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CFO made anti-Semitic remarks…

Dear Office-Politics,

What to do when the CFO makes anti-Semitic remarks in front of the General Manager and Human Resources and no one corrects her during a meeting?

Also when Human Resources shares with the staff members other personal information regarding employees? What do you do when Human Resources is the instigator and is making other staff members uncomfortable with cruel remarks?

I am trying to get everyone working as a Team and the CFO along with H/R does not like the direction; the CFO gave notice and Friday was her last day but how do I keep anti-Semitic remarks from ever being used again and how do I keep my strategic plan for Team building positive if the leaders are negative? Human Resources is our problem and the new GM is no better although they work well together.

A Person Trying to make a Difference

dr. john burton

Dear Trying,

You are immersed in a situation fraught with difficulties. Let me try to unravel what you have raised.

The first point is that the CFO made anti-Semitic remarks which are inappropriate whatever the setting. Since other senior managers were present and did nothing one question that arises is what responsibility falls on you to address this issue.

If your firm has an anti-racism policy, that would be the first place to look for guidance. If there is no such policy you need to think about what might be most effective for you to do.

In many circumstances it is best to address the inappropriate remark immediately. That sends a clear message to everyone who heard the remark, that you at least will not tolerate such remarks. It is challenging to ‘call’ a superior on their behaviour. It can be done in a way that allows them to save as much face as possible if you invite them to reconsider their words in light of your concerns. “I heard your remarks as offensive and I’d ask you to reconsider them and acknowledge that you have inadvertently upset me and perhaps others,” is the type of statement that might make your point without being confrontational and provoking defensiveness.

It needs to be acknowledged, however, that any public rebuke might lead to defensiveness, which will work against the outcome you hope for, which is to eliminate such remarks in the future.

In most situations the better approach is to make an appointment to see the individual privately and to explain to them in language that is as neutral and non-judgmental as you can come up with, that the remark you heard was offensive. You can invite them to strategize with you about how to avoid such an incident in the future, or perhaps suggest that a formal policy be developed to provide guidance to employees in the future.

Again, there is some likelihood that a superior will not take kindly to this approach from an employee. You made need to gather some allies first. I’m not suggesting that you confront the CFO with a phalanx of angry employees, but it would add weight and urgency to your concern if he or she knew that other employees had been offended as well. I would suggest that you take at least one other employee with you to see the CFO, but not more than two.

Making a decision about how to address this issue in your firm is complicated by the other matters you have raised in your letter. Had you not voiced concerns about the Human Resources manager I would have suggested raising your concern about the anti-Semitic remarks with her or him. In this case, however, you have some serious concerns about the HR person.

I see two issues with the HR manager which likely work together but need to be considered separately. Perhaps the first one to think about is the failure of the HR person (and the CFO) to support the direction that you are trying to take your team. Support from senior management is essential for any team leader so you need to meet with the CFO and the HR manager either singly or together and develop a shared sense of direction.

If you are trying to take your team in a direction that senior management does not support, then you are bound to fail. Try to make your meeting with these folks as positive as possible. You can bill it as a meeting to set the mission or live the vision or some such other phrase, depending on what sort of strategic planning environment you are working in.

Do not raise the issue of anti-Semitic or other inappropriate or cruel remarks during the same meeting that you deal with the issue of team direction. To do so will cause the two issues to become enmeshed and make it very unlikely that you will make progress on either.

As to the concern you mention with the HR manager making cruel remarks and being ‘the instigator,’ my suggestion is similar to the approach I’ve outlined for the CFO. Make an appointment and sit down with the person and share with them the impact on you of their behaviour. “I feel hurt when you say XYZ,” is the way you want to deliver the message.

Tell the HR person that you want the opportunity to give them some feedback. You may be able to do nothing more than that. If they ask for some constructive suggestions about future behaviour, great. But it may be hard for them to hear what you have to say and you may need to let them sit with it for a while, to do some reflection.

There is a lot for you to think about in the situation you are facing. I would suggest that you take it slowly and proceed with one issue at a time. Also find some support from within the organization. It sounds like, at the moment, you are feeling isolated and even embattled. That is a difficult place from which to make reasoned decisions about how to move. I wish you well with what you are facing. Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.


John Burton

Dr. John Burton LL.B. M.B.A. M.Div. Ph.D. is an ethicist, mediator, lawyer and theologian. He has taught alternative dispute resolution at Queen’s Law School and Ethics at the Schulich School of Business. John is currently located in Prince Rupert, B.C., Canada, working with Canada’s aboriginal communities.

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