my manager named Joseph Stalin employee of the month — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

Wouldn’t mind your take on this, as in all honesty I’m flummoxed by the most recent act from a manager who has, in my view, made a pretty major error of judgment.

Unbeknown to us, she has began running an “Employee of the Month” program. No rewards other than an email, and no idea what the criteria is, as it’s split across three different teams with three completely different functions. The winner this month was someone who is seen by colleagues to be given preferential treatment — going out for evening meals with just the boss, being constantly given the best projects despite their inexperience and then needing bailing out by others, being the only person the boss speaks to on a social level etc. Not really too much of an issue with this award, as I just dismissed it as a case of favoritism.

But in sending the email out, she’s listed “past winners” of the award:

Chart of employees of the month, listing Putin for January and Stalin for February, March, and April.

Chart of employees of the month, listing Putin for January and Stalin for February, March, and April.

I’m unsure if I’m being overly sensitive. What do you think would be the best way to approach this subject with my manager?

I wrote back to this letter-writer and asked, “Is your sense she did it as a joke or …?”

I’m not sure if this was a really poor attempt at humor, juxtaposed in with the remainder of the email which was completely serious in tone. She’s never really been the person to joke around from what I’ve seen either. Naturally, the whole thing has been a bit of a talking point today.

Well then.

I think she has to have intended this as a joke, since the alternative is … what, that she believes a brutal mass murderer is alive and working for your company? That seems unlikely.

But what is the joke, exactly? Is it “haha, we reward people who are strict task-maskers” as a reference to Stalin’s forced labor camps and generally brutality? I can’t come up with anything else.

In any case, it’s in inexplicably horrible taste. I can’t imagine what she was thinking.

Whether and how to address it depends on a bunch of different factors. In some cases and with some relationships, you could respond, “I’m guessing this was meant to be funny, but I think this is in really bad taste!” or “I don’t think this landed the way you intended” or “I know this must be a joke but I don’t get it!”

But it depends on what your relationship with her is like, how well she takes disagreement, how much standing and capital you have, and whether there are other battles you want to save your capital for.

In theory, you could also forward the email to someone above her or someone sensible in HR with a note that it seemed in really bad (and weird) taste.

But it’s also reasonable to just hope this was a one-time weirdness and leave it there. If it turns out to be the beginning of a pattern of, uh, glorifying brutal dictators (or, more likely, tone-deaf management), you can always address it at that point.

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