Workplace power dynamics can be a tricky thing to navigate, particularly for someone in a position of authority.
But when it becomes necessary to use that power, it can often lead to conflict.
Redditor sl*tforneatwires recently reprimanded one of her employees, and the resulting fallout led her to turn to the subReddit "Am I the A**hole" (AITA) to see if she should've handled things differently.
"AITA for calling out an employee very publicly for being a condescending dick to a teenage intern?"
The original poster (OP) explained what happened.
"My husband and I are joint CEOs of a tech company that we inherited from mutual family friends quite a long time ago now."
"We're far from the likes of the big giants or anything, but we're doing very well and rapidly getting bigger. Part of what we do is education - so we have tech ed boot camp for high school aged students, paid internships, etc."
"We had a high school aged intern who ended up in a cybersecurity meeting with us, which is perfectly fine because it's an 'open' meeting. He interjected (respectfully & at the right time) with an appropriate question/criticism, a good one at that."
"I looked around at the cybersecurity guys expecting one of them to answer. One of them pipes up about how they're adults, this is their work, and he (the intern) is a child - so he doesn't get to be involved in this sort of thing."
"He said that in the absolute most condescending, arrogant way he possibly could of."
"I find that sort of sh*t really irritating because my parents did that to me when I was a kid, and I've made it a big point here not only to involve the interns but consider any sensible criticism/question when possible irrespective of the source."
"Basically in front of his entire department I told him off that what he said is rude, condescending, arrogant, wholly inappropriate, and just frankly asinine."
"I also said that if he wants to say sh*t like that to people outside of the company that's on his prerogative, but that has no place here."
"I said that I pay him (the intern) so I want to hear his thoughts, and I pay him (cybersecurity guy) to answer these questions – because I didn't consider the angle mentioned so now it's my question too."
"My husband felt I went a bit too far, I don't feel like I went far enough, cybersecurity guy is unhappy that I embarrassed him in front of his coworkers. I feel like I'm justified here, am I?"
In a follow-up edit, the OP assured everyone that she didn't believe sexism was the issue.
"EDIT: Can we please stop ascribing any part of this to sexism? There's nothing sexist going on here."
"Someone's butthurt about being yelled at, my husband is extremely conflict avoidant, and I have more of a blue collar background than anyone involved here."
Redditors weighed in on the situation by declaring:
- NTA – Not The A**hole
- YTA – You're The A**hole
- NAH – No A**holes Here
- ESH – Everyone Sucks Here
They agreed that the OP was right to stick up for the intern.
"NTA - classic example of 'do unto others what you want others do unto you'."
"He's unhappy that you embarrassed him in front of his coworkers - what about how the intern feels being embarrassed in front of all his seniors?"
"I think what you did was right - it's better to let everyone know that your company has a culture of equality, involving everyone, having an open mind, and most importantly: bullying will not be tolerated."—ThomzLC
"OP didn't embarrass him, he embarrassed himself by being a jacka**."—OwnBrother2559
"NTA - he gets to be an a**hole but because you called him out his big guy feelings are hurt about it? Whatever."
"Good for you for standing up to a bully and showing that that sh*t doesn't fly. If he makes himself like a big man by being mean to interns, then he can create his own company and see how well it does with that culture."
"He's unhappy and embarrassed because he was called out for being a bully. He SHOULD be embarrassed about his behavior. He's just mad he didn't get away with feeling like a big boy at the cost of someone else's feelings."—MostLikeylyJustFood
"Not only was his behavior rude and antagonist (wholly inappropriate no matter who he was talking to). But also the kid is an intern."
"What does this guy think interns are there for? They are there to learn and ask questions, exactly as this one did."—Silver-Thing2724
"NTA. I don't generally support calling out employees for their behavior or performance in front of others. That should be handled in private."
"HOWEVER this was behavior that happened in a real time group setting. Failure to handle it would have potentially come across as an endorsement of that behavior."
"It definitely needed addressed then and there so that everyone understands that wasn't acceptable."
"Could you have cut him down with less words just as effectively? Yeah but hindsight is always 20/20 and in the moment those cutting one liners don't always come to us."
"I wouldn't lose sleep over it. For him to do this in a public group meeting, indicates to me this wasn't new behavior for him."
"He's probably been getting away with this with interns and others before. I'd start paying more attention to his people interactions."—AshesB77
Some had theories as to why the employee shut down the intern in the first place.
"Who else wants to bet the cyber guy had no answer to the intern's question? So he went and laid into the the poor kid while biding his time for a decent answer."—bonkerred
"I'd put good money on that. Because he sounds like the guy who would have *loved* to show off how smart he was if he actually knew the answer."—xixbia
"I've had a few experiences like this in my working life so far. Not so much with the condescension, but just having someone higher than me suddenly not liking me/singling me out."
"I was speaking about it with my dad one evening and he told me exactly what it was, as he had dealt with it a few times himself. At some point, I'd done or said something that they never thought of and were embarrassed by this, so they now perceived me as a potential threat to their job and treated me like sh*t accordingly."
"I'd actually bet money that this is exactly what happened here. The intern saw a potential issue or solution, raised it (as he should) for consideration, the cybersecurity guy never even thought of this and was trying to downplay it to cover his a**."
"The CS guy is now sh*tty because his failing is now a thing everyone is aware of. Even if they don't directly know he wasn't aware of the issue, they know *something* happened and it's on him."
"People like that will get the sh*ts up if anything makes them look bad, even if it's something that's really a non-issue."—Dr_Cannibalism
"You did the right thing."
"I bet it gets down to a guy that felt threatened by the audacity of an intern asking questions during a meeting with his boss."
"Was he at least able to answer the question?"—OverripeMandrake
The OP basically confirmed these suspicions with her response, saying:
"It was kind of a non-answer that proved the problem he was concerned about was in fact a problem."
Who knows what kind of positive impact the OP's actions may have had on the intern?
"Ok, here's a perspective I don't see mentioned yet, the one of the intern."
"If you had a negative experience with your parents, there's a possibility that he did/does, too. The lesson you just taught him will likely be carried thru his entire career."
"Every. Voice. Matters. You showed him that regardless of your position or title, everyone has a brain and can contribute in their own way."
"You are EXACTLY the kind of CEO an intern needs to work under."
"But, for the sake of being perfectly clear in case the point has not been made, a meeting/email/memo coming from you saying exactly that would go along way towards smoothing ruffled feathers and silencing any other employees that have let titles get to their egos."—XLoveULaterX
"You get truthful assessments and also the opportunity to hear from the least institutionalized people which means more out-of-the-box thinking. You may consider using this in the future."
"You do have to state the intention up front ie. 'beginning with the most junior person and working our way up in experience/seniority does anyone have any input on xxx?'"
"You may want to have a sit down with the techsec employee. Tell him you're sorry it came to that public thrashing but he left you with no choice."
"Either you condone bullying or demonstrate that it won't be tolerated and obviously you cannot tolerate it."
"I would also document it in his personnel file. His actions that led to the private counseling and your expectations moving forward."—J412h
The OP has a lot to consider about how to approach these kinds of situations moving forward.
Hopefully the cybersecurity employee can eventually look back on his actions and realize the error of his ways.