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How to Speak Up For Your Morals and Values

This article was originally published in December of 2017.

Dear Joseph,

I work in Information Technology and our company was recently bought. Several members of the parent company came in to bring our network up to their standards. Me, two of my coworkers, and five employees from the new company worked together all weekend and late into the night. I was the only female in the group. Throughout the entire weekend, people from the new company made crude, sexual jokes about each other and dropped prolific f-bombs. How can I make it known that I don’t appreciate their humor (or lack thereof) without risking the ability to work with them in the future?

New Normal

Dear New Normal,

I sympathize with your plight. It is profoundly difficult to be the lone voice of morality. I have struggled as well in novel circumstances to find a way to express my discomfort and speak up to advocate for my rights or needs.

I will assume a few things for the sake of my response: 1) that your two coworkers have not historically behaved in this way; 2) that you will have ongoing face-to-face contact with the five from the parent company.

You’ve got a couple of options for how to respond. The first is to take formal action. If a) the nature of the comments and b) your impression of the character of the individuals is such that you think a healthy adjustment from them is unlikely, you may want to take this route. In any event, I think it would be wise for you to have a consultative conversation with your HR department so you know your rights and options in that regard.

If, on the other hand, you believe there’s a reasonable chance that a crucial conversation might both change their behavior and offer a future relationship, here’s how I’d suggest you approach it:

1. Document. Gathering the facts is the homework required for crucial conversations. Make a list of the specific “jokes,” comments, and language you found offensive.

2. Write it twice. It sounds as though your goal is not to confront a specific person, but to communicate a new boundary. If so, I’d suggest you do it in writing. Writing lets them know there is a paper trail—which will give a feeling of accountability. It also lets them save face as they can absorb the information in the protection of their cubicle. When holding a crucial conversation in written form, I’ve found it helpful to write it twice before sharing. First, for facts. And second, for safety. Write the note the first time to simply lay out the facts. Give examples of all of the behavior you found loathsome. Be comprehensive so everyone who played a part knows they are involved. Then re-write the note in a way that adds “emotional safety.” Share your intentions (to create a good working relationship) and your respect (any honest expressions of regard for their professional abilities). But do so without watering down your expectations.

3. Ask for commitment. Let them know you can understand they may be used to different work norms and that you are asking for change. But let them know this is a firm expectation. Ask them to reply to let you know if you have their commitment to this standard.

4. Expect weirdness. There are no two ways about it: It will feel awkward the next time you see them. Let that happen. Don’t try to soften it. Simply be professional and courteous and let it wear off. It will.

5. Hold the boundary. Now that you are on notice that this behavior can happen, and they are on notice that you won’t tolerate it, you must hold your boundary. If they relapse into it, confront it immediately. Decide ahead of time on the script you’ll use and practice it until it feels familiar and comfortable to you. For example, you might say, “You just dropped an f-bomb. Do you recall my request that you refrain from that kind of unprofessional language?” Once again, expect weirdness. When people are unwilling to own their misbehavior, they attempt to shift the blame on others—especially those who are calling them out. If this happens, consider making a formal complaint.

Unfortunately, this is the way the world works. The burden for positive change typically falls on those who are most affected, and least responsible, for dismal realities. I hope these suggestions give you a path toward the workplace you deserve.


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11 thoughts on “How to Speak Up For Your Morals and Values”

  1. mzoelze

    Thanks Joseph – I always appreciate your thoughts! When you talked about “sharing your intentions – to create a good working relationship” it reminded me of NVC language (the book: Non-Violent Communication.) Sharing our thoughts in language that communicates hope of deepening our connection with others goes along way towards bettering the conversation and improving our chances for it to go well.

  2. Anne Marie

    Your wisdom in crucial conversations is clear. Your motivation to affect positive change is commendable. And the tools you recommend are practical. I only wish you could take your expertise and guidance to Capital Hill, to both political parties, where conversations are crucial on a national and global scale, where facts are lost in the cesspool of political emotions, and where positive change is of critical importance.

  3. Nancy Skewis

    I wonder also if she should ask her “standard” colleagues if they had any issue with it. Just because they are male doesn’t mean they weren’t uncomfortable with the language too; this need for change may not be something she alone is feeling. This may provide allies if she has to go to HR. It feels like she should ask the colleagues about it after she sends the email, so that the email is in her voice alone (she can’t speak for the others). Would that be right?

  4. Clifford Spoonemore

    Are we leaving the supervisor out of this, or are we also assuming the supervisor is part of the problem? As a supervisor I have some (if not most) of the responsibility to make the work place safe and a place you want to be a part of.

    Should I fall off the wagon, I would hope that someone would also reach out their hand to bring me back on the wagon. Sometimes it is easy to go with the flow to help with the transition if you were not expecting this casual (rude) communication style. I may have been focused on the goal (mission) rather than the overall health of the group. That would have been a failure on my part, but I know me and it could happen.


  5. Deb

    I usually agree wholeheartedly with the recommendations, but on this one I’m not comfortable going to a written communication before trying to have a discussion. As a women who works in admin in a male dominated field (law enforcement), this has come up many times over the years. In instances where we are in small groups, working extra hours together, the tongues tend to fly a little easier – usually with excessive F-bombs or GD’s/JCs. Usually, just a mention that it’s bothersome or has crossed a line will put a stop to it. They’ll throw a couple extra words out there (to show me I can’t tell them what to do) or tease me a bit, but they usually revert back to being professional.

    I like the line about ‘letting it be weird’. They guys were comfortable enough with letting you be one of the guys for a moment. Just remind them you’re still a lady but can still hang with the fellas; you just have some boundaries.

    Lastly, do it sooner rather than later; or they will be upset that you allowed them to continue without saying something. Most people don’t intentionally try to offend you, but they can’t change their behavior if they don’t know it bothers you.

    1. Megan Gilardi

      I too appreciate the notion of “letting it be weird.” I wonder too, a simple technique if the female employee were to speak first in person, instead of written down, might be to name the awkwardness first.
      “Guys, things are about to weird, awkward, or even uncomfortable.” PAUSE (letting her statement sink in and prepare her colleagues attention to expect something awkward or uncomfortable) and then say go on to explain the facts and the emotional safety message and the meat of the issue—defining the type of language she needs to feel respected, safe, or like she belongs, or what not.

  6. Barbara Pilarcik

    This is sexual harassment. She is the only female, the language is sexual and totally unrelated to any of the work they are doing. It is illegal and not her role to point that out to the co-workers. Her company has an obligation to step in and stop it immediately.
    When will we ever learn?

  7. Just an IT Hardware Gal

    I have to disagree a bit with this approach. Guys tend to be more straightforward & if you want them to both respect AND trust you. I would just let them know that you would prefer not to hear that language & that if they would appreciate it if they would speak as if both there Mom & Grandmother were in the room that should give them a benchmark. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised, in that they will adhere to your request. Whereas, if you take this outside the team to HR there will be ramifications. Even if they may try not to, you will end up being treated differently, (squealer) & you will no longer be included in the friendship required for an excellent team.
    Now…, if they continue with the bad behavior & remarks, then definitely follow the HR route. AND make sure you do document the initial infractions, when you asked them to stop & that it did not.
    From one IT Hardware Gal to another.

    PS This may not be the “Company” Line or the PC Line or whatever us in management are required to say. But…, in BOTH my work life(I work in IT) & my personal life(I live in an all male household) this is the way it will work. Guys are just not that complicated, tell them what you want!

  8. David

    While I generally find the Cruicial Skills Q&A pieces to be valuable and find the advice given to be reasonable, I respectfully disagree with Joseph’s advice in this case. My advice to the writer would be to first make an attempt to speak to one or more of the offenders privately to convey her concerns. In line with what Nancy suggested above, approaching one of her original co-workers first might be a good way to attempt to address informally. Of course, if an informal route is not successful, then I would recommend following Joseph’s advice and contacting HR for guidance. My thinking is simply that if this is a working relationship that is to endure for the future, then communicating one’s demands in writing is not a good first step for that relationship. Just my opinion…

  9. MED

    I think making sexual and or racist remarks towards someone is completely unacceptable. Any reputable company will have an HR policy to address such issues. What I struggle with is the Pious attitude of some folks. The “I can only be happy if everybody behaves the way I want them to behave” attitude has got to end. The need to be the moral compass of the world is not the right of me or any individual. Why do I get to impose my beliefs or values on anyone? If you are a person that does not use course language, people will notice and become cognizant on how freely they use such language. I prefer to repeat what the person said and replace the course language word with another adjective. A word in general conversation is just a word. A word used to attack another is a different matter. Just like a steak knife is a great thing until it is held to your throat in the pursuit of your wallet. If you are NOT under attack, let your example be the way you get the world to treat you, don’t make more rules. The pursuit should be collaboration not control.

  10. Margaret Grün

    I also disagree on this issue. I am a older (>50) North American female working in IT in Austria. The standards, values and morals of my co-workers are not mine. My attempts to stand up for my morals and gain respect for them re-enforce my position as outsider and foreigner. I choose between voicing my values and remaining within the society of those I work with. Most groups are not tolerant of what they view as extremist foreign values.

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