25

I work for a big company. Recently our Indian co-workers visited our HQ in Germany (the location is important for the story). One of them decided to wear Hitler merchandise to work one day. It was literally a t-shirt like you would expect it from a rock-band except that it was made for a dictator.

We laughed about it since it obviously was some cultural gaffe and expected anyway that some manager instantly would send this guy to the locker room or home or whatever, at least something. But guess what? Absolutely nothing happened. This guy was strolling around in a Hitler-shirt all day long.

I asked my boss what the heck is going on here and he told me that they can't do anything since this would highly offensive and impolite towards the employee. One has to be extremely careful since Indian people hate it "to lose their face", he added.

You have to understand that we have a "business casual" dress-code and we need to wear pullovers or business-shirts and long trousers. So while my co-worker can wear a Hitler shirt I'm not allowed to wear shorts.

I'm really angry about this whole story. Not because of my Indian co-worker, but my managers. Imagine a customer, press, CEOs etc. ran into a Hitler-shirt. Or a Jewish co-worker got to see this. The possibilities are endless.

My story should just explain what I'm asking here in a more general manner: how to approach management ignoring offensive and/or just highly inappropriate office clothing violating the dress code?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Oct 10 '17 at 22:36
  • 3
    @letsc it had Hitler's face on it not a swastika. – WorksOdd Oct 11 '17 at 5:29
  • 1
    @letsc In fact, this would have been even worse. Because the swastika is a "forbidden symbol" in Germany. He could have been fined for that by authorities and the T-Shirt confiscated. – Fildor Oct 11 '17 at 14:53
  • 1
    Isn't that illegal in Germany? Or is it only the Swastika specifically that is banned? – Jonathon Cowley-Thom Oct 11 '17 at 16:11
  • 2
    I personally think it is irrelevant where the guy is from. If he is doing something wrong it should be pointed out to him by someone. I would be offended if someone gives me special consideration (even if it is in my favor) just because I am from India. – PagMax Oct 13 '17 at 6:45

10 Answers 10

32

Given that you are in Germany, wouldn't there be actual laws designed for such an occasion? I am not from that country, but I am sure that the topic of Nazism is an acute issue within German society. As a result, your company must abide by the laws of the country in which they reside.

Management might dismiss you, but they will definitely not dismiss the law.

You should bring to management's attention that their action (or lack thereof) might bring legal consequences to the company in the form of fines, complaints, and/or lawsuits.

  • 2
    Yes, afaik it's even illegal to wear such a shirt. But these laws are complicated, that's why I haven't mentioned it in the question. Also, I really don't want to sue my company of course. :D – WorksOdd Oct 8 '17 at 7:43
  • 18
    You are not suing, you are bringing to management's attention that their action (or lack thereof) might bring legal consequences to the company in the form of fines, complaints, and/or lawsuits. – Frank FYC Oct 8 '17 at 7:44
  • 1
    As far as I remember, even Germany allows Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, etc. to use the swastika for religious purposes. That is different from Hitler's picture, of course, but if you feel so strongly about it, might be a good idea to actually check the law before telling management that they are breaking the law. – Masked Man Oct 8 '17 at 8:03
  • 2
    @JuhaUntinen I know we are digressing from the main point, but the Hindu swastika is not a mirror image of the Nazi swastika. You are probably referring to the sauwastika which is a different symbol. Anyway, I realize the difference between Hitler's photo and the swastika, but my advice was to just check the law before telling management that they are breaking the law. – Masked Man Oct 8 '17 at 10:20
  • 1
    @MaskedMan, I am surprised noone has touched on the Indian employee, is he really that clueless that he doesn't know that wearing a t-shirt with a dictator on it might cause offense? Honestly? – Charles Borg Oct 9 '17 at 6:28
11

I just can't believe this! Swastika (in reverse), perhaps, but Hitler?!

I believe, from experience (and decades of working overseas, on three continents), that Indians have no more concept of "face" than Germans do.

In any case, "face" is a public thing - has anyone (have you) taken him to one side and explained "unter vier Augen"? That would seem the easy/correct way to handle it, and I would expect him to blush and invent an excuse to rush back to his hotel - it is highly unlikely that he is being evil or even insensitive, be almost certainly cannot understand that he he is doing something offensive.

If he were European, I would suggest you to go to the police, rather than management. As he probably cannot be expect to understand what he is doing wrongly, someone (possibly you) needs to explain that that T-shirt goes back in his suitcase and stays there until he returns home.

Wild guess - software? Automotive? Hidlesheim, maybe Stuttgart?

  • 2
    He's not really in my team and therefore I didn't see me in the position to handle this. Your geo-guess is about right btw ;) I don't want to provide more information however (for obvious reasons). – WorksOdd Oct 8 '17 at 8:27
  • 2
    Left me absolutely baffled too. I never thought that they are not going to respond to this. I don't know whether someone talked to him. I only know what my boss told me (as described in the question) and that he was wearing it all day long. I would've assumed that he needs to wear a hoodie or something above it or otherwise get rid of it. – WorksOdd Oct 8 '17 at 8:35
  • 15
    @Mawg Indian schools are not particularly concerned with Hitler for obvious reasons. All that we learn is he was the guy responsible for starting the Second World War, and that his party/government commissioned about a dozen concentration camps where about 10 million people were killed. More importantly, we do learn a lot more about Netaji Bose seeking help from Germany for India's independence and Hitler welcoming him with open arms (sort of). Given that we see England as an enemy (at least before independence), Hitler has an overall positive reputation in India. – Masked Man Oct 8 '17 at 8:42
  • 5
    @Mawg Yes, absolutely. The Bengal famines and Jallianwala Bagh massacre are two pretty good examples you would find in history textbooks of Indian schools. Also, we learn that the Divide and Rule policy led to the partition of India. Overall, it is quite clear that we should think of England as an enemy, otherwise the whole struggle for independence makes no sense. – Masked Man Oct 8 '17 at 9:09
  • 2
    @newguy About my comment on England, I am sure very few Indians see England as an enemy now. We are not explicitly taught to think of England as an enemy, but that message is heavily implied indirectly, the rest of your comment also supports that claim. – Masked Man Oct 8 '17 at 16:01
8

As a former manager myself, would be the first thing I would think of:

The same rules should apply to ALL employees.

And one of the fundamental rules which is always there even if not formally in the company "rule book", is this: any employee who insults or offends another employee or employees must have the offending situation addressed by the manager - period! Employees may well have been brought up in different cultures, but it is my experience in dealing with employees of many cultures and colours and forging them into a cohesive team, that the concept of having respect for the sensitivities of your workmates is understood across all of humanity - and frankly, that is not a difficult concept to understand.

Unless you work for a company that embraces 19th-century autocracy and rigid hierarchy in the workplace, you ought to be given a respectful hearing by your manager or by HR. Tell them that you are seriously concerned about the issue. I suspect you cannot be the only German employee who feels as you do.

And the Indian who is wearing the Hitler T-shirt because to him (the Indian) it is an innocuous thing to do.? I do not believe that Hitler is the only icon who can be honoured by Indians as a symbol of the struggle to end British oppression. Mahatma Ghandi immediately springs to mind. Problem solved. The Indian gets to honour a great symbol of Indian independence, and Germans are not mightily insulted.

Talk to HR. If they do not listen, then I suggest the problem is not with the Indian, it is with company hierarchy, in which case you have a decision to make about how the balance of your career will unfold.

  • Did your managerial position also include interacting with offices from around the world? Rules are often more lax for visiting employees due to cultural differences, dress code and many other reasons. Not the same dress code rules apply to all offices in a lot of companies I had contact with. – Xander Oct 9 '17 at 9:08
  • One word answer: No. My experience derived from my responsibilities at keeping an eclectic team of employees working in harmony together & led by foremen and forewomen who in turn answered directly to me. My employees were stable & longterm. I had about four potentially antagonistic "pairs" of cultures and/or races whose memories of wars or oppression in greater Europe, Asia, India, Pacific Islands sometimes got the better of them. Perhaps 7 languages. But in New Zealand we don't see cultural differences as insurmountable. White vs white Europeans caused me most problems. – Stan H Oct 9 '17 at 16:49
  • BTW, I never forced any of my employees to like each other. That would be autocratic in itself. The only autocracy I chose to wield was, they had to talk to me because it was my "hand on the tiller" - not to mention quietly my head on the block should efficiency fall. Some antagonisms ran deep, but when they saw I would listen respectfully and do what it took to resolve dissident cultural anomalies, they worked with respect for each other because they respected me. Just to clarify, I see the question as one which lays a serious problem squarely at the foot of the management/HR team. – Stan H Oct 10 '17 at 11:02
1

I faced a similar situation--one of the men in my office took a trip to Thailand and brought back a calendar that featured beautiful topless women, which he then posted on his office wall.

I wasn't really all that bothered by it, the office was mostly men, and it was extremely unlikely anyone from outside the company would ever see it. Regardless, I felt it was an inappropriate thing to have in a professional environment, and so I let our HR department know that it bothered me.

That would be my suggestion--if you feel like something has the potential to be offensive, which you clearly do--even if you don't personally feel offended, then follow the appropriate procedures to report it. When you do so, it takes the onus off of the manager to take care of it, and pushes it over to the HR folks, who should have some sort of official process for informing the employee.

Hopefully informing him in this way will not cause him to lose face in the same manner as he might have by being confronted in the moment, but regardless, it is very important that he understand that this was an inappropriate choice for a workplace environment, so that he won't make the same mistake again.

  • 2
    But have you first tried to tell the man that you were seeing a problem with that calendar ? He might have just taken it down right away, maybe he didn't even know you felt it was inappropriate. You just went straight to HR ? – SantiBailors Dec 30 '17 at 14:53
1

How [do I] approach management ignoring offensive and/or just highly inappropriate office clothing violating the dress code?

The first thing I think you should do is research the company handbook and policies on how this event should have been handled. And document as much information as you can about what actually happened. Then compare the two and see if what you expect should have happened, based on the policies, meets what actually happened.

You also need to assess if the policies on how the event should have been handled meet a minimum common sense expectation of the response. Do they meet your understanding of the legal requirements? Do you feel that there was some sort of damage that occurred due to how it was handled? And do you feel that after answering those questions, you are willing to take the risk that is associated with being a whistle-blower? And then take action off of that.

If those policies were not met and you feel the need to take action about it, then document everything that happened, and take it to your HR, your Manager's Manager, or another manager at the company. Make sure you have copies of all of the documentation that you hand over to them. It is very hard to ignore documentation like this because it puts legal risk to the company and to the manager itself if they do choose to ignore, or bury your complaint.

If you feel the problem was bad enough you may want to retain some legal counsel to protect your rights. A very common tactic I have seen when addressing complaints is to try to undermine the complainant. Legal counsel can help you avoid that or at least deal with it if it does.

1

One has to be extremely careful since Indian people hate it "to lose their face", he added.

"losing face" should be equally sensitive to anyone from any part the world. Secondly whether it is true or not does not matter. Making a special rule for someone based on some assumed cultural behaviour is just wrong.

Now about your co-worker, I think you should have just pointed out to him yourself like "Hey, do you know these T-shirts are considered offensive in Germany. May be you should change". More likely than not he is just ignorant and he would have just realized his mistake and would have done something about it.

May be you can politely talk to him even now about past incident. I do not think he will "lose a face" by that. And if he does seem to react hostile then you can stop and start being angry at your management but then at least you would know you tried to resolve it!

  • @JoeStrazzere that may be true but all I meant is corporates should not start taking into consideration these cultural values which are mostly assumed (may not be wrong but still assumed). I can understand considerations based on hijab or turban but "losing face" I think is very personal and not as dependent on culture. – PagMax Oct 13 '17 at 6:29
  • @IDrinkandIKnowThings thanks for pointing it out. I did not mean to be rude and the "ridiculous" was directed not at the OP but their manager. I did not think I was violating "be nice" policy by commenting on people who are not part of this discussion. I have seen worse in this forum. I have removed that line anyways. Lot of people here make cultural assumptions about India and I do find it ridiculous since I live here. It is extremely diverse country and no single statement can apply for entire population (good or bad!). – PagMax Oct 13 '17 at 6:35
1

Hitler and his image are not viewed the same way in India as they are in Germany (or most of the Western World)

In India it is considered acceptable to use Hitler and Nazi images. So as the question says, this is almost certainly a cultural misunderstanding.

It's also surprising how long a worker can go in many workplaces without physically encountering a manager who has authority over them.

I propose that the scenario that day may have gone like this: Worker wears Hitler T-shirt. People are offended but nobody says anything. Sometime, possibly quite late in the day, a manager notices and takes him aside for a word. Worker is desperately remorseful and didn't realize it was a problem. He apologizes and says it will never happen again. Manager asks him to cover up the T-shirt, but worker says he has no way to do that.

Manager now has a choice. He either sends the worker home, or he just accepts the situation - possibly only for a very short time - confident that it will not be repeated. While it's easy to argue for option A, option B is not entirely unacceptable, especially if the time left in the day is short.

The only way that you could be helpful in this situation is to either talk to the wearer of the shirt as soon as you see it (remembering that he might think it's just a shirt), or report it to his manager.

  • 1
    If he's willing to cover up the T-shirt, he could just wear it inside-out until he gets home. If the T-shirt is cheap enough, that should do the trick. – Stephan Branczyk Oct 18 '17 at 18:20
1

I think you are doing this colleague a disservice by not saying something to him. Just because your manager chooses to do nothing about it, there is a risk another manager, business partner or client will. This person may be putting himself in danger when he leaves the office.

You can't make him take it off, but you can advise him it would be in his best interest. Be professional and don't expect management to handle everything.

-1

How do I respond to management ignoring a Hitler T-Shirt in Germany?

Unless he's breaking a law and you feel it your duty as a good citizen to alert the authorities you don't do anything. It's really a management decision how it is handled in the workplace.

  • 11
    He is breaking the law, but your "you feel it your duty as a good citizen to alert the authorities" can also be phrased as "you feel it your duty as a good citizen to tell the dude that he is making a serious mistake". The OP's call - and all others on site. Do we educate the ignorant, or punish them for what they do not know? – Mawg Oct 8 '17 at 8:36
  • 1
    "It's really a management decision how it is handled in the workplace" - on many/most things; on this one, it very well be a kick the crap out of him decision on someone's part. Which brings it back to management, I Guess. It is their responsibility to educate & protect him – Mawg Oct 8 '17 at 8:39
  • 2
    There is good chance that anyone Jewish will have "harsh words" with him. Even if not Jewish - I am unsure if you are German, but "the sins of the fathers" is in the blood. The young man is unknowingly treading a very dangerous path an needs to be educated (hopefully educated in the good way, of someone quietly explaining why he should not wear that shirt). – Mawg Oct 8 '17 at 8:53
  • 3
    @Mawg I agree, just it is not the OP's problem to do that. The responsibility is fairly on the managers shoulders and it's their decision how to handle it. – Kilisi Oct 8 '17 at 9:06
  • 1
    No, it is not (+1), but someone has to ("who must do the hard things? He who can"). It helps that the OP is in another team/department. It is just a a matter of wanting to help. The guy has probably gone back to Indian now, so it is a moot point. But, like the OP, I am astonished that no one else in the whole company spoke to him – Mawg Oct 8 '17 at 9:10
-3

It might have been a heads-up gesture of the "hey, I know people aren't fond of Germans because how your past worked out, but I like you" kind. Denazification mostly happened in Hollywood and Germany.

A study colleague of an ex of mine taught German as part of her French language studies in Southern France, Arcachon. That would have been in the mid-90s, she being in her mid-20s at that time. Her pupils asked her about her war experiences. She sent copies of the teaching material she got to work with there: I remember one page with some five-year old Hitler "Pimpf" in full uniform and doing the "Heil Hitler" greeting, opposed to a famous photograph where Jews, mostly children, are leaving the Warsaw(!) ghetto with raised hands. Overall task: "youth in Germany: discuss". Yes, those were the official teaching materials.

When going out and being asked at parties or such where she was from, she tended to reply "from Belgium" -- not an actual lie since that's where her parents live. Because "from Germany" was the end of conversation.

At some point of time she decided she might as well live up to her reputation if she was going to pay the price for it either way, and threw a tantrum, jumping on the table in class, yelling and putting kids in the corner. Never had any discipline problems any more, everyone being mortally afraid of her.

That was Southern France. India might be a few more decades behind regarding what being German means, and what may or may not be a widespread source of national pride and/or identity.

It definitely is the task of your management to bring your visitor up to speed in that regard. But since that apparently was a one-time occurence, they might have done that (or somebody else did). Maybe your colleague just was missing a backup T-shirt for reacting faster.

Of course, if this repeats, contacting the person and/or HR about it seems appropriate.

protected by Mister Positive Oct 11 '17 at 11:22

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.