Ask the Ethicist: How to respond when your boss makes offensive sexual jokes

Taking a stand might clear your conscience, but doing so also might involve tough career decisions

Nov 28, 2017 @ 12:00 pm

By Dan Candura

Q: With all of the recent events in the news regarding men behaving badly, I wanted to get your input on something that happened in a business meeting I attended.

There were both men and women in the meeting. All of us ran branches of the same firm and we were there to learn about goals and objectives for the following year. We all reported to the meeting leader. As the meeting convened, the leader announced with a smile that he wanted to share a baby picture of himself that he found recently.

He passed a photo to the man on his left who took one look, laughed and passed it to the next person. This continued until we had all seen the photo and returned it to the leader. He smirked while telling us that even at an early age he was something special. The baby in the picture was in a bathtub and had been Photoshopped with oversized genitalia.

I was shocked when I saw it and passed it on as quickly as I could. I think most of us had the same reaction and the laughs were more from nervousness than humor.

I didn't say anything at the time but I still feel uncomfortable when I think about it. As a man, I try to be respectful in mixed company and never expected something so blatantly off-color in a business meeting. What should I have done?

(More: It's time to speak up about sexual harassment in the workplace.)

A: Your boss was so far over-the-line that I can't even see the line anymore. What he did was crass, offensive and potentially illegal. It would be considered by some to be kiddie porn. It is no wonder that this still upsets you.

He basically forced the men and women in the room to partake in his juvenile and obscene attempt at humor, knowing that any attendees would have trouble objecting without appearing to be a prude in front of colleagues.

He bullied you by asserting his concept of what's funny, sharing it one at a time and then daring anyone in the group to be the first to challenge him. He used his power over the group to demonstrate that he has control and that you must submit. He wanted everyone to see him as the Alpha Male. And, challenging an Alpha Male always has risks.

Speaking up in the meeting and objecting to the leader's photo was your immediate choice. Perhaps others would join you since it is likely that there were others offended, too. That could have saved you from the regrets that you now feel. But at what cost?

You could have approached the leader privately after the meeting to let him know that you objected to the photo. While one would hope that the leader would take the feedback positively, you cannot be sure that this would not have repercussions.

You could also report the leader to HR. If the firm has policies on appropriate employee behavior – and most do – the leader would be identified as someone needing counseling and increased scrutiny. It is likely that the firm provides some protection for whistleblowers but it isn't always effective.

The final alternative would be to take your services elsewhere. Do you want to report to this man? Do you respect him as a leader? That leaves you with tough decisions that affect your livelihood and your self-esteem.

These are the same choices faced by victims of sexual assaults whether they be women or men. Report the incident and there are risks ranging from not being believed to losing your career. Keep quiet and you have to live with the subjugation and humiliation knowing the perpetrator continues to celebrate his dominance.

What the #MeToo movement shows us is that there is strength in numbers and that victims are not alone. It is less clear whether shining more light on the issue helps those already suffering.

(More: Harvey Weinstein-like behavior won't be tolerated by this adviser group.)

Dan Candura is founder of the education and consulting firm Candura Group. Write to him to submit a question. All submissions will be treated confidentially.

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