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I was one of the first people to join an online meeting with coworkers today. Usually, most attendees are up to 10 minutes later before the actual meeting gets started. One of my senior colleagues, Brick, mentioned during the early part of the meeting to a colleague (before everyone else joined the call) what I felt was a sexist joke, and then went on to brag how he was generating patents from a project he had done years back in university, making tons of money from it, etc. I then mentioned, "wow, can't be that hard being a privileged white male, can it?". I get chewed out by the guy who went on a rant of "being white/male didn't pay the tuition or rent or give me automatic 'A' grades; others have it harder than me, but it doesn't mean my accomplishments were easy". He repeated this twice more, and on the third repetition, I was honestly scared with how loud and angrily he was shouting out his point. More people started joining the meeting, and it continued as if nothing happened.

4 hours later, HR pulled me into a meeting with the guy, and the audio clip of my comment and the first (mostly calm) iteration of his rant is played, and nothing else (including the sexist joke earlier and the screaming after). I'm apparently being put on leave for 2 weeks while this is investigated, and have been warned that I'm being investigated for "sexual harassment" and "racist abuse" of a colleague, and if HR decides this is an offense severe enough for firing, I even lose my severance pay (7 months of pay) and health benefits (I'll be homeless in 3 months at that rate).

My laptop access has been revoked (IT remotely shut it down and it won't power on), company cell no longer works, and I can't access e-mail via webmail. I've just been told to stay away from the office until the investigation is done, and use my time however I best see fit (i.e. read up on topics that benefit my own work, "don't burn out", etc.). I've tried to reach out to HR and inform them that important parts of the meeting recording would be helpful, but Brick can't find the original file. I've tried reaching out to Brick to apologize (even it's fake; I can't afford to lose my job right now), and he just blocked my number after the first call.

How can I get HR to listen to me and get a handle on this when everyone is refusing to accept my calls and e-mails?

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13 Answers 13

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Let me preface this by saying that I am in several "protected groups" and have dealt with workplace discrimination based on that. Including having been told that "They shouldn't be allowed to hire people like you" So, understand that I am not unsympathetic.

I then mentioned "wow, can't be that hard being a privileged white male, can it?".

The law has The doctrine of clean hands No matter what else happened, the moment you brought his race and gender into the conversation, you no longer had clean hands in this matter. Update your resume, because he does have grounds to pursue an HR action against you.

HR will most likely believe you are guilty of everything you are being accused of, and yes, what you did is worse than a joke, no matter how offensive, because you made it about the person. You are in a very bad position. Since he moved to invoke HR first, anything you say now is just going to look like you're trying to get back at him.

Your comment was 100% wrong, period, and no amount of "But he..." can change the fact that your comment was racist and sexist. Had you kept your mouth shut at the time, and instead reported him to HR, he would be the one in trouble, not you.

HR will invite you in to tell your side of the story, as they are doing an investigation, but you will need an answer to why you made a racist and sexist statement. HR is not of the belief that two wrongs make a right, and they are going to keep going back to the fact that you said what you said.

This may not be salvageable, so have your resume updated. I see no good ending to this.

In the future, no matter how insulted you feel, keep your own behavior above board.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Neo Nov 16 '20 at 14:37
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There is already a great answer on this, but I just want to add my perspective, in the hope that it may help you in future situations.

Your question is very aggressive sounding. Even your question Title is attacking "white men". It's sexist and racist. Why does race and gender matter here?

From the way you write, it sounds like you are attacking him. You wont get many people on your side when it sounds like you're the aggressive one.

When this type of thing happens, you need to be keeping a log of what happened and what people have said, not retaliate with a passive aggressive comment like:

"wow, can't be that hard being a privileged white male, can it?"

Instead of retaliating, make a complaint to HR along with the log of what has been said. You don't start accusing people of being womanizing sexist pigs. You provide the evidence and you let HR come to their own conclusions.

(I am not attempting to victim blame. Just point out how this could appear to an outsider, and that despite how angry you are, or how right you are, if you want others to listen and take your side then you must put on a calm professional face)

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    You touched on a very important point here: Do not make accusations using broad terms, be factual and cite examples. – Old_Lamplighter Nov 15 '20 at 22:46
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    Completely agree. Making a broad, unspecific statement does not help. Being very precise and documenting actual incidents will be more helpful since it can be investigated upon. – Dan Nov 16 '20 at 14:37
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    I also want to add that in reverse, they recording the OP stating the rude statement. It's undeniable proof that you said it regardless of what brought it on. I would mention that in reverse, you should be able to record what they say and be able to play it back just as they did to you. That point is no longer valid but something to keep in mind for future. – Dan Nov 16 '20 at 14:38
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    + 1 Voice of reason - Your answer and that of Kilsi both make excellent points, remain calm and reasonable to avoid being perceived as the aggressor. – Anthony Nov 17 '20 at 1:53
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If I were you, I would contact an employment lawyer specializing in discrimination cases and ask them to write an evidence "preservation letter" to the legal counsel of your company.

For a sample letter, see page 74 on this PDF document. (That sample letter is Ontario-specific, but an employment lawyer in your jurisdiction should know how to tailor it to their own local).

In that letter, I would focus on the preservation of the full meeting video, from the time the gentleman in question entered the meeting and from the time that gentleman in question left the online meeting.

That's it. I would do nothing else. I'd just pay that lawyer a few hundred (Canadian) dollars to make sure this was the right course of action and to draft and send that letter for me. You can ask a lawyer for a bit of guidance and to send a simple letter, but that doesn't mean that you're necessarily going to sue.

In the meantime, I would work on my resume and start looking for another job. Because let's be honest, if they were going to give you a slap on a wrist and sign you up for sensitivity training, they would have told you that already.

In my opinion, the fact that they suspended you and already terminated your access to work resources implies that they've already made their decision, but that they're just covering themselves by pretending to have an investigation for the next 15 days.

PS: I'm just a layman, not a lawyer. This is not legal advice, except the part about you consulting an employment lawyer to get his opinion on this.

PS2: Do not go back to your company and do not try to contact your company until you've consulted with that lawyer first. Because of Covid-19, most lawyers can be contacted over video-conferencing these days. And whatever you do, do not try to contact that gentleman anymore!

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Neo Nov 17 '20 at 12:44
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Do nothing. Answer any questions during HR investigation truthfully and without emotion. If the company let's you stay, stay. If they want you out, leave. Lawyer up only if Brick threatens legal action after you've taken your leave.

In the future, if you need to remember one thing, remember this: in the private world, you may not like Brick, because, as per your words he's white, or male, or maybe he's from a country you don't like, or maybe he's an "immigrant coming here to steal your job"™. Whatever your opinion, the moment you cross the company door, he becomes Brick Smith, Senior Photocopier Engineer - and that's it. He's not male, he's not white, he's not from insert a country - he's a person performing a certain role in your place of work and that's all you need to know or care about.

As for your comment, in my subjective opinion, a joke, even if it's something-ist, is far below accusing/demeaning someone based on his race/gender/private life/anything.

"Two Jews walk into a bar..." is not a joke you should say in a professional meeting. However, following that up with "Yea, Hitler was right, let's kill all untermenschen" - I guarantee that exactly 0 people will remember the joke from 2 minutes ago and you'll be under some very inquisitive stares (and, depending on locale, under legal investigation). Nothing is black and white, but accusing someone of being privileged just because he's white (racism) and male (sexism) is far worse than any joke he might've told.

This is like a 5 year old misbehaved kid punching me, so I, a grown man, punch him back.

It's a blow for blow. Just like you felt it's appropriate to say something mean to him because you believe he was mean to you. But should I punch the kid? Or should I go to his parents and have a stern talk with them about your behavior?

Unruly kid would get an earful from his parents and know to behave. If you did the same, Brick would probably get an earful from HR and know to behave.

But you chose to punch the kid. So now you face the consequences.

Now do bear in mind that browsing this site you could get the impression that the world is full of companies that are fair, that managers working there are 100% professional etc. - all the great people answering here make it look that way. However, this site represents a fraction of a fraction of behaviors you will experience in the real world. If that was not the case, traffic on this site would reduce by 90%.

In reality, whenever you face something that isn't outright illegal, you should be asking yourself a very down to earth question:

Is replacing this person (Brick in your case) more trouble than replacing me?

Companies in the real world don't like one thing very much: trouble. Ending the situation you're now part of requires a solution - the company will likely take the easiest one that their lawyers will say it a-okay. If that's firing you and never speaking about the case again, that's what they're going to do.

Is it fair? Probably not.

But there very well may be 3 Bricks in the whole country and enticing one of them to come work here would be a major cost and pain in the bottom. Conversely, there's probably hundreds of junior-anything lined up for a job, especially during these trying times.

Whatever the moral and ethical view of this situation ma be, you picked a wrong hill to die on, and, with your own behavior, you also gave the enemy your only weapon. Your choice right now is to die on this hill, or retreat, tend to your wounds and come stronger and wiser.

Welcome to the real world. Pick your battles (and words) carefully next time.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Neo Nov 16 '20 at 14:36
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Get a lawyer.

We lack the details of what Brick did, but I suspect that there are ways it could be construed as abuse of you (and potentially other women). Sexist jokes and unhinged rage can certainly fall into that category, especially if he is your superior in any way.

What you want to do is reach out to an employment lawyer, firstly to see if you have a potential legal case, and secondly, even if you don't, who can send out a letter indicating to them that you are potentially willing to fight and that settlement should be on the table. I doubt this will save your job and will probably reduce the chance of you keeping it, but it will help you keep your severance and make the dismissal such that you are eligible for unemployment. Lawyers also have the power to subpoena things, which makes Brick's inability to find key evidence problematic, especially if they want to use part of the recording against you but cannot find the rest.

A friend of mine used to be an HR person in Canada. The company was going to fire someone for cause for theft and absenteeism but pulled back a bit when the lawyer's letter arrived. That person instead got severance, a positive letter of recommendation, and their dismissal filed in such a way that they could get unemployment.

But yes, find a local employment lawyer, get a free consultation, and figure out where to go from there.

Yes, you can afford a lawyer. Employment lawyers often work on contingency and most offer a free consultation.

Stephan Branczyk's answer has a solid point: You want to talk to your lawyer about an evidence preservation letter, to require that they preserve the video as well as any other potential documentation for future potential legal reasons.

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  • What do you mean by "eligible for unemployment"? Do you mean for unemployment insurance pay? – gerrit Nov 16 '20 at 9:58
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    “Yes you can afford a lawyer”. I’d say “no, you can’t afford to have no lawyer”. – gnasher729 Nov 16 '20 at 13:17
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    No. Lawyers cost a lot and if you lose the case you have to pay the other side's $600/hour lawyer fees. Not a good idea. Pro bono: These lawyers only take cases where there's the possibility of a huge pay off for them. They're not going to bother with this case. I know first hand from when a company actually violated a federal law. I didn't say anything racist at all. Lawyers yawned. – HenryM Nov 16 '20 at 14:44
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    @HenryM: “Get a lawyer” doesn’t mean “go to court”. Actually, the two times I got an employment lawyer, it was paid for by my company :-). And mostly you pay a lawyer to avoid going to court. – gnasher729 Nov 16 '20 at 20:07
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I don't see anything you can do right now except await developments and try not to let it worry you too much. You'll get your chance to be heard at some point. Prepare yourself to answer any questions without hesitation. Write a timeline of the event so you have it all clear in your mind.

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    @jmoreno evidence cannot be destroyed unless they kill the witnesses, and destroyed evidence isn't a great look for HR in a legal dispute if it ever comes to that. But once a lawyer is brought in there is no easy way out. Best case scenario, both sides are in trouble and it's quietly resolved by an insincere apology and a reluctant acceptance. If I was asked as a witness I'd say they both acted extremely unprofessionally in a meeting context. – Kilisi Nov 15 '20 at 13:16
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    @jmoreno Yes I thought about that, if it's preserved it's obviously incomplete and potentially out of context. If it disappears that in itself is suspicious. Either way I see no need to pay a lawyer at this point. The OP wants to retain the job if possible. – Kilisi Nov 15 '20 at 13:28
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    Bringing lawyer into the exchange with HR is premature, but given that OP was locked out of the company (and apparently Brick wasn't) suggest that this won't end with a reprimand from HR. At least that would be my guess, as that's a very severe reaction, so it may not be a bad idea to use this time to get some free legal advice on her rights and take it from there. – Tymoteusz Paul Nov 15 '20 at 13:42
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    @Kilisi: I absolutely agree with your answer as the only thing that can be done to keep the job, I also agree with Joe that your answer is the only one that is helpful towards that goal. I just don’t agree that the other answers are pushing premature action, as I think the OP should give serious consideration to the idea that keeping their job may be impossible at this point. – jmoreno Nov 15 '20 at 13:52
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    @jmoreno I have no issue with the other answers, I upvoted a couple of them, there's different ways of dealing with things. I usually advocate easing the stress on yourself rather than adding to it until there is a clear direction to go in while preparing your moves calmly. Let others get flustered and fill themselves with indignation, trip themselves up, get dramatic, do whatever they want. So long as I've thought through all the angles I'll know what to do without hesitation and calmly (metaphorically) kick them in the crotch and walk away with a resolution that is at least tolerable. – Kilisi Nov 15 '20 at 15:03
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Contact your union

If you are a member of a labour union, contact the relevant representative for advice:

  • Your union knows your workplace. They may be familiar with your manager and they are certainly familiar with HR at your workplace. They may be aware of facts about Brick that you aren't (and that they almost certainly can't share with you) but that may impact the situation. If anyone, they should know what works and doesn't work.

  • Therefore, your union is in the best position to advise you. They may tell you that any lawyer is a waste of money as you have no chance of getting anywhere. They may tell you that you have no hope of keeping your job but you do have a hope of keeping your severence pay. They may tell you something else.

  • Your union may recommend legal steps. You commented that you cannot afford a lawyer. Your union dues may partly or fully pay for legal fees in case of legal conflicts between employees and employers, in particular in cases that have a high risk of resulting in dismissal.

  • Your union is on your side (at least it's supposed to be) and any conversation you have with them is confidential.

Good luck.

Even if you are not a member of a labour union, I will retain this answer as it may apply to future visitors to this site who are in a similar situation compared to you, but in a union.

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I'd say two things: One, it is absolutely essential that you talk to a good employment lawyer. One well-written letter and demonstrating that you don't just roll over may result in thousands in your pocket. Two, don't accuse people of "white privilege". Even womanizers. As you found out, many people will get very annoyed with you, and it may have severe consequences. At the very least, you will lose support when you need it.

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  • I've thought about it and this is the right answer from gnash. (Personally, I would delete everything from "Two,..." onwards, since, really the only emphasis here is OP has to pick up the phone and get a good solicitor. Points 4.i, 4.ii and 4.iii from my answer are "handing candies on a plate" to OP's coming solicitor, who OP will have in a few hours hopefully. – Fattie Nov 16 '20 at 14:27
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    @Fattie I think answers should also help others. So part two is too late for OP, but not for others. Especially if you say things to someone who OP says is not a very nice person at all. – gnasher729 Nov 16 '20 at 14:31
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How can I get HR to listen to me and get a handle on this when everyone is refusing to accept my calls and e-mails?

So I'll answer your actual question here:

You can't as you have been effectively fired already. In many countries companies cannot fire people on the spot unless for specific reasons and must go through a process of investigation before they fire. Your company is doing this at the moment, it amounts to bringing up a case to legally fire you. The decision has already been made and right now you are effectively on gardening leave.

So regardless if you want to take legal action or not you should definitively be looking for another job at the moment. That means sending out resumes and actively doing interviews.

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    This should be the accepted answer. It states facts, backs them up and proposes future action. On a higher level of abstraction than other answers. – Vorac Nov 21 '20 at 1:44
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Language creates reality. Everything is about word combinations.

Contact a solicitor and explain your story.

Which is:

  1. At work, Brick has a history of chauvinist, misogynist behavior.
  2. In a meeting, Brick made a sexist joke.
  3. I foolishly responded mentioning "white male privilege".
  4. HR has immediately (ONE) suspended me, (TWO) blocked my communications with them, and (THREE) have not heard or considered my side of the accusation in any way.

Only an incredibly hopeless solicitor would be unable to do anything with that.

In answer to your literal question "How can I get HR to listen to me," the good news is you can not get them to listen to you, but that is hugely advantageous to your solicitor.

It's morning in Canada; find a good solicitor.

Your aim is to get a clean settlement, perhaps with your severance pay intact.

(Regarding your comment that it's tough times financially, forget it. Everyone's having tough times financially, you won't starve. Competent programmers are in plenty of demand for remote work.)

Everyone (good, bad, and ugly) deserves representation - and has to have it. You're in an incredibly non-powerful situation. You'll be amazed how you feel in two hours when you have representation.

Critical:

Say nothing to anyone in public or private about this other than your lawyer.


In the immortal lyrics of Wang Chung, "words are strong, they make reality". Or, as my brother says, "Life is about word combinations"

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    No evidence for 1. No evidence for 2. Evidence for 3. limited evidence for 4. – lalala Nov 16 '20 at 15:31
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    The problem with (2) and (3) is that the response had nothing to do with the sexist joke. It had everything to do with the boasting about income. Boasting is not a crime even if it should be. – chasly - supports Monica Nov 16 '20 at 16:37
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    Well thought out answer. I would only add "Go dark", say nothing to anyone in public or private about this other than your lawyer. – Old_Lamplighter Nov 16 '20 at 17:55
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    @lalala OP would disclose more to lawyer than on this forum, of course. – gerrit Nov 16 '20 at 18:00
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    No evidence for 1, but it might be found. HR would ask people “could there be evidence”, and some will answer “quite possibly”. Same with 2, 3 and 4. Enough to make it risky and offer to pay OP off with some settlement. – gnasher729 Nov 16 '20 at 20:12
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Before I respond, I want to say I understand you to a certain extent, Tess. Are there instances of racism and sexism in some workplaces that impedes minorities and women? Yes there is, and such specific instances are indeed problematic. Assuming Brick indeed made a sexist remark demeaning women (or men), based on stereotypes of their gender, is that conduct professional? - Never

You may have felt the behavior of Brick to be demeaning, chauvinistic, and unbecoming of a colleague in a professional workplace, and I agree that such behavior is upsetting. However, your personal and targeted remarks at Brick in reaction to what he said, assuming to be inappropriate, is also wildly improper. Engaging in personal attacks is almost never conductive in any workplace and unbridled emotion in the heat of the moment impedes clear, rational thinking. In general, in any conflict at work, you want to be appear to be the rational one, the one in control. What you don't want to to do is stoop down to the level of the other person, such as Brick, whose sexist remark was out of place.

As to what you do now, I second what Kilsi said in this answer. Wait until you cool down and voice your complaint of Brick through the proper channels such as HR and / or management. The role of HR is to reduce risk for the company, and having a employee making demeaning remarks is almost certainly a uncalled for risk. If you decide to pursue a formal complaint, be sure to have documentation or if others were present, witnesses who can attest on your behalf as to what exactly Brick said in the meeting.

Your job may not be salvageable, and if you were to be terminated, be aware how you reacted, could have ended your chance of keeping the job. I surmise to say that a calm and professional reaction would certainly have put you in a better position, and Brick may be in trouble. Neither of you were completely above board here.

As to my advice to you in the future, do not take remarks about a social group (e.g: women , people of a specific race , religion etc.) personally, but follow the documented process for reporting inappropriate behavior in your workplace. As I suggested in another answer of mine also touching on race, a end result without malicious intent , is not necessarily a problem. Recognize that generalizations often hurt , and can color our perception.

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    Just edited to acknowledge she very well could be terminated due to hot headed nature of her response in the spur of the moment – Anthony Nov 18 '20 at 1:51
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Rule #1 of the workplace: When someone else is being an asshole DO NOT ENGAGE!! No matter how tempted you are. Your vindictive comments usually end up making you look like the unprofessional one with a malicious agenda and you'll be shown the door.

Just sit back, put your unimpressed face on and silently watch them destroy themselves. It usually works out that these people are the ones who quit or get fired eventually as you're likely not the only one who has a problem with this particular coworker's behavior.

Workplace politics are petty. If you want to go far then don't even get involved.

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While most answers here are confrontational (getting a lawyer) this might not help you keep your job. Here is a different suggestion (taking the same stand as the answer from old_lamplighter but a different course of action):

  • Think about your behaviour and attitudes, understand that you were racist and sexist. Try to overcome beeing racist and sexist (while this takes time, accepting it is a first step)
  • Write a letter of apology to HR (1 page), admit to your were doing wrong, ask if you can apologize to your collegue, apologize honestly to your collegue in writing and personally, promise to change you behaviour, maybe sign up for anger management classes or depending what is available your vicinity (and tell HR of course!)

This is under the assumption you added value for the business before the incident. (this is how others pointed out businesss function)

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