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We recently had some public strikes and protests in Brazil which caused some major inconveniences all around. One of those inconveniences was the lack of public transport for today, so my direct boss (our CEO) opted to give everyone the day off.

During one of those protests, someone threw a rock which broke one of our very large glass windows at the street level. Another person, unrelated to the rock throwing incident, saw the broken window and used the opportunity to enter our office and steal a computer from our reception.

We found out later that this thief was a sibling to one of our employees - let's call this employee "Frank" - by checking the security cameras. Someone, somehow, let that information leak to the internal company-wide communication channel, and things rapidly deteriorated from there.

Our CEO has no plans to pursue any punishment for Frank, because he had absolutely nothing to do with the theft. However, other employees are calling for blood and blaming him for his "association" with a criminal, with comments like "the fruit doesn't fall far away from the tree", and blaming him for stuff that may or may have not disappeared from the office in the past.

Things grew out of proportion very quickly. I had to take our chat channel down to stop this flame war, but the conversation just moved to an unofficial chat room not controlled by the company. There are a bunch of employees getting very vocal about firing Frank.

Now, Frank isn't a senior employee nor a key player, but from the management point of view he didn't do anything wrong. My boss is thinking in issuing written warnings1 for those that flamed him, which include at least one senior employee, a few juniors and an intern.

We are worried however that this action can be seem as "favoring" him over the other employees, which can cause a even bigger storm. However, firing him would be wrong from our point of view, since he didn't do anything wrong.

Our CEO suspects that a part of this flaming war is due to a disguised form of racism. Frank is part of a racial minority, and this may be one of the factors that could explain all this hate he is getting. I'm not sure about this myself, but I wouldn't discard the possibility.

Our current plan is to issue written warnings1 for everyone that somehow blames Frank for anything related to this incident. Is this, however, a valid course of action to take on this situation?


1 - Written warnings are a specific legal concept in Brazilian employment law. More here

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Jul 2 '17 at 0:33
  • The overwhelming issue here is the Racism Issue. All aspects of the problem (legal, social, moving forward etc) begin and end with that; it's the elephant in the room, not a footnote. – Fattie Jul 6 '17 at 23:15
  • @rath I added that earlier to the body of the question. It is now on the second-to-last paragraph, so the update section was somewhat redundant! – T. Sar Jul 7 '17 at 12:12
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Since your are located in Brazil, let's crack the issue down from a brazilian point of view.

Brazilian law does not automatically place burden of a crime on the criminal's relatives. Since theft is a crime that needs to be reported to be prosecuted only the sibling can to come under investigation. Frank cannot be blamed for his relative's actions until the police finds a causal nexus (Frank tipped his relative).

The uproar against Frank is a legal liability for your company. It is moral harassment and Frank needs only to walk into a brazilian work court to almost automatically win a lawsuit (at no cost to him) [EDIT: after this post, a new law enacted some costs if the worker loses] against the company. We are talking about five-to-six-figure values here (in BRL). More even if he gets fired.

Brazilian employment laws are very different from USA or other "at will" employment contracts. For one, termination in Brazil has severe costs for the company if one cannot fit the reason of termination into a "just cause" type of termination. And all other terminations have notice periods of 30 days (or the advance payment for those 30 days).

Also, your company may be small enough to not have its own ethics code, but I think no company should go without one. Maybe it is time to do that.

I don't think any good will come from issuing warnings to the people that are calling a witch hunt on the whatsapp group. What you need to do is to set a worker code of conduct and ethics guidelines that can stop further harassment (if the company already don't have one).

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    upvoting for the last paragraph this would be a good idea, without punishing the workers, send clear behaviour expectations to everyone without targeting. They already know who they are. – Kilisi Jun 30 '17 at 22:28
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    Re your last paragraph: A code of conduct and ethics guidelines would be a step in the right direction, but pairing that with warnings (and eventually termination) is absolutely necessary (because what's the point of rules without enforcement?). A company-wide warning email might be in order in this case. – Dukeling Jun 30 '17 at 22:36
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    @Dukeling termination in Brazil has severe costs for the company if one cannot prove just cause - Remember, it is a different law regimen than in USA. – Mindwin Jun 30 '17 at 23:08
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    @Lilienthal You are correct. This is the thing that we can't really deal by phone or email, however, so we will sit to discuss this with the employee early in the Monday. – T. Sar Jul 1 '17 at 23:03
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    Management should also speak to the more vocal folks in the WhatsApp group privately and individually. If you want to break up a lynch mob, you have to separate them first and speak to each of them individually. This process should be done at the same time, or immediately after, you've sent out the new code of conduct to everyone. – Stephan Branczyk Jul 4 '17 at 11:44
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What is important is allowing for a safe work environment for all employees. That is the job of management and HR. It is up to them also to investigate on whether he should be fired or not and the other employees should respect the process. Is it upsetting that someone's younger sibling stole? Of course it is. That doesn't give people a right to riot and create a harmful work environment.

A message should definitely be sent out by HR or management to let the employees know that this kind of behavior is not tolerated. It's workplace harassment which most countries and companies should have laws and rules against. I wouldn't be worried about favoritism. You already mentioned that he is not a key player nor is he a senior employee. That means that the company has little reason to defend him from a work standpoint. The average employee is relatively easy to replace. The fact they are willing to defend him should be enough to prove his innocence alone.

Please note that the Message should not be pointing fingers, but a general reminder about workplace harassment and if anyone is not happy with something, they should come talk to a manager or talk to HR to vent in a more positive and constructive way. As Kilisi said in their comment, it should eventually blow over. However, the company also needs to put it's foot down and set a precedence so that employees know that this is not acceptable behavior when they are not happy with things.

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    You also probably need to come down hard on the fact that this information got out to the general run of the company. Whoever leaked this is culpable in this whole mess and is not trustworthy. – HLGEM Jun 30 '17 at 21:38
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    @HLGEM You make a great point. Someone who actually is in the company did leak private matters and probably the one who should be investigated. – ggiaquin16 Jun 30 '17 at 21:39
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Reasoning: The management dealt with it as it saw it fit. Trying to deal with something which is your managers business against your managers wishes is inacceptable for a senior employee.

I think the manager should do the following:

  • send an email stating that an issue about the incident (without mentioning the persons name) has been brought to his attention. State that the management has assessed the situation and taken all mean necessary to protect the company and that it does not find any guilt of any employee. State that badmouthing employees is something which will not be tolerated, and that, for the sake of the atmosphere in the company, can result in removing the perpetrators.
  • Fire or demote the senior employee. Make it public enough (e.g. by offering his position internally)
  • Block all junior employees who participated from going into a senior position by putting the incident in their file
  • Blacklist the interns from being hired at the company
  • Publicly humiliating people is usually never a good idea, as it will create a very hostile work atmosphere for the future. Also, why should the senior employee receive a more severe punishment than the junior employees, even though it is unclear how severe the harassment was? – NoBackingDown Jul 6 '17 at 21:22
  • @Dominik I'am not layer but as long as the names of the people aren't quoted by the management, I don't think it will count, at least legally, for public humiliation. It will count as "We're taking measure about the to the issue done by some people and we're telling you". – Walfrat Jul 7 '17 at 13:16
  • @Dominik: The senior should receive a more severe punishment because being a senior can set some example. As a senior employee giving off an image that something is ok which clearly is not encourages the junior employees to follow this behavior. An no, it does not create a hostile atmosphere if management kills of bullies quickly and transparently. – Sascha Jul 8 '17 at 15:03
  • I agree that seniors may play an important role in setting the standards. Overall, the situation of a brother of an employee breaking into the company during public riots is very exceptional and the reactions do not completely come out of the blue, even though Frank might be completely innocent. I would consider it rather normal to terminate the contract with Frank, because a lot of trust has been damaged. He should say thank you to his brother. Now pouring gasoline into the fire by punishing maybe deserved employees that overreacted to an exceptional situation may escalate the situation. – NoBackingDown Jul 8 '17 at 16:28
  • @Dominik: They point is: Management says "we deal with it, do not take measures on your own on something which is clearly our business". This is not about the specific situation, but about clear insubordination. Firing Frank wold set the standard that HR/mangement can be influenced by the lynch-mob and would be severely counter-productive. There is room for this, even if you have to let 5 people walk the plank in open – Sascha Jul 8 '17 at 20:42

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