should I report coworkers for mean tweets about an intern if someone could get caught in the crossfire? — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

My workplace currently has an internship program in place. One of the universities that sends interns is a religious school — it has strict worthiness guidelines, tells students to report their fellow students who might be breaking rules, etc. Having attended it myself, I can understand how that atmosphere might set one up poorly for the regular working world.

One of our interns from that school recently had an IT person help her set up a new computer. I guess she smelled what she thought was weed (which is not legal where we are) when he was in her space, and she reached out to her mentor privately and asked what she should do about it — if she should report him.

The reason I know she reached out is because her mentor screenshotted her message and posted it to his public Twitter. He did omit her name, but knowing his role at the company, it was easy to narrow down which intern he was talking about. Additionally, a manager and a director (at least one of who has our company linked in their bio) replied to the tweet, making fun of the intern’s religious schooling. Not anything horrid, but along the lines of “lol, no question where THIS sheltered kid is from, eh?” Certainly something that I’d be really embarrassed to learn superiors felt about me if I were in the intern’s shoes.

Coworkers of mine who weren’t in management positions have been reprimanded and disciplined for making disparaging comments about this school/religious group. It feels like a double standard, on top of being a very poor reflection on our company and intern program.

My concern is that, if this gets reported to HR or management, they’ll be more worried about the potential weed accusation than about the fact that managers were publicly mocking an intern, a partner university, and a religion as a whole. I don’t want to take down an IT person who could be using a drug either medicinally or recreationally, but I do think this Twitter interaction sets a terrible precedent for what is or isn’t allowed to be said around protected classes.

What should I do here?

It’s really, really inappropriate for an intern’s mentor to publicly mock her on Twitter (even without using her name). When you’re mentoring someone, they’re making themselves vulnerable to you, and publicly mocking them is an awful violation of that trust.

The manager and director’s replies also weren’t great — as you note, they shouldn’t be mocking an intern, a university partner, or a religion. But the mentor’s actions are a particular betrayal, and they shouldn’t be mentoring anyone going forward.

Depending on what your role is, you might have standing to say something directly to the three coworkers who did this. If you’re a peer to them (or higher) and you think they respect you, you could contact them directly and say, “These tweets feel really unkind to me. I get that the intern’s question came across as naive, but she’s an intern; she’s here to learn. And publicly mocking her for it seems really problematic — as well as the implied mockery of a partner university, and the potential for it to be read as religious discrimination.” And if you’re senior to them, in many cases you could simply tell them to take the tweets down.

If you don’t have standing to say that (like if you’re junior to them or office politics just make it a bad idea), or if you don’t trust them to handle it well, then I do think you should seriously consider flagging it for someone above you. I get that you don’t want to inadvertently get the IT person in trouble, but it’s unlikely that an intern thinking she smelled marijuana once is going to get someone in a huge amount of trouble, unless that person is doing really stupid things (like keeping marijuana at work, which would be incredibly poor judgment). But I feel less comfortable with that statement if your workplace drug tests, and if something like this could trigger a drug test — so you’d want to factor that into your thinking.

Separately from all this, it might be worth suggesting to whoever runs the internship program that your staff be given some guidance about treating interns respectfully — and that if there’s a formal mentoring program, that the mentors in particular be talked to about their responsibilities toward mentees. You could explain that you’ve seen and heard comments that troubled you — and give examples of the kind of thing you’re concerned about, without getting into the specifics of this situation if you don’t want to.

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