by Joseph Grenny
I work in Information Technology and our company was recently bought. Several members of the parent company came in to bring our network up to their standards. Me, two of my coworkers, and five employees from the new company worked together all weekend and late into the night. I was the only female in the group. Throughout the entire weekend, people from the new company made crude, sexual jokes about each other and dropped prolific f-bombs. How can I make it known that I don’t appreciate their humor (or lack thereof) without risking the ability to work with them in the future?
Dear New Normal,
I sympathize with your plight. It is profoundly difficult to be the lone voice of morality. I have struggled as well in novel circumstances to find a way to express my discomfort and speak up to advocate for my rights or needs.
I will assume a few things for the sake of my response: 1) that your two coworkers have not historically behaved in this way; 2) that you will have ongoing face-to-face contact with the five from the parent company.
You’ve got a couple of options for how to respond. The first is to take formal action. If a) the nature of the comments and b) your impression of the character of the individuals is such that you think a healthy adjustment from them is unlikely, you may want to take this route. In any event, I think it would be wise for you to have a consultative conversation with your HR department so you know your rights and options in that regard.
If, on the other hand, you believe there’s a reasonable chance that a crucial conversation might both change their behavior and offer a future relationship, here’s how I’d suggest you approach it:
Gathering the facts is the homework required for crucial conversations. Make a list of the specific “jokes,” comments, and language you found offensive.
Write it twice
It sounds as though your goal is not to confront a specific person, but to communicate a new boundary. If so, I’d suggest you do it in writing. Writing lets them know there is a paper trail—which will give a feeling of accountability. It also lets them save face as they can absorb the information in the protection of their cubicle. When holding a crucial conversation in written form, I’ve found it helpful to write it twice before sharing. First, for facts. And second, for safety. Write the note the first time to simply lay out the facts. Give examples of all of the behavior you found loathsome. Be comprehensive so everyone who played a part knows they are involved. Then re-write the note in a way that adds “emotional safety.” Share your intentions (to create a good working relationship) and your respect (any honest expressions of regard for their professional abilities). But do so without watering down your expectations.
Ask for commitment
Let them know you can understand they may be used to different work norms and that you are asking for change. But let them know this is a firm expectation. Ask them to reply to let you know if you have their commitment to this standard.
There are no two ways about it: It will feel awkward the next time you see them. Let that happen. Don’t try to soften it. Simply be professional and courteous and let it wear off. It will.
Hold the boundary
Now that you are on notice that this behavior can happen, and they are on notice that you won’t tolerate it, you must hold your boundary. If they relapse into it, confront it immediately. Decide ahead of time on the script you’ll use and practice it until it feels familiar and comfortable to you. For example, you might say, “You just dropped an f-bomb. Do you recall my request that you refrain from that kind of unprofessional language?” Once again, expect weirdness. When people are unwilling to own their misbehavior, they attempt to shift the blame on others—especially those who are calling them out. If this happens, consider making a formal complaint.
Unfortunately, this is the way the world works. The burden for positive change typically falls on those who are most affected, and least responsible, for dismal realities. I hope these suggestions give you a path toward the workplace you deserve.