Kwame Anthony Appiah, who is a New York Times columnist, answers questions from readers.
READER: I just finished a big project working under a male manager with whom I don’t get along. I’m a woman in my 20s, and he’s significantly older.
We work in teams and our members spend a lot of time together – working, travelling and socialising. People who haven’t worked with this manager see him as charismatic and friendly. However, when he gets stressed, he has temper tantrums, snaps at people and digs in to defend his positions, rejecting all opposing points of view. This behaviour is unpleasant, especially when it is directed at me.
I’m equally troubled by a number of specific occasions when I felt his behaviour clearly crossed a line. Once, over drinks, he mentioned that he thinks most of the women at our company are “weird”.
Another time he said, seemingly jokingly, that he thinks women are the future and should run the world, but that men should “still be in charge of entertainment – seriously, men are funnier”.
After he had snapped at me in front of a client, a male member of the client team came up to me and said: “It must be hard to be a woman on your team.”
On another evening, we were hanging out as a team and watching music videos. I put on a video in which a female pop singer looks amazing and does a lot of dancing. He proceeded to cross-examine me and the other woman in the room, trying to force us to agree that the pop singer’s behaviour was a step backward for feminism.
We defended ourselves and asked him to read about third-wave feminism. He got upset and said he just wanted his daughter to be “like you two” and “not like her”. It was really awkward. He apologised the next day.
I’m upset that this guy thinks I’m a willing audience for his anti-women remarks when I’m really just trying to preserve my standing as a good worker, as well as my emotional well-being by not engaging with someone who rarely changes his mind.
I think my company needs to know about my boss’s bad behaviour, but I’m not sure what’s relevant. I know how I feel: His behaviour is anti-women and his professional development should be curtailed until he works to change himself.
If I don’t say anything, nothing happens. If I do, I need to be precise about my accusations. What’s fair in this situation?
KWAME: First, let me state the obvious: Your boss has a problem that can easily become the company’s problem. What counts as harassment – in particular, the “hostile environment” kind – is something you could discuss with HR, or even with an employment lawyer.
Because it’s unlawful to penalise people for reporting discrimination, HR generally will urge their companies to avoid even the appearance of retaliation. Whether your boss has crossed a legal line, he’s hovering close to it. In HR terms, he sounds like a lawsuit waiting to happen.
From an ethical perspective, it is important to have clear rules to discourage an atmosphere that makes things harder for women. That you have some recourse here is a reflection of a social development. People now understand that creating a workplace environment hostile to women is wrong. The rise of the #MeToo movement shows that existing legal remedies need to be coupled with changing norms, but norms without sanctions have no bite.
But it is troubling that the remedies to the Horrible Boss problem tend to be restricted to actions that specifically relate to gender, race, religion and the like. You’re just as dismayed by other aspects of your boss’s behaviour, and why shouldn’t you be? There are two wrongs here: making things worse for women and making things bad for everybody.
In this country, alas, we often take the ill-treatment of employees by their supervisors to be an unavoidable, if regrettable feature of the workplace. While labour employment laws vary, the usual default is that employers may fire employees “at will”. There is no presumption that if you do your job as required, you won’t be fired without good cause.
Of course, you can try to negotiate a contract in which you and your employer agree in advance that you’ll be fired only for a specified range of causes. But without a union to bargain for you or a tradition like academic tenure, the typical employee will find it next to impossible to negotiate such a deal as an individual.
This article first appeared in The New York Times.