78

A friend of mine has been written off sick and her absence has prompted a senior colleague (not her boss, but someone significantly more senior than she is) to send her the following very bizarre email to express his displeasure. The colleague is Latin-American and sent the email in Spanish; this is my translation, trying to preserve style.

My friend is Spanish and her national origin is used in a very direct manner to attack her. I would appreciate any suggestions on what response or reaction (if any) would be appropriate in a case like this.

I am glad that your sense of duty hasn't abandoned you in your sick bed. At the very least you must justify the fact that you have a permanent employment contract and that the bank trusts you blindly and clumsily to rise victorious in your Spanish banking endeavors. I vow to do penance so that you may quickly recover from the horrific illnesses brought to you by old age, physical inactivity and the characteristic indolence of persons of Iberian extraction. However, I will ring you in a few minutes, as soon as my numerous work activities allow me, to make sure that you have survived the series of health misfortunes that afflicts you. In the meantime, I send you a Platonic kiss on the forehead, hoping that with this act I will not be infected with any of the afflictions that hound you, especially that of Spanish laziness.

He did call later (as suggested in the email), four times. My friend did not answer.

  • 36
    Unfortunately I have no mastery over the Spanish language so I wouldn't be able to read the original, but at least in English the email reads like something that could very well be meant "tongue-in-cheek", meaning the writer isn't seriously being racist but is attempting humor. Is there any chance you're running into Hanlon's Razor? (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanlon%27s_razor) – Cronax Apr 22 '15 at 11:54
  • 13
    @Cronax. That's a very good point and I actually brought up to her that it might be a joke, but if that were the case it would be an strepitously clumsy way of being tong-in-cheek. He calls her incompetent, old and lazy. I don't read it as a joke. – Provolone Dolce Apr 22 '15 at 12:08
  • 42
    @ProvoloneDolce - You might want to post the Spanish original, as well. I certainly wouldn't understand it, but it's possible that someone else who would might find it useful. – Bobson Apr 22 '15 at 12:10
  • 32
    @ProvoloneDolce Many people make the mistake of attempting to use brands of humor in written text that really only work when you can hear the intonation of someone's voice and can see their facial expression. This seems to be an instance of that. I've had similar experiences before where someone would use stereotypical prejudices as a basis for humor, thinking that the recipient would understand he would never seriously insult a colleague like that so they would see the humor... – Cronax Apr 22 '15 at 12:29
  • 16
    @ProvoloneDolce Once your friend takes action, I would love to hear an update of what ended up happening. – David K Apr 22 '15 at 13:16
112

I suggest that your friend forward the message to her manager and to HR. I have no doubt that others on this site will recommend out of mercy that she speak to the colleague first but hey, if he can shoot his mouth off then he can take the consequences of shooting his mouth off, too, like the senior colleague who ought to know better that he is.

My attitude is pretty much "You say or do something stupid, you are accountable for it" I'd want him not only to tell her that he won't do it again but also let her boss and HR that he won't do it again, too. And not only say it, but say it with feeling.

  • I would add that he, should prove why each sentence is false or true to learn more about her colleague origins. – llrs Apr 22 '15 at 8:52
  • 64
    And this is no stupid mistake. Stupid mistakes can happen. This is intentionally insulting another employee in the vilest way, when apparently the whole matter is none of his business at all. – gnasher729 Apr 22 '15 at 9:57
  • 8
    @gnasher729 I can't wait for mangement to tell this individual "These people that you call lazy bums? Our company calls them our customers." – Vietnhi Phuvan Apr 22 '15 at 10:03
  • 5
    This is absolutely the best course of action. The sender did this all on his own. To engage him directly in any way would (likely) only escalate the situation. This is what managers and HR are paid and trained to deal with. Let them do their job, and your friend should focus on recovering her health and then performing as well as she can at work when she returns. – Wesley Long Apr 22 '15 at 17:05
  • 3
    While this is outright harassment and would love to see this senior face consequences, part of any office work is to know how to play the office politics game. Yes she can complain and yes the senior co-worker will be dealt with. But she will also need to continue work with him in future, and in case of complain her time in the workplace will likely be very short. Sometimes decision is not what is right to do or what not, sometimes it is about making a smart decision. Imho the best way is to sort it out directly with co-worker rather then involve management. – Dmitris Apr 23 '15 at 14:08
64

This is Harassment. The most inappropriate and totally unacceptable type of behavior in a corporate culture. You cannot ignore this email, this behavior has no place in any company.

What to do?

Most large corporations have an anonymous line to report such incidents. It is usually a website, so that you do not need to use your own name or email.

If her company does not have that, HR is the place to go. Some companies have a board of business ethics, that would be another option. (I met such a board when I married my customer, they were independent and pragmatic.)

Why do it?

Because this senior person is a threat to the company, its people, its customers and its reputation. It is not only your friend who was insulted, it is also the company that has been compromised.

UPDATE

Ok, so based on the comments, anonymity needs to be clarified here. An anonymous line gives you the opportunity to submit your incident without your or anybody's name. Just like you submitted here on this forum. And you can ask for advice. The good thing is that advice in this case comes from within your own company, own culture from people who are designated to handle such sensitive matters.

Can you stay anonymous? Well, if they advice you to submit the person's name so that they can reach out and take some action, you still have the option to evaluate the advice and decide if you wanna proceed or not.

If you proceed you'll have to share the person's name with someone on the help line. They will keep your anonymity, the person who wrote the email however will probably guess that it was you. (unless he sent several such emails to many people). The help line can explain better how this works within your own company.

The point I want to make is, that there is often a professional and anonymous help line who can guide you how to manage this situation, with real anonymity at least int he beginning.

  • 31
    "Most companies have an anonymous line to report such incidents" really? Bearing in mind that most companies are small businesses. – Steve Jessop Apr 22 '15 at 9:52
  • 4
    @Steve Jessop: You are right, but this is a large multinational bank. They have official channels to deal with this sort of thing. They are required by law anyway. – Provolone Dolce Apr 22 '15 at 11:09
  • 6
    Considering that to be useful the colleuge would need to be identified. This means that anonymity in this case is moot. (Anyone reading about the incident can reason out where the complaint originated) – Taemyr Apr 22 '15 at 11:45
  • 3
    Anonymity means that you can submit the issue without highlighting your name or your colleague's name and ask for advise as a first step. Later on, of course, as you say, your colleague will need to be identified, but at that time there will be competent people managing the case making sure that damage on you and others is minimal or none. – Mark Apr 22 '15 at 12:08
  • 5
    @Mark Can you edit your most recent comment into your answer? I thought the same as Taemyr when I read your answer alone. – starsplusplus Apr 22 '15 at 12:16
34

I hope it's not too late if you read the answer because I am German and I can tell that the course of action really depends on culture.

First of all: It is harassment/bullying/mobbing (This is the official German term, a false anglicism. As the term is relevant for the German law and describes the practice in Germany, I will use it here). And a really vile one.
And it does not matter if she is Spanish, he is seaching for a victim which he can terrorize.

Remark: It would help to see the original mail.

The reaction from anglophone countries, especially USA, is not advisable in Germany for several reasons:

  • Sueing does not work
    If something goes to court (which also takes a looong time and puts more stress on the victim), the fines are in the range of thousands of euros. You read that right. So essentially there is no penalty on firms to suppress mobbing.

  • Worker laws
    Work laws work in both directions. For both the victim and the culprit it really takes long until a decision is met, so the danger rises enormously that other people get involved. And this can really get nasty. The mail is sufficient reason to fire the culprit immediately , but the management needs to know the offense in 14 days from the time of the attack. I do not like to say it, but the truth is that only in 20% of known cases the offender gets any penalty.

That is the situation of mobbing in Germany. It is strange that exactly in social jobs like banking and insurance, care and salespeople incidence is highest while in working jobs like farmer and truck driver incidence is lowest. So your situation is unfortunately very common.

The absolute most important thing to know is:

DOING NOTHING IS THE ABSOLUTELY WORST WAY TO ANSWER MOBBING !

Ever saw that a school bully stopped bullying because the victim simply did nothing ? The longer the time, the more people are involved and this gets so ugly that the management cannot do something for the victim because it intervenes too late. The longer the time, the more time has the culprit to try to influence people negatively. The longer the time, the more options has the culprit to hide his maliciousness. The longer the time, the worse the condition of the victim afterwards.

Your options:

  • First find out what your current status in the work environment is. Think hard: Has something happened to indicate that something was already brewing and is your work climate bad ? Missing greetings ? You missed important meetings ? Are there nasty rumors ? Bad management ? Scapegoats ? In all this cases the chances for a positive solution for you are...not so good.
  • If you think it is (partly) good, you need support. Choose a person who you consider reliable, experienced and friendly to you (choose wise. If not a colleague, someone who is in the business and has experience). Tell him/her what happened and see on his/her reaction what your options are. Genuinely horrified ? Very good. Angry like "again ?" You are not the first victim. Avoiding your eyes ? Uh oh. The problem I see is that the culprit wrote an email, normally mobbers try to avoid evidence like pest.
  • I will now lay out the steps German law has thought out to tackle mobbing. It is based on the decision of Landesarbeitsgericht Thüringen (one of the 3rd most important court for working law in German) from April 10th, 2001 reference number 5 Sa 403/2000. So every working place big enough should have several ombudsman for mobbing, people who act as arbitrator and contact person. This people can be contacted with a complaint. The victim can request that a meeting with both parties can happen to find a solution in a course of 14 days, on demand with the Betriebsrat. That's the theory believing that people can act as adults. If there is no agreement, a decision can be forced by all ombudsman which is binding for CEO and Betriebsrat.
  • If this above is not available to you, the boss/Betriebsrat should now be contacted. And it is imperative that you need as much support as possible. Colleagues, friends, self-help groups, therapeuts. Once the culprit recognizes that the victim will not tolerate the behavior and that he has no support the mobbing stops (hopefully because he is fired). While it could be unfair and cause misjudgements, the American system with swift penalties at least minimizes the emotional damage because the longer it goes, the worse the results.
  • Document everything what happens. Everything. Do not trust your memories, you need evidence if you need to get before a court.

I have searched for a list of Mobbingberatungsstellen and numbers, but was unsuccessfull until now. Google for the German term above in your specific state (Nordrhein-Westfalen, Bayern etc.).

ADDITION: @nvoight: You are wrong. I quote the relevant passage from the LAG Thüringen, February 15th 2011 Reference: 5 SA 102/2000 paragraph 5.

Das sogenannte Mobbing kann auch ohne Abmahnung und unabhängig davon, ob es in diesem Zusammenhang zu einer Störung des Betriebsfriedens gekommen ist, die außerordentliche Kündigung eines Arbeitsverhältnisses rechtfertigen, wenn dadurch das allgemeine Persönlichkeitsrecht, die Ehre oder die Gesundheit des Mobbingopfers in schwerwiegender Weise verletzt werden. Je intensiver das Mobbing erfolgt, um so schwerwiegender und nachhaltiger wird die Vertrauensgrundlage für die Fortführung des Arbeitsverhältnisses gestört. Muß der Mobbingtäter erkennen, daß das Mobbing zu einer Erkrankung des Opfers geführt hat und setzt dieser ungeachtet dessen das Mobbing fort, dann kann für eine auch nur vorübergehende Weiterbeschäftigung des Täters regelmäßig kein Raum mehr bestehen.

Translation (shortened): The so-called mobbing can be a reason for an extraordinarily termination of the contract without Abmahnung (written warning) and without disturbing the working environment (it is not necessary that the mobbing is brought to public attention. Extraordinary termination means that the culprit is fired, but with the standard termination time range). If the culprit continues the harassment after it is clear to him/her that the victim is emotionally harmed, immediate termination is the correct action.

So you are right that immeditate termination is not compulsory for the mail, but it is not ruled out and extraordinary termination is quite justified.

To the "It is all a joke": First of all, in Germany your own privacy is valued. You only accept intrusions from people you like if you are sick, not "normal" colleagues. Second, the thing came with email which is a medium you do not choose for a joke. Third, Spain has a high unemployment rate and is one of the south european countries which are together with Greece in deep economic trouble. It is a widespread belief in German population that Germany is the purser who holds them in the EU with billions and this caused hostility, so no German would dare to mention it in a mail without intending to hurt the receiver.

  • 3
    This is a very good answer. Only thing - "mobbing" is the same term in Swedish and German, but in English it's translated as "bullying". – Jenny D Apr 22 '15 at 13:23
  • 1
    "The mail is sufficient reason to fire the culprit immediately" no, it's not. It might be reason for an "Abmahnung", but not more. – nvoigt Apr 22 '15 at 14:56
  • 2
    @ThorstenS. "Mobbing" in the US means a group of people doing the bullying. Usually with physical altercation, but I don't think it's required – Izkata Apr 22 '15 at 19:57
  • 3
    I'd also like to point out that as a German, I have done all the things you said Germans don't do. Been called by colleagues while sick, making jokes in email and constantly joking around with our non-german colleagues using words that at face value would probably paint me as an evil racist. Because I know them and we do this with each other. Trying it on a remote worker that is not as close while she is probably feeling like shit and taking prescription drugs is definetly a stupid idea. But it's not as unheard of as you make it seem. At least not in IT. – nvoigt Apr 23 '15 at 4:55
30

This is very obviously a joke.

It's incredibly over the top. The type of humor is called, "hyperbole".

Indolence of people of Iberian extraction?

Platonic kiss with the hope that he doesn't get infected with laziness? Again, very obviously a joke.

If I were to receive an email like that, I would laugh - it is intended as a gentle-ribbing for someone who has taken a sick day.

My guess is that everyone reading this and seeing it as a cause to call HR are doing so because humor doesn't cleanly translate in text. Calling HR without an understanding of what was actually intended is escalating the matter in a way that can easily ruin professional relationships. Perhaps I've been involved in different corporate cultures, but going to HR about something like that would be seen as being unprofessional - if you can't handle a joke, how can you handle business?

I am located in the US, in the tech industry, so we may do things differently here.

  • 7
    Despite the mob downvoting of this, I agree. The over the top references to laziness (via many synonyms) just don't seem serious at all to me. – Kik Apr 22 '15 at 17:23
  • 19
    It might be obvious to you and even to the person who sent it, but it's clearly not obvious to a lot of people, possibly including the colleague who received it. Even if it's meant as a joke, some of the phrasing comes across as downright creepy to me. – fluffy Apr 22 '15 at 18:37
  • 10
    The thing is that person apparently called her 4 times after that. If this is a joke, it's an incredibly vicious one. – Nobilis Apr 23 '15 at 9:36
  • 13
    If this was a joke then it was inept, inappropriate and dumb. It's something that many people might not take as a joke and therefore should be avoided by anyone claiming to be a professional. Making jokes at someone else's expense is very difficult if there is more than a layer of hierarchy between you. The subordinate may not feel they can object so can be placed into a difficult situation, even if it wasn't ill-intentioned to start with. – Basic Apr 23 '15 at 15:42
  • 4
    @Nobilis Speaking about xenophobia sounds like a bad joke. The sender is Latin-American and the recipient is Spanish and it happens in Germany. So who is more "xeno" there? If I received such an email, I'd laugh and laugh. Most probably the recipient is a young sporty diligent woman and the author believed that writing "old age, physical inactivity and ... indolence" was so obviously wrong that just a moron could take it seriously. – maaartinus Apr 26 '15 at 20:55
24

I agree with several commentators here that this might in fact just be someone trying to be funny. When in doubt I tend towards believing a misunderstanding before thinking someone is truly being vile.

Your friend should have answered the phone - the actual intent of the email would have been revealed during that call. At this point I'd say the friend should contact the sender and determine if it was in fact a joke OR if it was truly meant as malicious. If the latter, have her report it to her manager. If the former, then I suggest she calm down.

There is so much lost in written communication and even more is lost when translated. Personally, I would likely not send an email like that UNLESS I was familiar enough with the receiver that they wouldn't misconstrue it. Not everyone is like that though.

  • 2
    I want to believe that it was someone trying to be funny. It is so over-the-top that it's hard to understand what else it could be. THAT SAID, it was still unacceptable and needs to be reported. You don't make jokes like this in the workplace, especially to workers under your command structure. It was/is threatening regardless of the intent. – Kurt Tappe Apr 22 '15 at 16:48
  • 2
    Three things convince me this isn't intended a joke: 1) the line "as soon as my numerous work activities allow me" which is impossible to read as anything but a self-important person genuinely implying they think they work harder, 2) the sheer length of it and variety of abuse (e.g. "old age" and the implication they're faking illness), 3) the fact it was sent to someone who was ill, at home, resting It's not a joke, it's a rant. I've been on the receiving end of similar (minus the racism) in contract disputes that went sour, I know the tone. They really do get this OTT and undiginified. – user568458 Apr 22 '15 at 17:23
  • 13
    @user568458: is the friend actually old? Does the friend have a "can do" history or are they more marginal? I've joked about some of my employees being lazy - knowing FULL WELL that they'd work 100 hours in a week if that's what was required. In fact, that's why I've made jokes like that, because everyone knows it is completely untrue. The fact is that we know nothing about this employee, nor their relationship with the sender. The only way for the friend to know how this should have been taken is for them to call the sender. – NotMe Apr 22 '15 at 17:44
  • 6
    The, "As soon as my numerous work activities allow me", reads to me as someone teasing their sick colleague. "Oh, YOU get a vacation while I am swamped. I see how it is!" Hell, my coworker and I say things like this to my boss when he goes out to off-site meetings. – David Brandtz Apr 23 '15 at 11:24
  • 1
    @Basic And so do I, but given how terrible it all sounds, I'm pretty sure, every single sentence was ironic. See the above comment by NotMe. – maaartinus Apr 26 '15 at 21:01
5

I must admit to feeling slightly nauseated and shocked by the content of the quoted email. While I am unaware of the labour laws and employee rights in your country, in Spain that email would look decidedly abusive.

The action I would take, would depend on how far I would be willing to take it, as once you go down certain roads, its very difficult to backtrack.

Personally I would forward the email to said senior colleague's boss and ask him/her what the appropriate action would be for your friend to take. This will undoubtably have the effect of alienating said colleague, but judging from the quote that would not be much of a loss for your friend.

  • Anyone who, while working in an office IN SPAIN, would send such an email that is derogatory to Spaniards - that individual's job is a prime candidate for a Darwin award :) As for the individual himself, he needs to work on his situational awareness. – Vietnhi Phuvan Apr 22 '15 at 8:44
  • Haha. You'd be surprised at the wonderful specimens I've encountered over the years – shockedSpaniard Apr 22 '15 at 8:46
  • 3
    @shockedSpaniard, the country in question is Germany, where we probably have more labour laws and employee rights than anywhere in the universe. Still, I am somewhat worried that my friend might wreck her career is she takes the wrong steps, but one can't just ignore something like that, right? I am thinking of advising her to do nothing for now and wait to see if something like this happens again. It'd make me nervous to do anything that might add petrol to the fire. – Provolone Dolce Apr 22 '15 at 9:08
  • 16
    Actually, escalating it to the appropriate levels is her best protection against any possible retaliation. Aside from that, do you want to give him a chance to do it again to her or to do it to someone else? Aside from that, everyone has the right to work in an environment where they feel safe. That email is evidence, and she shouldn't be sitting on it. – Vietnhi Phuvan Apr 22 '15 at 9:13
  • 3
    @Provolone Dolce I agree with Vietnhi Phuvan's comment, escalating the matter is her best protection. Aside from that, as you say, Germany has a lot of labour laws and employee rights, so there should also be laws granting her and her career protection against any such retaliation. – shockedSpaniard Apr 22 '15 at 9:50
0
  1. Be nice.
  2. If the situation is ambigouos, at first you must suspect the possible best interpretation.
  3. If you initiate something on PC grounds, you will maybe cause a lot of harm to the person, maybe much more as he really deserved. And... you won't win anything. From the other side: people knowing this will have fear from you, and this fear will be able to harm your interpersonal relations on the longterm.

On my opinion, this single word is far not enough to not ignore it.

-1

A couple of other answers suggest that your colleague speaks to HR. However, this is potentially risky to do without additional support outside the organisation: HR staff tend to know which side their bread is buttered, and may be prone to defer to seniority. Which would be at best unhelpful and at worst traumatic, in this instance.

Is your friend a union member? If not, recommend she joins a union ASAP. This should not be problematic in Germany, and the union should have staff outside of her employer who would be able to provide support and legal advice about handling this incident.

There may be other sources of advice available, too, and perhaps without cost - e.g. from law firms doing pro bono work in the area.

  • 2
    I don't know about Germany, but I've never worked at a place where joining a union was an option. It was either required or unavailable. Even for companies that have unions, they are only available for workers, not management or some professionals. You might clarify that this answer works for Germany (if it does), but not for all other locations. – thursdaysgeek Apr 22 '15 at 15:59
  • 4
    @thursdaysgeek In the UK, for example, a closed shop such as you describe would be illegal. I don't see the necessity to point out that you may have different rights in other countries; that is pretty much a given. – richardb Apr 22 '15 at 16:33
  • I agree there is a chance H.R. will do little. However, you should still contact them and try to get them to take action. If they refuse (or, worse yet, promise to do something but then don't), that is when you obtain independent legal advice. – Kurt Tappe Apr 22 '15 at 16:50
  • In Germany this kind of thing is taken very seriously and such complaints MUST (by law) be dealt with. – Provolone Dolce Apr 22 '15 at 19:36
  • 2
    @thursdaysgeek as in any democratic society where the right to free assembly is valued, the right to join a union exists in Germany. – sampablokuper Apr 23 '15 at 12:51
-5

My guess is that whatever (South American?) bank this is probably has way different attitudes than, say, a London bank. Since that executive apparently thought it was ok to send that wacked out email, he probably feels pretty secure. You want to be careful you don't do something that will backfire on you and your friend. (To the German poster: places like Mexico, Columbia and Peru are not like Germany, you don't get lifetime employment. In Columbia and places like that, a boss can fire you instantly and easily and the worker has zero recourse.)

First of all, aside from the racism, he says he called--obviously to verify that the employee was not screwing off when they said they were "sick". Since he/she did not answer, he is going to assume he/she was not actually sick, but taking personal time. At a lot of high-powered banks, workers are expected to work their butt off night and day, and they definitely don't appreciate first-year associates who call in sick just to take time off. I don't know how long your friend has been at the bank, but if it is less than 3 years they could easily be fired if upper management decides the worker is a slacker.

Your problem is not so much a bigotted VP, as the possibility that your friend might be viewed as "not good material". If you go in with guns blazing defending somebody who is slacking off by making racism charges, you could easily get BOTH of you fired.

Anyway... at the end of the day, it is not your fight anyway. This is the victim's problem. Why are you even involved? Are you a man "protecting" a female? If that is the case, SHE needs to handle the situation, not you. What you should do is nothing. What SHE should do is get her butt back to work, tell the "colleague" that she does not appreciate his snide, vaguely racist remarks, and focus on eliminating any perception that she is a slacker. That is the correct course of action.

  • 2
    I don't get why you are making a gender issue out of this. Read my initial post. Is there anything about gender in it? I mean other than the use of the appropriate pronouns as required by the English language? My friend has a gender, so do I and so does the senior colleague. SHE (or HE [that wouldn't make a difference]) is handling the problem, not ME. Do you feel that females mustn't ask males for advice, only other females, or no one at all? – Provolone Dolce Apr 26 '15 at 17:55
  • 1
    I explained very clearly why the male-female distinction is important. My sense is that you are letting your testosterone cloud your judgement and you think you are a knight in shining armor. Going into the situation described with that attitude will be counter productive. – Socrates Feb 16 '16 at 13:38

protected by Community Apr 23 '15 at 2:22

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.