“My, my, how tiny you are! You must be the smallest woman on earth. Hello, Dot!”
These were the first words Jack Matthews spoke to Sema Isaura-Mans.
This fictionalized case study will appear in a forthcoming issue of Harvard Business Review, along with commentary from experts and readers. If you’d like your comment to be considered for publication, please be sure to include your full name, company or university affiliation, and e-mail address.
Sema, an accounts manager at the Dutch-British financial services consultancy Dirksen-Hall, had recently transferred from its Ankara office to its headquarters, in Amsterdam. Jack, the executive vice president for special projects, was her new boss. He’d also just relocated—from Manchester, where he’d been a VP of sales. They were meeting for the first time at the kickoff for a big project to which they’d both been assigned.
Sema was completely taken aback by Jack’s remark. Though she was barely five feet tall and weighed just under 45 kilos, she had never given her petite build a second thought at the office. For a few seconds, as Jack and the others around the table chuckled, she sat speechless. But then she looked the six-foot-five, potbellied Englishman in the eye and, without really thinking, replied, “Hello, Big Dot,” which made everyone laugh even louder.
“Well, she’s got a sense of humor—nice one!” Jack said, clapping his large hands. “I’m dead chuffed you’re on our team, Sema. I’ve heard only good things about you.”
He moved to the head of the table and asked all the others in the room to introduce themselves. Then he outlined the task that lay ahead. Their goal was to create a common platform for all the various back-office and client-facing computer and network systems used by the company’s international offices. This would both improve service provision globally and greatly enhance Dirksen-Hall’s ability to manage enterprise risk. Code-named “Samen,” the Dutch word for “together,” the project would affect some 600 employees in 40 offices across the 28 countries where Dirksen-Hall had a presence. It was a gigantic undertaking. However, Jack
looking pointedly around the room, every person there had been handpicked by management in the knowledge that he or she could get the job done. By the end of his introduction, everyone could see why Jack himself had been appointed the project leader.
Sema felt excited. She had almost forgotten about the beginning of the meeting, but then Jack spoke up as she was walking out: “Sema, let’s get a meeting on the calendar for tomorrow, okay? Thanks, Dot.”
Sema and her husband, Bernhard Mans, had been invited to a Dirksen-Hall welcome event that night. The company was growing rapidly; it hosted monthly parties for all newcomers and transfers. Bernhard worked for the company too, as an IT specialist. He and Sema had met when he’d gone to Ankara to install new systems, and the two had dated long-distance for a while after he returned to Amsterdam. They had been married only a few months when Sema was tapped for Project Samen, and both of them were thrilled: Finally they could share a house and a city.
“Luck is on your side,” Sema’s mother had said when she heard the news. “But remember who you are, Sema. You might work for a European company, and be married to a European Christian, and be moving to Europe, but you are still a Turkish Muslim. Don’t forget where you come from.”
Sema assured her mother that she wouldn’t.
She and Bernhard had been chatting with a few of his colleagues at the party when Dirksen-Hall’s CFO, Harold van der Linde, approached. One of the men started making introductions. “And this is Bernhard’s wife, Sema,” he said. She felt a rush of indignation as she held out her hand to van der Linde. Bernhard quickly piped up: “Yes, we’re here for Sema, actually. She’s the accounts manager for Project Samen—” but someone tapped the CFO on the shoulder, and Van der Linde made a polite exit before he could hear anything more about her.
“Bernhard’s wife, indeed!” Sema fumed as they left the building. “Does that guy think all Turkish women wear a veil and clean toilets?”
“Come on, love, give him a break! I’ve worked with that guy for five years. It’s only natural that he’d refer to you as my wife, and—”
“So my master’s of science in finance means nothing, my MBA from Sabancı means nothing, my six years’ experience as a direct report of the Turkish CFO at Dirksen-Hall means little more. I see. My name is Dot, and I am Bernhard’s wife.”
Six months later, Sema still remembered the quarrel vividly. Of course, Bernhard’s colleague hadn’t been the real problem that night. She soon learned that he was a lovely Dutchman with the utmost respect for women; his wife was a surgeon, and they had two whip-smart teenage girls. The real problem was Jack. Although Project Samen was on track to be a huge success, and Sema was energized by the work, she’d grown increasingly uncomfortable with the informal team dynamics he encouraged. He still called her Dot all the time. It was a joke that wouldn’t die.
That night there was to be a team-building dinner at Toscanini, in the Jordaan district, and Sema knew it would be a lively affair. True to form, Jack rose to speak after the second course, tapping his glass with a spoon. “Thanks, everyone, for joining me for this great dinner,” he said. “You’ve all earned it. But we still have a way to go. So, to help us along the way… it’s time for the Dirksen-Hall Team Globes.”
The awards were meant to increase cohesion and commitment and to provide mutual recognition among the members of the team. They consisted of certificates on which individual members had written short messages for their colleagues. Jack handed out the awards, reading selected lines from each one before asking the awardee to come forward.
Turning to Sema, Jack read, “Given your tremendous addiction—number-crunching add-ic-tion—it is just as well that you live in Amsterdam!” “You are certainly a quick study—not only do you appreciate Dutch humor, but you give as good as you get!” “Goes the extra mile and always finds the time to help others.” And finally, a joke that could only have come from him: “Help! I’m short of money because my accounts manager’s too small! But what a Turkish delight!”
Her teammates applauded loudly as Sema stepped up to receive her certificate. She took it, smiled briefly, returned to her place at the table, and stuffed it into her bag.
“Feel like joining some of us in the pub?” Jack asked after dinner. “I know it’s been a long haul, but hang in there, Dot.”
“No thanks, I think I’ll pass,” she replied, forcing another smile. She turned away, cheeks hot with anger, tears welling in her eyes.
The Breaking Point?
“Can’t sleep?” Bernhard asked her in bed later.
“No, I can’t.”
“It’s Jack again,” Sema said. “Something he wrote on a stupid award at dinner this evening. ‘Help! I’m short of money because my accounts manager is too small.’” She tried to imitate his Mancunian accent.
“It’s not funny!” Sema said, pulling away from him. “He’s just an uncouth salesman who likes his beer too much!”
“Sema, we’ve gone over this before. He’s respected in the company. He has a brilliant track record. And you know these British types—especially the ones from the north. It’s a particular kind of humor.”
“Humor? To ridicule someone’s physical appearance? It’s now become acceptable for the entire team to make fun of my size. Last week he called me Dot in a meeting with Harold! And in front of a client!”
“Why don’t you just tell him to stop?”
“Everyone laughs at his jokes. And they respect him too. The whole team prides itself on being close and informal and having a good time even when we’re under intense pressure. I don’t want to be the killjoy.”
“Okay, then quit. Ask HR for another assignment. Or leave the company. There are plenty of finance jobs out there. No one is forcing you to stay.”
“How would I explain that? And why should I quit? That would be like exonerating Jack for his offensive behavior.”
“I know I’m supposed to just let you vent and not offer solutions, Sema. But this has been bothering you for six months, for the entire time you’ve been in Amsterdam, for most of our married life! If you’re this unhappy, you need to do something about it.”
Sema got up, went into the kitchen, and made herself a cup of sweet tea. Bernhard followed, but she gave him a kiss and told him to go back to bed. She wanted time to think.
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After a few minutes, she powered up her laptop, logged on to Dirksen-Hall’s intranet, and read the first paragraph of the HR director’s introductory comments, which stressed the company’s commitment to creating a work environment free from discrimination and harassment—one in which diversity was valued, and all employees were accorded dignity, courtesy, and respect. She clicked on a few links and found documents outlining the company’s ethics policies and grievance procedures. They offered contact information for both the HR director, Gerda van Leeuw, whom Sema had met during her relocation process, and the company’s ombudsman and head of corporate social responsibility, Tim Connolly. She opened up another window, logged on to her e-mail account, and started writing to both of them. But then she stopped cold.
Project Samen was more than half finished. And I’ve lasted this long, Sema thought. How could she complain—or quit—now?