The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

June 14, 2013

Watercooler: Skin-deep problem or rotten to the core?

By Karla L. Miller
Special to The Washington Post

— Reader 1: I work at a nonprofit that has a strong commitment to equality. We recently hired a younger, conventionally attractive woman. When she was introduced at a staff meeting, an older male staff member joked, "No one told you about the table dance?"

I wouldn't want him to get in serious trouble, but his comment was out of line and inappropriately sexualizing. We have a good collegial relationship, so I just want to tell him, kindly, that his joke made me uncomfortable. It may be that someone else has talked to him already; our bosses and members of our firm's sexual harassment task force were in the meeting. But if no one has said anything, I don't want to just let it go.

Reader 2: How do you handle a boss with a drinking problem? This person, president of a small association, drinks too much during social functions. Then he sends abusive work-related emails at 2 or 3 a.m. in which he says things he would never say in person in the office. How to respond to those emails?

Karla: These situations remind me of a bruise on a fruit. Sometimes it's a harmless blemish, and sometimes it portends a rind full of rot.

Surface problems in a workplace can usually be resolved between sensible individuals. Systemic problems require painful, large-scale intervention by management or external forces; without that support, workers are generally limited to hunkering down or fleeing.

Reader 1, let Uncle Leery know his comment surprised you, and how uncomfortable it must have made the new hire. He may express remorse, or he may scoff, but even if he's already gotten a woodshed lecture from the task force, you will have discreetly put him on notice that at least one respected colleague was not amused. One tasteless joke isn't worth an inquisition — but if he keeps giving encores with management's tacit approval, it might be time to find out how committed to equality your company is, starting with that task force.

Reader 2, one option is to send back a neutral reply later, appended to his tipsy tirade. Seeing his own vitriol while sober might inspire him to change — though it also could make him vengeful. Another option is to present the emails (which you should be saving copies of) to HR or the association's governing board. They might force him into treatment — or could prove to be a system of enablers.

Hiring a lawyer won't likely help unless you have proof he's picking targets based on race, gender or the like. Sad to say, unless he wants to stop being a jerk, or his superiors are willing to make him stop, your remaining options are "hunker" or "flee."

Thanks to Sharon Snyder of the law firm Ober Kaler.

Karla L. Miller writes an advice column on navigating the modern workplace. Each week she will answer one or two questions from readers. Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office. You can find her on Twitter,@KarlaAtWork.