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I am a manager of a small team (low level manager with some training, but lacking experience) and recently was made aware that one of my staff caused distress to one of our customers with an inappropriate comment.

The comment in question was made in a warm office, my employee a male, and the comment made to a female. When the female indicated she was warm my employee said something like

"There is an inappropriate comment there, but I won't make it".

I since found out this upset the customer, and frankly I entirely understand it. While the comment wasn't "Take your clothes off" it may as well have been (And I am not interested in any answer that says this shouldn't be deemed offensive enough to act upon).

I have discussed the situation with the client, and with my manager. The client is not interested in pushing for disciplinary action and won't even actually name the employee who made the comment (we work on a client site as contractors, so if the client asked us to remove him we would have no choice).

My manager believes that all I need to do is speak to my employee about the impact this can have on people and on him, but the person in question just does not understand and fully believes that people these days are simply too sensitive. I think I have convinced him not to take the complaint as a direct attack by someone who dislikes him, but the fact I had to do that shows just how little he understands the topic.

We have a lot of online training at work, but nothing that covers this topic well - I can find training that says it is bad and should be avoided (part of our mandatory training), but nothing about how to best do that, or how to actually recognise the harm things like this can cause.

My main worry is that while he understands that he needs to be more careful with what he says, it is the consequences that worry him rather than an understanding of the topic. I feel that if I don't equip him with the tools to know how to do be careful with his language another incident like this will happen which will look bad on us as a company and likely lead to him losing his job - neither of which I want for selfish reasons.

Options off the table: 1. Asking for a training course (there isn't one available already and while I may be able to arrange one it won't happen quickly). 2. Him taking a proactive approach and learning himself.

Question:

How should I best approach this topic with the individual (or otherwise) so that I can actually help them change the things they say?

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    – Kilisi
    Oct 30, 2023 at 7:52
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    Suggest editing the title: this is not a matter of using inappropriate language, it's a matter of expressing inappropriate content.
    – arp
    Oct 30, 2023 at 16:26

12 Answers 12

97

If the employee really said

"There is an inappropriate comment there, but I won't make it".

Then what they said is worse than if they had blurted out something stupid about removing a layer of clothing. At least a comment like that has a possible defense of "oh, I never thought of that having a sexual aspect to it." Saying "I know you're not supposed to suggest removing clothes, so I am going to make you think about me suggesting you remove some clothes hur hur hur aren't I funny while at the same time restrained and well behaved" is inexcusable.

As to "how not to do that" you say something like

alluding to misbehaviour is not significantly different from misbehaviour. There is not a border or line where you say "I could punch you, but I won't" and that's fine because you didn't punch anyone. Keep your thoughts inside your head and keep your mouth shut unless you need to say something for business purposes.

I might also add

It is possible to have an unexpressed thought

This is a new concept to many people, especially smart and high achieving people. You may literally need to spend some time on it. The customer doesn't need to know that he thought of a really funny comment.

It doesn't matter whether people are too sensitive or not. He's paid to do work on a customer site, and if the customers don't like how he behaves on site, he's not doing his job. If he finds the rules very subtle and nuanced and contradictory, then give him much sterner and simpler variants of the rules. Stick to business. Talk less. No jokes. Humour is for people who are trained in how not to hurt others with it, which he apparently is not. Done.

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49

My main worry is that while he understands that he needs to be more careful with what he says, it is the consequences that worry him rather than an understanding of the topic.

Your job is to ensure the employee's behavior is appropriate.

It doesn't matter what motivates the employee to behave correctly - whether that is a deep understanding and appreciation of the topic, or just a desire to avoid the consquences. The only part that matters is the result.

And it doesn't matter if the employee believes that people are too sensitive. Again, the employee's actions are the only thing that matter.

Make sure the employee understands that they can be fired if they stray and be prepared to dismiss them if they do. Then stop trying to change their belief system - it's a waste of time.

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    This. You’re not going to change their internal views but you can change their action.
    – bob
    Oct 28, 2023 at 21:55
  • I don't think a company could legally fire someone for just cause over comments like this one.
    – Yuftre111
    Oct 29, 2023 at 19:10
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    I think it's a little more nuanced - for consequences to be an effective deterrent one has to make sure, the person understands what exactly constitutes an offense. One has to make sure the offending party understands precisely why it was an offense so they do not stumble into a different offense the next time. (because the goal is to stop offending behavior without another incident)
    – Falco
    Oct 30, 2023 at 10:44
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    Like @bob - you're goal shouldn't be to change peoples internal views - just to behave as judged appropriate by the business. It's slightly ominous that you might even consider using influence of an employer to coerce staff into a specific way of thinking. And yes, people are far to sensitive - offence can only be taken, not given. But also a wise employee knows when to keep their thoughts to themselves.
    – Charemer
    Oct 30, 2023 at 14:01
14

but the person in question just does not understand and fully believes that people these days are simply too sensitive.
[...]
My main worry is that while he understands that he needs to be more careful with what he says, it is the consequences that worry him rather than an understanding of the topic.

You can't force other people to think what you want them to think - and if this is what they believe then there's a good chance that you're not going to be able to change that. You can certainly try and explain things or make them sit through training - but it sounds like you've already tried and hit a brick wall.

But at the end of the day it doesn't matter what they believe, or whether you can change their mind. What matters is that they're in a professional environment, and they need to act in a professional way.

So regardless of how they feel about it, the simple fact that need to be communicated with them is that if they continue to make these kinds of comments then they will be fired (and go through whatever internal processes your country and company require around this, such as giving them a written warning).

Then they can either try and change their views, or they can learn to keep those comments to themselves (which is a useful skill for anyone in a customer facing role). Or they can get fired, and maybe that will be the impetus they need to reconsider things.

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    I definitely can't change his beliefs, but I would like to be able to say something like "you need to change, and here is some help with how" rather than "you need to change, do so". I am pretty sure without being shown how to change, he will fail to do so, but he definitely doesn't want to cause offense, so if I could show him how to avoid it, he may well succeed.
    – SeriousBri
    Oct 27, 2023 at 18:17
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    @SeriousBri He clearly knows that the comments are inappropriate, and even says so himself. He just doesn't care that someone else is offended by it, because he thinks that's their fault for being "too sensitive". There are endless articles/videos/blogs/etc that talk about sexism, and why these kinds of comments are harmful. But he's not going to change his views because his manager telsl him to go and read them, he has to want to change.
    – Gh0stFish
    Oct 27, 2023 at 18:47
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    How about this: You don't have to agree with this, and you don't have to like it. But you do have to understand it, and you do have to do it. If you can't, this job isn't for you.
    – Lee Mosher
    Oct 28, 2023 at 12:57
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    @SeriousBri This would be much more offensive to me than just somebody saying to me "you're not allowed to make these kind of jokes with customers". Don't moralize, just lay out the rules and make it clear you don't tolerate any defiance on this issue.
    – seg
    Oct 28, 2023 at 20:17
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As a woman in a male-dominated industry, I wouldn't necessarily be offended by hearing a man say something that amounts to "I wanted you to know that I'm thinking something inappropriate", but I might feel worried about my personal safety, especially if the nature of the work gave the man access to some of my PII (personally identifiable information), and it wasn't someone I worked with every day.

This is just not an acceptable way to do business.

Tell the employee, flat out, that sexual innuendo, even indirect sexual innuendo, is not appropriate for the workplace.

A nice way to draw the line, for many people, is "if you wouldn't say that to a man, don't say it to a woman." (Yes, I know, that implies all kinds of heteronormativity. But it's usually only straight men who need to be reminded to treat those of other genders professionally.)

You can also point out that contractors and vendors are often held to a higher standard of behavior than employees, especially because contractors can easily be removed from a contract for small infractions without the legal hassles of removing an employee.

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    @Or4ng3h4t Women do worry about men who make sexual comments in inappropriate situations acting on those comments. If they are willing to be inappropriate in public when you are their client and they should be somewhat deferential, you don't want them showing up on your doorstep.
    – ColleenV
    Nov 6, 2023 at 15:54
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    You've never read any news stories about men stalking women, about men murdering women who turned down their romantic/sexual approaches in the workplace, about men who escalate from inappropriate comments to inappropriate behavior to outright assault as they don't see any consequences of misbehavior? You must be pretty sheltered, @Or4ng3h4t -- most women you know have heard stories of this happening, if not personally, then to someone they know. It's not all men, but it's enough men that all women need to be aware and afraid.
    – arp
    Nov 7, 2023 at 22:45
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It's worth putting your own ducks in a row first.

What's the complaint? The complaint is about the expression of sexual innuendos towards people at work with whom your staffer is insufficiently familiar.

What's the harm? Probably little in the single instance, but it's tiresome for the recipient when sexual innuendos are encountered often in life.

What's the solution sought? That your staffer desist in future.

Avoid terms like "offensive", "distressing", and "upsetting". These are indeed hyperbolic terms and probably don't correspond to your female customer's actual reaction.

Better and more straightforward terms (concerning the reaction of anyone of a reasonably firm constitution, which I'm sure your female customer is) would be "mildly annoying", "seedy", and "unwelcome". And even that level of feeling is likely informed by the target's broader life experience for which your staffer is not personally responsible.

Avoid turning the issue into a matter about political beliefs, the state of society in general, or attitudes towards women in general. All of these risk taking you onto unsteady ground yourself, risk making unfounded assumptions about your staffer's motivation, and risk provoking strong resistance and moral indignation if you then make a step wrong yourself.

And amongst social friends, there would be probably nothing wrong with this kind of remark.

Your demand is quite straightforward. You want more seriousness in professional interactions. There shouldn't be allusion to sexual matters in company meetings. Your staffer isn't in the pub on his own time.

If the allegation is that somebody is being too sensitive, then provided you haven't exaggerated things into extreme terms in the first place, you can easily shoot back "You implied one of our customers should undress in a work meeting. I don't think I'm being overly sensitive in telling you to shut up.".

I don't think this is a case which requires "training", "tools", or a "proactive approach to learning" either. These are laughably alien ways of just telling someone to shut up with bad jokes.

Your staffer was already fully aware of the context - that's why he modified the joke into an implication. You're simply insisting that there must be no joke at all of that kind towards professional (and not social) contacts.

If you've already made one approach over this issue, then my advice would be to let the matter rest. You've already drawn his attention to the issue, and certainly made it clear that more jokes will mean more hassle.

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    > Your staffer was already fully aware of the context - that's why he modified the joke into an implication. this is key!
    – njzk2
    Oct 29, 2023 at 18:36
10

Your employee doesn't need language sensitivity training.

He said

"There is an inappropriate comment there, but I won't make it".

He knew what he was doing was insensitive, and wrong. He knew that he should have kept his mouth shut. He just chose not to. The reason why I know he knew he what he was saying was wrong is because he said "there is an inappropriate comment there" instead of making the inappropriate comment... Both show a lack of maturity, but the inappropriate comment at least is something that he could be trained out of.

Your employee needs to

  • grow up. His behavior showed a lack of maturity.
  • learn that it is important to act 'professionally' while at work.

How he behaves off the clock is his business. But when he is on the clock he should behave professionally towards you, his co-workers, clients, etc...

Here is what you do, officially reprimanded for unprofessional behavior. I don't know what the first level of official reprimand is at your company, but give him one of those. This does 2 things. 1) shows him that you are serious, what he did will have consequences. 2) creates a paper trail so that firing him because he is emotionally immature and makes you and your company look bad in front of customers. (If I was your client, I would fire your business over this individuals behavior, or at the very least look somewhere else first).

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    I agree with most of what you said, but I think a warning, perhaps in writing, is a better next step than jumping immediately to HR.
    – arp
    Oct 30, 2023 at 16:16
  • @arp you are write, a written warning is more appropriate... But with the comment "fully believes that people these days are simply too sensitive" It sounds like OP has verbally discussed the incident with X... And X blew him off. X needs a wake up call.
    – Questor
    Oct 30, 2023 at 18:13
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    This is the only answer that removes the subjective sexual innuendo. It was simply disrespectful, especially to a client vs colleagues where a bond may exist.
    – paulj
    Oct 30, 2023 at 18:51
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    @paulj I think that even out of context the phrase "There is an inappropriate comment there, but I won't make it" is pretty unprofessional.
    – Questor
    Oct 30, 2023 at 19:27
  • @arp A written warning usually involves HR (either for advice on the wording, or even only because including the warning in the employees records goes through HR) Nov 7, 2023 at 16:23
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  • antecedent - all circumstances (historical and contemporary) that led to a certain behavior

You certainly should speak to the person about the incident, and let him know that it made the customer uncomfortable. You can also try to change behavior by applying a negative consequence, but behavior change due to positive consequence is much longer-lasting.

Consider ways wherein you can reward appropriate/helpful customer interaction. Positive rewards for desired behavior will help with long-lasting behavior change because the positive experience becomes a pleasant part of the persons history (antecedent) that they (consciously or subconsciously) want again. Some companies use customer surveys for this.

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  • @HappyIdiot LOL you're right, I will change it to "customer". Oct 29, 2023 at 23:27
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I would be tempted to make the following points to the employee:

  • You work for the company, as a result your actions reflect on the company especially at work events.
  • Some actions you take, could have legal liability for the company.
  • Additionally there may be reputational damage from your actions (A client may not renew a contract they were on the fence about or if a potential employee hears about a situation, them may not join).
  • Even if you don't find something offensive others may find it so - hence the standard we adhere to is that we don't do or say things that others MAY find offensive.

You may also want to consider a written warning, simply stating that although no further actions is being taken at this time, this event has been recorded and should it happen again the subsequent event will be considered as part of a pattern of behavior.

PS The other answers about indirectly insinuating something are not really much better than just saying it are also valid - you may want to bring that up too.

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This is just my opinion but I think things have been blown out of proportion. In incidences like these I think it's important to try not to make a big ordeal out of it so it's easier to address the problem directly and so that people wont get defensive. You already had at least one meeting with upper management, the client and the employee. There's been talk about disciplinary action.

Since this seems to be turning into a formal investigation I think it's fair to consider things such as has the employee ever said something like this before? Does the employee regret having said this? Do other people in the workplace make similar statements? Is there any disagreement on what actually happened/what was said and is there any corroboration or other people who may have heard? In situations where someone is accused of saying something inappropriate the exact wording and context could be inappropriate.

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  • But the OP didn't ask "how can I (or should I) fire this person? They aren't running a formal investigation. They asked "how can I teach my employee to do their job properly?" Having a series of questions and some sort of flowchart, some of whose paths no doubt lead to "it's fine, it's been handled, we don't need to take any further action" (otherwise why would you ask those things?) does not end up with the employee learning how to keep certain thoughts, even those intended as humour, unexpressed. Oct 30, 2023 at 15:59
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    Nothing bad happened to the company in this instance. But saying the same thing to another person, say a woman who has had a seriously distressing experience recently, could cause huge problems. And without any need. The employee thought about saying something stupid. The good choice is not saying it, the bad choice is saying it. So you tell him “you made a stupid decision, and if you do it again it might cause you trouble and it might cause the company trouble”.
    – gnasher729
    Nov 3, 2023 at 10:39
-6

Before deciding on the action, we need to establish that the comment was really "inappropriate " we need to dive deep into the context of conversation if we really want to find out what was wrong with the employee.

People sometimes ask questions their respondent have nothing to say about and they feel they must keep the face by mocking the person asking the question. This can actually be rather annoying. So the lesson the employee must learn is to "abstain from demonstrating that he is smarter than customer".

For example here on SE people who answer question sometimes get a reaction from the person who asked the question: "Are you saying that you're smarter than me, that you know better or maybe you imply I'm more stupid than you?" This is a very common theme, constantly repeating itself and since it is distressing, you might consider teaching him to never speak in public, unless he made sure

  1. The client really is interested in receiving an answer
  2. The answer specifically deals with the issue of "who us smarter" and indicates that it's not the employee

You might want to specifically train him answering to stupid qurstions/remarks in respectful manner by asking stupid questions and making sure his reaction is appropriate.

I think this concept is called "intellectual humility", it may be not popular these days when everyone actually must outsmart others, but since his role is humble and lowly, he must never get out of it.

Since most people (not sure but I estimate about 80%) are brought up and made believe it is important to never appear smart/knowledgeable, so they despise this characteristic in others.

This is especially relevant if the employee happens to be an immigrant and in this case he must be especially careful to make sure that he doesn't say anything smart.

Regarding your question "how to train an employee..." I would suggest informing him that he will be fired usually suffice.

This may be controversial and speculation, but WHO we are to trust any sources other than some popular news outlets?

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    The behavior displayed by the employee was unprofessional... And showed a lack of maturity/emotional intelligence/forsight... And the comment of "Its hot in here" is not a stupid remark... Its a complaint about the temperature/weather... Which is most appropietly responded by "Sure is"
    – Questor
    Oct 30, 2023 at 15:52
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    @questor Yes, but she said "warm", not "hot". Nobody says "it's warm in here", and even if they do, it's rather positive statement and which doesn't require him taking any action.
    – troyan
    Oct 30, 2023 at 17:30
  • The point here was that they wanted to know if the employee required any training or if he was too old for this, because he was out of elementary school age.
    – troyan
    Oct 30, 2023 at 17:35
  • Because they wanted to keep employee for some "selfish" reasons, but not in such state
    – troyan
    Oct 30, 2023 at 17:36
  • They didn't know and posted a question on SE, because their company had weak HR function
    – troyan
    Oct 30, 2023 at 17:41
-8

The employee gave an intentionally vague response. You don't know exactly what the employee was thinking, and equally you don't know how the customer interpreted it. There isn't really enough substance to call it innuendo. Would you be as concerned if it had been a woman talking to a woman? Probably not.

I don't think you need to rush around looking for any specific type of training because the message was vague. There could be a lot more conveyed by the word "inappropriate" than innuendo. We can probably conclude that the though maybe intention wasn't to get a such rise out of the customer, that's what ended up happening. Tell your employee to stick to direct language, and to avoid using such vague statements about anything. This will cut down on any opportunities for misinterpretation.

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    "Would you be as concerned if it had been a woman talking to a woman? Probably not." - Probably yes. It's unprofessional to talk to a customer that way, regardless of the genders involved.
    – Aaron F
    Oct 28, 2023 at 20:48
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    I think most women wouldn't say it to men because they understand why it isn't the right thing to say (having been victims of this kind of talk for so long) but yes absolutely I would be concerned.
    – SeriousBri
    Oct 29, 2023 at 9:40
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    "I wanted you to know I'm thinking something inappropriate" is not at all vague. I wouldn't necessarily be offended by something like that, but under many circumstances it might make me concerned for my personal safety.
    – arp
    Oct 30, 2023 at 1:25
-13

When someone allegedly said something like...

...When the female indicated she was warm...

in which someone allegedly replied with something like...

"There is an inappropriate comment there, but I won't make it".

(not many facts here AFAIK)

"Man is troubled not by events, but by the meaning he gives to them."

  • Epictetus

How many ways can one misinterpret the intent of such an utterance, and assume what, based upon their own judgement, could be an actual unspoken inappropriate response, for another person? (How is that possible, does one have access to the other persons mind?)

Let’s try a few just for fun...

  1. So, why don't you go somewhere cooler?
  2. Why don't you take that sweater off?
  3. Aren't you lucky.
  4. Oh yeah, what have you been doing?
  5. Whoopie doo!
  6. Really? I'm not.
  7. Aww, never mind, at least you're not homeless.
  • ad finitum...

People seem to rely too much on hearsay and/or assumptions as a guide to understand how someone else might/must be feeling—those people usually end up making a situation worse.

Unfortunately far too many taint their solution to someone else's problem with their own beliefs and thoughts and condemn the so-called "wrongdoer" without a second thought, instead of listening to all sides with impartiality and a balanced understanding.

How does the saying go - "What someone says about you says more about them than you."

Without concrete facts, I would not act, but monitor and aim to deal with any future incident in the moment when I have actual evidence. Perhaps someone is unaware of their alleged conduct, perhaps they were cracking a joke that fell on deaf ears, or maybe the other person was having an off day - some people have a satirical, dry or dark sense of humour that many people do not "get", and others don't have a sense of humour at all. Is that really anyone else's problem but theirs?

So, in answer to your question—I would lead by example, and attempt to call out the behaviour whenever I saw it next, in whatever way was generally considered most appropriate.

As an added bonus I will finish with a few sobering quotes from those good folk of old, the Stoics... (There is another quote I quite like, abbreviated to SIUB - "Suck It Up Buttercup" - although that's not from the Stoic era. :o) )

“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”

  • Marcus Aurelius

“Any person capable of angering you becomes your master; he can anger you only when you permit yourself to be disturbed by him.”

  • Epictetus

“The one to whom nothing was refused, whose tears were always wiped away by an anxious mother, will not abide being offended.

  • De Ira 2.21.6” ― Seneca, Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero

"Remember, that not he who gives Ill language or a blow insults, but the principle which represents these things as insulting. When, therefore, anyone provokes you, be assured that it is your own opinion which provokes you."

  • Epictetus, Enchiridion (c. 50 – c. 135 AD)
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    People seem to rely too much on hearsay Why would you assume the client is lying to the contractor's manager? Oct 28, 2023 at 21:52
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    "Is that really anyone else's problem but theirs?". If you're trying to run a profitable company and your employee is annoying/upsetting clients, then yeah, it is someone elses problem Oct 29, 2023 at 16:49
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    @AzorAhai-him- who knows, maybe they have some other problem with him. It's still important to give everyone a fair chance to tell their side.
    – Yuftre111
    Oct 29, 2023 at 18:49
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    @Yuftre111 It's not a court of law, and this wouldn't even be hearsay if it were. Frankly this answer is bizarre and difficult to read and I have no idea if Android is recommending that the employee not be given a chance to deny that they said something. You'll note I never claimed that OP should not ask the employee if they actually said that (sure, whatever), but it's strange in the extreme to start out this answer with essentially, "You are trusting the person too much." This isn't elementary school, we can start off assuming other adults are not lying to our faces. Oct 29, 2023 at 19:19
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    @Or4ng3h4t Yeah, you caught me. I live in Cloud Cuckoo land, where when a professional tells me - in my work capacity - a man made an inappropriate comment, the more plausible explanation is that they're making it up, not that he actually said it. 🙄 Nov 3, 2023 at 22:11

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