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We are a team of more than 20 people with only one woman, which is not unusual for most engineering teams.

One of the guys in our team is well known for his "unique" sense of humor, which is not technically explicit, but is often rather inappropriate if one thinks about it. But none of us had had any problem with it until we had a new female member.

The new engineer is fresh out of college but she is quite mature and her work is impressive, as we must all admit. The only problem, though, is that she is very reserved and does not take jokes very well.

On various occasions, our "class clown" would make humorous remarks/jokes targeted the new hire. She, of course, never seems amused, but unfortunately our joker never seems to notice.

One of the most "dramatic" incidents was when he said in a meeting to everyone, including people from different teams on the conference calls "Oh, Foo was being hard on Bar last night" (meaning Foo, a client, was being such a jerk, and Bar, our female engineer, had to deal with it at night, as he is in another side of the globe). But of course, not many people took it that way (and I probably don't need to say what meaning was being understood). Inevitably, a huge laughter busted out, and it lasted for sometime. Being the reserved person that she is, she did not react in any "violent" way, but she clearly looked upset with a scary stare at the engineer who made the joke.

As said, this is only one of various incidents. I am worried that it is only getting worse, and that we would come to point where we might even lose either of them.

I've tried talking casually to our male teammate about his jokes, but would get response similarly to "How else would you put it?" (implying what he said was technically correct, which is unfortunately true, and which shut me up!)

How would you deal with this situation? Do you think the joke was inappropriate? Or am I only over-reacting?

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What country are you in? –  Ollie Jones Jun 14 at 12:45
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His reply "How else would you put it?" needn't shut you up. You know how else to put it, because you wrote a perfectly good formulation as a parenthetical explanation in your message. The English language is sufficient to express just about anything without double entendres. –  Andreas Blass Jun 14 at 15:15
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"But none of us had had any problem with it until we had a new female member". That is not true. You recognized the jokes as inappropriate and did not speak up. –  Jan Doggen Jun 14 at 16:43
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@JanDoggen every joke in the world is inappropriate, it only matters when it actually hurts someone. –  Evil Washing Machine Jun 16 at 12:54
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"But none of us had had any problem with it until we had a new female member" - You don't know this. All you know is that nobody spoke about it - it's entirely possible that a number of persons disliked this type of joke but felt uncomfortable with speaking out about it. –  Jenny D Jun 16 at 14:15

9 Answers 9

Yes, the joke was inappropriate. You know that because you saw that it made someone uncomfortable. It's a shame that nobody else on the team ever objected to this juvenile "humor" because now some people will say things like "we used to have such fun before we got stuck with a woman on the team."

The response "how else would you put it?" is classic bully behavior. I would probably respond like this:

Really? You can't think of any way to praise a team member for going above and beyond to solve a client's urgent problems other than implying they were having sex with the client? You find the hilarity of a suggestive comment so irresistible that you are unable to find another way to phrase a positive reaction to hard work? Really?

And then I would stare at him for a long time. But I'm in my 50's, I have technical chops that intimidate just about everyone I meet, and I will not tolerate poisonous atmospheres any longer. I'm not suggesting this is an option available to you. You could, however, try it. Don't take on the task of rephrasing his "joke". If you are up to it, continuing to take on the task of letting him know he's inappropriate is more than enough work. Also, if you can, object in front of others. I've found the simple phrase:

Not cool, man

to be very effective. But "not funny" and "not fair" also work. Not a long speech. Just registering that you, at least, are not laughing along and not supporting these comments.

If he "stands his ground" then I believe your boss would appreciate knowing there is tension in the team and the source of it. Some bosses may go to "the new girl" and tell her to grow a thicker skin and quit whining. Therefore you should give her a heads up before you go to the boss so she isn't blindsided if that happens. I hope your boss turns out to be a little more modern.

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I feel that saying "not cool" at the time is particularly important since it puts you on the side of the person who is uncomfortable. This robs the person making the joke of the ability to say, "everyone else found it funny, X doesn't fit in with our team". Well, they can say it, but it becomes less true the more people notice he's a jerk and are prepared to give off the corresponding social signals. It also means the non-modern boss can't consider the thickness of X's skin to be the only problem: he'd have to tell everyone who resists the poisonous atmosphere to grow a thicker skin. –  Steve Jessop Jun 14 at 13:35
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Love this. Given that the lady involved sounds shy, I would also give her a quiet moment of vocal support the next time you have a moment private with her. Just a quick "I didn't think that joke was OK, and I told him so. Let me know if you ever need support on it." A hard thing about being a woman in an environment like this is you never want to seem too touchy, even when the joke is way beyond OK. –  bethlakshmi Jun 16 at 15:43
    
@bethlakshmi - Inappropriate jokes with women when they are not okay with it is unacceptable. But, the Oh, Foo was being hard on Bar last night seems gray to me. Given just that sentence with no tone and such, its really hard to say if it had a double meaning. If I were the OP, I'd probably tell the HR to tell the joker that it did not sound right and that the woman is sensitive, so lets just be simple and straightforward with her. If he tries this stunt again, then let all the team members support the woman and remind this guy that this is not cool. –  Borat Sagdiyev Jul 20 at 20:51

Personally, I wouldn't have approached the offending engineer about it. I would have gone straight to his supervisor to communicate the issue. This is a serious issue, and can lead to a very large lawsuit that a small firm like your self cannot afford. If she's mature, she'll know she doesn't have to put up with jokes like that, and she will lawyer up eventually.

But you've already tried to talk to him, so when you do go to the supervisor, he's going to know that it's you. So you're going to have to expect some serious backlash. I.e. Jason, why do you have to be such a buzzkill? Jason, why are you narking on me? Jason, can't you take a joke?

So you have three choices. You could try not being casual with the guy - be very firm: you're very worried about how this could effect the company, and himself (you could always play it off as a "I'm looking out for you, friend"). And if that doesn't work, go to the supervisor. He'll know 100% it's you, but you can always tell him "Look, I said this had to stop - I tried to get it to stop before going to this level, but you didn't, so here we are." Pros of this are that it avoids upper management which your coworker might appreciate. Cons are it's literally stepping over your bounds - if you're just a peer, and you get serious about him with this, you're kind of over the line. So do this carefully depending on your relationship with him.

Second option is to go to the supervisor straight away. Lay out the facts, detail some instances, and let him handle it. It's his job. Pro here is that it is straight and to the point, and avoids immediate awkward situations putting you on the spot. Con is that eventually he'll want to talk to you about it and he probably won't like what's going on.

Third option is to get the supervisor and the offender in the room together. Lay out the facts and let them both know that you feel this is serious, and what the potential ramifications of doing nothing are. The supervisor may sort it out right there, or he may thank you and keep the offender behind to talk about it privately. Pro here is that it shows that you care enough to make a stand - your coworker may see you as on his side. Con is that he easily could not see it that way, too.

No matter what you do, you need to have a plan of going to the supervisor sooner rather than later. (It doesn't have to be the supervisor, it could be HR or legal or whatever. But I recommend the supervisor because his direct reports are his direct responsibility. Honestly, he should know this is going on, but if he doesn't, how will he know what he isn't told?)

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For issWorkues like this I would go directly to HR. Workplace harassment such as this will not go away unless you deal with it proactively. –  Christopher Barber Jun 14 at 3:50
    
@ChristopherBarber: Some people seem to think that HR's job is to implement programs that make employees happy. Their number one job actually is make sure no employee is so unhappy that they justifiably sue the company for all it's worth. I agree with your suggestion; go to HR directly. –  Eric Lippert Jun 14 at 14:55
    
I used 'supervisor' throughout the post for brevity. It could also be HR or legal that you go to as the person with the authority to take decisive action. I suppose it would depend with what latitude the supervisor has to take that action. I do agree that HR is not a happy machine, but instead a CYA machine. (Although a lot of places do have a team that functions as a happy machine.) –  corsiKa Jun 14 at 20:13

I was the only woman to join an engineering group of around 15, and was still the only one when we until we finally got to 80 or 90 over 2.5 years. But I never felt offended or uncomfortable during the normal banter that happens with a small dev team in close quarters. (In fact, I probably made more comments than most guys). So while I can't be much help there, I do remember what it was like to be the new person.

You're terrified, you want to make a good impression, you don't want to do anything that would make you look stupid... maybe she just got froze up because the attention was suddenly thrown on her and she had no idea what to say. It's also possible that she just hasn't opened up yet - I've worked with plenty of people who took weeks or months to finally let their sense of humor show. But it is, of course, possible that just as you fear, the jokes are making her very uncomfortable and the dynamic could create a hostile work environment.

Have you talked to her about it at all? How well do you know her? If you aren't comfortable coming right out and asking her directly, just ask her how she's settling in so far. If she starts to open up with you a bit, you could ask she feels about the open office... about the way everyone works here... that sort of thing. Maybe you won't get a direct answer, but if you start to open a line of communication, you will get a better idea of how she's feeling, plus she will have someone she feels she can talk to honestly. I know if it were me, and suddenly I get called into HR because someone else filed a complaint on my behalf, I would probably be a little pissed about them assuming how I'm feeling, and I'd wonder why they felt they couldn't (or shouldn't) ask me directly about it.

If it escalates, I agree that you need to head to the supervisor and/or HR. I have a feeling that this guy is going to be a problem sooner or later from his response, "How else would you put it?" That's not the point, at all. The point was that he clearly made a coworker uncomfortable, and doesn't seem to see it as a problem.

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@JasonK, you're wise to ask for advice on this matter.

You know what? Your question makes it clear that YOU are, and the quality of YOUR work, is affected by the offensive conduct. That is sufficient (in the US) to require your employer to intervene to make this stop.

There is absolutely NO BRO CODE or any other fake rule of loyalty that means you can't intervene. Don't believe otherwise. Somebody may call you a priss or a wimp or something. It's not true. You're an adult and you want an adult place to work.

If you're OK with it, go to the joker privately and say something like this:

"I have something to say to you. I am serious. Please listen until I am done speaking. When you use personal sexual innuendo at work, you offend me. Your jokes at the expense of our new colleague are not funny. They make me uncomfortable and weaken our team. That's bad for me, bad for you, and bad for us all. Please stop. Thanks for listening."

Describe the behavior. Describe its effect on you. Ask for a change.

He's going to try to argue with you. Don't engage in the argument. Just say, "I hope you'll think about what I've said."

Make a note of the date and time of this statement, and what you said.

If the unwanted behavior continues, inform your human resources department. You don't have to get your new colleague to complain.

Also, if you're not comfortable going to the joker directly, ask your HR department to do it for you.

Here are the US EEOC regs. I promise you, if your company is in the US, that your human resources people are familiar with these regs or soon will be.

http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/fs-sex.cfm

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Everyone else has some good advice: talk to the offender, talk to the new hire, talk to your manager (if it doesn't stop).

But there is a larger problem, and it's the entire team. If everyone else is laughing at the 'jokes', then everyone else is also part of the problem. The one co-worker is making the jokes, but the others are taking them in a certain way, laughing for a long time, in a meeting that should be professional. A manager should have shut that down immediately, or talked to the jokester as soon as the meeting was over. If that's not happening, and it sounds like it's not, then the problem is much bigger than your one co-worker. For that matter, did you laugh?

You could talk to all of your co-workers, one at a time, tell them that laughing at the jokes is not cool, and ask them to be more professional. Talk to the jokester as well, as other replies have indicated. And in meetings, group settings, or one-on-ones where he makes an inappropriate comment, speak up. Be professional (so don't get into a long discussion when a "wow, not cool. Anyway, as we were saying" would do), and others will hopefully step up and also start being professional. Without that, your whole team looks unprofessional, including those who keep silent. People on the phone don't hear those who don't laugh.

If you're in the US and that doesn't change, you have a winnable lawsuit just waiting to happen. Lawsuits are a big bother however, so many women will just leave, find a better job.

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It appears a fundamental problem is that the comedian doesn't appear to understand or accept the fact that his "humour" is unwelcome. Getting him to tone it down or stop altogether is unlikely, as in his own reasoning he's not causing any harm and the new hire hasn't complained (mildly sociopathic trait).

Get the new hire to register her displeasure. I'd be wary of going disciplinary first, to avoid a possible backlash. It's very likely that the rest of the team respond unfavourably, when the class clown is disciplined by management as a result of the complaint from the new hire. Going the diplomatic route would be my first choice. Also, taking unilateral action on behalf of a colleague (without her knowledge/consent/awareness) runs the risk of producing other results that may damage team relations and camaraderie (I'm not recommending you stay mum to keep the everyone happy). You've already started with a tactful approach; you can continue by helping the new hire feel secure in taking action herself

I noticed that [comedian]'s comment during that meeting didn't sit too well with you. He's harmless mostly, but if you're not comfortable with stuff like that, you should let him know.

I'll also recommend she address him via official channels (e.g. email), so it's on record. If he's a reasonable person, he'll cease and desist quietly. If he fails to correct his behaviour, she has no choice but to go straight to HR, email in hand.

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New hires often don't want to rock the boat. Rightly or wrongly, they understand themselves to be in low-power situations. But the OP also can address the issue directly. –  Ollie Jones Jun 14 at 13:07

Women are typically given more trouble in the software job world than their male counterparts. This is common, but it has never been right. Your question underlines this perfectly.

Jeff Atwood (Coding Horror) blogged about this a few months ago, in an article titled "What Can Men Do?", and I strongly recommend you read the whole thing. It has lots of good advice not only for inappropriate jokes, but for other areas of office life that are unusually hostile to women. As a side note, much of the advice applies with any minority group facing similar problems.

If you want to jump to what I think is the most relevant bit, see bullet 3 of this section of the article.

The short answer is to make it your job to make your office a safe place for your co-workers. If someone does or says something inappropriate, speak up. Right then. You don't have to make a speech, just give your voice that you're not okay with what's going on. Another answer suggested saying something as simple as "Not cool." Start with that.

The best part here is that if you're not alone in your feelings, by speaking out you will give courage to others to stand with you.

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What proof do you have for the first paragraph? Same proof as the infamous headline "World to end tomorrow! Women and children affected the most." Very few people have an easy situation coming onto a new job. It doesn't matter what any of their traits are. They may have a degree but feel lost because there is so much to learn. Those that have the most difficult time (besides the actual work) are usually having a difficult time by choice. You can't be offended by someone that you don't give the power to offend you. PERIOD. –  Dunk Jun 16 at 23:01

First, I would would have a private conversation with the new engineer. It seems like she is actually handling this the best way she can, and she may not want your assistance. Part of being the new guy is putting up with the razzing. Every time she does not melt down or take the bait she is building more credibility with the joker. At some point the razzing will let up(probably when your next newbie engineer starts), at that point she will just be a part of the team. I personally hate this sort of hazing but the reality is that it has existed from far longer than any of us and stepping in where your help is not wanted is more likely to do harm than it is good.

If your female coworker does have a problem with the hazing, then I think it is absolutely time to take action. You did your best to try to affect change by mentioning it informally to the joker, and presumably your supervisor has been in the meetings and has had a chance to address this him/herself. If they have not then I would probably bring it to them first, but if they have then a trip to HR is order.

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The behavior described isn't appropriate, even if the new hire has no problem with it, the author clearly identifies its not appropriate behavior. –  Ramhound Jun 16 at 19:00
    
@Ramhound - No, but a lot of things happen in real life that are not appropriate. Just because you can take action does not mean that taking action is always the right choice. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jun 16 at 19:07

If a mild case of innuendo is the most "dramatic" incident I think you are getting overly sensitive here if your colleague was persistently doing this at every meeting she might have a point this seems very mild. Are you jumping to conclusions because you don’t like the joker here or the mild sexual innuendo make you uncomfortable?

And sorry to say this referring to your female college as “quite mature” as if this would not be the case makes me think that its not just the joker she might have issues with.

And at the end of the day its down to her if she feels uncomfortable men acting as big brother as if she is some precious snowflake that can't look after herself is in fact more offensive to women.

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Nonsense. It is perfectly feasible to to HR when you observe that someone's conduct is making others uncomfortable. In fact I am personally aware of similar situations in which intervention by HR was the only thing that got the offender to fix his behavior. –  Christopher Barber Jun 15 at 5:03
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Who said anything about a single mild innuendo? The question sites "growing conflicts", so there is clearly a problem here. It should always be ok to talk to HR about problems directly affecting employee morale. This does not mean that HR necessarily has to make a big deal about it. The reason to go to HR is that they are supposed to be trained to deal with such situations in an appropriate and discrete manner. If you can't go to HR with issues like this, you have a serious management problem. –  Christopher Barber Jun 15 at 19:52
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If you commonly deal with women who experience serious depression because of the way they are treated, then you have a serious problem with your workplace and you should think about what you can do to prevent it from escalating to that stage. This is not about "jumping to conclusions" but merely being proactive about bad behavior. You don't have to conclude that someone is actively intending to sexually harass someone to step in and tell them to stop acting like a jerk. If you wait until things get bad, then that is what is going to happen. –  Christopher Barber Jun 16 at 15:03
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Unbeliveable. This is very uncomfortable for a woman and totally out of bounds. Everyone even saw she was uncomfortable and none of them were man enough to stick up for her. This is totally a harrassing environment. This is not mild stuff and boys can learn to behave like men and not five-year-olds. Any man who observed this should have come down hard on the idiot and most women above entry level would have. –  HLGEM Jun 16 at 17:30
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@HLGEM - Thank You. Even if there wasn't a women on this team, the jokes that are being told, indicate the behavior would still be inappropriate. I am an all business type of person while at work, outside of 9-5, I laugh and play like everyone else. –  Ramhound Jun 16 at 19:02

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