my mentor falsely accused someone of sexism on my behalf without my knowledge

A reader writes:

I recently moved into a senior leadership role at my organization, which was a big jump for me. To help me get acclimated to the role, our CEO assigned me a mentor, Jane. She’s someone I’ve known and respected for a few years, although sometimes she strikes me as kind of a gossip, but she has a lot of institutional knowledge so I figured I could glean some helpful insights from her. We’ve been meeting once a month or so for informal chats.

This new role has been more challenging than I expected and I’ve also had a lot of difficult things going on in my personal life. In the midst of a really tumultuous week, I made some mistakes on a project, which were caught by our VP, Bill. The mistakes were caught early enough that they didn’t have much of an impact on anything, but Bill was obviously annoyed with me. It was upsetting for me because I’m used to being a very high achiever and it’s not like me to make mistakes at work. I also felt like I’d lost a lot of credibility with Bill.

A couple days later, I had a check-in with Jane. I mentioned I’d had a really rough week and told her about what had happened with Bill. She reassured me that I shouldn’t take it personally and that Bill can be kind of a jerk. She also said she sometimes thought Bill treated women differently and mentioned some other women who had issues with him, suggesting that was going on here as well. I was surprised to hear that, but said it was interesting and maybe she was right.

I worked really hard to redeem myself with Bill and things also calmed down a bit in my personal life, and I realized I’d overreacted about the situation with him in a way that I wouldn’t normally have if so many things hadn’t been going on.

I’d put it behind me, but then this morning our CEO, Melinda, asked to meet with me. She said that Jane had told her that I felt like Bill was treating me badly because I was a woman, and that she (Melinda) had been in touch with HR to start the process of filing a grievance against Bill. The way Melinda presented it, it sounds like Jane told her this as though I had come up with it myself and complained to her about it, which I absolutely did not. I would never have even considered that gender had anything to do with it if Jane hadn’t brought it up first.

I was horrified and told Melinda that I didn’t think that at all and that it was Jane who had suggested it, not me, and that I absolutely did not want to file a grievance against Bill. She reassured me that HR hadn’t started an investigation yet and she would tell them not to move forward but encouraged me to come to her if I ever had any issues with sexism in our very male-dominated field, no matter how minor it seemed.

I’m really upset this happened and have no idea how to move forward. I’m worried Melinda now looks at me differently because of this. I don’t even know what I would do if it got back to Bill that I thought he treated me badly because I’m a woman. He’s highly respected and I feel like it would reflect poorly on me if people thought I was accusing him of sexism. I’ve completely lost trust in Jane and feel like I made a huge mistake confiding in her when I know that she tends to gossip. Do I bring this up with her or just make sure I’m careful about what I say to her in the future? What if she’s been telling other people about this as well? Should I follow up with HR to make sure they know I’m not accusing Bill? How do I recover my credibility with Melinda? Moving into this role has been hard enough as it is and I’m just devastated that this has happened.

This is almost certainly not as big of a deal for you as you’re worried it is.

That’s not to say that it’s okay that Jane misrepresented what you said. It’s not! But misunderstandings happen, you cleared it up, and it’s very unlikely that this has harmed your credibility with Melinda.

There’s no reason you can’t address it with Jane, though. You could say, “Melinda told me that you told her I felt Bill was treating me differently because I’m a woman. I was really taken aback by that, because I didn’t say that to you when we spoke. How did you end up telling her that?”

To be fair, it’s possible that Jane genuinely misunderstood you. You only told her that maybe she was right about what had happened between you and Bill, but for someone who’s already concerned about a pattern of sexism from him, I could see her mentally adding you to her list of people Bill had mistreated without realizing she needed to clarify whether or not you actually saw it that way. And if she genuinely believed it, she might have had an obligation to escalate it (particularly if she’s a manager, which does obligate her to report discrimination if she becomes aware of it). Now, obviously if that was the case, she should have let you know she planned to do that — but who knows, maybe she was making a broader complaint to Melinda about Bill that didn’t focus on you, but included you on a longer list of people she’d seen affected. (She still should have alerted you that she was going to do that! But this might have gone differently than what you’re picturing.)

In any case, it’s reasonable to ask her about it, and it’s reasonable to say, “Please don’t make complaints on my behalf, especially without looping me in. I don’t want to have another situation where a misunderstanding leads to something being reported on my behalf that I don’t agree with.”

You can also say, “Have you mentioned this to anyone else? I want to correct the record with them if so.”

Since Melinda said she’d follow up with HR to make sure they know you don’t have concerns about Bill, I don’t think you need to follow up with them yourself, although you can if you want to. It wouldn’t be weird to do that if you prefer to, and it sounds like it might bring you more peace of mind.

But yes, you should be careful about what you say to Jane in the future. At a minimum, she’s shown she’s prone to misunderstanding what you say and then acting on it in ways you object to. Combine that with the fact that you already thought she was a gossip, and it doesn’t make sense to treat her as a trusted confidant in any way.

I do want to say … it’s possible that Bill really does have a record of treating women differently. Jane’s behavior here doesn’t preclude that. That’s not something you need to sort out and it doesn’t change how you should proceed, but keep in mind that it’s possible for Jane to have flubbed this specific incident but still be right about the larger pattern.

Relatedly, if people did hear you had reported sexism from Bill … obviously you don’t want that to happen since it’s not correct, but it’s also not a disaster for you if that did happen. Sometimes something looks like bias when it’s not, and it’s better to bring those things to the surface so they can be examined than not to do that, even if it turns out there was nothing there. Again, of course you don’t want people saying that when it didn’t happen, but you sound like you’re having a really strong reaction to the idea that someone might think that. Generally, when you’ve been able to set the record straight, the fact that there was an initial misunderstanding would be more on the “aggravating but not devastating” end of the spectrum — but you’re saying “devastating” so I think that’s worth looking at.

I wonder if you’re thinking of “hey, this feels like there could be gender bias going on” as a massive, career-destroying thing to say about someone — but it’s normally not, and if people see it that way, the barrier to reporting potential discrimination will get even higher. (It will also make people a lot more defensive if someone raises those questions about their actions, when what we want is for them to feel it’s safe to listen with an open mind and think about ways they could do better.)

Read updates to this letter here and here.

{ 254 comments… read them below }

  1. Not A Manager*

    I personally wouldn’t have that conversation with Jane. Jane sounds like someone with her own agenda, who hears what she wants to hear, and I’d be very concerned that pushing back could lead to much more drama and tumult. I’d just pull way back from her professionally from now on.

    1. Dovasary Balitang*

      I don’t think it’s fair to title a manager reporting what she interprets to be an incident of workplace sexism committed against her direct report as “having an agenda”.

      1. KatEnigma*

        LW is NOT her direct report. Jane is a “mentor” but since LW is now senior leadership, it usually would be that Jane is an equal or slightly above LW, just with more experience. Not someone who has any authority over her at all!

        1. MauvaisePomme*

          This is a really important distinction! I was assigned a mentee at my work who’s early career, and she has confided in me in-depth about her unreasonable manager and his inconsistent behavior with different members of the team. The idea of violating her confidentiality by sharing her venting with ANYONE else at the company is horrifying to me. Confidentiality is so core to a functioning mentor/mentee relationship.

          Obviously, I would feel obligated to report anything really, really egregious or illegal, but what Jane was hearing does not rise to that level. Even when a direct report I had a couple of years ago was being treated disrespectfully by a racist organizational partner, I let her know every step of the way how I was handling it BEFORE I acted so I didn’t blindside her or compound her distress and discomfort. Even if she had the best of intentions, Jane really fumbled things here.

          1. AD*

            I think you’re spot on, and regardless of whether or not Bill actually does have a history of treating women differently in the workplace (we can’t confirm that as readers), Jane’s tactlessness means that I would give her a wide berth if she was my mentor. There’s some trust that was broken here.

      2. Falling Diphthong*

        I’d say the norm in those cases is to follow the employee’s lead. And this isn’t even “Employee thinks this was -ism, but would prefer not to make a fuss because blowback.” It’s “Employee thinks this was random jerkiness, manager thinks it was an -ism, employee is surprised by that interpretation.”

        Marching into battle on behalf of someone who didn’t ask you to do that is fraught. (Not always wrong. But not always helpful to that person, either.) Marching into battle on someone else’s behalf when they don’t even agree with your interpretation of what happened to them is sufficiently out there to suggest the battler has an agenda and has found a bystander on whom to stand while enacting it.

        1. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

          If an employee reports sexual harassment to me, I have to report it. I think that is likely true for any reports of my same-level colleagues. I also have a little trouble viewing an “agenda” of not wanting sexist VPs as something nefarious. She overreached here, but LW could have been clearer that she didn’t think it was sexism.

          1. KatEnigma*

            Do you know what’s really sexist?

            Deciding that a woman is too delicate/ignorant/etc to decide for herself what is or isn’t harassment to them, and taking away her agency!

            1. Saddy Hour*

              I mean, sure. You know what else is sexist? Allowing sexist behavior to continue when you know it’s happening and could step in. It’s a pretty fine line to walk and I’m not sure there’s a black-and-white “right” answer like some people seem to believe.

              1. MassMatt*

                Even if it was absolutely true that the manager was being sexist, it’s up to the adult victim to decide what if anything to do about it, not someone that person confides in.

                It could be that the victim doesn’t want to suffer repercussions from reporting even truly egregious behavior—tales of victims/whistleblowers suffering damage to their careers is long. It’s not a decision anyone but the person involved should make.

                It’s sad that victims that report bad behavior are sometimes the ones that suffer, but a) that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, and b) that doesn’t mean a confidant gets to make the decision to file a complaint second-hand.

                1. Michelle Smith*

                  Actually that’s not correct where I live. We get trained extensively every year on our obligations to report sexual harassment and any other discrimination we see. It can create legal liability for the organization if we know it’s happening and don’t do anything.

                  We are literally obligated to report, period, the end or we could lose our jobs, despite not being the harasser or the victim.

              2. redflagday701*

                I feel like not informing a colleague, even a junior colleague, that you’re going to open a complaint with HR on their behalf is a pretty clear breach, irrespective of any considerations of sexism. There are times when a manager or senior employee needs to report something they’re told, but even if this had been one of those times, Jane needed to say something to OP, because she was speaking for her.

                1. redflagday701*

                  Oops, sorry, I’m rereading and realizing it was Melinda who was going to go to HR, not Jane, which is reasonable — especially since Melinda did indeed talk to OP first. Yeah, it’s easy to see a situation where Jane spoke to Melinda about this out of larger concern about a pattern with Bill, and the wires got crossed over how much OP was affirming Jane’s explanation for Bill’s behavior. And I do think Jane was right to mention it to Melinda, even if those wires did get crossed, and that Melinda was right to speak to OP about it.

                2. GreenDoor*

                  There are some workplaces (like mine – government) where people at a certain level are mandated to report things as a condition of their own employment. I’ve had to do that, but I always have a confidential conversation with the victim/accuser/etc. to say, “I will try and keep this as confidential as I can but I am mandated to report this.” I tell them who I’m reporting it to and what that process will look like so they know what to expect. And then if there’s a way that I can give them options that enable them to maintain at least some autonomy in the situation, I’ll do that – things like inviting them to attach a personal statement, or encouraging them to make a formal complaint of their own, or ask if they’d like some type of workplace accommodation to feel safer, etc. But it’s a jerky thing to report it without even disclosing to that you’re going to.

            2. Sheila*

              That’s…the law though?

              I get that Jane overreacted here, but as a manager, if I hear a credible, substantial report of sexual discrimination, the company is required to stop it, and since I know about it and am a manager of people, I am required to put those wheels in motion. It doesn’t really matter what the person speaking to me about it wants. It’s also the company’s job to make sure there is no blow-back, so the company wouldn’t really be able to use the LW’s fears of blow-back or consequences or being shunned by her peers as a justification for accepting her choice to endure it.

              1. alienor*

                Exactly. The training I take every year as a manager is very explicit that if an employee informs me about sexual discrimination/harassment, I’m required to report it. I am not allowed to promise the employee that I won’t say anything, that the harasser won’t be disciplined, or that they’re guaranteed anonymity. I completely understand why people would want to just tell someone what happened to get it off their chest/have a record of it without launching a full investigation, but that’s just not how this works, at least where I live.

            3. Ollie*

              Considering the LW is in senior leadership I’m pretty sure she is neither delicate nor ignorant. Jane should have discussed it with her and let her do the reporting if she felt it was necessary. It’s not like the LW was a just out of school entry level employee.

            4. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Keep in mind that managers can be required to report harassment or discrimination, regardless of whether the target wants them to, because they represent the company and the company has a legal obligation to investigate those incidents. So in many cases the person in Jane’s shoes wouldn’t have had a choice.

          2. Pippa K*

            Yeah, I can see a scenario where I as the mentor would really need to (not just want to) report this. Example: Sarah, my junior colleague, tells me about an interaction with Louis, who is senior to both of us. Sounds like sexism to me, but Sarah hasn’t seen it that way. The reason it sounds like sexism to me is that I’ve worked with Louis a long time and he’s got a record of egregious sexism. The reason it doesn’t to Sarah is that she hasn’t encountered this before, and you know, sometimes it takes seeing a pattern to make something clear. But when we talk, she says “yeah, maybe I wasn’t spotting the sexism.”

            So I tell my department chair, “hey, sounds like Louis is at it again. We’ve really got to stop him doing this to the women here.” And finally, because it’s Louis’s XVIth time at this rodeo, it gets passed along to HR. My chair and I have acted in good faith, but at each step further from Sarah, the next hearer isn’t as clear that it’s not Sarah reporting this and asking for HR intervention.

            This isn’t meant to be fan fiction – I can just see several ways in which LW ends up in this position without anyone else acting in bad faith. Of course she has every right to clarify that she never wanted to make a report. But she’s also asking about her relationship with Jane and others, so if the situation is something like this, that might affect whether she feels she can trust Jane, etc.

            1. MassMatt*

              The scenario you wrote ends with you and Sarah vindicated and Louis finally punished.

              What if Louis is a rainmaker, or the CEO’s son-in-law, and this simply winds up as #XVII incident in Louis’ file whereas Sarah gets sidelined and drummed out of their entire industry as a troublemaker?

              1. Pippa K*

                Oh believe me when I say I know very well that “reporting to HR” is not at all the same as “getting an acceptable outcome” or “solving the problem.” The letter’s focused on how a conversation turned into someone else taking it to HR, so that’s what I was addressing. The possibility of blowback from the HR report is an entirely different and deeply infuriating subject of its own. (And part of the reason people can be reluctant to name misconduct in reportable terms. Call it the “I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way” adaptation.)

          3. mreasy*

            Yeah, this is the case with all management in my role – we have to report any discriminatory behavior regardless of the employee’s view. Jane handled this incorrectly but the reporting itself isn’t the problem, I think.

            1. Relentlessly Socratic*

              Same, and it doesn’t matter whether that person is *my* report, as a manager I am obligated to report (and if I keep it to myself I can be held liable). So, I am not outraged at Jane.

              As Pippa lays out, there are possibly known issues behind the scene that do not necessarily veer into fan fiction.

              Source: I am a woman in a typically male dominated industry, and the sexism frequently, not always but frequently, is real.

      3. Mae*

        But Jane was reporting on behalf of the OP, without OP’s knowledge, and then Jane informed Melinda that it was the OP who’d brought up the situation as such to Jane, which wasn’t true.

        Sounds like an agenda on Jane’s part to me.

      4. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        I agree. We don’t know her motivation for escalating this.
        All we know are her actions. In OP’s case, it was an overreaction. It indicates bad judgment. Speaking on behalf of OP without consent from OP is infantilizing as well as incorrect.
        Jane could have gone to HR and said, “I was told Bill said and did X to OP. This seems like a pattern to me. I witnessed similar treatment of Mary, Jean and Bess, but never Tom, Dick and Harry.”
        She chose not to. Bad judgment. Especially with the information about liking gossip.
        My money is on salacious over political.

        1. Anonny*

          The fact that she didn’t loop OP in suggests she wants to be the ‘hero’ of this incident. Like, she may be right about Bill being sexist, but the way she went about it seems more like the actual impact of the whole thing on those affected wasn’t her top priority.

          1. MassMatt*

            That’s a key thing. If you ARE a mandatory reporter, you don’t keep that secret from the person confiding in you.

            It might well be that Jane just doesn’t like Bill. Bill might be a jerk. He might be very sexist. But OP says this whole accusatory vibe was coming from Jane, not her, though the people brought in seem to think otherwise.

      5. L-squared*

        I mean it does sound like an agenda. She put the idea of sexism in her head, then went to HR on her behalf without telling her. Just because you may want to believe what was said about Bill, doesn’t mean she doesn’t have an agenda going on.

        1. Office Lobster DJ*

          I wasn’t clear that Jane did go to HR. I read it as Jane went to Melinda (CEO) and Melinda went to HR to start a grievance process on LW’s behalf.

        2. I am Emily's failing memory*

          Yeah, it sounds to me like Jane may have just related the anecdote to Melinda in passing, because: she’s a gossip and “latest example of that guy’s misdeeds” struck her as a juicier conversation topic than “so here are those TPS reports.” It was Melinda who then put on her “I’m the CEO and I have a legal obligation not to let harassment fester at the company I’m in charge of” hat and began getting her ducks in a row to have HR formally investigate, and giving LW a courtesy heads up was one of those ducks.

      6. Jodi*

        I don’t think it’s fair to let one’s personal biases frame how one interprets a conversation either. Complaints like this can be career ending.

      7. Ellis Bell*

        I don’t know if I’d call it “having an agenda”, but she’s certainly gone with her own preexisting judgement instead of really listening to what’s being said. Sometimes that can have the same outcome as if you did have an agenda.

    2. Mf*

      I agree with this. I think Jane meant well but at the very least, she’s proven to be a poor listener. Since she reported this without asking the OP first, we can also conclude her judgment is questionable. That makes her the wrong person to confide in.

    3. JSPA*

      I’d instead say,

      “I wanted to circle back on the Bill thing. Given what you told me about his past patterns, I made an effort to look at our interactions through the lens of sexism.

      But it frankly wasn’t very convincing.

      In retrospect, Bill did nothing to cause my bad week. He was direct and clear in correcting a couple of pretty substantive mistakes, and he has been decent about it all, since then. I was beating myself up for the mistakes, but that would have been the case regardless of who caught them, and how.

      HR recently came to me by way of gathering information for a grievence against him, which I assume is something you launched on my behalf. I had to tell them that really, at this point, I’ve got nothing at all, and no intention of filing.

      I will continue to be on the lookout, in case that changes.

      More generally, as I do have a perfectionist streak, I’ll make sure not to unload general frustrations on you, until I’ve had time to sit with them, and digest whether anything anyone is doing feels directed, mean-spirited, or biased. Or, as in this case, whether life is just being temporarily upsetting, without it being anyone’s fault.”

      Look…my guess is that she wants him gone (for past sins, for present sins against somebody else, for bad blood between the two of them, or a garden-variety power struggle. It wasn’t necessarily even a neutral act for you to be placed with her as a mentor. In a deeply dysfunctional work place, new people can sometimes be deployed as a sort of lure, in the expectation of eliciting bad behavior in someone they’d like to see gone (but could not possibly fire).

      So be professional to everybody be nice to everybody and save your gossip for your diary (to become a juicy tell-all book?) until you’re clearer on the lay of the land and the invisible strings connecting the power players.

    4. Michelle Smith*

      I wouldn’t have that specific conversation, but I would say something like “hey Melinda pulled me in to talk about what happened with Bill a few weeks ago and I wanted to let you know that I’m not moving forward with a complaint. Bill and I have a good working relationship now and I don’t feel like I’m being treated unfairly. I just wanted to let you know!” If I was really worried and needed to make sure Jane is placated, I’d add some lie like “Thanks for looking out for me though!”

      1. LW*

        I really like this suggestion! I haven’t decided if I want to say anything to Jane yet but if I do I think something along these lines would be good

  2. Aarti*

    “And if she genuinely believed it, she might have had an obligation to escalate it (particularly if she’s a manager, which does obligate her to report discrimination if she becomes aware of it)”

    I am sure this is part of it. It is literally outlined in my training that as a manager I am expected to report and be above reproach.

    1. MigraineMonth*

      This was my take as well. It sounds like Jane brought up the sexism angle because it fits with a pattern of sexist behavior from Bill. Given that this is a male-dominated field, those biased patterns are probably the norm instead of the exception. When OP said that might be true, Jane may have felt a duty to escalate.

      Did she handle it well? No. She should have listened better, made sure she was accurately reporting what OP said, and let OP know what she was doing. But I don’t think it was malicious, and there’s a certain power in knowing that Jane has your back 100% on this issue if you do need to escalate to HR in the future. Until then, though, I wouldn’t tell Jane anything you don’t want repeated (possibly inaccurately).

      1. YeppyYeps*

        Yeah, it is more likely OP is panicking here about something that maybe she would need to explore in herself?

        For example: I work in a very male dominated industry also doing a job in said industry that is almost exclusively done by males (its changing, but slowly).

        Young me would have freaked out much like OP did here in regards to this happening. Why? because when I was lower on the food chain, this would have caused intense blow-back/fear of my “reputation”.

        Fast forward to me now: When Jane would have mentioned this to me, slight gossip or not, it would make me question the response form this guy in a new light. My focus wouldn’t be so much that there was a response from him, but rather do males elicit this level of response from him. And to me, that is what Jane is picking up on. Now, Jane did handle it a little poorly, but also, this could have been, like Alison states, part of a broader conversation that OP got casually looped into, but HR still wanted to ask her about the interaction.

        You see, just because you are Ok with how someone treated you in a specific incident, doesn’t mean that behavior isn’t an import part of telling the entire store of someone’s problematic behavior. In other words, they have been looking at TRENDS in this man’s behavior to prove a broader, over arching issue he has towards women.

        Sometimes, these levels of explanation do get lost in translation also. Jane says “yeah he also recently had xyz interaction with OP” and HR is like “Ok we should talk to OP to see if he did actually do xyz” which then got translated through the CEO as “We are investigating this man and we will be filing your complaint”. Never assume you are not the victim of some ridiculous telephone game.

        OP, I recommend that you figure out where this level of fear and concern is coming from before you approach your mentor about this.

        1. Maglev No Longer to Crazytown*

          I have killed to have had a mentor like Jane at points in my career, which has all been in a male dominated field (to the point I have frequently been the only woman in a very large meeting). At one point in my career, I got fired for reporting a male manager harassing and physically threatening myself and an underling. I had no management to take up for me, because my (woman) manager couldn’t take the treatment anymore and just decided to walk one day without notice. I ended up inheriting direct reports. When my female direct reports and myself were nearly attacked, honestly if it had been just me, I would have let it slide so I could keep my head down until I could get a new job lined up (and then no-notice walk like my former boss)… but since it affected someone else I felt responsible for, I reported to HR. And ended up getting walked by the male HR director for “not fitting the culture” in an at will state. I will NEVER regret what I did.

          Maybe Jane misread the specific situation, and it is very possible she has seen or experienced that behavior from male colleagues and was genuinely concerned.

      1. g*

        Yep. That, and twisting things around to make it look like the OP brought up sexism in the first place.

      2. MassMatt*

        Right, IMO this really destroys the trust necessary for a mentoring relationship, which should end. How can OP a confide in Jane about things after this? OP already thought Jane was a gossip, this just proves it.

        1. Kevin Sours*

          Something one of my mentors once said: “When you divulge something told to you in confidence, people stop telling you things in confidence”.

          I think about that a lot.

        2. allathian*

          Yes, exactly this. I don’t think the LW would be out of bounds to tell both Jane and Melinda that she no longer wants to be Jane’s mentee.

  3. Not Tom, Just Petty*

    Follow up question: OP should not discuss this with Bill, correct?
    He hasn’t been informed that this complaint almost started and was shut down, so don’t go there?

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        Specifically, Jane and Bill both seem rather prone to drama and overinterpreting things, so you should probably not go to one of them to tell them the other one went to HR about them.

        1. Falling Diphthong*

          … Unless the resulting furor is intended as cover for OP pulling off some sort of daring Leverage-esque caper involving air vents.

        2. RagingADHD*

          Where are you getting that Bill is prone to drama and overinterpreting things? All we have here is that Bill was briefly annoyed with LW because he had to catch mistakes she made in a project.

          He didn’t do anything. He was just annoyed. And the LW said that after she calmed down, she believed she was the one overreacting to the situation.

          Jane is the one doing all the drama and overinterpreting. And the only indication that Bill might show bias is from Jane, who can’t be trusted to keep the LW’s confidences, and undermines the LW’s agency.

          Even if Jane were 100% correct that Bill is a sexist jerk, and has a long history of discriminatory behavior, and Jane were obligated to report it…*you don’t do that behind someone’s back!*

          Going to HR without asking LW (or at least informing her if there was an obligation to report) was a major overstep. The nature of discrimination is that it undermines people and takes away their power. You don’t fix that by undermining them even more in reporting it.

      2. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        I thought so. I’m really not trying to be a drama llama here.
        I want to be sure, Bill does not know anything about this. So there is nothing to straighten out.

        1. Relentlessly Socratic*

          If HR wasn’t (yet) pulled in as stated in the letter, then Bill is not in the loop on this.

    1. Venus*

      I might be tempted to check in with Bill about the original problem to say that hopefully my more recent work has been of better quality and to try and smooth out the relationship but I would have done that irrelevant of saying something to Jane and everything that happened as a result.

      1. MsM*

        If Bill’s acting like the problem’s been resolved, I don’t think there’s much benefit to OP to bringing it up again. At best, it’s unnecessary. At worst, it might annoy him, or prime him to be more critical on the next go-round since OP doesn’t seem entirely confident that things are better.

  4. Lacey*

    I had a friend like this. She would often tell people I’d said a thing or held an opinion that I’d never expressed, but that happened to align perfectly with her own thoughts.

    She clearly didn’t realize how far she’d departed from the truth, because half the time I learned about what she’d told people from her and I’d have to say, “But I don’t think that, please stop telling people I do”

    I doubt Melinda meant to do anything bad to the LW, but the LW should definitely be careful what they say to her.

    1. Ellis Bell*

      I know someone like this too. It’s like she’s a weaver and every thought you hand her is a piece of thread, but it’s going to get put into a pattern she’s already planned, or is making up on the spot into a shape she likes best. Even when you directly tackle her in the moment on literal facts, she finds it hard to understand that she should not be weaving an interpretation.

      1. g*

        Same here. I worked with someone who loved to be the star of everyone else’s show, and if like me you didn’t cooperate, she set about gaining sympathy using crocodile tears and ruining reputations. I left partly because of it.

        Jane sucks.

      2. Celeste*

        I love this analogy. My sisters are like this. I’m always hearing about things I supposedly said (and phrased as direct quotes, not just generalizations, which particularly irks me). I can try to set the records straight, but if what I say doesn’t fit the pattern they’ve settled on, it goes nowhere.

  5. EBStarr*

    > Relatedly, if people did hear you had reported sexism from Bill … obviously you don’t want that to happen since it’s not correct, but it’s also not a disaster for you if that did happen.

    I also noticed that OP seemed REALLY anxious about the possibility of anyone ever thinking she had accused someone of bias. I sort of read it as someone who’s spent a long time in a male-dominated field and may have absorbed the views of the people around her that being accused of sexism is worse/more painful than being the target of it — and thus, that accusing someone of sexism without a stack of courtroom-level evidence is a grave offense. Obviously I’m sure it IS painful for anyone to hear that they’ve acted in a biased way, but the pain comes from the uncomfortable discovery about oneself, it’s not inflicted by the victim. Narratives that center male feelings (or, in the case of racism, white feelings) tend to forget this.

    Some people survive being a woman in a male-dominated field by simply not letting themselves examine various toxic behavior too closely, because fighting it takes energy you need to spend proving your skills are 10% better than the men around you so you can get 90% of the respect. (Not everyone! But I’ve definitely noticed this pattern with some of my female friends who were successful in finance, particularly.)

    1. bamcheeks*

      This is exactly what I was thinking. LW, I would examine this reflex– your working culture cannot meaningfully address sexism if you think that you have “lost credibility” because the possibility of BILL being sexist has been discussed. This should be a reputational risk for Bill, not for you.

      In particular, as you are in a senior leadership way, you should be thinking about this from what behaviour you are modelling to women in the organisation beneath you. As a senior leader, you should be to open to discussions of sexism and other types of bias, and committed to protecting anyone who makes such a charge. I think you will find that hard to do if you are so horrified by the idea of anyone naming you as a victim of sexist bias, and it would be a good idea to examine that reflex and think about whether it’s something you need to work on.

    2. hbc*

      Yeah, I 100% stand by OP’s right to not pursue anything and to decide for herself that Bill’s behavior towards her is okay. I personally would not file a grievance in that situation either.

      However, that doesn’t mean that Bill doesn’t actually have a pattern of discrimination…say, showing major annoyance towards women for minor mistakes and giving a reassuring pep talk to men. Since both annoyance and reassurance are reasonable reactions by a manager, no individual might feel like there was anything wrong with the way they were treated.

      I think the major mistake here was that there is a recognized/suspected *pattern* of disparate treatment that they tried to address through only one person. You can’t hold up the last straw by itself and expect people to believe the camel was overloaded.

      1. brjeau*

        “You can’t hold up the last straw by itself and expect people to believe the camel was overloaded.”
        This is such a good way to phrase it, thank you! Definitely gonna keep that one in my back pocket

    3. Ellis Bell*

      Possibly! Its definitely common for women to worry too much about men’s comfort. I will say though, that the context of OP feeling mortified about her mistakes with Bill is probably an additional driver of her anxiety here. If you’ve already accepted that you dropped the ball, you don’t want to seem dismissive of the feedback, or to be making excuses on top of that. It’s possible that OP would have still been anxious had the alleged bias from Jane been “doesn’t recognise her excellence”, but it’s just so much worse when her mistake about the bias is also related to work mistakes which make her wince.

    4. Well...*

      Can I come at this from a slightly different angle?

      It could be that this kind of accusation really does have more sever blowback on LW than actual, real sexism. LW might not be internalizing the morality floating around in her male-dominated field (for example, the moral stance that it’s worse to make a false accusation than to discriminate) but is instead well-aware of the practical consequences in her male-dominated field.

      LW could truly be devastated by how dangerous this is for her career. Of course I’d love to live in a world where we are free to call-out bias without being 100% correct, but at least in my field, that is a very, very dangerous limb to go out on, and I’ve seen careers ruined over actual, credible accusations.

      1. Well...*

        To be clear: I’ve seen careers of the people who raised complaints ruined. It’s rare to see the bad actor’s career ruined unless he like, gets noticed by Buzzfeed or something.

        1. EBStarr*

          No, that’s a great point! I read LW’s anxiety as seeming like she feels guilty, but it’s possible she’s just anxious about retaliation.

          1. Well...*

            it sounds like she is anxious about consequences for her reputation based on her comments.

      2. Caramel & Cheddar*

        Receiving severe blow back for making an accusation of sexism is still actual, real sexism. It absolutely could ruin her career, but that’s a feature of the sexism, not separate from it.

        1. EBStarr*

          100% agree with that statement! I mentioned above that I read LW as feeling guilty more than afraid – but I may have misread.

        2. Well...*

          My point is that LW had a reason to be more afraid of the blowback than be worried about consequences for the dude in question.

          Obviously it’s sexist to punish people who raise complaints, but women can be aware of that and strategically navigate it without being on board with that sexist attitude.

      3. Celeste*

        I were the LW, I wouldn’t want to get into a crying wolf situation. If people think I’ve made an accusation, I want it to be something I really believe and can stand behind. I would be very distressed about this too.

        However, I do not think her credibility with Melinda has been harmed at all, and I think she can move on from this just fine.

    5. LW*

      LW here – thank you for this comment. It really got me thinking about where my discomfort is coming from in this. I think it’s not only that I’m a woman in a male-dominated field, but also younger than most of my leadership colleagues by probably a good 10-15 years and brand new to this role, and all of that considered, I want people to look at me and think “yes, here is a competent person who’s good at her job.” Not “be careful of LW over there, you have to treat her with kid gloves. All Bill did was rightly point out she messed up and she freaked out and started a sexism case against him.” But I think there’s something to what you’ve said as well.

      1. Well...*

        I think these are very valid concerns, and it’s okay for you to be concerned about your reputation. Depending on your situation, people might indeed act that way.

      2. Quinalla*

        Yes, that makes a lot of sense especially since you feel you overreacted to the feedback yourself. It is VERY hard to be young woman especially and have any hope of being viewed as competent in a male-dominated field. As a woman in a male-dominated field who is now mid-40s, getting older has been really nice for mitigating some of the assumed not-competent that you are dealing with all the time.

        If you DO run into sexism, it is ok to call it out for sure, but like me you probably pick your battles. I think we all do. Somedays I just don’t have the energy to deal with the potential fall-out, but generally I do try to kindly call it out or point it out when I see it as my male colleagues do want to get it right.

    6. Boolie*

      I agree sadly. As a woman in such a position, I have seen that some men have no qualms voicing aloud their exasperation towards #MeToo and the like. It makes it difficult to rebut against especially when my own emotion would show through.

  6. Aunt Bee’s Pickles*

    I’m amazed how both the LW and the response seem to completely gloss over the impact a false sexism allegation would have on Bill. LW seems only concerned with how it would affect people’s view of her, and the response seems to be that a false allegation is really no big deal.

    1. Pool Noodle Barnacle Pen0s*

      There’s no evidence that what Jane says is actually false. OP just had no intention of escalating it as a sexism complaint. The issue is that Jane reported Jane’s experience to HR without her knowledge or consent.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        There’s no evidence here that it’s true, either. There’s no direct evidence either way. There is, however, evidence that Jane either misread or misstated something that wasn’t necessarily hers to share.

      2. surprisedcannuk*

        There’s no evidence that bill is not an alien. Does Bill need to prove he’s not sexist. Obviously no.

    2. Looper*

      I don’t feel the response did gloss over it. I feel Alison gave a great perspective on how potential issues of sexist bias should be handled. If an employee has an experience that leaves them unsteady or doesn’t seem fair or appropriate, it’s not on the employee to investigate every possible reason before going to HR. It is on HR to determine the nature of the issue, the causes, and the outcome. Someone can be acting with bias and not be aware, so unless someone points it out and there is an intervention to correct the behavior, it will just continue. This is not a court of law, this is a workplace with many dynamics and needs at play. Jane has worked with this man for a long time and has noticed a pattern. If there is no intended malice and Bill is open and listening, everyone wins in the end. Bill isn’t being charged with a crime, he is getting professional feedback.

      1. ecnaseener*

        Yeah, I don’t understand the whole “hypothetically this could impact Bill” thing because there’s no hypothetical. It happened. The report was made, HR and Melinda did their job well in going to the alleged victim to see what she had to say about it, LW said she hasn’t seen evidence of sexism, they said ok great thanks. This is a system working well.

        1. Hiring Mgr*

          If I hadn’t done anything sexist, yet was reported to HR for having done something sexist, I would still be pretty upset about that even if the complaint was dismissed.

          Wouldn’t you feel the same if someone thought you were embezzling, and made a formal complaint about it?

          1. bamcheeks*

            Sure, but — get over it. Part of the responsibility of senior leadership roles is being open to challenge, and you put your feelings second to creating an open and accountable culture where people can raise issues and whistleblow without experiencing repercussions or having to be 100% sure that every piece of evidence is in place.

          2. Sandy*

            Your feelings are yours to manage and you are entitled to them. But they do not mean that you are entitled never to be accused of anything that turns out to be false. If someone notices a pattern of behaviour from you that fits with embezzlement and reports that, leading to an investigation which clears you, the reporter did not do anything wrong.

            1. Littorally*

              Well said.

              Obviously, false accusations are generally not great and should, to the best of everyone’s collective ability, be avoided when possible. But in the choice between flagging a potentially concerning pattern that’s not 100% proven and staying mum about a potentially concerning pattern that’s not 100% disproven, better to flag than not. Let the investigation be done.

              In a way, I think it says a lot that it seems to be universally accepted that being the subject of an ongoing whisper campaign of “Stay clear of [Dude], he’s awful to women” is absolutely okay, but an open investigation of Dude’s conduct is a death sentence regardless of the outcome. As though it’s absolutely okay for women to feel Dude is a danger, but if they make any of the men sit up and take note, it’s all over.

          3. K8T*

            I mean but ostensibly no one outside of LW, HR, Melinda & Jane even know about the situation. I can’t imagine they would’ve told Bill about this before getting an actual statement and if they did, then HR needs to handle it. If he knows about it of course he can feel upset – but that’s not the point of the letter.
            And to your point – if someone made an incorrect complaint about me embezzling then I would go through every one of my actions to see why someone would think I did it – because clearly it came from somewhere.

          4. AY*

            No one likes to be caught up in “the system,” but it seems like this system here works exactly as it’s supposed to.

            I represent state elected officials. My clients tend to draw lawsuits from all sorts of people, including sovereign citizens and the like. Sometimes, these people file attorney-discipline complaints against me when their cases are dismissed. I could get mad about it, but why? They’re entitled to make the complaints. I have a lot of confidence in the attorney-discipline system to process these complaints correctly, and they always do.

            1. Hiring Mgr*

              In your case the system may work wonderfully, and it sounds like it’s a normal part of your job. But in most workplace scenarios it’s pretty unusual to be accused of sexism, or be the target of a lawsuit.

              In any case, most of these “systems” usually seem to work better for white, straight, men (like me), so I’m always a little leery of “just report, it’ll sort itself out” when we’ve seen how it works for underrepresented folks.

              1. Roland*

                So you’re aware that the system is set up in your favor, but you think that your upset feelings at “a report was made against me and the investigation cleared me” means that underrepresented folks shouldn’t report? You might want to re-examine these feelings if you actually want to be an ally and not just use Woke Lingo for the same old same old.

                1. Hiring Mgr*

                  Not at all – in this case I was talking about when the underrepresented are the *targets* of the reports. That’s not an argument for not reporting though, nor did I make one at all.

              2. Lucky Meas*

                Genuinely confused trying to parse this–are you saying that racial minorities, LGBT, disabled people, etc. are more likely to be the target of false whistleblower behavior, or face more severe punishments than white/cis/straight/able-bodied/etc. people? Maybe you’re drawing a comparison with, say, Karen calling the police on a black guy for no reason?

                If so I do agree that we should generally be cautious about “just report and trust the system”, as “white woman tears” can be a force for harm. But I wouldn’t want a victim to be afraid to report just because she is afraid of looking like a Karen.

          5. Yorick*

            No, I’d assume that they’ll look into the books and see that I never embezzled. I would think about why they might have thought so to begin with, and if there were a legit reason to think I had been embezzling, I’d change my behavior. If not, I would start being more cautious around the accuser.

          6. Eh*

            If someone accused me of bias and it got escalated to HR, I’d take a good long look at myself, my actions, my attitudes, etc. I wouldn’t immediately go to “they are a lying liar and I am right and I have now been wronged”. The comparison to embezzling isn’t a great one – that’s a crime that takes intention and clear action. Bill could very well be treating women differently and not realize it (or not think it’s a big deal). Correcting that behavior helps everyone.

    3. Yoyoyo*

      To be fair, LW did not allege sexism, Jane did. I think it’s beyond the scope of this letter to discuss the impacts of a false allegation and frankly I’m tired of hearing about the impact of false allegations on men when there are so many more true instances of bias, harassment, and abuse that go unreported or are not dealt with appropriately when reported.

      1. Peanut Hamper*

        Yes, this. Comments like this (“but what about the men?”) can often inhibit women from reporting true accounts.

        If you’re a man and you’re worried about being accused, then don’t be an ass and do things that will get you accused.

        1. Venus*


          The new managers in my workplace who are most likely to be privately accused of sexism or racism are those who treat their minority employees badly. The reason that they are found to be unbiased is when those employees talk with white, male coworkers and learn that the bad managers treat everyone badly. The new managers who treat everyone badly get more training or it is suggested that they consider other opportunities. Those who behave differently around minorities have a very different conversation. Importantly, the managers who treat their employees well aren’t a problem.

          1. sundae funday*

            This is a good point! At best, Bill is “very obviously annoyed” at every new employee who makes a mistake, male or female.

    4. EBStarr*

      LW literally says that HR hadn’t done anything and that Melinda was going to tell them not to proceed! There’s no false allegation to make a big deal out of because the allegation doesn’t even exist anymore.

    5. Zap R.*

      I mean…if it was a false allegation of sexual harassment or assault, maybe it would have an impact on Bill.

      But in my experience, murmurings of “So-and-So is kind of sexist” have never actually held any weight when it comes to crabby male VPs. Bill will be fine.

      1. Andrea*

        THIS, all day and all night.

        I used to work with a guy who had been fired from a previous job, with legal action taken, because he harassed his boss’s wife at a company function. When I say I “used to work with” him, I mean he was my CEO. AFTER being fired. We fret so much about “career-ending” accusations of sexism for men to the point that we play down career-limiting experiences of sexism for women.

        1. MauvaisePomme*

          That last sentence is so spot-on. It reminds me of all the Louis C.K. fans wringing their hands about how women talking openly about the terrible things he did “ruined” his career, when in all actuality, his career is doing just fine, while several women permanently left comedy as a direct result of his actions. Why aren’t those same people as concerned with when THOSE women get to “come back to mainstream comedy”?

    6. Little Dog*

      First, we don’t know that the allegation is false. We only know that LW doesn’t agree with the assessment.

      Second, men in male dominated industries are practically never impacted by people reporting their sexism, whereas women who report sexism tend to be viewed as delicate flowers and avoided. LW and AG have their concerns in the right place.

    7. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      1) love your user name.
      2) OP is speaking from a place of “I genuinely did not accuse this man. He did not do this. Nobody will think he did this. I am going to look like I falsely accused him.” She is not as concerned about Bill, because she is not imagining that anyone would believe what Jane said. Not realizing that there are other Janes (and Johns) out there who automatically pick a side.

    8. mlem*

      “False allegations ruining men’s lives! Stop everything and worry about the mens!” right on schedule. Sigh.

        1. Little Dog*

          No one besides the person at the top of this thread. NeedRain47 just paraphrased the sentiment.

          1. NeedRain47*

            That’s not possible as I didn’t even comment anywhere else in this thread. You might want to correct yourself.

        2. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

          C’mon, the OP was wringing their hands about what might happen to poor Bill from a single off-base report, when what will happen to Bill is nothing.

    9. learnedthehardway*

      Given that the LW has absolutely refuted the statement Jane made to the CEO, I think we can be pretty confident that this will NOT affect Bill’s future. Let’s be real – so many very well founded allegations seem to have no effect or consequence, that it’s pretty safe to assume that this presumably unfounded one won’t even be on the radar.

      That said, I think that would be a good idea to find out who it was that the CEO spoke with in HR, and to clarify the situation for that HR person. I would tell them that “I did not interpret Bill’s behaviour or feedback as sexist, and I did not ask Jane to make this claim. From my perspective, I have no complaint about Bill.”

      But I would also leave it to HR to deal with Jane and to decide whether they felt there is a reason to investigate further, in whatever direction they decide. Because maybe Jane is correct and Bill has treated male employees very differently from female employees, and the LW doesn’t know this. OR maybe Jane is recognized as having an agenda and not above weaponizing situations against Bill. Either way, HR should investigate SOMETHING.

      1. TheAG*

        Agree. Also we can’t know what Jane told the CEO (who then went to HR). It could have been something like “Bill’s at it again, just a heads-up” and the CEO knew exactly what Jane was saying and reported it as a potential pattern of behavior.

        Having worked in a heavily male-dominated industry, even at a Fortune 500 company, things can go all the way up to and through our ethics committee and still not be acted on even when it’s an absolutely obvious pattern of behavior.

    10. bamcheeks*

      What impact do you think a false sexism allegation will have on Bill? Absolutely genuine question.

      1. Hiring Mgr*

        I don’t think anyone’s saying he’ll be immediately fired or anything like that. Just that it’s shitty to be accused of something you didn’t do regardless of the outcome

        1. keze*

          As Alison brilliantly noted, it can be harmful to talk about these types of concerns in exaggeratedly negative ways. Years ago, I was falsely accused of misplacing a very expensive piece of technology. HR called me in, I answered their questions, they figured out what happened, and that was the end of it. Yeah, it’s not great to be falsely accused, but mistakes happen. LW’s company seems to have handled it well. Given the huge amount of incidents that go unreported, I think it’s vitally important to cultivate an environment in which everyone feels comfortable bringing up their concerns.

        2. bamcheeks*

          Lots of things about being in senior leadership are shitty. That’s why they pay you lots of money.

          1. Saddy Hour*

            Lots of things about work in general are shitty. Lots of things about interpersonal relationships are shitty. Most of the time, you just need to process your feelings about it and move on.

            I might have shared this before, but I did have an employee who was legitimately falsely accused of sexual harassment by another employee on my team. The accuser’s story was an exaggerated but real version of events, which matched up with his story and a few witness’ stories. We talked to him and let him know that he should step away for personal phone calls in the future. We did have to open a case with HR, but they pretty immediately dismissed it.

            I’m friends with that employee now, after leaving my managerial position over him. I know that he was upset by it, in part because his personal phone call was to his sister who had just been diagnosed with breast cancer (which is what the claim of sexual harassment was about — he mentioned her upcoming mastectomy and the accuser felt that was uncouth). He did not appreciate the accusation. But even in the moment, he acknowledged that her right to accuse him was important because it’s the same right that is used by people with legitimate complaints. He continued to work cordially with her for the year that she stayed on the team, and his reputation was tarnished literally not at all. He won Employee of the Year like, 3 months after the case. He did have the kneejerk reaction of feeling angry about it, but he was able to move past that quickly because (rightfully) *nothing happened to him*.

            I’m glad it worked out this way in his case. But while it was unfolding, I had a genuine worry that he had actually sexually harassed someone and that we would come to the same conclusion even so. My director had worked with him for 15 years and her reaction to the accusation, without context, was “that’s impossible and I won’t pursue it.” We worked in COMPLIANCE. Her loyalty to him and her impression of his character immediately outweighed this newer employee voicing concerns. I’ve seen that happen much more frequently than I’ve seen a genuine false accusation. If he had harassed or even assaulted his coworker, I truly believe it would have been swept under the rug in favor of his reputation and longevity at the company. That’s where this topic gets really insidious. I sympathize with men who worry that they might, someday, potentially, be falsely accused of something — but I sympathize a lot more with people who have been truly victimized and face retaliation for speaking up about it. It’s an apples to horseshoes situation.

            1. Firefighter (Metaphorical)*

              Thank you for sharing this story. I handle a lot of complaints in my role at a university, and this is really resonating with me – both the good (false accusations are not sticky!) and the bad (true accusations are hard to make stick….)

        3. Relentlessly Socratic*

          It’s even worse to be the actual victim of real sexism and have it be completely swept under the rug by and then watch the dude get promoted to VP while I need to find a new job with a new boss, but here I am….

          1. Hiring Mgr*

            That’s awful..I’m sorry that’s happening. Believe me, I’ve seen it all so nothing surprises me..

            1. Relentlessly Socratic*

              Thank you. Fortunately it’s all past tense now–I’m in a new place in the same field with much better promotion prospects and an infinitely better boss!

              TBH: It was really awful at the time, but I owed it to my staff to try to get the issue addressed (besides being sexist, he is also a bully to the support staff who are absolutely lovey, and actively meddling in processes he didn’t understand or care to understand, threatening my client work), and I was a manager and felt like I needed to at least try before rage quitting for my own happiness. (I still rage resigned, and that was glorious).

    11. JSPA*

      Probably because the LW already headed that one off. There are plenty of hypotheticals that are still live; no reason to go resurrecting the ones that have been staked through the heart.

      And if this would indeed be the most recent in a long string of events… Which is the main reason that it would have legs after the letter writer disavows it… then it’s really more on that long string of events, than on the (non-)accusation by (not) the LW.

    12. L-squared*

      Are you? I’m not. In fact, I was sure before I finished reading, that a lot of the replies would be “well maybe he IS sexist”

    13. hbc*

      As a white person who has been falsely accused of racist work practices, I’m pretty sure Bill will come through this okay. It had no impact on my career because I had a reasonable, non-racist basis for my actions with the accuser. I’d welcome such an investigation again if it meant working in a place that took discrimination claims seriously. And I’ve witnessed plenty of objectively bad behavior get swept under the rug with the “impact” of “Take this remedial 1 hour Respect in the Workplace training.”

      1. Hiring Mgr*

        I hear you on that, but do you think women and PoCs always get the same “non-impact” after a false accusation?

        1. hbc*

          I haven’t seen any studies on that, so I can’t say. Anecdotally, I’ve seen a mixed bag. I’ve definitely seen people enthusiastically chase after a non-cis-white-male offender for behavior that they would’ve excused in a CWM, but I’ve also seen the “we can’t touch the offender because they’re a protected class” attitude.

          FWIW, I’m a woman, and did not feel it had an impact internally or with the external investigator.

    14. Ellis Bell*

      I really hope you would feel able to discuss potential discrimination without feeling the need to prove it in a court of law first. If you work somewhere reasonable then the only thing that’s going to happen is support and resolution. No lives are going to get ruined just because everyone is a bit more aware of unconscious bias. Though I am surprised you missed the bit where OP thoroughly vindicated Bill!

      1. Zarniwoop*

        “If you work somewhere reasonable…”
        I’ve been reading AAM long enough to know that’s not always a given.

    15. Well...*

      I feel like Bill’s gonna make it out of all this okay, just from like, *gestures at everything*

    16. LW*

      LW here. I realize it’s not explicit in my letter but this was absolutely a huge concern for me. Part of the reason I reacted as strongly as I did is that I DO consider it a big deal that this could have had an impact on Bill. It’s also why I was wondering if I should go to HR to set the record straight. But as some of the commenters below point out, this was fortunately all shut down before it ever really went anywhere and I think that Alison is right that there’s no real need to say anything more to them.

      1. Ask A Manatee*

        I thought your concern for a false rumor going around (whether it was about Bill or anyone else) was implied. It’s a reasonable concern to have about anyone, kept in an appropriate proportion. it’s less about the effect on Bill than about rumor spreading and misattribution.

    17. StlBlues*

      Won’t someone PLEASE think of the poor male executives!?

      If ever there were a group of people more deserving of our pity and delicate handling, it’s men in power. Thank you for raising this important issue, Aunt Bee.

    18. Keymaster of Gozer*

      What impact? It is incredibly unlikely that a single complaint of sexism will do anything to his career. Frankly even if it were sexual harassment it would probably not do much.

      The numbers of guys with destroyed careers because someone accused them of sexist behaviour is absolutely miniscule. Likewise the ones accused of outright harassment.

      A false accusation really doesn’t have the dire impact that people think.

  7. Mark This Confidential And Leave It Lying Around*

    TL; dr Beware of Jane.
    I used to work with someone who misrepresented things often, and it became a real problem. The things she told me were absolutely plausible—they just weren’t true. Fact A was indeed a fact. Incident B really happened. And she’d tell me Situaton C was the result. Totally made sense. Until I’d find out that Situation C related to a contract that pre-dated Incident B and had exactly nothing to do with A. But the sequence looked right, sono one questioned these stories until the discrepancies started to stack up. She hurt not only her own credibility, but others’ as well, including mine, which took a while to come back from.

    1. Merry*

      Good point.

      Because on that note, Jane misrepresented her conversation with LW as if LW had complained that Bill was acting sexist, when it was Jane who inserted that into things, and then acted on that without the LW knowing. That’s beyond disrespectful to the LW and to Bill.

      Had the report moved forward with an investigation, and the outcome was that Bill did no such thing, LW, not Jane, could be seen as a false accuser of sexism in her workplace (certain), and in her field (possible).

      It’s fortunate Melinda put a stop to that, but that’s a pretty thin line between what did happen and what could have.

      Good for you, LW, for taking a stance on your own behalf, and not getting sucked into Jane’s inappropriateness.

      1. Mark This Confidential And Leave It Lying Around*

        Bill might be a bad guy! But it’s Jane saying it, not LW. It smacks of using LW as a shield in case things go bad.

  8. Dust Bunny*

    You only told her that maybe she was right about what had happened between you and Bill, but for someone who’s already concerned about a pattern of sexism from him, I could see her mentally adding you to her list of people Bill had mistreated without realizing she needed to clarify whether or not you actually saw it that way.


    I’m not saying you can’t trust Jane but now you know you need to be careful about how quickly and in what matter you respond to what she says.

    I had a supervisor when I first started at one of my jobs who . . . I’m not sure how to describe it but she was always looking to tattle on people, even if they weren’t doing anything that was out of line. She had very specific and firmly-held ideas about how people should do things and if you didn’t do them the way she thought you should, she would small-scale retaliate. She had an interesting reputation and I learned pretty quickly not to be too loyal to her, although I learned a lot from her about the work specifically.

      1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        funny, I thought you meant “in what/which matters” you respond.
        Yes, I am working on the Penske file.
        No, I don’t have any problems with the work George did before.
        No, I don’t have any information about him staring at the clock for 8 hours.
        I am finding X to be a challenge.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      I would also take Jane’s accounts of sexism with a grain of salt until you know Bill better and have observed his behavior yourself. She might be right, but now you know she will overstate things at least some of the time. Yes, it’s entirely possible that Bill has an issue here but it’s also possible that Jane misread legitimate mistakes that happened to be executed by women as sexism (and she may not have done it maliciously, but even someone who is simply bad at reading the situation can cause problems).

      1. Peanut Hamper*

        Yes, this. Jane may be crying wolf at times when there is no wolf. We all know how that story ended.

    2. Lorac*

      We must’ve had a similar manager. I didn’t realize a throwaway comment about how the QA team being a bit slow to respond would result in her filing a formal reprimand with that specific QA person’s manager. I was shocked, I knew she was busy! Instead she caused an incredibly strained relationship between me and the QA team.

      In another case, I lost some data due to a power surge. A passing employee recommended I ask IT for a battery backup and mentioned that they had a bunch sitting around gathering dust. Since my previous company handed them out on request, I didn’t think that was an unusual thing to request. Instead my manager flew off the handle and accused the passing employee of overstepping and filed a complaint to HIS manager who was incredibly confused. All over an equipment request. It was nuts.

  9. Office Lobster DJ*

    Is it normal that Melinda started the grievance process rolling with HR before talking directly to LW?

    1. Little Dog*

      It might be. We don’t know enough about this company or about Bill, Melinda, or Jane’s history at it to say.

    2. LG*

      That jumped out at me, too. Melinda only spoke with the OP *after* starting the grievance process with HR. That doesn’t make much sense to me.

      1. JustKnope*

        It might be part of the scenario that Alison mentioned – if OP was just one of a number of women who had been affected, it could make sense for Melinda to start the grievance process before talking to each of them individually. At that point it’s bigger than each of the individuals.

        1. LG*

          But Melinda said the HR investigation would be dropped, so that makes it look like the OP would have been the face of the complaint, not just one of many.

          1. Yorick*

            Maybe LW’s part was being dropped, or LW’s part was the newest complaint in a history of complaints

      2. fhqwhgads*

        It read to me like the way Jane presented it was OP asking for this to occur, so when Melinda spoke with OP it was in a following-up on what she thought OP had requested kind of way.

    3. Peanut Hamper*

      If this were the first time this issue had arisen about Bill, I think the normal thing to do would be to get more information from LW. But in cases where there is a history, I think it’s more normal to give HR a heads-up that they will probably have to get the ball rolling on this.

      1. Office Lobster DJ*

        I definitely get Melinda reaching out to HR for guidance and having to factor in any relevant history. Once we get to formal grievance level, though, if I were LW I’d absolutely want a heads up first if I were going to be the “face” of the grievance…especially when I hadn’t even spoken up directly.

        1. Little Dog*

          “if I were LW I’d absolutely want a heads up first if I were going to be the ‘face’ of the grievance”

          LW got that head’s up. That’s what Melinda’s conversation with her was.

      2. Ellis Bell*

        This is astute, and it would explain both Jane’s and Melinda’s actions. OP may not feel sexism was at play in her scenario, but she can’t really speak for others.

    4. Kevin Sours*

      Depends on exactly how Jane framed her report to Melinda. If Melinda understood the report as coming from LW then it would seem pretty normal to move forward with a formal process.

      Jane should have given LW a heads up before saying anything, and should have made it clear that LW didn’t specifically request that action be taken.

    5. Just Me*

      I’d absolutely hope it’s normal to report an issue to HR without waiting to see if LW wants to. It’s not always up to the victim of an incident to decide whether it’s acted upon, some things are too egregious to ignore as a manager. I’m not saying that’s the exact situation here, but it’s definitely not out of line.

      It’s also perfectly reasonable for Jane to reach out to HR for guidance on an pattern of behavior she thinks she’s seen. As Alyson noted, it’s very possible she expected LW to be an anonymous piece of that pattern as opposed to the main complaint. (which could still be the case. LW doesn’t know what HR is working on.)

      1. Office Lobster DJ*

        Sure, I can certainly picture situations that would be in that category, although not sure LW’s experience by itself would rise to that. It makes perfect sense for Melinda (or even Jane) to go to HR for guidance on handling a pattern of behavior, or even an isolated incident, but I’m still pretty startled by the jump from guidance to filing a formal grievance based on secondhand information. Point taken, though, that it may not have been Melinda’s intent to make that jump.

        1. Distracted Librarian*

          I also found it startling that Melinda would initiate a process like this based purely on secondhand information. She didn’t need OP’s approval to proceed, but if I were in her shoes, I’d at least want to talk with the person directly involved before contacting HR.

        2. Just Me*

          I think people who aren’t in HR misunderstand what “filing a formal grievance” looks like. There usually isn’t a form someone has to fill out and sign off on for it to be real. If someone shares a concern with me (HR), they’ve made a complaint. Even if that’s while we’re just chatting over coffee. We don’t ask them if it’s a Formal Complaint and if they say “oh no, never mind” we just erase it from our memories. If Melinda called me and said “Jane shared a concern about Bill and possible sexist behavior, how should I proceed?”…I’m going to investigate.

      2. Zarniwoop*

        But in that case it should be an *accurate* report: “He did X, she didn’t even think sexism until I brought it up and still doesn’t want to make a complaint, but I think it’s part of the bigger pattern.”

  10. Parenthesis Guy*

    Jane should have talked to the letter writer, but the letter writer also should have talked to Jane. It’s possible that Jane just overreacted, but it’s also possible that Jane had reasons to exaggerate this case that the LW doesn’t know about. Now the LW has just cut the legs out under her mentor, which is definitely a good way to ruin a relationship with someone she respects. Maybe that’s necessary, but I’d think twice and three times before doing that.

    It could be that Jane does make a habit of pulling stunts like this in which case you’ll need to watch what you say to her. But she’s your mentor so you need to make sure that’s the case before you come to that conclusion.

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      If your planned excuse is “I had good reasons to exaggerate what happened to you” then you should be unsurprised when that person cuts your legs out from under you.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        Right? I’m trying to think of what might be “good reasons” to exaggerate something that didn’t also amount to pressing a personal agenda. Once it’s uncovered that you exaggerated, whatever you hoped to accomplish will stall out, anyway, as it did here.

        1. Parenthesis Guy*

          Maybe Jane knows that Bill has a history of this. When it was only one or two people, it was brushed away as a coincidence, but the more people she can say that Bill discriminated against, the more credibility she has to force HR to investigate the situation. And once HR looks into it, she knows they’re going to find something, even if this isn’t case isn’t ultimately used.

          1. Little Dog*

            I’m not seeing how that would justify exaggerating. By exaggerating, Jane undermined her credibility.

          2. Not Tom, Just Petty*

            Then Jane as a mentor should not use the words of her protégé for a side quest against Bill.
            Explaining that OP can/should escalate this, what OP should say and to whom is mentorship. Stating that she will be speaking to someone about it because she is a mandated reporter at her level is mentorship.
            This is not.

            1. allathian*

              Yes, I agree. LW has done nothing wrong, but Jane’s undermined the mentoring relationship by misrepresenting the LW in her report to Melinda. Even if there’s a history of sexist behavior by Bill, Jane didn’t do the LW any favors by claiming that the LW asked her to report his behavior when she did no such thing. Even if Jane was a mandated reporter, she should’ve said as much to the LW.

              At the very least the mentoring relationship needs to end now, the LW has no reason to trust Jane who basically threw her under a bus to advance her own agenda against Bill. I just hope that this doesn’t have any adverse consequences for the LW at her current employer.

          3. Kevin Sours*

            If Jane is going to be fast and loose with the truth, LW is under no obligation to back her play.

          4. Falling Diphthong*

            If someone were particularly nefarious, they’d make sure the first claim investigated against themselves was false, thereby making people likely to dismiss similar future allegations as Jane’s Agenda rather than Bill’s Actions.

            “I just know when they start looking into my false allegation, they’ll discover a bunch of real stuff I have no evidence of–but have a strong gut feeling is true–and everyone will forget about the fake part!!!!” is not a plan I would expect to work out.

          5. AD*

            Do you not understand how much it harms people trying in good faith to report cases of discrimination/bigotry when people like Jane misrepresent things, put words in people’s mouths, or, as you call it, “exaggerate”? Do you know the meaning of the word credibility?

    2. NeedRain47*

      Nope, sorry, mentors don’t get to twist your words for their own purposes, not even for “reasons”. It’s not respectable and LW shouldn’t respect it.

    3. MsM*

      Jane’s already put herself on thin ice as a mentor worth respecting by taking action on something OP brought up in confidence without anything remotely resembling explicit permission to do that. It is possible she felt company policy required her to get an investigation rolling regardless of OP’s feelings on the subject, but that’s something she probably should have brought up to OP as part of her role in explaining how things work around here before she went ahead and did it. At the very least, it’s certainly not something she should have an issue explaining now if that was in fact her motivation. Otherwise, I’m not sure why the burden would be on OP to demonstrate the mentor relationship can get through this unscathed, and not the reverse.

    4. Kevin Sours*

      The hell? Exactly what should LW talked to Jane about? Jane didn’t exactly give her an opportunity before pushing this up the chain. The CEO came to her unexpectedly and she told the truth. If the truth “cut the legs out under her mentor” then that’s really not LW’s problem.

      Jane should have given LW a head’s up. She should have made sure she knew what LW was going to say before reporting it. This is 100% on Jane.

    5. I should really pick a name*

      So what would that look like?
      Melinda informs the LW that they are beginning a grievance process.
      LW says nothing and goes to talk to Jane instead?

      I’m also not clear why Jane being a mentor makes any difference.

  11. Boof*

    I don’t feel like I have enough info to have a real vibe on Jane as to whether Jane is prone to overly stirring the pot (and so OP should be really careful what they say to them) or if Jane is just a bit overly talkative and things got escalated because everyone takes these things reasonably seriously
    Scenario 2 could look like – Jane has concerns about Bill, OP recently had a mild run in with Bill, Jane asks if OP thinks sexism plays a role, OP is surprised and leaves it at a maybe since they hadn’t thought about it; next time Jane talks with Melinda they bring up concerns about Bill to check in if there are other issues, when question Jane brings up OPs run in as a potential sexism issue, Melinda is concerned and wants to help OP so starts looking into what it would take to escalate it and goes to talk to OP while at it; process is shut down, ostensibly process works since nothing got out of hand but reports of potential discrimination are at least seriously considered.

  12. Robin*

    tbh I don’t see what Jane did was so wrong? You yourself said “you might be right” in that conversation. We should ALWAYS report possible sexism and gender bias, no matter how whispery it is. Jane did the right thing, and I think you need to work on your internalized misogyny before continuing in this position. Bill won’t get canceled.

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      I think what LW is concerned about is that she did not feel mistreated by Bill, and that Jane wildly over-reacted because of a “maybe”, and that the whole company is over-reacting by going directly to a grievance without even consulting with LW first.

      While I agree that possible sexism and bias should be reported, it should also be investigated before proceeding directly to a grievance. I think LW feels that there was a lack of investigation because nobody asked her about it.

      If anything, Jane should have encouraged LW to report any perceived sexism, not gone around LW and reported it on her behalf. This is the part that was missing and that I find quite disturbing.

      1. Little Dog*

        No grievance was actually filed. There *was* an investigation–Melinda asked LW about the situation. The results of Melinda’s investigation were that LW does not believe she experienced sexism from Bill.

        We don’t know the full history or institutional context here (and actually, neither does LW). Talking to HR and talking to LW in parallel may have been an overreaction, it may have been an underreaction, it may have been exactly the right level of reaction. With more knowledge of everything Jane has heard, we are not in a position to assert that Jane’s course of action is disturbing.

        1. Peanut Hamper*

          I agree, but I meant that LW found Jane’s behavior disturbing.

          You are quite correct in that we don’t have all the facts.

    2. JSPA*

      In my world, “you might be right” is far more often a non- oppositional conversational placeholder than any sort of marker for substantive, factual agreement.

      “that’s a way off looking at it” is another.

      the LW would ideally have stuck with the more transparently noncommital, “let me think about that” or the noncommital-tending-negative, “I wouldn’t have thought of it that way but thank you for the information.”

      But in cultural terms / as far as the mechanics of conversation, they are all much closer to each other than their literal meaning might suggest.

      (YMMV, we don’t actually all speak the same language, just because we’re all speaking english.)

      1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        Same thought.
        When I read her words, I interpreted it from my own lens:
        you might be right = I don’t see it that way, but I don’t want to debate it.
        OP wanted to know what to do about making a mistake at work, she did not want to know about Bill’s history of sexism. She was trying to politely redirect Jane to her own issue, not agree with her.

      2. Office Lobster DJ*

        Thank you for the phrase “non-oppositional conversational placeholder.” I will be stealing it. I would also interpret “you might be right” in that way, but I absolutely know people who would take it as agreement and run with it.

    3. surprisedcannuk*

      I disagree I think there should be some bar for reporting sexism or discrimination that is slightly higher than shrug I guess it could possibly be sexism. The LW made a mistake and Bill was annoyed I’m not sure where that investigation could possibly go. Jane might feel there’s a pattern of sexist behaviour then should could bring it up. I don’t think this one incident will really help prove that.

      1. Little Dog*

        “Jane might feel there’s a pattern of sexist behaviour then should could bring it up.”

        Jane did feel there was a pattern of sexist behavior …

        1. Relentlessly Socratic*

          Yes, this is literally the impetus of the events resulting in LW’s letter.

        2. surprisedcannuk*

          It’s not clear if Jane explained it to CEO that it was a pattern. That was explained to LW. If Jane was concerned she should have mentioned that while this incident is minor and ambiguous she has concerns about Bill. It seems like she just said Bill was treating Jane differently and didn’t really give enough background.

        3. JSPA*

          There’s always more than one pattern in play, because people have evolved to be hypersensitive to patterns.

          Someone’s sexist negativity and someone’s run-of-the-mill negativity will somewhat resemble each other, because it’s the same person doing it, and it’s (in any case) negativity.

          One then has to tease out three aspects:

          how much is the Bill sexism pattern?

          how much is the Bill negativity pattern?

          How much is just that Bill is Bill, and you’re at BEC with the way he stands, coughs, and makes that little whistling noise through his nose while staring, smilelessly, at the offending document?

          Perhaps sexism should be experienced as equally bothersome from someone who’s upbeat, and someone who’s critical; from someone who’s otherwise thoughtful, and someone who’s otherwise a horse’s ass. But that mostly doesn’t match my experience of how things play out. Partly, it’s the cool kids club effect…but partly it’s because every irritating pattern sets off echoes of that person’s other irritating patterns.

    4. Pierrot*

      I think LW saw this as a conversation with her mentor about a difficult situation at work. Jane said she thought it was sexist, and LW said “maybe you’re right” meaning it in the literal sense. Like “I will consider that possibility, but I am not sure if that’s what happened.”
      If LW affirmatively said “Bill treats me differently than male colleagues” or she said “Yes, I agree” to Jane, I would agree with your comment.
      It was presumptuous for Jane to interpret the comment as complete agreement. If I express an opinion or observation and someone tells me that I may be right, I’d assume that they were not sure whether they agreed with me or not.

    5. Ellis Bell*

      Hmm I think it’s a fairly human reaction to want to be included, or checked in with, before someone files a grievance on your behalf. “Nothing about us without us” is an old idea for a reason. It’s not always possible to respect individual feelings when someone is a liability, but I don’t think the instinct to object is (always) misogyny. Sometimes it is, of course.

    6. bighairnoheart*

      What she did wrong was not talking to OP further before reporting the incident. I know people differ on this, but if possible, it’s best to let the person who’s being oppressed, be centered in the reporting process. That would mean they should be looped into a report before it happens so they feel they have agency. Let’s not jump to OP being a misogynist over one incident that was handled imperfectly. It might be true, but we don’t have enough info to say that so confidently (and it also just comes across as needlessly aggressive to someone who’s asking for help imo).

    7. Kevin Sours*

      Jane pushed the report up the chain without even discussing with LW. Based on Melinda’s reaction she also presented this as LW raising the issue instead of something she did on her own initiative. LW ended up blindsided by it.

      So yeah, that’s wrong.

  13. Ellen Ripley*

    OP, have you considered going to therapy? As a high achiever who also tends to mentally stress about things which can lead to overreacting, it has been really helpful for me to talk with a professional about my patterns of thought and get help on how to conduct myself better. Just food for thought!

    1. Jukebox Hero*

      I’m the same and therapy was very helpful. OP, if your employee has a EAP or other counseling as a benefit of employment, this may be something worth considering as well.

    2. LW*

      I appreciate the suggestion! I did in the past but it’s been many years and now could be the time to look at it again as life has gotten more complicated.

      1. Keymaster of Gozer*

        Catastrophising (is that a word?) everything that goes wrong or gets complex and worrying about the blowback and trying to fix everything in a stressful environment is definitely something that therapists or other mental health professionals can help with.

        Trust me, loooong time veteran of imagining the worst and stressing about everything here! I hope things calm down for you and that life takes the difficulty setting down a few notches.

        1. wendelenn*

          Pretty sure that is indeed a word (spelled with “izing” at the end here in the states!)

  14. Delphine*

    The immediacy of the CEO’s action suggests that this isn’t the first time she has heard about this problem. My experiences may be coloring my view, but people in charge don’t react this quickly about sexism when it’s the first offense. Obviously, the misrepresentation of LW’s words is wrong and both Jane and Melinda jumped the gun by not sitting down with LW before going to HR…but I really do think this should be treated as a simple misunderstanding and not as some sign that Jane has an “agenda” and that Bill isn’t a jerk with a bias against women.

    1. A Penguin!*

      I will agree that based on what we have to go on, it’s more likely than not that this isn’t the first hearing for problems with Bill. But I will also say there are definitely people (including in charge) who react like this at the first report.

    2. Maple Bar*

      I was thinking that this might be why Jane escalated this– she says she has seen a pattern of this in Bill’s behavior over time. The LW also initially thought it could be a contributor here until she got presented with the possibility of a grievance, which understandably made her recoil away from it because she is afraid of blowback. I think the LW’s understandable fear of reprisal is encouraging her to minimize Bill’s behavior and magnify Jane’s, which I get. She wants to be respected on her own merits, not seen as a complainer, and she wants to have credibility with Bill in the future. I’ve been there. But I think the LW should look over the information she has and make sure she’s not over-correcting in the wrong direction before she does anything else.

      People saying Jane is an untrustworthy bad actor with an agenda are really reaching for something that is not demonstrated here. It was not a good idea for her to make a report on someone else’s behalf without telling them, but we also have no idea what she actually told Miranda. It’s way more likely that this is a game of telephone than that Jane is going around lying about what the LW said to her for fun.

  15. S. shaw*

    Strongly agree with the OP that it is a very big deal and the OP is absolutely correct to be upset.

    That kind of charge against Bill can sink a career. Perhaps he was not the sweetest when dealing with the OPs error, but to the OPs credit she owned it exactly like the stand up person she sounds like and was moving forward albeit with a completely natural, presumably private, venting session with someone she though she could trust. Everyone makes mistakes and she will gain back any credibility she may have lost in short order, especially with the “stand up and own it” character that she clearly has.

    Implying it wasn’t egregious by suggesting perhaps he has been sexist in past seems to justify Jane’s actions. Like, if someone may have shoplifted once in their life, big deal if they were falsely accused of theft on another occasion.

    Don’t get me wrong, if it IS a thing with him Jane can report it on her own behalf, but this is the kind of thing that could have not only ruined his career but potentially the OPs start in her role if it had proceeded with HR before it was (only accidently) discovered. Being labeled as a “cry wolf” type is “a thing.” Jane’s actions were serious and very gross. Either she was infantalizing the OP or hijacking an opportunity to satisfy her own agenda. And while I understand the notion of giving Jane the (very big) benefit of the doubt, It doesn’t seem like Bill is getting the same grace.

    As a female manager myself I have experienced situations where Bill WAS that guy. But in this case it wasn’t what was happening, the OP didn’t say it was happening, and she is right to be VERY upset with Jane and keep an eye out for her hijacking the mentorship with her own agenda.

    1. mreasy*

      I am a woman in a super sexist industry. I have never ruined anyone’s career by reporting them for sexist behavior. At best, they get a talking to. This only tanks Bill if it’s the last straw after a long history of sexist behavior.

    2. Little Dog*

      “But in this case it wasn’t what was happening”

      We don’t know that.

      And it seems like Bill it getting plenty of grace, starting with the headline, where AG concluded that Bill was falsely accused.

      1. Emily*

        LittleDog: This is an unfair statement. Alison did not conclude that Bill was falsely accused. Very much the opposite actually, as she suggested LW think about that there may be truth to what Jane was saying about Bill, even if LW did not think it was true in her case. The titles of letters are based on what the LW is writing about, not Alison’s opinion, and LW felt that Bill was falsely accused. I agree with Alison that I think LW should think about if there is some truth to what Jane is saying, even though Jane did not handle things appropriately.

        1. Little Dog*

          Let me double check the title, written by Alison:

          my mentor falsely accused someone of sexism

          LW never uses the words “falsely accused.” That’s all AG. I wasn’t unfair at all.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            To clear this up: in this case that was the LW’s email subject line to me. It does appear she believes the allegation was false in her particular case (regardless of whether there is a separate pattern of sexist behavior from Bill), and she is the best judge of that.

      2. LW*

        I should note that Alison used my email subject line as the headline verbatim, so that’s my assessment, not necessarily hers

    3. Relentlessly Socratic*

      The charge won’t sink a Bill’s career unless there’s a LOT of truth behind it. If that’s the case, it’s Bill sinking Bill’s career.

      1. allathian*

        True. I just hope that Jane faces some consequences for her actions as well, at the very least she should be removed from the list of appropriate mentors for new employees. She’s shown that she can’t be trusted and will use what she learns from her mentee(s) to advance her own agenda. Even if she was a mandated reporter, she should’ve told the LW as much before telling anyone else anything. Proceeding with the complaint on the LWs behalf without telling her is a breach of trust, regardless of the legal implications.

  16. BL73*

    We sign a CoC document each year that says that everyone, even the lowest level IC, has to report potential bias, sexism, etc. Then it is up to HR to investigate further and if action is needed, take the appropriate action.

  17. DomaneSL5*

    My first thought is, why did Melinda feel this deserved an investigation. Is it this one incident or does Bill have a pattern which Jane implied. Without that information it is hard to say if what Jane did was wrong or not.

    1. Little Dog*

      “why did Melinda feel this deserved an investigation”

      To find out what happened. Seems reasonable to me.

  18. cabbagepants*

    Something like this happened with me, only I didn’t hear about it until the investigation was ongoing. HR claimed that they were keeping the complainant anonymous, but they were going around my group shopping if anyone else felt that (male team member) had issues with women. In a male dominated environment like mine and like LW’s, it’s not hard to guess who the complainant is in cases like this.

      1. Little Dog*


        I was even part of an investigation against a sexist boss that escalated to HR and management, only to have my great-grandboss shut down any disciplinary action against the offender. The offender is still a boss and still sexist.

        The people “false accusations ruin lives!” contingent needs to see that link.

    1. Elle*

      Ugh, I’ve had this happen. In my case, weirdly, it was a situation where a senior colleague’s behavior definitely looked bad and def shouldn’t have been happening at work but wasn’t actually an issue- think us being friends outside work and thus being too comfortable joking at work. I had also been working in an environment with like no boundaries prior to that and I think my norms were totally skewed. Anyway, I found out that someone else had brought it to HR, likely meaning well but exaggerated a lot of what they saw and made it out like I was being harassed. It was ostensibly anonymous but I was one of only two women on the team and by far the one more likely to be a “complainer” in my coworkers’ eyes (young, queer, clearly feminist, etc). Blah. It sucked. I tried to get HR and the person who made the report on the same page but they made it clear they thought I was afraid of retaliation. A lot of the men on other teams stopped talking to me, which made it tough to get shit done. The accused was my biggest supporter but I left soon after.

  19. Meow*

    “Maybe you’re right” is what people say when they’re either not sure about something or they disagree and don’t want to be adversarial. Jane massively overreacted and overstepped by bringing such a lukewarm response to Melinda as a genuine complaint without informing OP beforehand. There are absolutely fields, industries or workplaces where something like this COULD impact the OP’s career or reputation, or maybe OP just doesn’t want to center this type of situation when she just started a new job. Telling OP she needs to deal with her internalized misogyny, examine her thinking and consider therapy is frankly offensive – women shouldn’t be forced or guilted into sacrificing for the greater good and that’s essentially what’s being implied here.

    1. Glomarization, Esq.*

      Agreed, Jane massively overstepped. If Jane thought the LW should start a grievance, then Jane should have offered to assist, not take herself to the CEO.

  20. Glomarization, Esq.*

    I gotta say, I’m a little confused at the whole situation here. Does the company have a policy and set of procedures for initiating a claim of s—l h—-ment claim or discrimination? If so, why did Jane go straight to the CEO with this instead of going through the policy? How was Jane allowed to make this complaint without the knowledge and consent of the LW? Why did the CEO get in touch with the LW about this rather than HR through their grievance process?

    LW, I think one of the reasons this was upsetting to you is that your HR has a grievance process and Jane appears to have run roughshod all over it. When you have an issue of that nature with a co-worker, you are the one who’s supposed to be in the driver’s seat. In most policies, even if you want to stay anonymous, you stay anonymous as long as you can for procedural fairness to happen, but a third party shouldn’t be allowed to start that grievance for you unless you say it’s OK for them to do so. I won’t get into any fanfic as to what Jane’s motives are, but this really does sound like a strange situation and I’d keep my eyes on her.

    Source: am a lawyer who has drafted and advised on policies of this nature

  21. Young10*

    Could it be possible that Jane wants Bills job and is trying to find a way to get rid of him? Just a thought. That could be the kind of person your dealing with.

  22. Fair and yellow*

    I wonder if you’re thinking of “hey, this feels like there could be gender bias going on” as a massive, career-destroying thing to say about someone — but it’s normally not, and if people see it that way, the barrier to reporting potential discrimination will get even higher. <– I guess not all offices are the same, but an accusation of that here is a massive, career-destroying thing. I'd put it at the level of "racist" or "discriminated against a trans person."

    Instant write-up at a minimum, future promotions are shot, probably be encouraged to start looking elsewhere immediately, definitely make it into your performance report.

    I'm happy I work at such a progressive workplace where discrimination is taken seriously.

    1. Firefighter (Metaphorical)*

      But… there’s a bit where they investigate first, though, right? And presumably different consequences for “you seem to have some culturally normative unconscious bias” and “you are discriminating against women?”

      I mean I too am really glad these -isms and -phobias are taken seriously where you are (my field has a looong way to go), but still, jumping straight from “Jane said something unsubstantiated* about Bill” to “Bill’s career is over” is missing out a few steps, and I think it’s a kindness to OP to point that out.

      *As others have pointed out, there may be other substantiated instances of Bill being sexist, but all we know is that the thing Jane said about LW was not true.

  23. Keymaster of Gozer*

    Personally? I understand your concern and anxiety but it’s best to just let this go. If they are investigating then they have your statements and that’s the end of your involvement. Don’t worry about his career or anything – it’s incredibly unlikely that anything bad will happen.

  24. not neurotypical*

    OP, be aware that women who note and warn others about sexism are often dismissed as “gossips” for talking about things that actually really do need to be brought to light. I’ve also seen legitimate complaints about other kinds of bias dismissed as “drama.” If you have other evidence that she gossips, OK, be wary. But if it’s just that she speaks candidly about things that are often kept under wraps (pay patterns, promotion patterns, nepotism, workplace relationships that really shouldn’t be happening, etc.), consider yourself lucky to have access to her knowledge.

  25. Dawn*

    I think we all need to keep in mind that this is a game of telephone. OP had a conversation with Jane where we know OP’s account of what was said. Jane had a conversation with Melinda, where we don’t know what was said. Based on that conversation, Melinda decided to open a grievance with HR.

    Lots and lots of people here blaming Jane for saying things (or “having an agenda”) that we have no idea if she said or not, when we don’t know if she’s a mandatory reporter or not. We, including the OP, have no idea what was said in that meeting to prompt Melinda to talk to HR, whether she might have misinterpreted something, we have no idea.

    So my suggestion is to focus on things the OP does know and can control, like the fact that her reputation is fine.

  26. A million cats walking across a million keyboards*

    One possibility I haven’t seen mentioned yet is that there could have been a miscommunication between Jane and Melinda — Jane could have said something like “OP told me that she made a mistake and Bill did X, but when male employees make the same kind of mistake, Bill just does Y”. Jane could have meant the part after the comma as her own observation about how Bill responds to male employees’ mistakes, and Melinda could have interpreted it as part of what OP said.

    It’s also not clear to me that Jane initiated a discussion about it with Melinda — it’s possible that Melinda brought it up as part of a conversation about Bill, work culture in general, or something else. If Jane realized that Melinda was going to pursue this further, then I think she should have mentioned it to OP, but she thought it was just a passing reference in a larger conversation, I don’t think she would have seen the need to.

    I’m not saying this is what happened! It’s possible that Jane is a villain trying to use OP as a pawn in a move against Bill, or that Jane misinterpreted what OP said to her — but those aren’t the only possible scenarios.

    1. A million cats walking across a million keyboards*

      “One possibility I haven’t seen mentioned yet” — except in Dawn’s comment immediately before mine. That’s what happens when you start typing and then walk away from your keyboard before posting.

  27. Mothman*

    Don’t talk to Jane about this. Or anything else remotely damning. I had an assigned mentor like that. Her literal job, the sole thing she was paid to do, was support new staff members for the first year of their employment. She was NOT supposed to report to management unless she had an ethical concern or something.

    She decided to go against all of that to curry favor and screw me over. And I wasn’t even venting to her. I was asking questions directly related to work.

    Don’t trust someone who would speak to HR or your boss saying they’re speaking in your voice. Ever.

    1. Mothman*

      That said, for HR being so willing to open a case against Bill…they already have dirt on Bill.

  28. Llama Identity Thief*

    “I wonder if you’re thinking of “hey, this feels like there could be gender bias going on” as a massive, career-destroying thing to say about someone — but it’s normally not, and if people see it that way, the barrier to reporting potential discrimination will get even higher.”

    I want to build on this, because outside of “Jane wtf are you doing even if mandatory reporter you have to keep OP in the loop” I feel like it’s the most important piece of advice in this letter.

    First of all, investigations happen. Unless you’re in a dysfunctional office, should you be falsely accused of such a thing, that evidence will come out over an investigation, and your actual prospects within that job will not be affected. And if you do get written-up/punished either without an investigation or with a sham of one, then it’s probably a bullet dodged. (Although if it’s a pattern of you getting such punishments with what you’d consider “sham investigations,” then the issue might not lie with the investigations.)

    Secondly, the part where someone starts to tank a career isn’t the part where they’re accused of sexist behavior or even when they’re proved of sexist behavior. It’s when they immediately adopt an intensely defensive position about how they could NEVER do something so TERRIBLE because they are a GOOD PERSON who only does GOOD ACTIONS. Everyone has ways they behave imperfectly, and bias in general is very insidious in the ways it affects actions beyond the conscious realization of the biased.

    And finally, thinking personally, if someone believed I was acting in any form of -ist manner, I’d really really want to hear that whether from them or elsewise, because it would give me an indication that I need to check my behavior BOTH with that person AND in general. Because even if I have enough clear internal processing and external discussion and feedback to know I’m not -isming somehow, it’s probably a damn good sign that I’m not treating that person well, and I need to better evaluate how I interact with them.

    The sooner people stop treating such accusations as THE WORST THING EVER, the sooner people understand the difference between -ist behavior and -ist people on an internal level, then the more we can work to fight -ist behavior in all of its forms.

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