42

I manage a dev and project team with about 15 people. Every morning we have a stand up. Fairly standard stuff for an agile team.

However, about once a month, someone who clearly participated in the standup sends out an anonymous email like this to our black employee:

“The [n-word] couldn’t stop talking about [feature].“

Or

“[Racial Epithet] really thinks that [proposed solution] will succeed at fixing [problem].”

This has been going on for 4 months.

IT can’t find anything about who may have sent it as it probably wasn’t done from a work device. The emails come from different addresses each time, so an email block isn't sufficient.

HR proposed “diversity education” which I let people sign up for if they wanted (nobody did), but that didn’t work. They otherwise don’t know what to do.

The emails are infrequent enough that it’s hard to tell who it might be from standup attendance. He doesn’t have any clear enemies on the team as far as I know.

My team is mostly technical and experienced with networks. Every member of my team would know that network traffic can be monitored or how to use Tor. We have used hotspot to bypass our security in the past for testing.

I’m at a loss for what else I might try? How can I identify the culprit or at least stop the emails?

I will be looking into keyword filtering options for the email, but that’s fixed by choosing the next racial slur.

  • 2
    Have you spoken to your team about these emails? – sf02 Feb 28 at 18:02
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    Diversity and harassment training are usually mandatory, not voluntary. – pboss3010 Feb 28 at 18:46
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    @Iman Blocking the email is addressing the symptom and not the cause. There is a racist individual harassing coworkers. This individual needs to be dealt with. – Eric Feb 28 at 18:47
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    @Iman I doubt that the emails are coming from the company servers. – Matthew Gaiser Feb 28 at 19:04
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    There is a small but not zero possibility the target is also the perpetrator so it might not be prudent to go overboard before having some evidence either way of who may be responsible. As well knowledge about the stand-ups doesn't necessarily mean a participant as somebody could overhear the occasional meeting or learn about it in another way. – Brian Feb 28 at 19:07
49

I would suggest that merely stopping the emails is doing a disservice to the victim of the emails. Here in the US, this type of harassment is "unlawful": https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/race_color.cfm

It seems like you are making token efforts at best to identify the person exposing your company to risk of lawsuits and themselves to potential criminal prosecution. I suggest you consider this as a crime rather than an irritation. The fact that no one has volunteered information about who may be sending the emails may imply that more than one person is at least aware of the activity and they are covering for the perpetrator.

Get your legal department involved ASAP. Have law enforcement involved if appropriate. Threaten real consequences if the person does not step forward.

If stronger efforts do not reveal the culprit, you may need to take more drastic action like disbanding the team to protect this individual from continued harassment.

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    Upvoted for proposing OP to take a legal action. The cyber police in almost any country can track the sender down! – Iman Feb 28 at 19:13
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    Good luck getting the police to do anything about this. If you're lucky enough to be in a jurisdiction where the police have the resources to track this down, which is pretty unlikely, the odds that they'll dive headfirst into a civil (read - noncriminal) matter is ridiculously low. And in the US this is just that. You have a higher chance of getting struck by lightning while winning the lottery than getting the police to subpoena multi-billion dollar corporations to get the information they would need to identify this person. – TheBatman Feb 28 at 19:56
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    "The fact that no one has volunteered information about who may be sending the emails may imply...". No, it doesn't. – Stephan Branczyk Feb 29 at 0:08
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    Sending emails is not a public activity, so why would someone else be aware? – Matthew Gaiser Feb 29 at 0:23
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    No one volunteering to provide information has one much more probable cause - no one else knows who it is. Pointing fingers at someone without proof is considered a dick behaviour where I am from. – sjaustirni Feb 29 at 10:21
32

The arguments for an IT solution ignore that the culprit is technically skilled.

Facebook and Reddit can't manage racist content, so you are almost assuredly in over your head. Correct me if I am wrong, but is there anyone on your team that wouldn't have a good idea of how to get around a block or at least have ideas about how such a thing was implemented?

Keyword email blocks assume two things.

Firstly, that the culprit lacks the sense to use a 1 instead of an i. Sure, you can then go with regex solutions, but then one can double up on some of the letters or put a space in the middle. Especially if the culprit knows of your reaction, they can know if something is working or not and try something else.

Second, it assumes that racist statements require racist words. There are plenty of racist things that can be said without racist words. The 2nd example you have has no bad words at all. "Farm tool" is racist only in context. What is the spam filter going to do there?

A more sophisticated solution may be possible (see dwizum's first comment).

It also would not solve that you don't want a racist on your team and that this is harassment.

This is harassment, not spam. This is not spur of the moment harassment either, but at least somewhat planned harassment. It is unlawful harassment in your country and exposes you to legal risk.

You basically need to sit down and create a task force to deal with this. HR, legal, a senior rep from management, a senior member of IT, and yourself. Has everyone sat in a room for a few hours together to get a grasp of the situation, what has been tried, and what the legal implications are or are you just bouncing around emails?

I suspect that if you announce the task force on harassment and threaten police involvement in a very prominent way like an all-hands email, the issue will likely go away. I doubt you ever catch the guy, but you will scare him underground.

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  • 2
    I don't think anyone is literally suggesting to use a keyword filter and manually type in the things you want to block. Modern approaches (SPF, DMARC, machine learning) are much more robust and usually rely on multiple techniques that would be difficult to defeat effectively, while remaining completely anonymous, even if you knew how they worked. I agree that keywords would be a dismal way to deal with this, but it might be typical for a good corporate spam filter to be more than 99.9% accurate these days, which is almost certainly good enough to catch a handful of emails in 4 months. – dwizum Feb 28 at 19:51
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    That said, I agree with your point that this is harassment and needs to be addressed appropriately within the org and/or law enforcement, regardless of the potential for a technical solution. – dwizum Feb 28 at 19:51
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    @dwizum added a link to your comment in my answer. You should put that in an answer of its own as OP basically seems to be fishing for ideas at the moment. – Matthew Gaiser Feb 28 at 20:06
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    You creating a task force is exactly what the troll wants. Instead, implement mandatory diversity training for everyone involved every time this happens. If the troll doesn't like repeated diversity training, he'll stop. – Stephan Branczyk Feb 29 at 0:14
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    @StephanBranczyk What makes you think that’s any less of a desired outcome for the troll? Everyone else will start loathing the diversity training, and beyond a certain point it will stop due to discontent anyway. – user76284 Feb 29 at 3:14
17

By everyone knowing how to use Tor, did you mean that you know that each of them has actually used Tor, or just that they're all tech savvy enough to know that Tor exists and that they could, in principle, use it?

If the latter, it's reasonable to hope that the criminal may have made a mistake. Many know that Tor exists, few actually go through the hassle. Hate criminals are often acting on impulse rather than calculation.

Get legal involved. File a lawsuit against the unknown person. Get a court order for the email providers to identify the sender. If they give you an IP address, get a new court order for the Internet Service Provider. It's quite possible that you'll get back the home address of one team member.

Yes, that's all a pain, expensive, and results are far from guaranteed. But I view this as a serious threat to your organization, not just your team. Adults this toxic stop when they get caught.

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  • 2
    +1 for advicing legal action that does not place third party team members in an uncomfortable situatio – lijat Feb 29 at 10:15
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    How is Tor a hassle? You just download it like any other browser. – Džuris Feb 29 at 10:51
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    @Džuris I wouldn't know, I have never actually used it. – Emilio M Bumachar Feb 29 at 12:06
15

I basically agree with Eric, but I don't think you need law enforcement quite yet. But you do need to clear this up immediately. The situation is probably illegal, and aside from the feelings of the victim is opening your company to a charge of keeping a hostile workplace. First talk to HR and get them to say what disciplinary action is appropriate when the perpetrator is found, assuming that the entire team has been warned. I suspect firing is appropriate, but consult HR.

Once you have done that you need to talk to everyone in the team, either together or individually, and here is roughly what you say:

It has come to our attention that one of the people on the team has been receiving harassing emails. These emails are against company policy, possibly illegal, and must stop. We are certain that it is someone on the team sending them.

We are about to launch a full scale investigation, and when we find out who has sent them, . However if they come forward and admit their guilt today we will substitute lesser disciplinary action.

We also believe other people know who this person is. We expect them to also come forward. If they do not they may face disciplinary action too.

In the meantime the entire team will be sent to diversity education. This is not optional.

You follow through on all of this. Also you look for people who respond by going on about "their rights" and 'freedom of speech". They are your immediate suspects. If someone does that then wait a bit and then grill them separately telling them that the signs point to them as the culprit. You should also use IT to its fullest extent to track the origin down.

The aim here is to demonstrate to everyone how seriously you take this. Scare them enough that they come forward, and scare other people enough that they come forward. If they do come forward you can be more lenient, depending on what the thinking was. If it's unrepentant racism fire them. If they were just dumb enough to think this wasn't a big deal then put them on a written warning with the threat of firing if they ever do it again.

Other possible technical solutions: have someone scrub the victims email every morning before they come in so he/she doesn't see them. If the emails come during work hours, monitor people's internet access.

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    An investigation like this is only hostile to the people perpetrating the emails. Everybody else ought to be on board with it. – DJClayworth Feb 28 at 21:30
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    I’m not certain that starting a witch-hunt is a good idea. – nick012000 Feb 28 at 23:34
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    This isn't a witch-hunt. It's making it crystal clear to the team that this behavior is unacceptable. – shoover Feb 28 at 23:55
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    @shoover Lying to people about the evidence against them and then taking them for star-chamber interrogations without evidence is classic witch-hunt activity. – nick012000 Feb 29 at 9:52
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    The key feature of the original Witch Hunts is that the witches did not actually exist. In this case the perpetrator of these e-mails actually does exist. – EvilSnack Feb 29 at 12:31
0

How can I identify the culprit or at least stop the emails?

Identifying is difficult if they use outside resources.

Stopping the emails is easy, use a spam filter.

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-2

There are two aspects to this. One is: How is your black co-worker feeling about this? To be honest, if that was in the UK and I said this to my black co-worker, I wouldn't hurt his feelings, but he would hurt my nose.

The other aspect is how you might be able to stop it. I'd consult with that co-worker first to see if they agree. Then if they agree, I'd read these emails out loud at your next stand up. And then you ask the question to each one: Did you write these emails? That should make it clear to everyone that these emails are not a stupid prank, but serious business. If nobody comes forward, then you can tell the group that one of them is a coward and a troll. And that if you find out who it is, you will make sure that they are instantly dismissed, and that the reason for the dismissal will be in their reference.

There's a comment "these people are not children". Apparently the person is a software developer, and should have some intelligence, but mentally that person is not developed at all. An open show where the team lead publicly says that the racist comments don't say anything bad about the person they are aimed at, but are completely damning to the person making the comments could very well have some positive effect.

And of course this public warning will have the effect that if they are found out, there are no excuses, making it much easier to make the firing stick.

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    I don't see how what you propose in paragraph 2 could give the desired result. These people aren't children. If the culprit were afraid of being shamed or threatened they wouldn't be doing what they are doing in the first place. Also, not sure what this is supposed to mean: "wouldn't hurt his feelings, but he would hurt my nose". Such emails are unacceptable. They would be even if the receiver didn't feel hurt. It's harassment. – BigMadAndy Feb 29 at 13:42
  • @BigMadAndy Of course it is harassment. But fact is that if the harasser wasn't such a coward, he would be dragged out of the company by his ear and kicked out. – gnasher729 Feb 29 at 14:36
  • DO NOT read a list of slurs and insults out loud in a team meeting. This not only adds to the harm to your Black coworker but puts you in all kinds of legal peril. "I was only saying the N-word to show people how bad it is" will never fly as a defense. – Meg Mar 2 at 15:55
-2

One suggestion that may help. As a developer I deal with outside organisations fairly regularly in my current job and it wouldn't be impractical for me to have all of my outside communications relayed back to my manager to be curated by him. So what I am saying is for your black employee switch off external email and have him relay his external communications through a manager. Also I used to use basecamp to communicate with external partners once that were outsource programmers, sure we used email. But often we would chastise each other for using email because all of our communications were project related.

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-2

In addition to sensible answers about involving lawsuits and involving HR in this, I would offer the harassed coworker a transfer to another team or department. This must be -an offer they are free to accept or refuse-, and not something that would result in them losing seniority, benefits, or feeling punished in general, so it may not be easily arranged depending on business needs, but I feel that it's reasonable to give the victim a chance to escape harassment if there is no way to quickly remove the harasser.

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  • It means that that the person doesn't have to work with someone who is harassing them on a daily basis. They may continue to get the emails, without the "I know what you said in daily meeting" aspect, but at least they don't have to sit in a meeting with their harasser every single day. Personally, I would feel a lot better/safer knowing I wasn't forced to interact with someone that hates me each morning. – Meg Mar 2 at 16:24
  • "Someone who clearly participated in the standup". I guess it's possible that someone outside the team is listening in or getting info from an attendee, but it seems much less likely. – Meg Mar 2 at 17:33
-3

Sounds like a government problem. Ultimately, mandatory 'diversity education' let alone voluntary training doesn't really solve much. You must seek and destroy. The person sending the emails obviously just wants to be involved in politics and isn't contributing anything to company productivity.

In fact, they're creating a liability and contributing to the company's demise. This inner turmoil results in missed opportunity for the company, lawsuits, decreased company/department/employee performance, diminished morale, etc. They must be made an example of to demonstrate how behavior of this kind isn't going to be tolerated. There are hard lessons to be learned in life and it sounds like this person needs to learn a hard lesson.

In the end, they're bringing the team down and need to be let go. They aren't the proverbial 'team player' they probably claimed to be in the interview. Nobody deserves to be treated this way at their job and they shouldn't be forced to endure it.

If you can't solve this by tracing the email you need to look for clues to zero-in on a potential suspect. Clues in the email and clues in the people themselves. Look at the wording of the email. People tend to use the same vocabulary in their speech. People also tend to misspell words the same way every time. If there are misspellings in the email, setup a sting operation where you pretend like you need to get employees to fill out some important company paperwork or like you're playing a training word game. The paperwork should covertly require an employee to write the misspelled words in the paperwork (by 'filling in the blank' for example).

Have conversations with employees. Get their opinions on how they think that [proposed solution] will succeed at fixing [problem]. This person doesn't seem to be very enthusiastic about the proposed solution to the problem. It's not foolproof but you might be able to narrow it down by which ones didn't seem to give an enthusiastic response.

Watch Don't F**k With Cats. A group of internet people identified a serial killer by looking for clues in the background of pictures and videos he posted online and in his written words. Admittedly, I often do the same thing to identify people online. People reveal a lot more than they're even aware of.

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  • 2
    You identify serial killers online? Or what? – guest Feb 29 at 8:35
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    And what is the government problem? – guest Feb 29 at 15:36
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    I believe by government they meant to refer to law enforcement. – Matthew Read Feb 29 at 17:35
  • The government problem is the rampant racism within and, no, I do not identify with serial killers online. I was simply providing an example of how they used contextual clues to identify someone. Just because someone mentions serial killer or watches a documentary about it DOES NOT make one a serial killer. See the dictionary definition of fallacy of logic, invalid association and human stupidity. If that's the logic we're gonna use then stop dating your coworkers and conspiring to leave the company without explaining your shoddy programming to anyone. – Justa Guy Feb 29 at 22:05

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