my boss trying to find out who wrote an anonymous sexism report — Ask a Manager

how to answer "tell me about yourself" in a job interview — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I am a woman working in a male-dominated industry. My current (very large) company makes me “feel my gender” much more than any other company I’ve worked. I was even part of an investigation against a sexist boss that escalated to HR and management, only to have my great-grandboss shut down any disciplinary action against the offender. The offender is still a boss and still sexist, but they transfered me to a new group.

The company recently instituted a quarterly culture survey which allows anonymous comments. My current, not sexist, genuinely well-meaning boss sent out this email (identifying details removed):


In the survey, a comment was posted from our department that warrants attention. If you are the author of the comment, or have knowledge about who posted it, you are not in trouble. However, we need to address the behavior described in the comment. Please see me by the end of the week. If you prefer anonymity, you can also go directly to HR.

Here is the comment: “I have heard from female coworkers recently that there are still pockets of blantant sexism/harassment in the company. Some of these instances have been reported to HR and those employee’s management and little to no action has been taken to address the complaint.”

As the only woman in my group, I guess I feel some kind of obligation to explain to my boss that this was not an okay email to send out? I think he’d be genuinely open to feedback, but I’m struggling with phrasing. It feels kind of like nagging him for failing to dust the chandelier, while meanwhile actively ignoring rotting garbage his coworkers left in the corner. Is it worth addressing? Am I overreacting? Do you have a script I could use?

I’m also concerned that addressing it will make me look like I”m the one who wrote the comment. For the record, I didn’t write this comment, but I easily could have. Every female coworker I know could have. So while I could say “I did not write the comment,” if pressured I’d also have to say “I am aware of many accounts of sexism, both subversive and blatant, but grandboss and great-grandboss are main culprits, so I don’t exactly want you to escalate this to them.”

Ugh. It would have been different if he’d said, “In the recent survey we heard some concerns about sexism and harassment, which we take very seriously. We can’t act without having more information, so if you’re willing to talk more with either me or Jane in HR, we’d be grateful for your help. You should also know that it’s illegal under federal law for an employer to retaliate against anyone for making a good faith complaint of discrimination or harassment, and we’re committed to following that law and protecting anyone who makes such a report.”

You still might not have trusted them to take it seriously, given how you’ve seen the company handle investigations in the past, but that message would be better than “the person who gave this anonymous feedback needs to identify themselves.”

So yeah, it’s worth talking to him.

Do it face-to-face rather than in email (both because you want a real conversation here and because that ensures he can’t well-intentionedly-but-cluelessly forward your email).

You could say something like this: “I was surprised by your email about the anonymous comment on sexism, and I wanted to flag for you that it didn’t land the way I think you intended. I know you stressed that whoever wrote it wasn’t in any trouble, but when we’re told comments will be anonymous, people trust they’ll be anonymous. To be then be told ‘you need to identify yourself’ is likely to make people distrust any request for anonymous feedback in the future. I get that you’re coming from a place of concern where you want to dig into the report, but if the company genuinely wants to tackle sexism, they could investigate without saying that people who were promised anonymity need to give that up.”

You could add, “I feel like by saying this, I’m making it sound like I was the person who wrote that, and I wasn’t. But between you and me, I agree with the person who wrote it. My sense, though, from raising these issues here in the past, is that nothing will come of raising it, so it wasn’t on my survey and it’s not something I’d want to pursue.” If you definitely don’t want your boss to share with others that you said this and you don’t trust him to respect your wishes there, then skip those last two sentences.

At some point it might be that a group of women there are able to push back as a group and insist on the company taking actual action (not just shuffling people around to different teams), or you or others might decide to file an EEOC complaint, but if that’s not something you’re up for right now or have calculated isn’t in your best interests, you’re not obligated to take it on yourself just because your boss is bungling this.

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