28

Unfortunately, I share the first name of Vladimir, same name as Russian president, who is very disliked at the moment. Even though I 100% support Ukraine (like just everybody else) during this conflict, a lot of my coworkers wrongly assume that I support Russia.

People have left various notes at my desk like "We support Ukraine!", which were only left at my desk and not the people around me. The worst was a note that somebody left in my sandwich that told me to go back to Russia. I was born in the U.S. and have never been to Russia in my life.

I brought this up to HR. They were very receptive and sympathetic, but ultimately admitted that they couldn't do anything until they got more proof of who was leaving these notes.

I've tried to ignore this, but things have gotten worse. I run an ERG (Employee Resource Group) for cancer survivors, and was informed today that the company has decided to take money away from our program and give it to some pro-Ukraine program. I fully support this pro-Ukraine group, but why was my group the only one impacted?

I'm getting really frustrated by this whole situation. Is there anything I can do to improve things, or is it best to cut my losses and find a new job?

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  • 8
    Please edit your question to add more details: How long have you worked in this job? What industry do you work in? And in what country? This all sounds ridiculous. And HRs response seems a bit tone deaf. Mar 5 at 2:54
  • 1
    You may want to add a country tag. Legal requirements, attitude, and culture around harassments (unfortunately) vary greatly around the world.
    – Hilmar
    Mar 5 at 8:35
  • 5
    @Mari-LouA I think you are mostly right. However, I have impression that the Christian doctrine of responding to harm by turning the other cheek has already proven to be ineffective in this specific case, and OP is reasonably looking for more active solutions. Ignoring bullies generally doesn't work, it only serves to encourage more bullying.
    – user132962
    Mar 6 at 21:31
  • 2
    Suggest the title be changed to something like, "Harassed for sharing infamous surname", or something. The case is not really about perceived politics. Mar 7 at 0:01
  • 4
    What makes this particular situation extraordinarily idiotic is that the first name of the Ukrainian president happens to be as much Vladimir as that of the Russian one. If you equate Владимир with Vladimir, you must also equate Володимир with Vladimir. So, you can argue back even in your coworkers’ absurd logic.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Mar 9 at 13:09

9 Answers 9

45

That is very sad.

Ask HR (or better your CEO) to send out a company wide e-mail that STRONGLY states that this is harassments and totally unacceptable. It targets a completely innocent person that has never been to Russia and absolutely nothing to do with ongoing conflict.

I'm surprised that HR didn't jump on this in the first place. They don't need to know who did it, they just need to publicly clarify and support you.

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  • 5
    My guess is that even a generic "don't target people because of their name" email would mean acknowledging in writing that harassment is occurring. That's evidence that helps the OP if this escalates into lawsuit territory.
    – BSMP
    Mar 4 at 18:06
  • 5
    If they don't so something, they might be heading in the direction where you could file a lawsuit. If this is in the US, there are federal laws requiring employers to ensure their employees are not subject to certain kinds of harassment at work. I don't know if this behavior counts as illegal harassment, but it seems close enough that it might be worth looking into (i.e. ask a lawyer), and if so, you get some options that might light a fire under HR's butt, so to speak, even if it doesn't actually come down to legal action.
    – David Z
    Mar 5 at 4:42
  • 14
    "It targets a completely innocent person that has never been to Russia [...]" -- it would still be highly inappropriate if the person had been in Russia before, or even if the person was, in fact, Russian. Many Russian people are openly against the invasion, and many Ukrainian people are living in Russia (they are 1.4% of the total population). Having been born in certain place does not make a whole group of people automatically and collectively guilty by assumption, and it does not warrant nor justify harassment.
    – user132962
    Mar 5 at 13:48
  • 7
    @user132962 In addition, even if the OP fully supports Putin, it does not give people the right to leave political notes and essentially harass someone. Mar 6 at 7:50
  • 3
    During the Iraq war, a bunch of idiots burnt a man's house down - because his name was Saddam Hussain (about as common as Joe Smith in parts of the world), and they somehow thought the man who had lived next door for many years was the dictator of Iraq.
    – gnasher729
    Mar 6 at 11:01
12

You should consult a lawyer, because this sounds like textbook workplace harassment. Your company has an HR department specifically to handle cases like this, and given that you said your company is slow to act on anything I'm assuming they're a large company with a large bureaucracy, and specifically a large and well-trained HR department. This is their job, they need to do their job.

You've tried being nice, by trying to ignore the problem and then by trying to kindly report the problem, and they haven't done anything. Since you've tried being Mr. Nice Guy and it hasn't worked out, it's time to stop being Mr. Nice Guy.

I am not a lawyer. However, I will posit what your lawyer may tell you to do. This is not legal advice in lieu of seeing a lawyer, but it is some preparatory steps you can take in advance of seeing a lawyer:

  1. Whenever some kind of racist remark happens without paper/physical documentation, keep a log of the time, date, and, if possible, any defining characteristics of the person/people involved. Names are obviously best, but you may not know the names of everyone in your company.

  2. Whenever something happens with paper/physical documentation, keep it and put it in a file. You don't have to look at it, just tuck it neatly away into your pocket or coat while at the office, and, when you get home (and NOT at the office, this is important, because you're preparing a legal case against your employer and don't want to give them the ability to tamper with evidence by leaving it unsecured at the office), tuck it into a file folder.

  3. Whenever something happens with digital evidence, take a screenshot and print it out, again, take it home, add it to the file.

  4. DO NOT continue to talk to HR. Do not warn them of a legal case that may be pending, do not threaten to speak to a lawyer. This will give them time to batten down the hatches and prepare a legal defence, or, worst case, fire you (you could try to sue for wrongful dismissal in this case, but it's not a good position to add unemployed to the list of difficulties you are facing). If you feel it necessary for your mental health, the most you should interact with HR from now on is to let them know the situation is continuing and it is making you stressed out. If/when HR replies to these notices (and, if you have any digital/paper documented interactions with them previously on this issue), you guessed it: print it out, take it home, add it to the file.

The end goal of this is to sue your employer for not acting on credible reports of workplace harassment. Again, I am not a lawyer, but it seems, if you follow these steps and prepare your documentation (along with whatever other steps your actual lawyer suggests that you do), your case should be rock-solid and you can expect a pretty hefty monetary reward. Furthermore, if you continue getting these messages in paper form (e.g. in your sandwich), there may be forensic evidence on the notes which may help investigate whoever was actually behind this, so there is a possibility (a slim one, but nonetheless greater than absolute zero) that whoever it is might end up actually getting caught.

Of course, apropos of litigation, keep an eye out for any reverse-preferential treatment you get at the company, vis a vis change of responsibilities, demotions, "benching", etc. After workplace harassment litigation (I am not a lawyer) it is possible that these may be legal matters as well, under various "retaliation"-type statutes.

Bottom line: You tried being Mr. Nice Guy. They (the company) took advantage of your peaceful demeanour. Now it's time for you to take advantage of them and sue the pants off them for not treating your justified complaint with a proper degree of severity.

5

At this point, I recommend you check with a lawyer to determine whether this behavior falls under hostile workplace protection laws. It may not - there are strict requirements for what hostile behavior is considered illegal - but given that the harassment is based on (the perception of) your ancestry vis a vis your name, it might be. Only a lawyer can tell you for sure, though.

You can choose to notify HR that, given the ongoing harassment, you're exploring options with a lawyer; if you do, be sure to do so over email and document everything. Since you say your company is slow to respond even in the case of a potential lawsuit, it's unlikely that this will change anything in the short term, but documenting HR's response to your complaint may help you in any potential lawsuit.

In the meantime, if you know the manager of the people harassing you, contact that manager (preferably via email, so you have documentation) and ask them to remind their employees to behave civilly. If you're on good terms with your own manager, let them know what's going on as well, and ask for any support they can give you. This could include them reminding other employees to stop being jerks, handling the other employees' managers themselves, and so on.

If you aren't comfortable going to your own or another manager, and HR isn't helping, then it may be time to exit stage left. This kind of harassment shouldn't be tolerated by any self-respecting company, whether or not it meets the critera for a legal case, but unfortunately emotions are running high and humans aren't always rational. However, regardless of whom you share a name with, you deserve to be respected and to feel safe in your workplace. If your current company refuses to protect you from harassment, look for one that will.

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  • 2
    So the victim has to change jobs to escape the bullies? Mar 6 at 3:17
  • 1
    @speciesUnknown While I very much wish it was otherwise, sometimes the best thing a single person can do for themselves is to leave a situation. If someone has the time and energy to fight the battle, then by all means, it's better for everyone if they stay and fight. But OP is not actually required to spend their own resources to stand solo against what sounds like a deeply ingrained, if badly misguided, company culture around harassment.
    – thatgirldm
    Mar 6 at 3:21
  • There are other solutions. I wrote out a very detailed explanation of what I think is happening, and how to deal with it. The OP doesn't have to spend any resources. Furthermore, since the bullying they have been subjected to is based on their name, unless they change their name it will likely continue. Mar 6 at 3:23
  • 1
    @speciesUnknown Yep, there are a lot of potential solutions to this problem. Only the asker knows which is best for their specific situation, so giving them the most possible options is the best we Internet randos can do.
    – thatgirldm
    Mar 6 at 3:57
  • 1
    I guess you're right. But my answer is longer so it must be correct... is that not how it works? Mar 6 at 4:01
5

Don't get me wrong, this is harassment and it should not be tolerated, but it seems your harassers have simply been mistaken. If you want to fight this through on principle, you have every right, and others answer here have good details on how to. But if you simply want to fix your workplace problem, why not make sure they see they are mistaken?

I will for a moment assume you are actually not as they suspect in favor of a warmongering dictator invading a neighbouring country.

So why not just say that? Fly a little flag on your desk and put a little "No war" sticker on it. Done. This problem should solve itself in no time.

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  • 1
    "Don't get me wrong, my neighbour having beaten his wife is violent abuse and should not be tolerated, but it seems that the soup she cooked was, in fact, too salty indeed." Do you see the problem with that reasoning now? Harassment is unacceptable. If someone is able to extrapolate from OP being named Vladimir to OP being supposedly a supporter of this invasion, then I won't expect a "no war" sticker to convince such people and solve this problem. Some people are just {continues}
    – user132962
    Mar 6 at 21:43
  • {continues} constantly looking for a reason to be "triggered" and would effortlessly rationalize such sticker or flag in a way to justify themselves and continue the harassment.
    – user132962
    Mar 6 at 21:43
  • You completely missed my point. Not going to explain it again, just scroll up 2 cm.
    – nvoigt
    Mar 6 at 22:07
  • I am not the brightest out there. If I missed it initially then, without any hints about what I supposedly missed, most possibly I would miss it on further readings. If you do not wish to "explain it again", then it's fine. But you do not have to be snarky about it.
    – user132962
    Mar 6 at 22:16
  • 3
    Okay, I will spell it out again. It is not about who is right. I already said so. It is about whether you want to be right, but continue to suffer the abuse (because if you read the other posts, involving authorities like HR is not be a magic trick, just like a divorce lawyer might not be able to protect from an abusive husband) or whether you want to avoid the abuse. I would for example advise people to not go into dark alleys. Do I think rape is okay? No. Certainly not. But I think not getting raped in the first place is preferable to being right and suffer.
    – nvoigt
    Mar 6 at 22:32
2

I can not tell you what to do, I can only tell you what I would do if I were in your shoes.

  • I would consult an employment lawyer specializing in discrimination (this is assuming you're in the US. I do not know about other countries).

  • I would seek other people of Russian origin working at your company, and ask them if they've been treated differently by anyone since then.

  • Assuming your lawyer is ok with this, I would send a diplomatic email to HR documenting the fact that you felt very specifically targeted by the switch in funding.

  • I would prepare for more harassment coming my way.

    • I would make sure that my car insurance was topped off, and covered property damage and acts of vandalism.
    • I would park my car in a more secure location, or in a location under the surveillance of a camera, or under the watchful eyes of someone you trust.

And now for the more controversial part of my answer:

  • I'd place a pro-Ukrainian donation box at my cubicle. Or if that's too on the nose, I'd place some other symbol inside my cubicle that's anti-Putin or pro-Ukraine. And/or I'd make a donation to a pro-Ukrainian cause.

I know you shouldn't have to do that, and I feel embarrassed for even suggesting it. But sometimes, a good offense is the best defense. And if anyone gives you crap for not being pro-Ukraine enough, you can just give them crap right back for not putting (their personal) money where their mouth is.

And even if this tactic doesn't work, you can then argue that you're being discriminated against because of your national origin, and not because of your politics (because you've made your anti-Putin stance as clear as day).

And yes, you could certainly look for another job, and maybe you should do that as well, to have as a backup just in case, but unfortunately, passive aggressive bullies can be found anywhere. So even if you were to find a new employer, there is no guarantee that this kind of harassment won't follow you there as well considering our current climate.

5
  • The problem I have with this answer (and a few people have made similar points in their answers, you're not the only one) is: Why is it necessary for OP to specifically take a stance on the issue publicly? At my company (and probably yours as well), it is tacitly agreed (even by my Russian colleagues, of which I have several) that the invasion is horrible and Putin is a jerk, but nobody is "required" (explicitly or implicitly) to take any sort of action for or against, or risk being harassed. If OP wants to just do his work in peace, he should be allowed to, regardless of world events.
    – Ertai87
    Mar 9 at 21:01
  • And yes, I know you caveat-ed that statement with "I feel embarrassed for even suggesting it", but the real answer to this is to get HR to do their jobs and not twiddle their thumbs, and if they won't do their jobs then there are laws in place to make them do their jobs, and penalties for not doing those jobs.
    – Ertai87
    Mar 9 at 21:03
  • @Ertai87, I read your answer and I agree with its recommended course of action. It's just that, suing an employer (or threatening to sue an employer) is not as easy as it seems. And as third party spectators, it's easy for us to tell him to take a stand, but in practice, there may be other factors to consider. For instance, you speak of "laws and penalties", but which laws and which penalties?? the OP hasn't even told us in which jurisdiction he's located in. The OP could be located in Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Israel, Australia, etc. Who's to know if he's in the US or not? Mar 10 at 1:07
  • This is straight up harassment based on race. If OP had dark skin instead of a Russian name, this would be an outright hate crime (it's not, because it's "in vogue" to be racist against Russians for some reason, whereas being racist against black people is very much not). OP's company is, essentially, sanctioning a hate crime. I can't imagine there not being legal statutes against that in almost every jurisdiction worldwide.
    – Ertai87
    Mar 10 at 16:18
  • @Ertai87, In the United States, it's completely illegal to discriminate based on national origin (race doesn't even need to be a factor). But in many countries, they just don't have those same laws, or if they do, they're not being enforced rigorously enough. Mar 10 at 23:20
-3

Has your company released a statement internally about the war in Ukraine yet? Lots have. If they haven't you could ask HR if you could be part of that. Even if they already have perhaps they would consider issuing an update.

Including personal accounts is a powerful component of statements like this. You could ask HR to let you write something that included some of the following, whatever you feel is most accurate and most appropriate -

  • Putin is the one driving this
  • Russians in Moscow are protesting and being arrested for it
  • Many Ukrainians and Russians see each other as siblings not enemies

I've read some very moving things from Russians who are against this war. I'm sure you can find some online if you want to see that sort of thing I am talking about. It is clear that not all Russians can, or should, be blamed for this. You need to convince people that is true and ensure they know you personally don't support Putin. Getting HR to tell people harassment is against the rules won't get them to stop if they think you support Putin. It wouldn't stop me making my opinion known to someone who publicly support this war, although passive aggressive notes would not be my method.

Ironically I think you have a slightly harder time since you aren't actually Russian at all. It seems like you don't have a personal basis to make a statement about how Russians feel. Whoever amongst your coworkers is doing this are being ridiculous.

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    "Getting HR to tell people harassment is against the rules won't get them to stop if they think you support Putin." -- the perspective of being fired for said harassment probably will get them to stop, though.
    – user132962
    Mar 7 at 12:18
-4

I'm getting really frustrated by this whole situation.

This is your real problem, and it's because it's a new experience to you, but for many people it's just something that happens every so often.

I've encountered rascism in all facets of life in multiple countries. Quitting hasn't really been something I viewed as an option, I'm still the same colour and ethnicity at another job so best to deal with it instead.

I would just brush this off and perhaps make a joke out of it. 'Who's leaving me love notes?.. and have a chuckle'. In all likelihood the perpetrator starts feeling a bit silly while those around me have a laugh. Because it IS silly, and everyone knows it. It defuses the intended purpose without escalating out of control.

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    I think a humoured response may give the wrong impression Mar 8 at 9:13
  • @GregoryCurrie in what way? You laugh, or you cry. It's my go to... it accomplishes 3 things. It acknowledges something happened. It treats the occurrence as infantile and either triggers the bigot to show themselves or fade away. Because from that point on others will notice who is putting notes on your desk. Hardcore bigots want you to know they hate you, not be anonymous. This is just someone being a gutless clown at this point. They either have to escalate or stop before it backfires on them. Every amateur sleuth in the office with time on their hands will be watching the desk.
    – Kilisi
    Mar 8 at 14:29
  • I think a lot of people, and potentially the note leavers, would expect the OP to get mad if they were falsely associated with something negative. Having the opposite emotion may reinforce that association. Mar 9 at 1:42
  • @GregoryCurrie when faced with bigotry you don't factor that sort of thing in because you don't know. You just make a joke and quietly watch peoples reactions. If I'm faced with a sneaky bigot I don't care if they get more bigoted I only care that I identify them or they stop. I'd prefer them out in the open where they're easy to deal with and showing themselves for what they are..
    – Kilisi
    Mar 9 at 2:52
-6

I am surprised this hasn't been suggested yet. Why not send a company-wide email stating that although you have the same name as the Russian president, you don't support the war in Ukraine. In addition you could choose to adopt a different name in your day-to-day interaction with people (at work).

5
  • The OP clearly stated that they have never visited Russia. They might have a Russian last name which means they have Russian roots but all the same they were not born in Russia. As for changing their name that suggests they are ashamed of it, and would lend support to the bullies. By the way, would you also recommend that the Karens in the US also change their names too?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 7 at 8:19
  • @Mari-LouA you are right about the first point, I should have read the post better. I changed it. No I do not recommend that all Karens in the US change their name too. Nothing wrong with being perceived as an assertive women who isn't a pushover. However in same cases your name might just have too many negative connotations that I think it might be a good idea to change it, like for example if your name is "Adolf", "Hitler", "Stalin", "Mao" and now "Vladamir". Mar 7 at 8:44
  • 1
    The name Karen has a pretty bad rap, it's never mentioned as a compliment but certainly it is not associated with war crimes. Suggesting that a person adopts a new first name at work just compounds that the bullies are right to say theOP's first name is shameful. It isn't.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 7 at 8:56
  • Not to mention he also shares the name with Vladimir the Great, a major historical figure in Ukraine (think banknote caliber).
    – scrwtp
    Mar 7 at 21:14
  • 1
    In the words of Michael Bolton from Office Space (not related to the singer): "Why should I change my name? He's the one that sucks."
    – Seth R
    Mar 9 at 18:05
-9

A controversial opinion. Brace yourself

Before I name drop the social mechanism in play here, I will explain it, and hopefully inoculate the reader so they don't immediately jump to conclusions.

The Ukraine conflict is frightening. Civilians are dying. It could end in nuclear war. Just about everybody is being gradually traumatised by this, even if they are nowhere near the conflict. When identifiable groups come into violent conflict, a rather nasty social mechanism starts to emerge - what's worse, its intentional. People who know you are not the enemy will behave as if they believe you are, because of this mechanism.

Within any group of people you will find a tiny number genuinely believe you are the enemy. However, for this bullying to become more pervasive throughout the entire group, including people who know you aren't the enemy, a particular social mechanism is being utilised.

The behaviour I am talking about has probably been around since the dawn of humanity but has become coined as a political term recently. Until around 10 years ago, this term didn't exist, although various similar phenomenon were known to anthropologists. It also relates to signal theory, which is an interesting concept in evolutionary biology which explains why venomous insects are a certain colour even when it is relatively expensive to maintain that colouring, and why a small number of insects copy those colours, but only ever a few species at a time.

Those who recognise this mechanism for what it is, (and not what it has become associated with in the last decade or so) but are still doing things that are obviously nonsensical, are doing it because they "get it".

What are you talking about?

A good number of the people who are leaving you racist messages are not racist, don't think you are the enemy, and don't necessarily care about Ukraine. They are virtue signalling.

A few keyboard warriors are now cracking their knuckles and preparing to accuse me of being a member of some "out group" or other. Partly so they can virtue signal their membership of some "in group". Save your keystrokes for something that helps somebody. I don't care what you think, I just want to help the OP.

Right now, you are being implicitly accused of being a member of the "out group". Bullying an outsider is the perfect way to demonstrate loyalty. It doesn't matter if less than 10% of the group doing this genuinely mistook you for an enemy - you're the best target they can find.

What should I do?

You can't change the minds of the idiots who think your name automatically makes you the enemy. But you can join the in group. Doing this explicitly will of course provide another way for people to target you - by accusing you of being insincere. Instead, you have to do it back.

A carefully measured blow-up is one way you can do that. Next time you find notes or the such on your desk, angrily screw it up and throw in in the waste paper basket, and exclaim that you are not associated with that <insert insult that won't get you fired> mass murderer <insert name of person you're being associated with>.

Yes. It's cynical. But the people bullying you are also cynical, except for the 10% whose minds you probably can't change.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Kilisi
    Mar 7 at 23:19

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