Bad coworker question #842
September 27, 2016 4:59 PM   Subscribe

I live in the U.S. in a fairly progressive city. I have an ethnic sounding last name, an ethnicity which happens to be uncommon to this area and so it makes my name easily identifiable and, apparently, memorable. My co-worker feels the need to sing my full name, at random, in an accented voice that is characteristic of my ethnicity. This is loud enough for all of my cube neighbors to hear. Yeah, awkward.

Sometimes he just says my name as a sigh, like "ohhhhh, onecircle, onecircle, onecircle." (This one is really awkward because it's really uncomfortable and it can be construed the wrong way). Sometimes it's a song that he makes up himself with a cadence that sounds like the cadence of a popular song from my ethnic background. (This one is enraging because it's so mocking and obvious).

Why I won't just talk directly to him about this:
My co-worker is known to be overly social, unprofessional, unfocused, unfit for the position and also known to produce very little work of poor quality. He's a jokester, always ready for a laugh and has been spoken to by management several times. He gets his feelings hurt really easily and gets passive aggressive. I barely leave my desk, am somewhat serious/studious and while I'm friendly, I am known to be very focused. I'm also petite and female, which doesn't help my cause. In the past I've had people see me as a pushover and have treated that way until I gave them my .02 cents which genuinely shocked them (although, I got respect after that! Go me.).

So, morale is really important to me. We have a good relationship, but it's a little tenuous. I've worked hard to find points of interest with this person so we can have a good working relationship, but at times I've inadvertently strained it by calling out his poor work ethic to my manager because it had a negative impact on my projects at the time (which I inherited from him after I was hired). After I was hired, things changed for him professionally - because I tipped the scale of the team toward upleveling everything instead of screwing around. So anyway, I fear that by bringing this up with him, it will have a negative impact on the unit and I'll incur the silent treatment, his shitty moods and passive aggressive behavior, which I really don't feel like dealing with (again).

So, yeah, he sings my name in an ethnic voice. Sometimes it's a couple of verses of some shit he made up (today the lyrics and lullaby tone sounded like he was singing about a child) but usually it seems to serve no purpose other than to announce to the world that I am ethnic with a capital E. Ignoring his behavior hasn't worked.

Do I just need a sense of humor? Should I run to my manager with this, or is it a waste of time? What would you do?
posted by onecircleaday to Human Relations (31 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Talk to your manager, and if that doesn't work: let HR know this dude is creating a hostile workplace. Don't bother discussing this with your coworker directly, it won't help or make him stop, it would only give him the satisfaction of knowing he's getting under your skin.
posted by easily confused at 5:06 PM on September 27, 2016 [27 favorites]

People aren't mind readers. Sometimes you have to show up for yourself. You don't have to be a jerk, you can just tell him: hey buddy, I really dislike that. Please knock it off. Feel free to adapt miss manners' broken-record technique which is just to keep saying that over and over again in the face of whatever bullshit he throws out at you defensively. And call him out on it every single fucking time he does it. And eventually, he will stop. Just wear that fucker down. You are not doing either of you any favors by letting him get away with this. And it's also entirely possible that he's neural atypical and kind of oblivious, which is all the more reason to explain to him how he needs to stop doing this. Being silent is not helpful to either of you. That doesn't mean he will thank you for being honest with him, but believe me, you should be honest with him. Short, tactful, direct. No need to explain why it bothers you, because he doesn't need to know that in order to change his behavior. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 5:07 PM on September 27, 2016 [40 favorites]

Dear lord, you do not need a "sense of humor." This guy is a grade-A asshole. From my lay understanding, it probably meets the criteria for "hostile work environment."

I agree that you could try talking to him first. Matter of factly, you don't have to be emotional, just tell him that you would like him to stop doing this. At the same time, I'd keep track of when he does it and when you asked him to stop. I don't think you need to ask more than once. Then bring it to HR. Probably one of the great advice-scripters here on MeFi will be able to give you specific language to use.
posted by radioamy at 5:09 PM on September 27, 2016 [19 favorites]

I would probably start with just a solid "Could you not?" You don't have to Make A Stink or get aggressive with him or imply that it's personal or tell him he's racist or connect it to his work. Just like "Could you not sing my name like that? It really bugs me."

YMMV if he's the type to do this because he knows it bugs you. In that case, yeah, I'd go the hostile work environment route with management or HR.
posted by Sara C. at 5:13 PM on September 27, 2016 [10 favorites]

Next time it happens: "Hey, coworker, why do you keep making up little songs about my name? It really makes me uncomfortable." If it continues, take it to a manager.
posted by palomar at 5:14 PM on September 27, 2016 [7 favorites]

Here's the process:

1) The next time it happens, tell you coworker: "Please stop using that tone with me." You have now performed the necessary CYA to document. He knows it is offensive and bothers you, you do not need to explain it to him. If he says "why?" or tries to push back, you response needs to be, "I don't see a reason why we need to talk more about this. Just stop, and we'll never have to talk about it again." Then disengage.

2) Document this interaction.

3) Inform your boss, let him or her know that you have asked your coworker to stop his racist behavior, and that he or she might need to step in if the behavior continues, but it isn't time to act yet.

4) Continue to document, if your coworker continues.

5) Take documentation to your boss, if your coworker continues.

6) The third time you take your documentation to your boss, you say, "This is a pattern of racist behavior. Would you like to go to HR with me together, right now, or would you prefer that I go myself?" Do not give your boss the option to go on your behalf, you need to be represented at the table.

7) Go to HR, with or without your boss.
posted by juniperesque at 5:18 PM on September 27, 2016 [94 favorites]

You can stand up for yourself, firmly but nicely. You advocated for your project when he was screwing it up, why not advocate for yourself. Next time he starts up, tell him you want him to stop singing your name.

Im sure his random singing and unprofessionalism is annoying everyone around you. You will not be bringing down morale. People will likely take you aside and praise you for it after you do.
posted by charlielxxv at 5:26 PM on September 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

I have a long, ethnic first name, which is not hard to pronounce, but people often don't try because they just see the 11 letters and I suppose their brain shuts down. I once sat in a cubicle next to a co-worker who sounds very like the person you describe--highly social, a jokester, loud, and not very efficient. When I first started this job, she kept trying to shorten my name, or make up all kinds of nicknames (I do not have a nickname). I finally just told her, in a calm but firm manner, "My name is X. Not "nickname". Please call me X. Thanks." It worked, since she started using my given name, and we had a cordial working relationship from then on.

FWIW, I regularly get shit from baristas who ask for my name (yes I always spell it without being asked), but I stopped telling them a few years ago that it was "Ann". Their issue, not mine. If his behavior continues, I would report it to HR because this sounds to me like harassment.
posted by Shazbot at 5:26 PM on September 27, 2016 [5 favorites]

People aren't mind readers. Sometimes you have to show up for yourself. You don't have to be a jerk, you can just tell him: hey buddy, I really dislike that. Please knock it off.

According to your post, you've never asked him to stop doing this.

Really, it doesn't have to involve bigotry or HR or his work ethic or lack thereof. It's just a stupid joke. He may be surprised to learn you don't like it. Just use your words, speak to him. Keep it focused on the name-jokes -- leave out all the corporate stuff.

I sometimes have to ask people not to use a variation of my name that some people think is fine, but that I happen to dislike. It's no big deal. They stop.
posted by JimN2TAW at 5:58 PM on September 27, 2016 [9 favorites]

What juniperesque said. It's not funny unless you're in an episode of The Office. This is harassment.
posted by soakimbo at 6:01 PM on September 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Ugh, what a dick. He's being a passive aggressive, unprofessional asshole with a hefty side of not-so-subtle racist butthead to boot. I'm sorry you're saddled with him and I'm sorry he's been harassing you in this way for so long.

I agree that a terse, "That is not my name. Start over.," or something to that effect might be the best place to start.

However, and this is entirely up to you based on your take on the temperature of your office environment, team, your age vs his, etc...

You *could* say HIS name in the same sing-songy stupid way, along with a warning, like, "[Naa--aaammmeee], when you address me by using a stereotype laden accent and absurdly overpronounced vowels it's disrespectful and you KNOWWWWW ITTTTT".

Then you could give him a pointed look after you finish singing and say in as terse and assertive a voice as possible, "So knock it off and don't do it ever again." (Some of the songs from, "The Book of Mormon" musical have excellent examples of how to emphasize certain words when singing a sentence all together like that.)

Keep documenting it every time he does it, of course, so that if and when you go to HR you have a paper trail. But if you've been silent about this up until now (which is your right and I am not criticizing you for choosing to do so), you could seriously knock him out of the water (and impress the rest of your team) by playing ball a little.

Basically, there are different ways to rattle your tail, so to speak, and you should absolutely rattle yours asap so everyone knows you are not a pushover and you will not accept being treated like one anymore.

(Another possible response in a very calm voice: You've been practicing that song a lot lately, [coworker]. I think HR would love to hear you sing it. Shall I schedule a recital with [HR rep's name] for this afternoon?")

YMMV, sending good thoughts, trying to squish his head through the monitor for being such a frickin' loser, etc.
posted by Hermione Granger at 6:38 PM on September 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

I just had a similar incident (minus the racist undertones) happen at work. Dude who is the jokester kept making fun of me in a way that, for me, went beyond simple "poking fun" and was making me feel really kind of humiliated. I waited until I was no longer angry and pulled him into a conference room and laid out, in so many words:
- I don't like when you say [X].
- I know you think you're just joking but this isn't funny to me.
- Please stop.

I don't think you need to go into any depth about why it's hurtful or whatever. Just tell this person to stop, in private, directly and sincerely. If they don't then you get HR involved.
posted by deathpanels at 6:40 PM on September 27, 2016 [6 favorites]

Uggggh. This needs to stop. The fact that your other coworkers haven't pulled him aside to correct him on this so obviously out of line behavior is a little confusing, tbh.

But yeah, as much as I hear your reasons for not talking to him directly, I agree with the other posters that you need to ask him to stop, one time.

Actually, now that I write that out, I wonder if your coworkers maybe have talked to him about it, but he (honestly) tells them that you don't seem to have a problem with it.

Learn from this:
In the past I've had people see me as a pushover and have treated that way until I gave them my .02 cents which genuinely shocked them (although, I got respect after that! Go me.).

People respect you when you speak your mind...This is the best possible scenario. So, speak your mind to Asshat about the name thing. Once.

If you get the silent treatment, be like Hillary and act like an adult through the tantrum, which you know will be temporary.

If he keeps doing the name thing, go to your manager. If your manager is not effective at fixing it, go to HR.

Maybe it's because I am also a member of the weird-to-English-speakers name club, but as someone who generally leans towards assuming good faith and giving folks some slack with stupid jokes, it boggles my mind that this guy thinks that this could possibly be acceptable workplace behavior in twenty fucking sixteen. It sucks that you have to deal with this cretin.
posted by sparklemotion at 6:43 PM on September 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

This has happened to me in the past too (I'm white but have a weird name, so I've only experienced a less obnoxious version of this). I agree that class clowns can be fragile and you will be most successful if you bring it up in a funny but firm way that lets him save face and maintain a good relationship with you.

Here's how I've handled it:
"Hey coworker, I know how happy you are to serenade me every morning, but it drives me NUTS when you sing my name. Can you please stop doing that?"

Then, the first time he does it, I would get out my wagging finger and say "now, didn't we talk about this?"

(And then, if it happens again, go to HR or a manager.)
posted by beyond_pink at 7:03 PM on September 27, 2016 [11 favorites]

Worst case scenario: you'll find yourself using juniperesque's process, which is excellently outlined.

Best case scenario: you'll only have to use step 1 of juniperesque's process. (Bonus points if you can resist giving him your all-out .02 cents.)

FWIW, I really hear how much you hate to be pushed to giving people your .02 cents. I know from my own experience being a relatively petite female who is 1) visibly ethnic and 2) has an ethnic-sounding last name that does me no favors, that also does not match the ethnicity people usually mistake me for... I know from my experiences that if step 1 doesn't work out so well, this guy might only be a symptom of a more toxic workplace overall. Document the behavior, including your attempt to resolve the conflict one-on-one, and then see for yourself how the management and HR respond.

I caution you about crossing the line into giving your .02 cents, because sometimes people are simply bullies, and it's just not cool when bullies have the power to push you to the point where you feel like you have to scream to be heard (obviously this guy has a pre-established sense that he can make his comments without being challenged on them, because he's doing it so freely in the first place). It's especially not cool when you're surrounded by people, peers, or coworkers who also "don't hear" what you're asking for alongside him. You're a legitimate person, and not just one of those weird woman-creatures that can be provoked into creating amusement for others. Proceed with caution.

If you do try step 1, please followup on how it works out for you. You're definitely not the only woman to go through low-level harassment, and especially not the only woman who has already been made to feel that the bully's feelings are "too fragile" to hear what you need to say about his behavior (before even having said a word to him about it!). Good luck.
posted by human ecologist at 7:23 PM on September 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

The passive/extra polite way to deal with it is to engage in a casual conversation and turn the topic to something like pet peeves.

HIM: I hate traffic and peanut butter.

YOU: Hahah... mine is... I guess... I really don't like it when people imitate the accent of my ethnicity or make fun of my name.

HIM, MAYBE: Oh... I do that sometimes, do you hate that?

YOU: Welllll (long pause) I don't like it when people make fun of my background.

Then you be extra nice to him for the rest of the week, bring him a donut or something, to take the sting off it.

I only suggest this very non-assertive method because the guy sounds like a pouty immature train wreck, so dealing with it maturely (I'd LOVE to say "knock it off, that's racist") will probably make your life worse when he turns passive-aggressive. He sounds like a turd- sorry you have to deal with him! Good luck.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 7:48 PM on September 27, 2016

"I know you don't intend it to be mean (which means you really know he does), but when you do your little sing song thing with my name, it really bothers me and is not appropriate. Would you please stop?" Then, if he does stop, after a few days, thank him. Positive reinforcement like a dog. If he doesn't stop, "I am going to ask you nicely for the last time, please stop the sing songy crap." Then, if he still doesn't stop, go to HR and your boss. You have no other choice.
posted by AugustWest at 8:36 PM on September 27, 2016

Sounds like a time to bring a little snark to the table. Next time he does it, smile, and say in your best pitying but also bored voice "yes, thanks Joe, everyone knows my name, and that I'm Swedish" (to pull a random nationality out of a hat) the next time he does it, let him know again that it still is your name, and you still are swedish, but sound a little more bored. At some point, he's bound to figure out that what he is doing is really stupid, and knock it off.
If it were me, I might even put up a calendar at my desk marked "times joe has helpfully pointed out that I am swedish" and make a check on it each time he does it. But, I am a shit disturber, so that may not be the route you want to take.

another tactic that may be worth trying is ding training
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 9:56 PM on September 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

"Dude, with the accent? Come on. No." That's the egregious part of it to me, and I bet if he stops the accent it won't be singable anymore. I mean really, it's been awhile since that was OK.
posted by rhizome at 10:38 PM on September 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Then you be extra nice to him for the rest of the week, bring him a donut or something, to take the sting off it.

Hell no. Not only does this person deserve to get "stung", he actually needs to be, or else he will never understand how totally unacceptable the behavior is.
posted by zokni at 12:23 AM on September 28, 2016 [9 favorites]

Mod note: A couple of comments deleted. Please don't make suggestions that are inappropriate for an adult in a work setting.
posted by taz (staff) at 12:41 AM on September 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

As a fellow woman with an ethnic sounding name, eesh. In my case it was a surprise to me; where I grew up, it was never remarked on, and then where I live now, it is apparently totally English! they totally think I'm the spitting image and behavior of a proper English lady! I've had a couple colleagues go so far as to construct entire stories about my background and imagined reactions to things that they base on local stereotypes of English people. And this was AFTER I told them I'm not English. Not a single person from my family, not one, is from England! I can only imagine how my Irish grandmother and grandfather, both passed away, would react at the assumption about being English.

Ways I've handled this in the worst situations, one on one, not in public (exchange "England" for your cases). Note that you need to do it in total deadpan earnestness, zero impatience or contempt:
- "Is that something you learned in England?"
- "How long did you live in England to learn that?"
- "Nice song, I've never heard it before."
- "How'd you learn that accent? I'm not familiar with it. Oh, it's English? Did you learn that in school?" (Here English must be understood as distinct from American English, and even then they're dunces because there's no one "English" accent.)

In public, listening to their stories with a dazed look, polite complete silence unbroken even by a sigh, then changing the subject once they're finished. Have you tried stopping and pointedly listening to the guy as he sings, then raising an eyebrow, silently pausing for effect, then smiling at someone else to pick up a conversation on a totally different subject with that other person? This can be devastatingly effective with the clown type.

Ways to do it with people who are merely dense:
- "Am I from England? No. Not a single one of my ancestors is from England. A few might have sailed there or even here from Norway or Ireland though. If they did, they didn't stay. They preferred Canada and the States. Some even went all the way to Australia." (note that the latter zinger only works in context, you may have a similar one though)

Things that DO NOT work in large part because we're women:
- Being nice and giving the benefit of the doubt. Why it doesn't work: they know exactly what they're doing. Anyone with enough neurons to hold a job knows how to ask a question like, "so where are you from?" as opposed to "hurrr hurrrr ur English lol have some tea and crumpets hurrr". They're doing it BECAUSE we're supposed to be nice, and if we're not, they KNOW they can pull the "bad temperament" card, to use a fresh example of the variations on "hysteric".
- Bringing food from my home country in appeasement. Why it doesn't work: "looooool ur trying to prove ur not English that's so English thinking they're worldly looool."
posted by fraula at 2:34 AM on September 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Juniperesque has it. You need to tell him to stop once & then go to your boss/HR. The only reason you have to confront him directly is because HR (and possibly your boss) are going to require that you do so before they do anything about it. It sucks! I have been there with sexualized remarks at work.

You don't owe anything to this guy or have to prove yourself to him. The process is as juniperesque describes.
posted by CMcG at 4:18 AM on September 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

If he does this sort of thing to everbody (jokester), you need to very sure you have documented asking him to stop doing this specific thing, specifically to you, before you ask someone higher-up or in HR to get involved.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 6:33 AM on September 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Record him, every day for a week singing your name. Then ask him to stop. Document that you've asked him to stop. Then go to your manager or HR. If they don't do something to stop this, then go above them. Your best friend is documentation.

I'm also a petite lady with an ethnic name. His behavior and poor attitude is his problem, and his managers problem - not yours.
posted by zamdaba at 7:16 AM on September 28, 2016

**Sing song name**
(Stand up, lean over partition) "Knock it off, pal"
**Attempt at justification**
"Just stop. It's not funny." (Level stare to drive message home) "Thank you." (Sit down)
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:39 AM on September 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

Redirect him to sing the songs about a hobby of yours. e.g. let's say you like knitting. Tell him, "No more songs about my name! Instead, sing songs about how I'm the Knitting Queen."

I've encountered people like this before. They want to turn you into a "buddy", because they know they're underperforming and they figure you'll help them cover for it if you see them as a buddy. They use nicknames and tease you, in the hopes that acting "as if" you're already close buddies will turn you into close buddies. They know very little about you, so they latch onto the few things they know. It's possible that he knows little about you, so he's using your name since that's one of the few things he knows.

If you give him a hobby / moniker like the Knitting Queen which you don't find offensive, he may redirect his buddy-creating energy toward that. He can sing songs to the tune of Dancing Queen, make up rap songs about knitting, etc. Or if you have a work habit you wouldn't mind being teased about, you can tell him, "I only want songs about how I'm good at doing TPS reports." Then he can rap about how TPS reports get out of the way when you're coming down the hall.
posted by cheesecake at 8:33 AM on September 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure why no one suggested asking him to stop via company email. Something like "Going forward, I expect you to only address me as Firstname in a tone appropriate for a professional business environment. Singing, using an accent or sarcastic tone would be seen as creating a hostile work environment. Please reply that you have received this"

Use a read receipt (or something like HubSpot).
posted by Sophont at 8:34 AM on September 28, 2016

I'm not sure why no one suggested asking him to stop via company email.

I can't speak for anyone else, but for me, putting it in writing (especially with the Professional Business Environment tone) before just talking to him about it is kind of the nuclear option.

This guy is an asshat and is being shockingly racist, but part of working in an office environment is at least making some effort to get along with people (even if they are asshats). It's well known and documented that OP has an issue with this guy (see: complaining about work ethic to the manager). But that kind of email, out of the blue, would be fodder for the asshat to then go to their manager and say that "OP is impossible to work with -- why would she send such a threatening email before even bringing up the problem to me?!"

OP shouldn't have to put up with people being shockingly racist to her at work, but jumping immediately to verifiable documentation sends the message to the asshat that she doesn't trust him (she shouldn't trust him, obviously, but he doesn't need to know that). Since there is a chance (however tiny) that the asshat doesn't realize that he's being shockingly racist (or even just insufferably annoying), and when asked to stop he will apologize and never do it again, I think it's worth it for OP to give him the benefit of the doubt, once, if only to avoid damaging their working relationship further.

After asking once, then sure, telling via email, and escalating as others have suggested makes sense.
posted by sparklemotion at 9:12 AM on September 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

While navigating this hostile work environment, I suggest keeping in mind how much emotional labor you are expecting of him and how much emotional labor you're willing to expend.

Not being a racist asshole in a working environment = no emotional labor at all
Reacting maturely to a request not to be a racist asshole in a working environment = seriously little emotional labor

Compare that to possibilities like.... Going out of your way to find a jokey, fun way of raising your issue.... Presenting your discomfort and frustration in a lighthearted and friendly way... Making conscientious attempts to lighten the mood after raising your concern... Coddling him so he isn't hurt by you making clear how he's hurting you. Serious emotional labor!

You don't owe him that emotional labor. He's not putting even the slightest amount of effort into not being a racist asshole in a working environment, and putting in the slight amount of effort needed to stop being a racist asshole isn't exactly too much to ask of a person.

You deserve a working environment where you are not confronted with racist humor. Stand up for yourself here. And keep in mind: you don't owe him any emotional labor at all; you don't have to care about protecting his feelings, or keeping him in a good mood, or making sure he doesn't fall to pieces as an emotional baby. It's his job to figure out how to manage his emotions like an adult. It's not your job.
posted by meese at 9:55 AM on September 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

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