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I am a junior manager (promoted from within) and recently started being invited to some social and informal events with senior management. It is good to know that I am getting closer to their inner circles, but I felt uncomfortable when they started openly making fun of junior employees, including my own team members.

At a recent social event, some comments were in the tone of "This guy is a complete idiot and waste of time. Why are you even keeping him? You should fire him and increase all our salaries! Hahaha!" (and everyone laughs)

I tried to smile but I really felt bad, and jokingly said something like:"Haha, we shouldn't spread these ideas." Then one of the senior managers gave me a bad look and indirectly asked me to leave the group ("Thanks for coming man, hey you should talk with those other junior managers over there").

Seriously, how should one react in this kind of situations?

I know it is unprofessional to talk behind other people's backs, but what if I want to climb the ladder into senior management? Shouldn't I do whatever it takes to gain their trust and friendship?

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    I'm afraid there's no "right" answer to this. Some opinions may be more on the side of behaving ethically, others more opportunistic. All in all it will elicit lots of different opinions, making it a rather bad fit, for this type of Q'n'A site. – CMW Feb 28 '14 at 9:04
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    Wow, this sounds like an absolutely horrible place to work. I would worry less about climbing ladders and focusing more on finding another job. – Fredrik Feb 28 '14 at 9:04
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    It's natural to want to climb the corporate ladder, any manager would. But it doesn't seem like a very pleasant environment. Maybe they've been so unprofessional for so long that they don't even realise it anymore. Are you sure you want to work with these people every day ? Are you sure you want to become one of them ? I wouldn't. In a few years, there will be another junior manager who will feel disturbed by your behaviour just like you are disturbed right now. – Radu Murzea Feb 28 '14 at 12:21
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    Recommended reading – AakashM Feb 28 '14 at 15:48
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    You know, if they talk about people behind their backs, they'll be talking about you behind your back soon enough. – swbarnes2 Feb 28 '14 at 19:35
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Shouldn't I do whatever it takes to gain their trust and friendship?

That depends on the price you're willing to pay. Are you planning to gain these prizes with hard work and dedication? Then good luck - alas you won't need it.

Or are you planning to take the easy route (i.e. ass kissing)? No one respects sycophants, so that's just a safe way to fail. But it's tempting to try.

"This guy is a complete idiot and waste of time. Why are you even keeping him? You should fire him and increase all our salaries! Hahaha!"

People say stupid things, especially when drunk or among friends. It's true for your high-school buddies and it's also true for the powerful. It's a way to socialize, to create an in-group (specifically, it's a way to draw a border between "us" and "them").

If it happened once (i.e. someone just slipped), I'd approach that person specifically in a non-threatening setting (i.e. low-stress, no hierarchy, no witnesses) and tell them "You said 'xyz'. I felt bad about it." Be as specific and as unemotional about it as you can.

That way, the offender gets a chance to see how someone else sees them behave. Without threats, they will be more likely not to start defending themselves and instead start thinking whether this was what they wanted to achieve.

If it's a pattern and many people are involved, chance are you found a pool of corruption. Literally, people can be corrupted when a superior uses insulting terms to describe others over and over again. It erodes morale on all levels (superiors start to look down on "them" and "them" will eventually notice they are perceived as sub-human and respond accordingly).

The Milgram experiment is an extreme form of this. It demonstrates how you can take a normal, average person and make them kill another human being within less than an hour.

The same underlying psychological rules govern human groups and it's imperative that you're aware of this. This form of corruption / bullying looks like fun but it's as corrosive than any other when not kept in check.

So while a retort like "I thought we paid you to solve problems like that? If you can't even fire a 'complete idiot' - using your own words - why are you here and wasting our time talking bullshit?" would feel good (for a few seconds), it's no solution.

Unfortunately, there is no simple solution (otherwise, we wouldn't have problems like this). But there are some things that you can try.

Does your company have a document about work ethics? If so, you might mention it: "I'm sorry, but I feel that comment violates the ethical standards that we have in this company". Tone that down or up as appropriate for the situation.

The important points are:

  • Someone with a lot of power made those rules (not you)
  • Everyone signed them (so they can't say they didn't know)
  • Highlight the fact that these rules are important (not only in your eyes)
  • You're just reminding everyone (which really shouldn't be necessary)

If the pattern persists, despite your efforts, then you must leave this place. I'm serious: Quit as soon as you can. Only a small portion of people is immune to an influence like this (they are immune because they are always aware of it happening which gives them a chance to fight it). Give it time, and it'll become one of your habits.

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    I liked this answer a lot. Good suggestions, and good explanations as well. I am in agreement. If this behavior persists, get out of there. Good answer Aaron. – Mike M. Feb 28 '14 at 15:09
  • Can you please point to more sources to help spot / counter this kind of corruption? This is an amazing answer. Especially the last part. I've realized I might be in a similar situation. – BeyondSora Feb 28 '14 at 21:45
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    I recommend this book: "The Lucifer Effect" by Philip Zimbardo (of "Stanford Prison Experiment" fame. It explains the psychological roots and mechanisms of evil, corruption and heroism incl. a list of things to look out for and how to avoid getting entangled. – Aaron Digulla Mar 2 '14 at 9:30
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It sounds to me like they were testing you. Prodding you, to see how you would react. Do you actually know this "useless" person, and his history with the company? Do you have all the facts necessary to defend him from an unsatisfied client who might come to you with the exact same remark?

What would have been the best possible reaction to give? Probably one which shows you are good at your job: managing your people and removing impediments. Challenge him right back: "Ok, I'll bite. When was the last time you talked to him?"

I would be OK with this as a first prodding. If it continues, you have a real issue and should address it using the answer made by @aaron-digulla.

Source: My manager often asks me something along the lines of "Are you burning up money again with nothing to show for it?", as an opener for me to show how much I have contributed. He is actually satisfied with my performance.

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    Even if it's just "testing", I'd consider it a bad style of communication. Still, trying to see it in this light might be worth a try. – sleske Sep 9 '16 at 8:43
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If this is a social situation and the remarks are not racist, sexist or defaming of the individual's sexual orientation, then I would advise listening neutrally until you have the opportunity to disengage. Don't laugh or agree;simply don't comment and keep a calm expression on your face.

People gossip about other people all of the time. The few who do not are viewed as being exceptionally trustworthy and become confidants. Or they viewed as being socially inept and they are ostracized in future non work-related endeavors. How you are classified will depend upon how you react to this gossip.

If the talk does become inappropriate or deeply offensive, then mild reminders of that fact may be in order. That is usually enough to steer the conversation back towards "safer" territory. If it is not, then excusing yourself from the conversation and showing visible discomfort might be necessary to demonstrate that their comments have crossed the line.

If this is a frequent occurrence, Human Resources may have to become involved. A discreet or anonymous note to them might be in order if racist and sexist comments are commonplace at company-related social gatherings.

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    "If the talk does become inappropriate or deeply offensive" - I'd say a remark like "This guy is a complete idiot and waste of time." is already deeply offensive. And OP did remind them mildly, and was ignored. – sleske Sep 9 '16 at 8:45

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