my boss asked coworkers if my husband has violent tendencies

A reader writes:

I work at a university. Last fall, I was notified that my position of almost six years was being eliminated due to shortfalls in enrollment which affected the budget. I was given a generous amount of time to find a new position and had my director and Human Resources fully behind me in finding a new position on campus. I have happily been in my new position since.

I will add that although I was shocked at the news, I accepted it graciously at the time and after. In a conversation a day or two later, I told my director I understood it was a business decision and it was a good one that I couldn’t disagree with.

So what’s the problem? I’ve recently learned that that same director was asking around the department if anyone knew my husband and if he had a tendency toward violence and should the director be alerting security to the potential of violence on campus once my husband learned of my job elimination. There is nothing in my history or his that indicates potential for violence; we are quiet, stable people who enjoy gardening, our dog, and outdoor sports – nothing questionable, nothing with red flags. The only thing I can think of is my husband is a blue collar worker and in his ignorance, my former director is equating blue collar workers with potential for violence.

I am shocked and humiliated, but also incensed at his ignorance and discriminatory attitude toward blue collar workers. By asking this question around the department, I feel he has smeared my reputation and my husband’s. I do not know if he filed a report with security, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he did, though I don’t know how to find out.

I am upset that our names have been related to potential violence anywhere, particularly on a university campus. How do I deal with this, do I have any options going forward, or do I simply have to live with the harm to my and my husband’s reputation? I also don’t want to cause problems for the person who alerted me; I know this director has been punitive and petty with his reports in the past.

What on earth?!

It’s possible that there’s a piece of this that you don’t know, and that would make it make more sense if you did. For example, maybe your director heard an alarming story about someone with the same name as your husband and it’s a case of mistaken identity. Or maybe he misheard or misunderstood an innocuous comment. Who knows.

I’m tempted to say it’s more likely that there’s an explanation like this, because it would be really bizarre for your director to just randomly decide your husband posed a potential threat based solely on working in a blue collar profession and to then go around asking people about it. But people are bizarre, and do all have all kinds of biases, so who knows, maybe that’s exactly what happened.

The most direct way of handling this would be to just ask him. You could say something like this: “Did you have any concerns about how Bob might respond to my layoff? I’ve heard from a bunch of people that you were asking if he had a tendency toward violence and if we had anything to fear from him. I’m really confused and wanted to ask you directly rather than assume anything.” You could add, if you wanted, “My husband’s most violent activity is yanking weeds from the ground when we garden.”

Depending on his response, you could say, “I’m really concerned that people now think Bob might be dangerous! Could you go back and correct the record with anyone you raised this with, including campus security if you spoke with them?”

If he insists on knowing who talked to you, you don’t need to name names. You can say, “I heard it from a few different places, and I don’t want to out anyone. I just want to get it cleared up.”

If you’re not happy with the results of that conversation, you could also talk with HR to make sure that they know what happened, and are clear on the fact that your husband is not a threat, and because they might want to talk to your director and shut this kind of thing down from happening in the future — although they’ll need to balance that against not wanting to discourage people from speaking up about potential threats, even if they turn out to be wrong. (Ultimately it’s better for people to speak up and be wrong than to stay silent and have something happen. But it’s not okay to report people because of their demographics — their profession, their race, etc. — and if that’s what happened here, they do need to talk to him.)

I know that may not feel like enough, when you’re feeling like your husband’s name has been smeared (and your own reputation perhaps affected as well). You have the option of talking with a lawyer about whether to address this as defamation, but I’m skeptical that would be the way to go here; defamation lawsuits are costly and time-consuming, you have to show actual damages, and there’s likely to be fall-out to you on campus from going that route over something that many people will perceive as not warranting legal action against a colleague.

That doesn’t mean what he did wasn’t really crappy; it was. I’d start with the conversation with him and see what you can learn.

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