Dear OWHE: Seeking Advice

Dear OWHE is an advice column for OWHE Members. When folks have a question they'd like to ask the OWHE Board, they can submit a question and board members will do their best to respond in an authentic and meaningful way. 

Dear OWHE, 

I am in a coordinator role at my institution, where I don't directly supervise anyone, but where I am responsible for ongoing training and scheduling of other staff. I have encountered a lot of performance issues with one male staff member in particular, and the same issues have recurred over the past couple years (and from what I've heard, even longer). I have tried addressing these issues numerous times with the staff member directly, and I have also resorted to documenting the issues and bringing them to my supervisor several times. I know that my supervisor has had at least a few conversations with this person about the issues before, but nothing has substantially changed. 

In addition to the performance issues, this person often makes insensitive and ignorant remarks that offend me and many other staff members--remarks that could be regarded as sexist, racist, etc. However, the remarks haven't risen to the level of what I would consider to be necessary to report to an administrator. Nevertheless, whenever someone calls him out on his comments, he becomes super defensive and childish. 

For a variety of reasons, this person is very difficult to work with, and I feel that I have exhausted the option of reporting his behavior to my supervisor, with little to no results. I am contemplating bringing these issues to my associate dean, but I am concerned that my supervisor will perceive this as "going over his head" and that it will hinder my relationship with him. 

I don't want to switch jobs or workplaces at this point, but this one individual is causing me and others a great deal of stress and dissatisfaction.I really appreciate any advice you can offer! 


Limited Authority 


Dear Limited Authority,

Good work on documenting the issues! That is a very important step to begin early, that many of us (myself included) forget to do. Make sure you’re documenting how you’ve reported it, what outcome you’ve asked for, and your perception of the changes. I’m really sorry you and your coworkers are experiencing uncomfortable behavior and that a colleague is causing you stress. My first piece of advice would be to talk to the ombudsperson on your campus. They’re usually a great resource for figuring out the options within your institution for handling these issues, and they’re confidential (always confirm with your campus Ombuds office, however).

You might also consider talking to your coworkers to see you can all bring the issue to your supervisor separately or as a group, so there’s more of a sense of weight to the issue as well as an obligation to find resolution. If you have a good rapport with another leader in your unit, you might consider asking them for advice – I know I’ve had to do that a few times and gotten really valuable insight and support. If you do go that route, I encourage you to be very careful in framing it in a way that was positive towards my supervisor. They might be able to help you raise the issue with upper leadership in a politically savvy way.

Ultimately, you might just have to ask your supervisor to ensure you don’t have to interact with this person any more—because their behavior is making it difficult to accomplish the goals of your position.

I wish you the best of luck!

Erica Curry, OWHE Board Chair


Dear LA,

I’m so sorry to hear you are going through such a frustrating time with your coworker, and it is certainly a difficult situation to be in.

First off, high five for trying to address this issue with the person (who I will creatively refer to as J because it sounds like he’s being a Jerk). As an HR professional, I often hear or sometimes witness experiences where people don’t actually communicate with each other, which is always my first recommendation. However, the fact that you have talked to J and he refuses to change does make your situation more aggravating. The second thing I recommend is talking to a manager (M), which you have also done - and it sounds like that is not having an impact either. However, I get that you don’t want to risk upsetting M (which can make things uncomfortable for you) by “going over their head” but also you are in a bad environment due to J.

So, here’s what I think I would do in this situation:

1. Talk to J (done, not effective)

2. Approach M with inquiry. It’s possible M has addressed it but J is just being a jerk and not listening; these types of behaviors are very deep-seated and often difficult to change; it’s also possible M is just not taking it seriously, which is not cool. If it were me, I would set up a meeting with M (knowing it would be my final attempt to go through them) and mention how J’s comments/attitude have not been improving (with documentation of the incidents) and it’s been long enough. Instead of pointing the finger at M, even if you think they are culpable, ask for their advice and see if they can help you. People like being asked for help, but become defensive if accused - kind of human nature. In this conversation, they may reveal something about why J’s behavior isn’t changing, maybe they’ll have a good idea that will help - a lot of things could come from that. If you are comfortable setting timelines/expectations, I think it’s always a good idea (e.g. when M will talk to J again, when you want to see J’s behavior changes, etc). You can also include what you are going to do if the behavior doesn’t change, but it can certainly be difficult for that not to come off like a threat (e.g. if this doesn’t change, I’m talking to your boss/HR). Also, if you’ve already had this conversation and you really feel like it’s not useful, it’s up to you if you want to try again one last time. I think “one more chance” with very explicit communication is generally good for salvaging the relationship if things escalate, and genuinely giving one more chance before escalating.

3. Move up the chain. Whether M reveals they cannot get through to J, they minimize your experiences, etc, the bottom line is they are not solving this problem, and it’s a problem. Were it me, I would go to that person’s supervisor and have a similar “I don’t know what to do, please help me” conversation. You can also reach out to HR, your office of diversity and inclusion, et cetera. I think if you have reasonable evidence that you tried to go through M to solve the problem and it wasn’t working, the “you’re just going over my head” argument holds less water because you genuinely tried to resolve the problem with J, and with M. It’s also entirely possible M will still be mad at you, but like... what are you supposed to do, ignore all of your problems if that other (fallible, human) person can’t solve them? You need to look out for yourself after all! Personally I think if M values their own ego over a serious problem their employee is experiencing that they cannot solve... maybe they need the wake-up call.

4. Be prepared to report. Studies show that these issues are often not reported because we (especially women) feel they are “not important enough to report” - but they are! There are many reasons to report, such as your own environment, the impact this person is having on other employees, the culture around “acceptable behavior,” etc. Not everyone wants to and some folks feel their jobs will be at risk for reporting, which is super unfortunate. So, while I can’t make that decision for you, I encourage you to talk to HR about this in an informal meeting (again, “help!”) if you can, be it after your last conversation with M or after you talk to M’s boss if you elect to do that. I would advise against “just dropping it” if your conversation(s) with M continue to not pan out, as I personally think it helps create a culture that tells people ignoring things like this is acceptable. The professionals (e.g. HR) are there for coaching and employee relations, not just to fire people who do something erroneously deemed “important enough” (like physical violence). If your HR department isn’t willing to help... well I’m just going to hope that isn’t the case. The subtleties of this type of pervasive “low-level” behavior make it even trickier which means we need to spend more time on it, not less.

There are some interesting stats on the recent PDX Women in Tech State of the Community survey (and related “Harassment Call to Action” doc) about workplace harassment and behaviors like this. It’s pretty pervasive, and I believe one important way to change it is to talk about it: in our communities, and with others at work (including administration). Organizational culture is pretty squishy to define and hard to change, but it is possible! Understanding that this stuff actually matters and is important is relatively new for a lot of people. Respecting women's’ voices and experiences with this sort of behavior is, sadly, still very new for many folks as well. Respecting *ourselves* (as a demographic raised to minimize our own needs and problems) is also a work in progress; I am certainly culpable of saying “oh it’s not important enough” when actually, it is. YOU are important enough, and so are all of the other people putting up with J’s crap.

I’ll close with a quote by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: “well-behaved women rarely make history.” Sometimes we can’t make a change, even in our own workplace environments, without ruffling some fragile feathers.


Brenna Kutch, Co-Chair of the Annual Conference & OWHE Board Member

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