like the boy who calls wolf.

  6. Jennifer Strange*

    and also that he has jumped to thinking things are racially motivated in the past.

    Hm…it sounds like this isn’t the first time Fred has experienced what he feels was poor treatment due to his race. While I agree that it sounds like the OP is just the victim of an unfortunate situation, I wonder if there was truth to one or more of the past instances and that those were just shrugged off by management instead of being investigated. If so it’s possible that the interaction with the OP just felt like the straw that broke the camel’s back. I still agree with Alison that the best solution is an apology, but it could explain why he had what feels like a more extreme reaction.

    1. Tupac Coachella*

      OP also mentioned having had a good relationship with Fred in the past. If Fred already feels brushed aside regarding discrimination concerns, it could be doubly disappointing to have someone he considered a work-friend and possible ally show signs they may feel the same as the people who dismissed him before. As a POC, I wonder if various ill treatment is race related a LOT (and I consider myself a level headed person not prone to jumping to conclusions). Losing an ally someplace as important as work is a big deal. A sincere apology that clarifies what happened on OP’s side and shows that they’re still an ally could really make a big difference to Fred.

  7. Forever Anxious*

    I’m not sure apologizing is going to fix the issue here. Fred really sort of leapt to conclusions over the who thing, and according to Fred’s manager, he’s done this sort of thing before. Even after having things explained to him, that he wasn’t targeted and other people were indeed questioned about the shoes, he still continued to hold a grudge and make it an issue. Apologizing would just make Fred think he assessed/handled the situation correctly. I think a discussion is in order, but I don’t think the LW has anything to apologize for.

    1. Popinki(she/her)*

      Chances are Fred leapt to that conclusion because he has faced racist behavior in the past, and is angry about it because his manager’s way to “handle” it is to ignore it until Fred quits complaining about it. The LW didn’t mean to hurt Fred with their questions but they did, and when you hurt someone, even inadvertantly, the right thing to do is apologize.

      1. Coin_Operated*

        Yeah, but Fred then went and lied about the situation to their manager. If Fred has experienced racism at this placei in the past, that’s a seperate issue he needs to address with the appropriate parties, and even if he felt that way in the situation, lying about it is pretty malicious and I think Fred would owe the LW an appology, unless there’s other information the LW is witholding about this.

        1. Jennifer Strange*

          I don’t think Fred lied? It sounds like he and the OP had a misunderstanding about what the situation was and why the OP was talking to him.

        2. pancakes*

          What was the lie? Fred talked about his own impressions of the encounter, and he felt the encounter was racially-motivated on the supervisor’s part. It isn’t a lie for him to say those were his impressions just because the supervisor had different impressions.

            1. pancakes*

              That part of the letter is a bit muddled. I don’t know exactly where he got the idea the letter writer would definitely be asking other people as well, but then Fred’s manager seems to have confirmed that that happened.

    2. tamarak & fireweed*

      But he does. He failed to anticipate that putting on the table the question “who caused a physical injury to a co-worker?” with the one person who had previously admitted that the injured co-worker was somewhat annoying would likely make Fred feel like a suspect in an investigation. Fred went straight to the manager! It *clearly* didn’t land as the small-talk the LW was imagining. If the LW had seen the bigger picture, potentially with previous instances of Fred feeling/being singled out negatively he’d likely have added more context to the conversation.

      It’s not a huge, momentous failure, but a small, everyday one. The kind that we should all be in the habit of using the wonderful tool that is an apology for.

      What some call micro-agressions usually feel like perfectly fine interactions to the aggressor.

    3. Carrots*

      Fred’s feelings and concerns are valid even if the OP did not have malicious or biased intent. People should apologize for impact, moreso than for intent. If you offend someone, you apologize, even if it was a misunderstanding.

      1. Anon for this one*

        I can’t agree with this. Maybe it’s because I’ve known some truly volatile people, but I believe there’s a limit. I’m not saying I don’t think an apology would be good in this particular case (I think it would), or even in most cases, but… I just can’t.

        To illustrate, I was left a few (2-3) voicemails (across a couple weeks) starting with “f**k you” and proceeding to call me a bad person, bad parent, and a bunch of other things for several solid minutes… because I asked a my sibling to consider doing something (as in “It would mean a lot to me if you would consider X”) and that was deemed “offensive” by sibling’s to-be-spouse. I don’t want to get into specifics (too identifying) but it was wedding related and would something along the lines of “consider including great-aunt Gertrude’s favorite brooch somehow” or “have bottled water available at the bar since I get dehydrated easily” AND I expressly said I’d understand if the answer was “no” but just asked that they think about it and let me know (I never did get an answer – just lots of yelling on my voicemail)

        So, there’s a limit, in my mind.

        1. Jennifer Strange*

          Someone cursing you out because you asked them to do something and someone stating that they felt they were treated differently because of their race (especially when they’ve had previous concerns of racism shrugged off) are two VERY different things.

          1. pancakes*

            A sibling relationship and a work relationship are two very different things as well. If I had a sibling leaving me messages like that I wouldn’t be returning their calls or planning on attending their wedding. Work relationships are generally way less heated and personal than that, and in the rare moments they’re not, the reasons and ways to work through or around a conflict have nothing to do with family ties. You can’t just stop talking to someone and have that be the resolution.

    4. Ursula*

      Why do you assume that the manager is right that Fred “leaps to conclusions” rather than assuming that Fred has been the victim of racist behavior repeatedly in the past?

      1. TheEndIsNigh*

        Why wouldn’t the manager be the best person to know considering he(she) works with him on a daily basis ??

        1. Jessie the first*

          ….. because if the manager is the one responsible for racist interactions with Fred, then that manager is NOT a reliable narrator. (& remember his go-to solution is “ignore Fred til the problem goes away ” which, regardless who is the source of the problem, is terrible management, so why people assume manager is right and Fred is wrong is weird. Except given how often poc concerns are dismissed by white people, not surprising)

          This whole thread is so, so disappointing to read.

        2. Avril Ludgateau*

          I think Fred would be the best person to assess if he’s been a victim of racism. The OP case may be a genuine misunderstanding, but I would not fault Fred if racial trauma has caused him to generally lose trust or leniency. He’d be operating based on his history and experience, which, while unfortunate, is purely rational.

    5. Observer*

      I’m not sure apologizing is going to fix the issue here

      Maybe it will and maybe it won’t. But that doesn’t mean that the OP shouldn’t apologize. What the manager is saying honestly makes no sense.

      according to Fred’s manager, he’s done this sort of thing before

      And we have reason to question the manager’s judgement. Let’s face it, there is no downside to apologizing and there is no reason that we can see that would make Fred suddenly stop being upset. And given the apparent dysfunction and refusal to deal with objectively problematic issues at this company (see people tampering with other’s stuff and not being called out by management) it’s not unreasonable to conclude that just MAYBE Fred actually *has* been the victim of racially motivated issues.

      Apologizing would just make Fred think he assessed/handled the situation correctly.

      So? Is it so terrible that he thinks it’s ok to bring up a situation where he feels like he’s being targeted for racial reasons? On the other hand, it’s at least as likely that if the OP apologizes, that he’ll feel like he’s being heard and respected. And, worst case, if he doesn’t accept it, anyone doing a reasonable investigation will see that the OP is trying to operate in good faith. That is what the OP’s obligation is – not to “educate” Fred.

      1. JustSomeone*

        Exactly. An apology costs nothing. It’s not like anyone is telling the LW to say “You’re right. I was accusing you because I’m a racist. You caught me. I’m sorry.” An apology would be something along the lines of “I’m sorry it came across like I was singling you out to question about the shoes. I never suspected you of it, and I’m sorry I made you feel like I did.”

        Hopefully that will lay the issue to rest, or at least start to repair the relationship. But even if it doesn’t, the LW is no worse off for having tried—and it’s the right thing to do.

      2. Boof*

        An apology would only make a reasonable person think they “ assessed/handled the situation correctly” if the apology was done totally, weirdly wrong, like “i’m sorry that was racist” (when it wasn’t) instead of “i’m sorry if i made you feel singled out, that was never my intent! I just brought it up because we’d talked about it before, not because I thought you had anything to do with it!” Etc

    6. Lydia*

      How all that can feel to someone who regularly faces racism and micro-aggressions:
      1. Gaslighting
      2. Dismissive
      3. More gaslighting
      4. Undeserving of a basic common decency that hurts no one and will not lead to Fred seeing *more* racism that “doesn’t exist” because I guarantee it does and Fred hasn’t leapt to any conclusions, he’s just been told he has.

  8. FormerLibrarian*

    I agree that an apology could go a long way, but the fact that someone tampered with Bill’s shoes, causing a medical reaction, should be addressed as well. It’s unlikely he can do much about his feet smelling if he’s doing manual labor all day. Yucking it up with his coworkers about how everyone flees when he comes in is terrible management, not “entertaining.” I feel bad for Fred AND Bill.

    1. BPT*

      Yeah honestly I’m like – there SHOULD be an investigation as to who tampered with Bill’s shoes! Like how is that not the first thing being addressed here? It seems that someone intentionally put something in Bill’s shoes, giving him a medical reaction, and that’s just being glossed over?

      1. FormerLibrarian*

        I had a coworker/friend who struggled with body odor. Her coworkers acknowledged it and discussed some possible reasons why and if it was enough of an issue to bring to management. We ultimately guessed that she was trying to go green and the efforts were hit or miss on effectiveness, but weren’t bad enough for customers to notice or to make her self-conscious, since there may be nothing to be done about it. We DID NOT sit around giggling about how badly she smelled, let alone with management. We definitely didn’t give her an allergic reaction by hosing her down with air freshener. There should definitely be an investigation into Bill’s shoes.

      2. Lydia*

        OP says other tamperings have happened before and all management will do is send out a “don’t mess with other people’s stuff” email. Blaring siren of yikes has started.

        1. FormerLibrarian*

          This is a poorly managed company, obviously, but LW is part of the problem if they consider it “entertaining and harmless” to sit around mocking their employees.

      3. Observer*

        there SHOULD be an investigation as to who tampered with Bill’s shoes! Like how is that not the first thing being addressed here


        It is sooo bizarre that there is no investigation.

      4. lizesq*

        No one is investigating cause even OP is too busy laughing at Bill behind his back.

    2. Pocket Mouse*

      Yes! This stood out to me- why is the LW having informal conversations in a work area regarding what should be an active (and presumably private) investigation? Either it’s a formal, on-the-record question, or it shouldn’t happen at all.

    3. AnonyNurse*

      Someone assaulted Bill. I know the question was about Fred. But Bill was physically harmed. By a coworker. And while harm may not have been the intent, the person took the action knowingly. Rashes on the soles of the feet are horrific cause it’s pretty hard not to, you know, use your feet. I get psoriasis on the sole of my foot sometimes and there are no spots of my body I treat more aggressively than that one. You can’t just ‘let them heal’ unless you use a wheelchair for a while. Can’t even imagine an allergic reaction. Ugh. I’m mad for Bill. And having sympathy foot itchiness.

      1. Carlie*

        I have had many mystery reactions, some of which sent me to the hospital for treatment. It is terrifying to know that there is a substance that can kill you by exposure, it is around here somewhere, and you have no idea what it is. If I were Bill I would be livid, and I would be contacting the police if my own management wasn’t tracking it down. This is not a ha-ha prank or a “stop being annoying” situation. I’m shocked at the blase reaction by the management.

  9. Izzy*

    I was Fred in a somewhat similar situation at my last job. A customer apparently complained about a “young blonde woman” who failed to adequately help them when the came in. I was young and not blonde, as were a few others, and there were some blonde women who were not young, but there was no one in our office who was both young and blonde, so we didn’t know who the customer was talking about. My manager told everyone about the complaint and immediately called me into his office. Behind the closed door, he made clear that he did not call me in because he thought it was me necessarily, he just wanted to ask whether I remembered the customer and/or who had helped them, which I did not. But to my coworkers, who only saw me go in and didn’t hear what my manager said, it of course looked like he thought it was me. I went back the next day and asked him to correct the record with my coworkers, which he did, because it was very upsetting to me that everyone had the impression that he thought it was me.

    The letter doesn’t specify, but I wonder if Fred was in a similar situation, where coworkers could have heard him being asked about the incident but then didn’t hear the others being asked about it because they were in a different area, and the coworkers didn’t have the context of the LW’s earlier conversation with Fred about the shoes.

    1. Becky*

      A customer apparently complained about a “young blonde woman” who failed to adequately help them when the came in. I was young and not blonde, as were a few others, and there were some blonde women who were not young, but there was no one in our office who was both young and blonde, so we didn’t know who the customer was talking about.

      Totally immaterial to your point (which is a good one) I am now wondering if there’s a young blonde woman who is very confused as to why a random person approached them asking for help when they don’t even work there.

    2. CheesePlease*

      Very good point. Especially if there was a lot of office rumor talk surrounding this incident. It seems like people already talked about the stinky feet issue, so it seems likely there would be talk speculating about the shoe tampering.

    3. Decidedly Me*

      Except in your case, you went back to the person that chatted with you to clear the air and in this one, Fred brought in someone unrelated to it. The best person to clear the air here (if this is case) is the LW.

      1. Jessie the first*

        Fred’s manager is not unrelated to Fred, nor to Fred’s problems work. Your own manager can often be a good person to go to when a problem at work arises and it’s odd to suggest that your manager is a bad place to go regarding a work or interpersonal work issue.

      1. Nameless in Customer Service*

        Your comments about racism are consistently minimizing and dismissive.

  10. Suzy Q*

    Oof. I have nothing to add to the advice but I will say that isopropyl alcohol will disinfect and deodorize most shoes. I was surprised at how well it works!

    1. Sarah*

      Vodka works well too! (though it might not be a good idea to bring a vodka bottle t0 work…)

    2. Sarah*

      I think the lesson here is that if you are a manager and there is a workplace issue that involves allegations of theft, physical assault, or something of that nature, don’t attempt your own investigation! Refer it to H.R. to handle. What you think is innocent, good faith questioning could come across as very hostile and threatening to that employee. Also, whenever you talk to an employee about misconduct you should do it in a private setting, not at their cube.

  11. Anon (and on and on)*

    After an honest apology, I would also tell Fred that you’re concerned that it came across that you were singling him out due to his race. Explain that you were talking to people due to previous conversations about feet/shoes (assuming that that is accurate, you didn’t mention why you spoke to the other people that you did). Then, ask if he could explain WHY he felt singled out and REALLY listen. It could be that he was the only person on that team talked to, or it could be something else. Maybe it was how you approached him. Maybe it’s that he’s ALWAYS talked to when something goes wrong. Maybe he’s less likely to be given the benefit-of-the-doubt vs. white employees (exceedingly likely, given that most white people act on unconscious biases based on stereotypes about people of color). It’s likely that he won’t tell you anything that’s actually actionable, and there’s nothing that you could have done differently, but just opening up the floor and letting him explain where he’s coming from will go a LONG way to repair the relationship.

    1. Anon (and on and on)*

      I just read Izzy’s comment about how LW’s talking to Fred may have looked incriminating to Fred’s coworkers, and I take back that LW likely did nothing wrong here. The truth is, you don’t know until you ask.

    2. Lizzo*

      +1 to this, with an emphasis on LISTENING, and assuming that you, LW, made a mistake/poor assumptions in this situation, whether you were aware of it or not. Don’t get defensive; don’t double down on your explanation about why what you didn’t wasn’t wrong.

      Beyond the apology, I highly recommend reading one or more of the following books to help gain some perspective on racism and how you (a white person in a position of influence) can actively be anti-racist:
      “Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor” by Layla F. Saad
      “So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo
      “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi

  12. World Weary*

    About the shoes, they’re probably company provided safety shoes, so they’re fake leather, basically plastic, but have the reinforced toes. These shoes don’t breathe at all. I used to take mine home and spray them with Lysol every night. Once I forgot and sprayed them in the morning and wore them wet. All the skin on the bottom of my feet peeled off. Company needs to up their shoe budget so the shoes are either better quality or replaced more often.

    As far as Fred thinking that there’s a racial component, if his manager refuses to address anything and just waits for Fred to get over it, I would have to agree with Fred. This sounds like the manager not taking Fred’s concerns seriously.

      1. RagingADHD*

        If World Weary were wearing non-breathable reinforced toe boots all day without socks, they wouldn’t have had any skin left on their feet in about a week.

      2. World Weary*

        Yes, wool socks. But it doesn’t matter how breathable your socks are when the shoes don’t breathe at all

  13. TootsNYC*

    for people with smelly shoes, I just want to point out the benefits of a shoe dryer.

    Personally, we solved my kid’s “stinky shoes because he wore them damp from the swimming pool” problem with a Peet shoe dryer. We got the travel kind, becuase we didn’t have a place to install the other version.
    They work really well, and they don’t over-dry the shoes.

    We don’t have stinky feet anymore, but if our shoes get wet in the rain or something, the Peet shoe dryer is available to dry them out overnight.

  14. Skytext*

    I can’t believe no one’s done anything to address the stinky feet issue! I get it—Bill might just be one of those people who have very smelly feet and it can’t be helped. But you know what can be helped? The shoes left sitting out in the locker room to stink it up! Sounds like they are just left sitting in front of his locker. They instead could be placed in a bag or box, maybe with some activated charcoal or baking soda. Maybe put somewhere else. Maybe he could just take them home with him. I’m actually a little surprised all the culprit did was spray something—he could’ve just thrown them away altogether.

    1. Observer*

      But you know what can be helped? The shoes left sitting out in the locker room to stink it up!

      And you know that how? Do you have any idea how big the lockers are and what goes in them? What makes you so sure that putting the shoes in a bag would not make things worse? What makes you so sure that activated charcoal would make any difference?

      <I.I’m actually a little surprised all the culprit did was spray something—he could’ve just thrown them away altogether.

      Throwing away (aka stealing) someone else’s shoes for any other reason that actual safety should be an automatic firing offense. Especially since in such a case, you leave someone without something actually essential to them. Actually spraying something on the shoes is even worse. The fact that you are so cavalier about other people’s safety does not speak well of you. I certainly would never take your advice or direction on the significance of any issue or on how to deal with it.

    2. Wants Green Things*

      You have absolutely no idea where Bill’s shoes are normally left nor what the company policy is on taking “work equipment” home. And honestly, Bill’s smelly shoes are not actually the issue here – a company that is allowing someone to tamper with other people’s belongings to no consequence as well as brushing aside what sound like not-insignificant racial biases *is*.

    3. LittleMarshmallow*

      The company would be better off offering a stipend to replace the shoes more often or have more than one pair at a time so they dry between wears. I doubt putting them in a box or bag will help the situation and for contamination concerns many manufacturers have rules about taking your work shoes/ clothes home (both for home safety if you work with particularly hazardous stuff and work safety if you have like allergen control considerations). I’ve working in manufacturing for quite a while and sometimes boots just stink. They’re often water proof so they don’t breath. Usually those that wear such boots work hard and sweat a lot. And sometimes it’s because those working in manufacturing environments have to walk thru gross things. It’s usually just sort of part of the life. You do what you can to keep your boots clean and dry sometimes odor can’t be helped.

  15. Minimal Pear*

    This inspired me to get up from my desk and air out my hiking boots from this morning’s hike.

  16. Hiring Mgr*

    ” he has jumped to thinking things are racially motivated in the past. ”

    Huge red flag IMO for the manager to say that… “oh you know those minorities, always complaining about something!”

    Definitely apologize to Fred…If this his how management reacts no wonder he’s upset

    1. Nameless in Customer Service*

      Well said. It is so utterly exhausting how many people in the comments took this statement at face value and as a fair and unbiased characterization, as opposed to the obvious minimization and dismissiveness which it conveys.

  17. Amy*

    I agree with those people saying that the reason Fred feels like the situation was racially motivated is because he encounters that sort of thing a lot.

    But playing devil’s advocate…maybe he did mess with the shoes and he’s afraid he’ll end up getting fired for what he previously considered a gentle prank or even a favour to everyone for dealing with the smell! His reaction could just be out-of-whack defensiveness. And by making a big deal out of the LW’s (non) accusation, he’s taking the focus off the shoe problem and onto LW.

    1. Jennifer Strange*

      There’s absolutely nothing to indicate that that’s the case, even by the OP’s own word, so I really don’t think that kind of speculation is helpful.

    2. Observer*

      But playing devil’s advocate

      The devil doesn’t need any advocates, thank you very much.

      Using that expression does not provide an instant reason for slinging serious accusations around.

      1. Amy*

        Suggesting that perhaps a totally anonymous person on an anonymous internet forum may have put deodorizer in a shoe is a serious accusation?!

        1. Nameless in Customer Service*

          Suggesting that a POC is lying to cover having done something he said he didn’t do, with the clear implication that POC are inherently mendacious…. yeah, that’s a pretty serious accusation.

    3. Lydia*

      If he did, and I think he did not, that might come out eventually, or it might not. Either way, OP should apologize because the thing Fred took issue with was feeling singled out because of his race. The end. Apologize and let things work out however they do.

  18. Ann O'Nemity*

    I’m confused about what the Letter Writer was trying to achieve by talking to Fred that second time. What was the purpose of the friendly informal chat – to pump Fred for gossip? To soften Fred up so he would confess (good cop approach)?

    1. SweetFancyPancakes*

      They only said they were chatting with Fred again, not that they had approached him to ask about the shoes. It sounds to me like they are on generally friendly terms and so were just having a conversation.

  19. Fluffy Fish*

    “he has jumped to thinking things are racially motivated in the past” – you’re manager sucks for saying that btw.

    People who experience racism do not jump to thinking things are racially motivated, they have a damn good reason to think things are racially motivated.

    Apologize. You didn’t single him out, but you understand why he would feel that way. You value him as a colleague and you value your relationship with him. You are very sorry how you handled the situation caused him to feel otherwise. In the future you will ensure any investigation, even informal, will be transparent and fair across the board. You hope he can accept your apology.

  20. Observer*

    OP, Fred is 100% correct to think that he was targeted for racial reasons. His manager’s explanation is not going to be credible to him, because his manager doesn’t recognize that his suspicion is completely reasonable.

    I realize that in actual fact, your behavior was not racially motivated. But the fact that it didn’t immediately jump out at you how this would look to any reasonable outsider, tells me that your company is highly dysfunctional.

    Think about it- Someone actually tampered with someone’s clothes, to a point where that person was actually physically harmed. And the only thing the *Safety Officer* does is ask ONE person whether he “knows anything about it”. That’s it. No one does any real investigation, no one talks about how to actually prevent such a thing happening again or how to track such stuff down in the future. Nothing but some silly nonsense email about “please don’t touch other people’s stuff.”

    Let me emphasize this: The only thing that anyone did to deal with a real safety concern is to question the Black guy in the room. Is it really so “hyper sensitive” of him to think he was targeted?

    Something you should be thinking about, OP. From what you say this kind of nonsense is par for the course. Which leads to the question – What other safety corners are being cut? What other unsafe practices are happening that you can’t do anything about? And when something really serious happens, are you the one who is going to carry the responsibility?

    If I were you, I think I would apologize to Fred and then start thinking about my next steps.

    1. Madeleine Matilda*

      OP states in the letter that they did talk to other people. Fred didn’t know that because it happened in other parts of the workplace. That said, I agree that Fred’s own experiences at that workplace led him to make a reasonable conclusion based on what he knew and had previously experienced.

      1. Observer*

        Actually, the OP states that the manager told Fred that, but it’s not clear that they actually did talk to others. I can certainly see Fred being a but skeptical since no one is his areas was spoken to and the manager also has an attitude problem.

        1. Observer*

          So, I saw the OP’s comment after I posted this.

          Regardless, *Fred’s* skepticism is warranted. Not so much because of the OP, but because of Fred’s manager.

        2. Despachito*

          But are other coworkers really entitled to the information that a manager/security officer talked to another coworker?

          I do not think so.

          1. Nameless in Customer Service*

            Why not?

            I probably shouldn’t, but let me give you an example from my life. I went to a boarding school on an academic scholarship and was the only Black girl in my wing of the dormitory. Whenever another resident lost her watch/portable music player/earring/bracelet/etc, the dorm managers came to me, asked me if I “knew anything” and went through my room. This happened about once a week. Shockingly, I had not stolen anyone’s belongings, and it was hurtful and embittering to know that I was the only one being treated like this for what I hope are obvious reasons. If the dorm managers had asked everyone on the hallway it would have made them not look racist since they would not have been being racist, instead of their policy of only and repeatedly asking the only Black girl about the losses. (I knew full well they didn’t ask anyone else, not least by talking to everyone in an effort to get them to know and trust me so the accusations would stop.)

            I think Fred’s situation here is pretty similar.

            1. Despachito*

              A similar thing happened to me – not repeatedly but once, and I was very hurtful.

              I am white so I am positive there was no racism in it. I was pretty miserable back then (a teenager shortly after my mother’s death), so I might come across like a bit strange, and I happened to have on me the same amount of money that was stolen. It felt awful and although they apologized the damage was already done, and I still remember it many years later.

              I think that if you accuse anyone like that it is awful, and I’d definitely qualify your case as one of racism. (My case was not, and it was just once, but it still felt awful, it is a horrible thing to do to anyone irrespective of colour).

              But I am hesitating about Fred’s case because of the fact that he was the only one to mention a problem before, and OP did not accuse him. And I am wondering – would OP do just the same thing if Fred was white? And if he did, would we perceive that Fred was justified to be offended?

              1. Jennifer Strange*

                But I am hesitating about Fred’s case because of the fact that he was the only one to mention a problem before, and OP did not accuse him.

                WE know these things because the OP put them in the letter. Fred doesn’t necessarily know these things.

                And I am wondering – would OP do just the same thing if Fred was white? And if he did, would we perceive that Fred was justified to be offended?

                Well if it were a different situation, yes there would be a different reaction. Life doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

  21. Ann Perkins Knope*

    This has already been mentioned twice, but I just wanted to support it as it occurred to me this part has strong parallels with the previous letter:

    The fact that the supervisor outright said “Fred jumps to racial discrimination frequently” AND his recommended solution is not “consider if those complaints are valid” but “ignore Fred”, I would assume that supervisor is in fact not a safe person for non-white people to go to with complaints and who will assume a complaint = false accusation, I think it’s especially important to ignore his opinion on how to interact with Fred, as his perspective is deeply flawed and skewed.

    And also that that may help you understand why it may make sense that Fred had what (seems to you possibly) outsized reaction, because he does and is constantly dealing with racism, and has either identified this as something that works or is just absolutely worn down to where this really touched a nerve, or some other factor that you don’t see.

    1. Nameless in Customer Service*

      but I just wanted to support it as it occurred to me this part has strong parallels with the previous letter:

      Absolutely. I was about to write a comment making that comparison, but yours says everything and more.

  22. Dr. Rebecca*

    The whole company needs sensitivity training for the bullying involved in allowing Bill’s hygiene problem to become gossip, and the resulting injury to his feet. Fred’s not the only one deserving of an apology here.

  23. Kelche (Letter Writer)*

    Trying to clear up some confusion in the comments:

    There was an investigation, but that wasn’t the subject of my email to Alison, which I was trying to keep brief.

    My response wasn’t to talk to the one Black guy in the room and do nothing else. I did talk to other people (who happened to be White, but weren’t in that particular area) and he wasn’t the only Black person in the area. He was the one person in any area that had recently mentioned Bill’s shoes smelling bad, so I stand by it making total sense for me to have some kind of conversation with him, formal or informal. I do see now how it could have been perceived differently than I intended and I plan on apologizing.

    Management’s response is very disappointing and I’ve pushed hard for more, but unfortunately with no luck so far. Management doesn’t always have the response I think they should, but overall they have usually been very good about addressing safety issues. Unfortunately this situation has a number of complicating factors because of who we think did it. I don’t agree with their response in this situation, but they’re also not completely incompetent and definitely aren’t monsters.

    1. Observer*

      He was the one person in any area that had recently mentioned Bill’s shoes smelling bad, so I stand by it making total sense for me to have some kind of conversation with him, formal or informal.

      Yes, it makes sense to have a conversation with him. But when all he sees is that you had a conversation with him, and it appears not with others, then it looks like he’s being targeted.

      And the reality is that while you are doing your best to deal with the situation, management is NOT. They may not be monsters but they are allowing a real safety issue go because of outside issues. If it’s really an outlier, it’s still a problem. Especially since it’s not the first time.

      And, I get it – you are not being racist. But, Fred’s reaction was still reasonable, and his manager’s reaction is absolutely making it worse.

      So, it’s really good that you plan to apologize. Not because you did a terrible thing. But because that’s a good way to lower the temperature.

      1. Oh dear*

        God forbid Fred actually consider the possibility that there is more to the story he doesn’t know (like OP talking to other people) or actually act like an adult and speak to his manager, rather than pouting and giving them dirty looks.

        1. Yorick*

          Yeah, why assume no one else has been talked to? Especially when you know there are other employees in an area you can’t see?

            1. Despachito*

              Why assume OP didn’t, as it is not in Fred’s rights to be informed of everything happening at the workplace?

            2. MCMonkeyBean*

              You could make no assumptions either way? That is actually an option. Or, you could make an incorrect assumption and then accept it when you are told that actually he did have conversations with several other people.

              I think Fred’s manager’s dismissal is concerning, but it’s also not OP’s fault that he jumped to an incorrect conclusion and then would not accept the truth of the situation.

        2. Lydia*

          Fred did talk to his manager, which is why OP found out about the concern about racism in the first place. Guess what. People who regularly are on the receiving end of microaggressions and obvious racism don’t have to constantly be better behaved than anyone else in the situation.

        3. Unkempt Flatware*

          Gosh. It is this language you simply must avoid in this situation! You cannot respond to someone in situations like this with phrases like, “act like an adult”. It just sounds too much like a dogwhistle. Please stop suggesting things like this. In fact, I cannot imagine telling any adult to act like an adult unless I wanted to deliberately infantilize them.

            1. Observer*

              Well, please don’t encourage the OP to take on that attitude.

              The OP, to their credit, does realize that these is an issue, despite it being inadvertent.

            2. Nameless in Customer Service*

              You responded to those Black people here who’ve been in Fred’s situation. Surprise! We’re in this conversation too.

        4. Observer*

          God forbid you consider the fact that Fred has almost certainly faced racist behavior in the workplace, that Fred’s manager’s way of dealing with it is to explicitly dismiss and ignore it, that Fred was (as far as he could see) publicly asked about this when others were not, and that the investigation actually hasn’t gone anywhere. No, Fred should ignore all of this and assume that it’s just not possible that the OP was being racist.

          Here is the reality, it’s just NOT the most reasonable assumption, even though IN THIS CASE it happens to be true that the OP is, in fact, not being racist. It’s a good lesson in trying to lead with the assumption of good intention. But I think Fred deserves at least as much of that assumption as anyone else in this story.

          Because while it’s true that the OP’s behavior wasn’t racist, the whole “investigation” is shoddy and sloppy. And, yes, it’s at least as much the owner’s fault as the OP’s. But still. The situation is not being well handled. It’s a bit much to ask Fred to be the ONE person who acts perfectly in the face of facts that give him good reason to not act perfectly.

    2. Environmental Compliance*

      FWIW – the investigation, the talking to Fred, all of that – totally appropriate. I’ve had situations like this before where someone thought I was going after them because I came and asked them questions and they thought I talked only to them. I didn’t, but I didn’t exactly gather everyone in a room and make them talk in front of each other as I wanted their own words first. It’s hard to get the wording exactly right every single time, and sometimes the wrong intent is read into a situation.

      It’s also really frustrating being the HSE person when management isn’t doing what you think they should be doing, especially when someone gets hurt (or could get hurt). Even more so when there’s politics involved.

      Do you have another HSE/HR person that is somewhat familiar with the situation and whose opinion you could trust that you could run through what was said in more detail?

    3. Sue Wilson*

      OP, I understand your reasoning for talking to Fred (I don’t agree that “it made sense” is the perspective you need here which I’ll explain). Correct me if I’m wrong, but I guessing you “chatting” is in fact to make it easier to do your job as a safety manager (because being more habitually formal probably won’t lead to as much forthcoming information as you might need). But even if that’s not the case, this result was utterly foreseeable, and I think you need to be aware of that, even if you just did your job. Fred telling you, jokingly, that Bill’s feet stink is *not* the same level of casualness or informality (no matter your tone) as you asking Fred to potentially get one of his coworkers in disciplinary trouble. I think you believe that you being casual and non-accusatory means it should feel that way to Fred. Some discussions are *not* casual or non-accusatory coming from someone with investigative authority (and yes that feeling can be intensified by non-minority managers to minority employees).

      I’m not surprised that Fred felt like you singled him out, even if you know you talked to other people. You specifically talked to Fred as if he might know something *specific* because he told you something *common knowledge*. As far as he was concerned, he told you something the whole group thought and you made that his problem. And I think this made sense to you because you thought “well he brought it up!” But there’s a material difference between employees being *friendly* to an employer and employees being *cooperative* with an employer that you have to consider affects the way an employee communicates with you (and you with them). It necessarily follow, for a number of reasons, and especially in an manufacturing environment, to believe a friendly employee would be a cooperative one. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t keep being casual, or that you shouldn’t use information you get from employees. I am saying that in a place where group dynamics is important, if you’re going to be casual about getting information, you also should be general about how you use it unless its actionable.

      1. Despachito*

        But in this case Fred could have just answered “I do not know”, and that’s it?

        (Remember that OP didn’t accuse Fred of having done it)

        1. Sue Wilson*

          …He did say that. I’m talking about the fact that it was asked because of his joke in the first place.

    4. Observer*

      I do want to say that I think that you are being very thoughtful about the situation.

      I’m less impressed by your employer, though.

    5. Nameless in Customer Service*

      I’m really glad that you wrote in about this and that you’re going to go talk to Fred. I’ve been where he is and I can tell you that you’ll probably earn a deep well of trust. I would have been so happily shocked by an apology and clearing of the air from any of the people who, deliberately or not, conveyed to me that I was under suspicion because of being Black.

  24. Patty Squarepants*

    Wait a second…I agree it would be a good idea for the writer to apologize to Fred, but why isn’t Fred being asked to apologize to the writer for going to HR and assuming he/she had racist intents? That sort of thing could have serious impact on OP.

    1. Jennifer Strange*

      For one thing Fred wasn’t the one who wrote in. For another, why should he have to apologize for saying he felt he was being targeted for race? The fact that it wasn’t the OP’s intention doesn’t change his perception of the situation.

    2. ecnaseener*

      Because good-faith reports of possible discrimination in the workplace are legally protected. You can personally think he jumped to conclusions, but unless there’s evidence it wasn’t a good-faith report, anyone asking him to apologize would be a very bad idea.

    3. Unkempt Flatware*

      It is never the responsibility of the minority party to make sure the majority party, and supervisor/manager in this case, feel better about a very real complaint of potential racism.

      Just like it is never our responsibility as women to make sure men feel okay when called out for sexist behaviors. These men would just keep on winking at us if we didn’t say something. I don’t care how they feel about it. Neither should Fred.

      1. Despachito*

        What would be the correct way to handle the situation then?

        If Fred felt that he was a victim of racist treatment, he should go to the HR, if any, or to his boss, and complain about it. This is what Fred did, so so far so good.

        His boss explained to him that OP did ask other people as well, only not within the sight of Fred, and the reason he asked Fred, was because Fred mentioned the problem before.

        This seems rather plausible to me, and assuming that was true, it should be enough to prove there was no racism (Fred was not singled out, as there were other people asked as well, and the reason “you complained about the problem so I am asking you if you happen to know something more about it” seems logical, too.)

        What is there the boss should/could have done differently? (We assume that everything that was said was the truth, and that OP indeed did ask other people).

        1. Jennifer Strange*

          What is there the boss should/could have done differently?

          For starters, not shrug off past complaints of racism?

    4. Eyes Kiwami*

      Do you really want disenfranchised groups to have to apologize for accusing others of bigotry? How would you determine who was “right”? How would anything actually be done about bigotry if all bigots have to do is say “I didn’t mean it” and then the target has to apologize?

      1. Despachito*

        “How would you determine who was “right””

        But if you think this is not possible, why would you assume that the person accused of bigotry is always accused rightly and that he indeed is a bigot?

        (I do not mind one bit calling out the real bigots, but what if are not one and are accused wrongly? Do you really have to suck it up even if you did not do it?)

        1. Jennifer Strange*

          There isn’t always necessarily a right or wrong, though. People, even with the best of intentions, can do things that create a perception of prejudice. In this case the OP didn’t intend to make Fred singled out because of his race, but that was the result, and it’s good for the OP (and anyone!) to keep that in mind for any future interactions.

          but what if are not one and are accused wrongly

          Then you take time to think about why your actions may have given that perception? You act as though a person is going to be accused of bigotry one time and immediately be fired, but as we’ve seen time and time again that is not the case.

    5. Nameless in Customer Service*

      but why isn’t Fred being asked to apologize to the writer for going to HR and assuming he/she had racist intents?

      I really hope you have no capacity to install such a policy anywhere. I can think of few better ways to inform all nonWhite workers that racism will be tolerated, aided and abetted and that reporting it will be punished.

    6. MCMonkeyBean*

      Nooooooo this is a bad take. This is on the same level as yesterday’s OP’s boss who wouldn’t let her drive with a male coworker because it might result in false accusations that ruin the coworker’s life. Like, what?? OP is not at any risk here and there is no fallout for them other than things being awkward with Fred.

      Sure, a possible scenario here could hypothetically involve apologies from both sides, like “Hey Fred sorry if I made you feel singled out, I was asking a lot of people and I just thought you might have insight because of what we had discussed the other day.” “Thanks, OP, sorry if I overreacted I just feel like there is a history here of people jumping to conclusions for the wrong reasons and was hurt when I thought that’s what you were doing.” Or whatever. Maybe.

      But people acting like accusations of sexism and racism are as bad as if not worse than actual sexism and racism is VERY CRAPPY AND YOU NEED TO STOP.

  25. Lab Boss*

    What I can’t understand is why Fred thought it was unreasonable to be asked about this? According to LW, Fred (and only Fred, unless the letter left something out) had been talking to LW about not liking Bill’s stinky shoes. Within days, someone had tampered with Bill’s stinky shoes. It seems 100% reasonable that LW would ask the person who’d JUST been complaining about the shoes, yeah? I understand that people who’ve encountered racism are more sensitized to racism and more likely to perceive it, but here there seems to be a big blaring obvious reason for LW to have talked to Fred, in particular.

    1. Lydia*

      Fred took away from their second conversation that OP would be talking to other people in their section, but didn’t see any of that and felt singled out by the conversation, which is legitimate. If you’re a person who deals with microaggressions a lot, it makes sense you might feel a “casual” conversation after an incident that caused harm could have more to it.

      1. Despachito*

        But is it really a solution to pout and mumble aggressively?

        Should the reaction of HR or the manager not be “let us investigate what happened”, and then eventually recognizing that Fred was/was not a victim of racism?

        I understand that the management in this company is dysfunctional for various reasons, and that they might have slighted Fred in the past, but how is this OP’s problem?

        We once significantly helped an immigrant with the paperwork necessary to get citizenship , but when something lasted longer than he assumed, he out of the blue claimed we are xenophobic. I swear that we did not feel any xenophobia, we liked this particular person and genuinely wanted to help him out. He probably misinterpreted something in the bureaucratic process but it felt like a hammer coming down because it was totally unjust.

        We still helped him finalize the process, but I must say that him playing this victim card was a hard stop for us as to any future contacts with him. If he experienced real xenophobia before (and might well have), I am sorry and it should have not happened, but this felt like emotional blackmail and I am not his psychologist to let him take it out on me.

        1. Eyes Kiwami*

          Wow. So if being accused of xenophobia was so awful, imagine what it must be like to be the victim of frequent xenophobia, to the point where it affects important processes in your life and even people who seem kind to you. But if you say anything about it, they say you’re “playing a victim card” and refuse to work with you. Sounds like a lose-lose situation for them.

          1. Despachito*

            But there is a difference if you “say anything about it” to a person who was really xenophobic towards you, and to one who wasn’t, because in the latter case, there was no IT to say something about.

            Yes, I indeed feel that if you are accused of xenophobia in a situation when:

            – you did not do anything xenophobic
            – you were actively trying to help the accuser and going out of your way because of that
            – the thing that triggered the reaction was completely out of your power (in this case, it was some red tape in the office dealing with his application and we could not influence it in any way)

            does feel awful and unjust, and I indeed consider it playing a victim card.

            I get it that it must be awful to be a victim of a frequent xenophobia, but I do not see it as a free pass to lash out at everyone who does not achieve the results I am expecting. We spent our time helping him fill out his application, gather all the prerequisites needed, and we did it gladly for a fellow person. And now imagine this person at your door accusing you of being xenophobic and harming him because his application was not handled quick enough? It was pretty scary, he did not threaten us physically but was verbally aggressive.

            And to precise – we were not WORKING with him, he was just a neighbor, and it was not a complete lose for him because we did not stop helping him and finished what was left of the process for us to do. So he “won” what he wanted – the citizenship, but after that scene, our interactions went icy cold. Now, our behaviour towards him did change (IDK if he possibly considered it as a confirmation of our “xenophobia”) but it was not because he was a foreigner but because he was such an ass.

              1. Despachito*

                What exactly does it say?

                Until the conflict, it did not occur to us that we could feel toward him differently than to any other neighbor, we were just helping a fellow person in need. We did not do anything that would justify the verbal attack and the accusation.

                1. Jennifer Strange*

                  It says that you’re someone who thinks being accused of bigotry is worse than being a victim of bigotry.

                2. Insert Clever Name Here*


                  Call me crazy, but maybe you could have, I don’t know…been understanding that he was probably under a lot of pressure, potentially fearful of being deported, and likely knew less about the process than you did?

                  But yeah, how dare he not grovel at your feet kissing the very ground you walk on for deigning to help him, amiright?

          2. Lady Danbury*

            This! We all have implicit biases and blind spots that may cause us to commit microaggressions (or macroaggressions) against marginalized people, even people we like and genuinely want to help. And when someone’s automatic reaction to those type of claims is to become defensive and deny the other person’s experience instead of trying to understand why they feel that way, it’s far more likely that they do have problematic blind spots. That type of reaction is the complete opposite of allyship.

        2. pancakes*

          I seriously doubt it was “out of the blue” because of the way you’ve described this. Talking about minorities “playing the victim card” isn’t neutral the way you seem to think it is. Depicting social interactions like these as a game is a very particular view, even if it seems like the default view in your social set and/or the media you consume, and depicting this man as having brought a “hammer” down on you because he wasn’t thoroughly cheerful about your help is a very particular view as well. To be clear, there were no consequences for you as a result of his remarks? Do I have that correct? It seems the only thing that changed in your life is that you ended up having a frostier relationship with this man than you’d hoped to have. The consequences for him included potential deportation, is that correct?

  26. CatPerson*

    By the way, this wasn’t mentioned in Alison’s response but if Bill needs to see a doctor/dermotologist (or even miss work) because of the rash this would be a worker’s comp situation.

  27. Fikly*

    OP, you are engaging in a really common thing people do where you are focused on your intentions, rather than the consequences of your behavior. You need to deal with the consequences, even though they were not what you intended, and own them. Don’t get defensive in your interaction with Fred, and just apologize. Above all, don’t say “I’m sorry that you interpreted this as” because that puts the blame on Fred.

    Consider that perhaps the reason Fred tends to think he’s being accused so often due to racial bias is because, well, that’s his experience. And so the majority of the time Fred gets accused of something, it’s a) false, and b) because of his race and c) the consequences tend to be out of proportion. Can you understand why he’s defensive about anything that might be the least bit accusatory? His job is riding on this.

  28. SnappinTerrapin*

    Kelche seems to be a reasonable person who wants to do his job right. Talking to Fred was prudent, and we have no reason to doubt he was discreet about it.

    It is likely that Fred’s perception of this incident was colored by his experiences with others in management, including the manager who dismissed his concerns. Fred doesn’t know what he doesn’t know about Kelche’s other conversations, and we have no reason to doubt an honest misunderstanding about what was said about talking to other people.

    Kelche has said he agrees that an apology would be a good thing, and he’s right. Kelche has also noted he is dissatisfied with the company’s handling of this situation all around. He seems to be pushing for them to do better. I’m impressed with the way he is handling the situation.

    There are good reasons for people to be emotional about situations where race or gender or other factors might taint rational and ethical handling of work situations. It’s good to see someone conscientiously trying to do the right thing instead of letting his own emotional reaction drive him into being totally defensive.

  29. Raida*

    Much as it feels like saying “I’m so sorry for something I didn’t do” and you’d rather say “I’m so sorry you’re upset by something that I didn’t do” or even “Hey Fred, just because you’re racist doesn’t mean I am, how dare you accuse me of that, you fckn bitch?!”

    It’s more prudent in this instance to go with “I’m sorry you felt targeted.”
    “I don’t know how to prove to you that I mentioned the shoes to other people, or that I wasn’t investigating, or that I believed you when you said it wasn’t you, or that I mentioned it to you because it was a subject you’d raised not long before.
    I’d like for you to be able to accept my apology, and I’d like for my skin colour to not skew your perception of me, but i don’t know how I can help with that.”

    Also – next time you hear about one staff member genuinely interfering with other staffs’ ability to utilise the facilities made available to them by the business, make it clear you’re going to talk to that person’s manager about actually dealing with it. Maybe Fred did do this, maybe Fred did it because when he raised it with a manager they shrugged it off :|

    1. Observer*

      In other words:

      Fred is being a racist baby for “feeling targeted” so, instead of saying so, the OP should say “I’m sorry, not sorry, you feel like something happened”. Because that’s going to go over really well.

      Fred is probably lying about having done this (even though the OP is pretty certain that they know who actually did do it.)

      And that tampering with someone’s clothes or other personal items is a legitimate way to deal with a problem. And that Bill actually deserved to have this happen because he was keeping people from using the room.

      By the way, the OP is actually not Fred’s manager, and doesn’t seem to have the authority to”deal” with Bill’s issue.

      1. HCW*


        Alison’s original language is going to be a lot more helpful than ““I’m sorry you felt targeted.”

        “I’m sorry you felt __” consistently reads as a non-apology and is not going to help repair anything.

  30. Hey there*

    It is horrifying that this workplace allows an employee to be targeted and physically hurt by other employees. That is beyond messed up.

  31. LittleMarshmallow*

    So I thought this was going to be about Bills feelings. But no… Bill who was actually hurt doesn’t seem to be of concern while this random guy who supposedly didn’t do it is all butt hurt because the EHS person asked them about it.

    I know the gut reaction when someone says they think they’re being racially profiled is to just apologize but this to me is one of the few times when I don’t feel it’s warranted. Fred should’ve been questioned as part of an incident investigation and needs to get over it (the over the top reaction actually just makes me think he’s guilty even more – misdirection). I do think that Fred shouldn’t be the only one questioned. Seems like there needs to be a more formal investigation and someone needs to sit down with Fred and tell him that being questioned after an incident is a normal part of this type of investigation and that others will also be questioned as needed and that of course his cooperation is expected and appreciated. And LW should question others. It worries me that there’s not more concern about Bill and making sure this never happens to him again.

    One could argue a blanket “don’t touch your coworkers stuff” could suffice here but in my experience dealing with behavior issues in manufacturing, the one(s) that need to hear the message rarely do when delivered generically like that.

    1. Nameless in Customer Service*

      (the over the top reaction actually just makes me think he’s guilty even more – misdirection).

      would you think this if Fred hadn’t been described as a POC?

      1. Required_name*

        If Fred hadn’t been described as a POC the response would have been unanimous that he’s being ridiculous.

        1. Jennifer Strange*

          Yes, because him being a POC (and having had previous complaints of racism shrugged off) are important details to the situation.

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