On Being an Adult: Handling Conflict in Professional Settings

There’s a story of some weight unfolding around some people in the tech community who were fired as a result of some offensive-leaning comments made at PyCon. I won’t go into too much detail but basically a woman, Adria Richards, overheard some comments which she deemed to be offensive. She tweeted about them and included in said tweet a photo she snapped of the men who made the comments. The men’s identity was eventually confirmed by the conference organizers and not only were they booted from the conference but they also lost their jobs. Richards, who tweeted about the behavior that she deemed to be offensive, has also lost her job. Reactions to the story have been mixed. Should the guys have made the comments? Should the photo have been posted on Twitter? Were the comments blown out of proportion? Should anyone have been fired? Everyone has their own opinion and, for better or for worse (I hear Richards is on the receiving end of threats of bodily harm), the right to express that opinion.

I don’t want to fan any flames here so I won’t go into my opinion on the matter. To be honest, the issue is not black and white so I’m sure we could discuss that for hours on end. My objective is to talk about something that never really gets discussed as much as it should: conflict resolution in professional environments.

Offices make for some unlikely groupings. Usually it takes all kinds to make a company run but there are some fields where it is clear that some types of people are more represented than others. Technology is dominated by men. For the naysayers, this is not to say there aren’t leagues of capable women in the industry (here’s looking at you Sheryl and Melissa!) but the proportions are way off. For example, I’m currently in a team where I’m the only female member — and this is nothing new to me as, in the company I worked at last, I was also the only woman in a team of male developers.

So in this industry, you are talking about a base that is largely men. If you start discussing under-represented minorities, the disparity gets even larger. It’s very rare that I meet a black or latino developer. As a result of this relative homogeny, you start to develop some form of “groupthink” i.e. “everyone agrees with everyone else so it’s okay to let my hair down.” This is when things can get ugly. What one person considers funny another person may still find offensive — especially out of the mouth of someone in a superior position. For instance, if you manage a team of women, you may not be in the best position to make “that’s what she said” jokes in the office around your direct reports, however apropos it seemed.

But how do we handle the situation when something cringe-worthy and immature or downright disturbing gets said in our presence, or at us, for that matter?

Personally, I call on everyone to take an aggressive stance. Aggression does not mean anger. I don’t encourage yelling or name calling (unless you need to do so in a private space by yourself to get the negative juju out of your system). I believe we need to encourage everyone to speak up and say, “Dude, what you said is not cool. Knock it off.” If you believe in making the world better for the next person, it’s your duty to say something when you see something that isn’t just.

Of course, this is easier said than done. In some cases, you may feel uncomfortable broaching the subject in front of a large group. In other cases, you may be so overwhelmingly angry that you would like nothing more than to punt the person across the room. I can sympathize. I’ve been there. Take a minute to collect yourself and maybe talk to other people outside your professional sphere (friends and family) to get some fresh perspective. I think the worst thing to do is to rush to judgement and rash decision-making as the result of the fiery all-consuming rage deep in your belly.

I’ve had the benefit of working with some pretty amazing professionals and one thing I’ve learned from them all is that you have to pick and choose your battles. I’ve also learned that, when you do choose to battle, you must fight fair. It boils down to what we were likely taught as kids: two wrongs don’t make a right. Humiliation and snark doesn’t take away hurtful words nor does ignorance excuse what could be construed as inappropriate behavior. I’ve been in situations where I had to decide to let something go, as much as I wanted to rally on my soapbox about how unfairly I had been treated. On the flip side, I’ve also been in situations where I have had to defend myself against comments that were blatantly sexist or ageist. I much prefer to politely but firmly stand up for myself against perceived injustices but sometimes, for whatever reason, you just can’t.

But back to the point of this blog in the first place: if we who work in technology are a community of peers, we owe it to each other to try and mediate conflicts; that means, one-on-one communicating without our phones or other screens in the way. In so doing, we can take an active stance in making this an inclusive place for all types of people and create a largely positive view of this career path among the world at large. A couple of weeks ago, I attended Career Day at an inner city school. Some of the kids seemed really enthusiastic about technology and may never considered it before I mentioned it. I want to make sure that, when those ten-year-olds who were (hopefully!) inspired to pursue technology are my age, they have less potential battles to fight.