I am not your f&%@ing tea lady
January 19, 2014 5:35 PM   Subscribe

I just allocated some work to a colleague who is a member of a team I manage. He responded by saying that I was just like a tea lady. Then he asked if there were any bribes available to get the work done. Stupidly, I laughed it off and told him he was dreaming if he thought our workplace would run to bribes. Of course, five minutes later I realised that HE CALLED ME - HIS MANAGER - A TEA LADY and now I'm seething at my desk. Do I take him aside and tell him it isn't kosher; OR do I just figure that this is an indication that its time to play hard ball (this isn't the first time he's made comments like this).
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace to Work & Money (35 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I had no idea what a tea lady was so first, is the urban dictionary correct?

If so, if it's not the first time, put your foot down and tell him that his attitude isn't ok. I would let this one go and next time call him out on it, say something like "I must have misheard you because that attitude is not acceptable in this environment". If it continues, then I would head to HR to get it documented.
posted by lpcxa0 at 5:41 PM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sorry, just to clarify...

A tea lady means the woman who 15-20 years ago brought a trolley filled with tea, coffee and snacks to your desk if you worked in a particular type of office (e.g. the public service). It was a low-paid job done mainly (but not always) by women. So by delivering him his work, I was like a tea lady.

posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 5:44 PM on January 19, 2014

Agreed. If by tea lady, you mean someone who can fire him, then, absolutely, you are a tea lady. I would tell him he needs to seriously adjust his attitude. You are right to seethe, but I would also question the way you present yourself to your team if they think that this is ok - maybe this one guy is just a dick, but it may be something in your interactions if people think this is acceptable behaviour towards you. I would not stand for it.
posted by Jubey at 5:46 PM on January 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

(this isn't the first time he's made comments like this).

Document, document, document. Then if you have to really play hardball (HR/firing for cause) at some point, you're good to go.
posted by blue suede stockings at 5:46 PM on January 19, 2014 [5 favorites]

Do I take him aside and tell him it isn't kosher; OR do I just figure that this is an indication that its time to play hard ball (this isn't the first time he's made comments like this).

Good managers always explain that a certain attitude/behavior is inappropriate, before resorting to "hard ball" (whatever that may mean here). He's being inappropriate for sure, but you still owe him a conversation about the changes he needs to make, before you escalate.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 5:47 PM on January 19, 2014 [39 favorites]

Do you have any other problems keeping this underling in line? Is he presuming to a higher position in the corporate hierarchy than he occupies? If so, he needs to be reminded that he works for you. If not, then he was probably making a stupid joke. Either way, "Well, I suppose if you consider continuing to receive a pay check a "bribe", then, yes, you could consider that your boss the tea-lady is bribing you," might be an adequate reminder that jokes about your boss are a bad idea.
posted by gingerest at 6:00 PM on January 19, 2014 [12 favorites]

Teachable moment about sexism i think; is there a way to explain the history about it and why it's offensive?
posted by Mistress at 6:09 PM on January 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

Just so you know, I've never heard of this in the US. It seems to be a mainly British custom, and I know you're in Australia.

Why don't you just ... talk to him about it? Ask him what he meant. If his explanation isn't clear, ask what he means by that. Let him twist in the wind. Then let him know it isn't funny or appropriate. You're his superior — you have the authority to do this.
posted by John Cohen at 6:13 PM on January 19, 2014 [5 favorites]

As a manager, part of your job is to communicate job expectations to people you supervise. An expectation of professional behavior, including not making sexist comments to colleagues, is something you should communicate. I would consider it a responsibility of yours to let him know, because continued unprofessional behavior will hurt his career. My advice is to present it this way, as here's a thing you did that's out of line at the office, let's discuss how you can not do this in the future.
posted by medusa at 6:18 PM on January 19, 2014 [11 favorites]

How difficult would it be for you to fire him? That is, do you have the backing necessary to get rid of this sexist jerk if he does not change his attitude? Or is he sufficiently loved/needed by upper management that you would lose a battle to get him out the door?

So, I would begin with the most realistic end in mind. If you think you yourself have more clout than he does, document away with a mind to firing his ass.

However, if you consider that management will not back you up, try a more communicative approach. Call him out on his behaviour: "you are being rude."

Playing hardball, perhaps you can document his comments and portray them as sexual harassment.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:19 PM on January 19, 2014

If I had that kind of conversation with someone I managed, I'd be starting the process of getting him fired.
posted by empath at 6:36 PM on January 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

is there a way to explain the history about it and why it's offensive?

Oh, I'm sure he knows exactly why.

The next time there's even a hint of that kind of condescending arseholery, you make it clear that it's inappropriate and unacceptable. That puts him on notice. If it happens after that, you escalate further. And you document all the way.
posted by holgate at 6:51 PM on January 19, 2014 [12 favorites]

this isn't the first time he's made comments like this

So what happened when the previous comments were made?

If nothing was done or said, it may be that the inaction is what's making him more comfortable with making such comments, going under the assumption that he would have heard about it if it wasn't acceptable. Not that this makes it right, but if he believes this is acceptable in your office culture there's no reason for him to stop, if this is the kind of person he is. If it's simply been ignored until now, dropping the hammer and playing hardball now isn't terribly fair to him, jerk though he may be. Gather examples of his past comments, and present them to him in private. "These things are not okay in my office, and I need you to refrain from these kinds of comments going forward, else I'll need to consider additional actions." Have a copy of your organization's policies on workplace behavior / harassment handy to reference and give to him for review. Be prepared to give an appropriate answer if asked why those previous comments weren't addressed at the time.

OTOH, if his behavior has been mentioned or talked about before, and he has been counseled on his inappropriateness but not adjusted his behavior, then it's time for HR and more substantial action.
posted by SquidLips at 6:54 PM on January 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

I agree you should just tell him he needs to respect you and if he has concerns about his responsibilities, he should raise them in an appropriate way. Since there's a bit of a delay on the "tea lady" comment, you can mention that along with other comments he has made that are inappropriate and let him know he needs to think about his attitude toward you as his boss and as a woman. Especially if he has made other sexist or disrespectful comments, continually laughing it off or ignoring it is just going to perpetuate it. I would keep a paper trail so if he keeps it up or it gets worse, there will be a documented history for action to be taken. I disagree though that you need to outright threaten to take action or discipline him -- he should know why you are speaking to him and he might get defensive if you threaten -- however, you should state in no uncertain terms that it cannot happen again. I think it should be sufficient. If not, the guy clearly has a problem.
posted by AppleTurnover at 7:12 PM on January 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

For the love of God, yes, tell him to stop. It is absolutely your right (indeed, it is your job) to pull him aside and tell him that calling you, his boss, a tea lady is inappropriate and that you do not want to hear that sort of thing from him again. I don't even think you have to make it a teachable moment. Tell him it is offensive, you are his boss, and that he should stop referring to anyone in the workplace in general as a "tea lady" unless that is in fact their job.

And it's totally ok for you to do this now, days after the fact. Don't get hung up on that. Just do it.
posted by ch1x0r at 7:14 PM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's too late to correct him on this particular comment -- you laughed it off. Be ready for the next one -- it sounds like this jackass can't resist making jokey put-downs.

In response to his next offending remark, I suggest that you remain steady and say nothing for a long moment. This will probably make him uncomfortable. Then ask, "What do you mean?" and wait for his answer. By now he should be aware that he's overstepped. You can immediately make your request for courtesy, or wait for a next time. Either way, speak with him privately and say you know he's joking, but that you expect him to be positive when trying for a laugh. If he's speaking this way to you, he must be doing so with others as well -- all the more reason to set him straight.
posted by wryly at 7:19 PM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you're seething at your desk, may as well share the uncomfortable feeling. Pick up the phone, dial his desk, and ask "did you just call me your tea lady?"

Whatever he starts to say, hang up partway through. I bet he shows up at your desk within minutes. Power dynamic reversed: you, sitting behind a desk in your territory; him, standing, hat in hand.

It almost doesn't matter what you say to him then. Just say that was inappropriate, and he can leave now. That should leave the required impression.
posted by ctmf at 7:20 PM on January 19, 2014 [11 favorites]

Document everything that's happened to date and tell him that his pattern of making inappropriate unprofessional comments has been noted and that he needs to put an end to it immediately. This is basic workplace conduct and being disrespectful to your direct supervisor seems like one of the easiest parts of appropriate conduct to manage. After the warning, I'd have no tolerance for additional comments.
posted by quince at 7:21 PM on January 19, 2014 [5 favorites]

shroedingersgirl and ch1x0r have identified professional and appropriate strategies for handling this. It is a management issue, may not be the last time you as a manager confront this issue, and you owe it to yourself, him, and his future employwers and coworkers to have a private conversation about the professional atmosphere of respect you expect in your office and about reining in his sense of humor, especially where it can be interpreted as sexist. Do document it, but please do talk to him about it rather than continuing to let it slide. People can't be held responsible for not making work behavior changes they don't know they need to make.
posted by Miko at 7:26 PM on January 19, 2014 [5 favorites]

Behaviour modification is most effective when the the target is demonstrating the behaviour. I'd pass on this one and be rigorous about calling him out from here on in.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 7:27 PM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you're his manager, it's entirely appropriate for you to call a one-on-one meeting with him (perhaps you have regular catch-ups?) It might have been more effective if you had said something at the time, but humans are not cats and can remember what happened in the past. Bringing it up later means it seems like a calm and considered response rather than a smack-down in the heat of the moment. Also has the advantage of being private rather than in front of other people (if it was).

So yes, talk about having some concerns about the fine line between informality and inappropriateness. Bring the Tea Lady comment up as a concrete example of Things That Are Not Good To Call People. If you can remember any other examples from the past, you could mention those too. I agree that if your workplace has policies on bullying, harrassment or anything else that could be relevant, refer him to those.

I would also word up HR and start keeping a written log of any relevant interactions you have with him (eg the Tea Lady incident, a meeting you have with him to discuss, any future infractions, etc). I have been in the unfortunate position of trying to deal with something (different topic) in a low-key, friendly manner and had it completely explode in my face. You need to do the right thing and safeguard yourself.

And if he does make off-colour comments again, try hard to pick him up on them immediately. It just needs to be a "Remember that thing we talked about? This is what I mean." HR may have ideas about how many strikes before an out if he doesn't reform his behaviour if you feel uncomfortable making that call.
posted by Athanassiel at 7:36 PM on January 19, 2014 [7 favorites]

Moment has definitely passed for you to say something without seeming like you've spent a bunch of time seething about it (JUST LIKE WOMEN DO, Y'KNOW??). Just heighten your awareness around him and the moment he drops some disrespect on you - smack him down as advised.
posted by mooza at 10:11 PM on January 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

If he said this in front of other people, have the conversation any time you want with just you and him. Refer to the others and say that you prefer not to call people to task in front of their coworkers.
posted by 101cats at 10:54 PM on January 19, 2014 [7 favorites]

I agree that his comment was totally inappropriate, but I also agree with Mooza and the others that you have to be careful about letting it look like this got to you too much. I would let this one go, at least on the surface, but be more diligent about responding in the future. The lines about considering his paycheque a bribe and defining a tea lady as the person who can fire him are good ones.

And, make damn sure he "drinks this particular cup of tea,"ie does the work you gave him, in a timely and appropriate way. Keep track of these comments and if you hear him talking like that to anyone else, or he pulls that crap with you after you respond with a zinger, have an "official" conversation about appropriate behaviour.

It is a shame that female managers are still facing this crap in 2014, but don't let it get to you. Some people are just jerks and will do whatever they can to make themselves feel more powerful at someone else's expense. As his boss, you have already won that game, so don't let him--or yourself--forget it.
posted by rpfields at 10:59 PM on January 19, 2014

I like 101cats' suggestion of calling him into your office, and mentioning that you've delayed because you have better manners than calling him out in front of other people. Maybe emphasize you boss/him employee by having him remain standing during the discussion: move any 'visitor' chairs out of reach before you call him in.

Also, in the future don't deliver his work to him: call him into your office, make him come to you to pick up stuff.
posted by easily confused at 2:42 AM on January 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm guessing part of the reason you didn't respond at the time is that what he said doesn't really make sense. In what sense is a manager giving you work like the tea lady coming round? Having thought about it, all I can come up with is that he is being sarky and saying you appear with work as regularly as the tea lady comes round.

You say this isn't the first time he's made comments like this. Have you discussed any of these with him? Presumably you have regular management 1-2-1s with him (if not, you should) and that is the perfect forum to neutrally raise the issue.

He obviously sees nothing wrong with what he is saying since he is happy to publicly say it to your face. Either this behaviour is innocent but makes you uncomfortable and he should be aware of this or it is not innocent and is a performance management issue.
posted by ninebelow at 4:05 AM on January 20, 2014

I think you already did the perfect thing -- laughed and walked away.

Now that this you've got this assignment in his hands, shape the interaction. If he doesn't have the work done on time, exactly as you assigned it, write him up or discipline however it works in your office. This should clear up any cobwebs that may be clouding his mind about the dynamic of your relationship, without any awkward conversations.

If he gets the job done, hooray for everyone. Then if it happens again, be prepared to address it on time and quietly; it's usually more effective than after-the-fact when you're upset. Go to your HR office for a plan on how to address things like this; surely they can recommend seminars or some books?

Have you considered that he's not being insubordinate but is actually trying very awkwardly to flirt?
posted by mibo at 4:24 AM on January 20, 2014

Don't seethe, learn instead.

He called you a "tea lady" and said other things to you in the past.

Your response was to: ignore the tea lady part of his comment, and addressed his 2nd part about the bribes. You defended the company, but not yourself. This speaks to confidence and execution of authority.

This character has given you an opportunity. Effective management is not documenting, escalation, HR, etc. Those are mundane acts. A manager is a leader-in-training. Leadership involves being able to effectively exercise authority. Authority by itself doesn't mean much. As a manager, you need to set culture — your team should know who you are and what your mettle is. From that comes lasting respect - with which such incidents become rare.
posted by Kruger5 at 6:38 AM on January 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's too late to correct him on this particular comment

No it isn't. Maybe you shouldn't write him up or something, but you should have a private conversation about it as soon as possible. Again, it is absoultely not too late, and not dealing with this will make it harder to later.
posted by spaltavian at 7:21 AM on January 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

At your next 1 on 1 meeting (a thing a manager should be doing with direct reports regularly) mention it to him.

"I want to address a concern I have. While it's okay to take the piss out of your colleagues, you really need to know when it's okay to do it with managers. For example, you once referred to me as your "tea lady." I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you didn't mean to be disrespectful and sexist with the reference, and you should be aware that to some people that comment would be deeply, deeply offensive. Part of your action plan will be to watch your comments in the workplace. What may fly with your friends, won't fly in a corporate environment. I don't want to make a big thing about it, I DO want you to take my comments on board and make a change. We'll consider this a verbal warning."

Now, you've gotten it off your chest, you've set him up for a written reprimand on the next go round, and you've coached him in something that will serve him in good stead for the rest of his career. Way to be an awesome manager!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:45 AM on January 20, 2014 [16 favorites]

Hmm. I'm American and hadn't heard the phrase 'tea lady' until now, but I actually (as a fellow female) wouldn't have seen this as a sexist comment, just a clumsy and unfunny reference to someone delivering something inside an office. So, if I were you, I wouldn't automatically assume that he made the comment because you're female. However, he sounds incredibly annoying (bribes? really?) and I agree that you should document future problems. If you decide to talk to him about the 'tea lady' incident, I would ask him in a neutral tone why he said that, and explain, equally neutrally, why you find it inappropriate.
posted by three_red_balloons at 11:27 AM on January 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I want to second the 1 on 1 suggestion. Whether it's weekly or monthly, every direct report should have a regular one on one. I actually have a standard agenda I give my reports with the questions/topics:

- How are you doing?
- What are you working on?
- What is coming down the pike that I should be aware of?
- I would like to give you constructive feedback on your performance. Are you in a frame of mind/prepared to hear it? (If not, we talk about ways to receive feedback. With a performance issue, I shift it to "I'd like to discuss your performance." How people react to this statement is typically my biggest indicator if I should take the time to develop a plan to get them up to speed or if I should just make a case for moving them to another role or out.)
- What are your ideas or suggestions for making the company more successful?
- What can I do as your manager to make you more productive or satisfied at your job?

It makes sure that the feedback is in the middle, in the frame of mind of making them a better employee in service to the company, rather than a personal preference thing.

With this, you could be seething and personally offended, but you're going to have to frame it in a way that you remove the emotion and personal reaction as much as possible from it. "I've noticed a pattern that's concerned me about our interactions and I want to make sure you're aware of the implications of what you're saying. For example, when you refer to your superior as a "tea lady" and mention bribes - you may just be making a joke, but to me, as your manager, it makes me think that you either don't understand appropriate professional conversation. Personally, it struck me as a somewhat sexist and tone deaf statement. But my larger concerns are that if this is the way you communicate with your boss, I now worry about your interactions and professional judgment across the organization. I'm glad that you feel comfortable enough with me that you can be "loose", but this is still a professional relationship. As a first step, I'm going to ask you to complete this additional sexual harassment training/read and summarize this article on sexual harassment laws in (where you are) and this on bribery policy in (wherever you are, corporate policy) to make sure I don't have reason to worry in your other interactions and have 100% confidence you understand the reputational risks. I'm going to also ask you to think about how your words are being perceived by the listener, not just what entertains you here at work and let me know right now if there are any other possible situations here in this environment that I should be concerned about - statements you've made to coworkers that might pose a risk to the company about gender or race discrimination, statements that might give someone the impression that you don't adhere to our ethics and legal policies, because, as your manager, these potential issues could become a huge headache for me, even if you meant them jokingly."

Don't make it about you. Don't assume he is a sexist jerkhole that encourages bribes. Assume he's tone deaf and your job is to demonstrate how incredibly serious his non-serious statements are to the company.
posted by Gucky at 12:38 PM on January 20, 2014 [6 favorites]

A friend of mine had an Asian boss who was pissed off with crap casual racism. He handed an offender a leaflet on terminology or whatever and said "it might be a good idea to read that" (or maybe something a little more assertive. My (nicely assertive) friend saw this (he maybe shouldn't have done this publicly?.. I don't know) and liked how he handled it a lot.
posted by tanktop at 3:14 AM on January 21, 2014

Another thought. If you do decide to talk to him directly about it.. perhaps the onus should be on him not talking to anyone/any woman like that???? Not just his boss. That makes things better for us all :) .. unless he's very adolescent and rebellious.
posted by tanktop at 3:23 AM on January 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Definitely talk to him about it, and follow up your conversation with an email, possibly copying HR if you have a useful HR team. It's not okay; it constitutes sexual harrassment; it's disrespectful; and it's not going to fly. It's okay that you brushed it off in the moment -- that's common when people break social rules -- it's so surprising, we don't realize it until later.
posted by spindrifter at 9:55 AM on January 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

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