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The principal investigator for an R&D software project has been absent from day-to-day development for almost a year- much has changed. Over the weekend, the PI dusted off his developer hat and tried to build the project. The build failed, and the PI asked for help. Three developers responded on their day off in an attempt to help.

The PI actively vented his frustration while dismissing offers of help and troubleshooting suggestions. After burning the better part of the day, he was able to build the software. The problem came down to a bad environmental variable on his workstation that caused an automated script to use a Unix version of mkdir instead of the requisite MS-DOS version.

Three team members went out of their way on a day off to aid the PI, but were met with frustration and their help was, at times, rudely dismissed.

Is it appropriate to privately tell a superior that they acted rudely?

  • My employer (and my previous employer, both US companies operating in the UK) have specific guidelines about rudeness and inappropriate behaviour. Does your US company? What was the behaviour? – Andrew Leach Mar 5 '17 at 12:53
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    Sounds more like an application of empathy is in place. From your description, the PI sounds sufficiently stressed-out to be blinded to kind advice. Stress is dangerous, and can take the form of unreasonable short temper. – KlaymenDK Mar 6 '17 at 13:33
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Is it appropriate to privately tell a superior that they acted rudely?

That depends on your relationship with this superior.

If you are a friend and trusted advisor who is often called upon for feedback and honest opinions, then you should indeed privately tell this person how his actions came across to you.

But without that kind of relationship you should keep your thoughts to yourself unless he asks you specifically.

Either way, make sure you speak only for yourself. Other teammates can choose to speak for themselves or remain silent.

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Is it appropriate to privately tell a superior that they acted rudely?

I don't think that's ever appropriate - this isn't third grade and you're not his babysitter. If he causes tension with his underlings he'll probably be fired sooner or later unless he's a beneficiary of nepotism (in which case you definitely shouldn't tell him he's acting rudely).

If he was rude to you specifically, it would be appropriate to say something like "could you please not vent your frustrations with the build system on my day off; I'm happy to help on my day off if you can have a positive attitude about the project". Note that this isn't telling him he's rude per se, it's just asking for this kind of thing not to occur in the future, rude or not.

Generally though, if you're working with a temperamental git, you shouldn't offer help at all on your day off at all: just say "if it's not an emergency I'd like to deal with this tomorrow when I'll be at work".

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No, everyone gets frustrated, if he's a professional he knows he was rude and was venting. Most people do so under pressure in different ways.

If you don't want to work on your day off, don't. But don't be childish about hurt feelings when there was work to be completed, there is no plus side to doing so. Just file the knowledge away for future reference.

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    The problem here is the "knowledge you're filing away" is likely something like "my boss is a jerk who doesn't care enough about me doing him a favor to even be civil". This is great to know if it's accurate, but there's a good chance it's not accurate. The employees believing this is likely to decrease productivity and make working a worse experience for those employees. Avoiding a hostile work environment (or knowing unequivocally you're in one) seems worth a relatively low-risk and brief conversation. – Derek Elkins Mar 5 '17 at 6:51
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If you are one of the three, then it's definitely not inappropriate, but it's up to you whether you want to do it or not.

Presumably you view this superior as somewhat reasonable in the sense of 1) likely to listen reasonably open-mindedly and take steps to correct, and 2) unlikely to retaliate.

Obviously, the more secure you feel in keeping your position (or finding a better one), the more comfortable you can feel about this. Still, you'd have to botch things pretty badly or have a very unreasonable superior (in which case you may want to look for a different position) for any kind of retaliation to occur.

If the superior is reasonable, they will probably agree and apologize, and perhaps apologize to the others involved.

Personally, I'm of the mindset that it's unreasonable to be upset when people behave in ways you don't like if you never give them any feedback. Therefore, I tend to lean toward giving people feedback if I'm going to need to continue to interact with them.

That said, I'm very confident in my employability and fairly confident in my social skills in that type of situation.

If you are not one of the three, then it's possible you could bring retaliation upon them if they confided in you as well as be viewed as violating their trust. You should be able to judge this and act appropriately.

(You can ask one of them if they'd mind if you to intervened if you are uncertain.)

It would be better for the feedback to come from them than from you in this case, and I'd encourage them to provide that feedback if they felt comfortable with it.

If you were simply in a place to observe the interaction, then I wouldn't worry about this too much.

In this latter case, though, make sure to make factual claims: just because you observed an interaction that you felt was rude, doesn't mean the parties involved did.

Don't attribute beliefs to people.

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    "just because you observed an interaction that you felt was rude, doesn't mean the parties involved did" I think it's still okay to say that a public interaction (say in a slack channel you're a member of) made you feel uncomfortable and you wouldn't want to be treated that way if you helped that person on your day off. – Mel Reams Mar 5 '17 at 6:43
  • @MelReams That is what I'm saying. What I'm saying you shouldn't say is that "you were rude to that person" or "that person was offended" or some such. The wording you provide is an excellent way of making a factual claim about the situation without attributing beliefs or intentions to others. You can authoritatively talk about your own feelings and intentions. – Derek Elkins Mar 5 '17 at 6:51
  • my bad, I read your answer too quickly. That is indeed what you said. – Mel Reams Mar 5 '17 at 7:11
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Absolutely, but it's all in the approach. This person may be clueless as to his actual impact.

"While we were describe the activity, I observed that you seemed frustrated and began to treat us describe the behavior. We're all here to get along and work together. We went the extra mile to help you, and here's how you can help us. While I understand that anyone could have become frustrated in your position, do you think that next time you could approach the situation without making the rest of us feel alienated?"

Whatever you do, don't call names, and don't make threats. Just lay it on the table - his behavior, the goal, how the behavior detracts from the goal, and the unwanted outcome. Frame as a request, not a command.

Allow the response to be whatever it's going to be. If it's reasonable, great! If it's unreasonable, then you let your team members know what you're working with, and keep it moving.

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