By Alison Green / Ask a Manager
June 24, 2015

Q: I overheard a coworker making hateful comments about Caitlyn Jenner. What, if anything, should I do?

Today at lunchtime, I overheard the front desk worker in my office discussing with a member of our HR team the Arthur Ashe Courage Award that is being presented to Caitlyn Jenner. The front desk worker was complaining that the award was being given to “a freak”.

I was upset by this incident but I’m at loss on how to proceed. Initially I intended to go through established channels for reporting this sort of behavior (an anonymous hotline) as our company specifically calls for nondiscrimination based on gender identity and has harassment policies in place. Others have encouraged me to speak to the person directly instead.

So what do you think I should do?

A: Please speak up. Say something like this to your coworker: “This has been bothering me for a few days, so I wanted to speak to you about it. The other day, I overheard your conversation with Jane about Caitlyn Jenner, and what I heard was disrespectful and unkind. I can’t make you think differently, but I want to ask you not to make comments like that in the office.”

I’d base your decision about whether or not to report it on her reaction. If she’s defensive or hostile about it, then I’d be more inclined to report it. Someone spewing hate in your office, and in an office that specifically calls for non-discrimination around gender identity, is reasonable to speak up about.

Also, the person she was talking to was from HR? HR people in particular should know better than to stay silent at this kind of thing, so I hope that person spoke up. if they didn’t, that would be another nudge in favor of reporting.

Q: Should managers ask or tell when assigning work?

A: When dealing with people that work directly for me, should I ask them to do things or tell them to do things? Does telling someone to do something in a work environment come off as harsh? I always ask them to do things, but I’m starting to feel like asking them kind of makes me look weak.

Either is fine, if you’re saying it nicely and not barking orders like you are Caligula.

There’s nothing wrong with “Please talk to Fergus about the teapot design and see if you can find a solution to the spout issue” as long as you say it politely.

But thinking back over what I tend to use myself, I generally default to framing things as asking — “Could you do X by the end of the week?” … “Here’s a new project I’m hoping you can take on” … etc.

And really, in most cases when a work assignment from your manager is framed as a request, it’s pretty clear it’s a directive. People aren’t generally going to reply with “Nope.” But I default to requests — unless there’s a reason not to — because (a) it feels more respectful to me, and (b) it makes it easier for people to speak up when they’re worried about their ability to deliver; it invites people to tell you if, for example, there’s a deadline conflict or they have concerns about how realistic the request is.

However, there’s a third category beyond requests and directives that’s important to talk about: things that sound like suggestions. If you say something like, “Feel free to show me that report before you finalize it,” a lot of people will hear that as “you can show it to me if you want to, but you don’t have to.” Then you’ll end up getting frustrated that your “suggestion” wasn’t followed, and your staff will end up confused about your expectations. So if you definitely want someone to do something, make sure you’re not framing it as “you could…” or “feel free to…” or “one idea would be…” or other suggestion formulations.

Perhaps more important than any of this, though, I’m wondering about why you’re feeling like framing things as requests is making you look weak. That suggests that you’re either feeling insecure about your authority for your own reasons, or your team is unclear on roles and expectations, or something else is going on. I’d explore that piece of it — because in a healthy, functioning team, a manager’s authority won’t be compromised by politely asking people to do what they need done.

These questions are adapted from ones that originally appeared on Ask a Manager. Some questions have been edited for length.

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