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What Happens When a Co-Worker Sends Me a Hitler GIF?

And other questions you’d rather not ask your own HR Department

Most of us work more than we live, which is to say we spend considerably more time at the office and with our coworkers than we do with the human beings we actually want in our lives. It also means that the stressors and anxieties of work become a significant part of who we are — and can be a real drag even when we’re not at the office. We here at MEL, however, don’t want all that stress to get to you — or worse, kill you. That’s why we’ve enlisted Terry Petracca, the hippest HR expert we know, to help solve all your work-related woes.

My co-worker sent me a Hitler GIF. I think it was a joke — it was part of an exchange where we were trying to one-up each other with GIFs (though this one was sort of apropos of nothing). Do I just treat it as such? — Vic M., London
We live in uncertain political, social and economic times, so actions and reactions aren’t predictable by any means. Let me explain at the macro and micro levels.

At the macro level, political movements around the world are digressing into tribalism. Look at Brexit, Trump’s election and European right-wing parties like the German AFD or French National Front to understand the divisiveness that’s growing internationally. One of the many manifestations of tribalism is that we become blind to the ideas and motives of other groups. We double down on our beliefs, and quickly point fingers if we believe our closely held positions are being eroded.

Preventing politics from dividing your workplace

All of which trickles down to the micro level — aka the office. You may find that comments and GIFs that used to get a laugh or smile from a generally detached audience now result in HR complaints. What’s said or displayed and how and by whom might not have changed much over the last few months, but the polarized audience on the receiving end might be more offended now because they see disparagement instead of playfulness. That’s what happens when you believe your rights are threatened on a national or international level. And those concerns — whether yours or someone else’s — shouldn’t be dismissed. Tolerance and respect are absolute requirements in a civilized workplace — maybe now more than ever before.

Of course, it also could just be a case of ignorance. Unfortunately, there are many people who don’t know about Hitler (or Mussolini or Franco) because they have become caricatures for many young people. If this is the case, make it a teachable moment about fascism and genocide. If your co-worker wasn’t ignorant of the facts but still thought it was funny, I implore you to talk to them about why such a GIF is offensive. Better yet, send me their email address and I will.

On multiple occasions in my career, I’ve had to work with someone where our boss had put no clear structure in place to decide which of us was to have the final call on certain decisions affecting our team. This inevitably ended in never-ending passive-aggressive feuding. Is it acceptable to demand your boss decide which one of you is in charge? — Elana R., Sacramento
Demanding that your boss do anything is unwise, so let’s consider other ways to solve your problem. There are times when managers are so focused on the end results that they don’t pay attention to the processes needed to achieve their deliverables. They may be busy going to meetings, lobbying for resources or negotiating better deadlines and not be aware of any friction within the team. And as long as the work is progressing, all the angst behind the scenes is invisible to them.

So instead, I’d look at the situation as more of an opportunity to demonstrate your project-management skills. Show initiative and put together a RACI chart for the project you’re working on. Let your boss know that in the past, you’ve seen projects fail when roles and responsibilities weren’t clear and decision-rights hadn’t been identified. If you can give your boss examples of how this model will work in your specific situation — i.e., it’s practical, not theoretical — all the better.

The goal isn’t to throw your co-worker under the bus but to show your business acumen and problem-solving skills. Be generous in sharing your knowledge and your materials with your boss. If they aren’t familiar with these techniques, make sure you email a copy of the charts to them so they can impress their boss.

Asking for forgiveness instead of permission?

If you’ve got a boss who isn’t interested in you, your problems or chaos below them, you’ll need to move to Plan B. This is known as the “ask for forgiveness, not permission” strategy of getting things done. Let others on the team and/or outside the department know that you’re making decisions on key issues to keep the project on time, on budget and on target. They might point fingers if there are problems — or say nothing if it’s successful — but at least you’re in control of your own destiny and not suffering endless battles with an intolerable jerk.

How do I fight an office perk everyone else loves? In my case, it’s being able to bring your dog to work. My co-workers are crazy about it — and their dogs, which means we have some sort of canine presence all day, every day. I, on the other hand, find it distracting and stupid. Do I just grin and bear it, or can something be done to accommodate me? — Reggie N., San Antonio
My friend, you’re fighting a losing battle. While the numbers are still small (only about 7 percent of companies according to the Society for Human Resources Management), pet-friendly businesses get lots of favorable press and “coolness” ratings from employees and job-seekers. Many prominent companies that appear on Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For list have pet-friendly policies, including Google, Workday and Build-A-Bear. Salesforce even has a special room with soundproofed walls, water bowls and dog beds for up to six employees and their pets. And advocates of pet-friendly companies cite a 2012 Virginia Commonwealth University study that showed dogs in the workplace reduce stress, increase productivity, encourage communication and make people happier.

In other words, unless you want to show up with an EpiPen claiming massive pet allergies or are a risk attorney who’s concerned about liability or damages caused by pets in the office, you’re going to be hard-pressed to get people to come around to your way of thinking. You could ask your company to consider limiting the days or times that pets are allowed because you find them distracting. Or you could seek out co-workers who find pets equally annoying. If that doesn’t work, you could go scorched earth: Bring your pet snake to the office, remove him from his cage and see what happens. Karma, like your co-worker’s dog, is a bitch.

Don’t just complain to your coworkers about everyone else you work with — let Terry help. Email her all your office-related anxieties at terry@melindustries.com. Or, if total anonymity isn’t required, leave a question in the comments below.