columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I work at a branch office of a nonprofit (roughly 150 employees over 10 states). Today, my branch manager (vice president in the overall institution) sent an offensive and racist political meme to all employees at our site.

I was shocked and disgusted, as were many of my frontline colleagues. My immediate supervisors, however, shrugged it off. They agree that it is distasteful, but not enough to confront the prickly branch manager about it.

I believe that this sort of communication (which has nothing to do with the purpose of our nonprofit) would be seriously frowned upon by the overall organization's CEO, were he aware. If this email was leaked to the press, it would reflect very poorly on our organization.

I feel compelled to speak up about this -- but how? Confronting my branch manager directly -- by myself -- is pretty much guaranteed to go poorly for me. And organizing colleagues to action will no doubt be seen as troublemaking.

We have no HR to speak of. I've thought about forwarding the e-mail directly to our CEO, but that feels like tattling. Please help me!

Green responds:

Wow. Let us have a moment of silence to reflect on the awfulness of your manager, and our gratitude that the rest of us do not work with him.

The good news here is that you feel confident your CEO would have a problem with this.

It's not tattling to report this to him. Tattling would be reporting that a colleague is taking five extra minutes at lunch or annoying you by yodeling in the parking lot. This is about letting your organization's leadership know about something serious: an act of racism that creates an unwelcoming environment for loads of people and -- because the sender is the head of your office -- makes it appear the company itself might condone his views. It's not tattling to let him know about something that's horrible for your organization in many ways.

I'd forward that email -- right now, today -- to your CEO with a note saying this: "Would you take a look at the email below? Bob forwarded it today to all employees at our site. In addition to being personally dismayed at the racism and thinking it doesn't represent the kind of environment we want here, I'm also concerned about how it would reflect on us if seen outside the organization." If you're concerned about protecting yourself from retaliation, you could add, "However, I'm concerned about causing tension in my relationship with Bob, which I obviously need to remain strong. If you agree that this needs to be addressed, I'd be grateful if you'd do that without noting that I was the one to forward it to you."

Now, is there some risk that your manager will end up finding out that you did this? There is. But if your CEO is a halfway decent manager, he'll ensure that won't happen. If it does happen -- well, it's still very much the right thing to do.

Be the person who doesn't shrug it off.

Update: I'm pleased to report that after this letter was originally published, the letter writer wrote back to tell me that she had indeed talked to her CEO about the email: "He repeatedly thanked me for bringing this to his attention. He's also assured me that he'll handle this discreetly, without mentioning that I was the one who let him know. ... I'm so glad that I spoke up -- my conscience is clear. What a weight off my shoulders!"

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