Q: There is a VP at my company who is two reporting levels above me. We attend some meetings together. Often she will start talking at length about one of her stepdaughters, who has special needs. She will disparage the child and the child's mother and go on about how crazy this child drives her. It makes everyone uncomfortable, but since she's the highest-ranked person in the room, most of us nod and try to empathize. I have a child with special needs who seems to have some traits in common with the VP's stepdaughter. Whenever the VP starts talking about her stepdaughter, I feel as if she is diminishing my child as well. I've tried to change the topic or, in a more private setting, speak up for the challenges that the stepdaughter may be facing. But it is as if she does not hear or care. I cannot keep hearing her talk about a child with special needs in this way. And yet the power dynamic is obviously on her side, and she has pushed out several people she does not like. Please advise. Also, in case you'd tell me to go to HR, she is the VP of HR.
A: To recap, this powerful individual dominates meetings with complaints about her personal life, expresses zero compassion for her stepchild, and basically sounds like she's one poisoned apple away from being a villain right out of fairy-tale central casting. I somehow doubt she has the professionalism, empathy or self-awareness to change her behavior in response to subtle feedback from underlings.
Since making a direct appeal to her seems pointless and potentially career-harming, and my next recommendation of conferring with HR is out -- nice kicker, there -- your other option for confronting this problem would be to go over her head, perhaps with your direct supervisor's support.
If you want to try that route, employment law partner Amy Epstein Gluck, of FisherBroyles, recommends an in-person meeting with the VP's direct superior, where you state that as a parent of a child with special needs, you find the statements about her special-needs stepchild insulting and derogatory, but you don't feel secure confronting her directly. Epstein Gluck advises that you document the conversation with a follow-up email so you have something in writing in case she tries to retaliate against you for reporting her.
But there is a middle ground between confrontation and implicit assent: purposeful non-reaction. Next time the VP starts nattering on in a group about the unmanageable stepchild or the incompetent mother, focus silently on something in your lap and stay disengaged until the topic changes. Odds are she won't notice your withdrawal, but if she does, and comments on it, that gives you an opening: "Oh, you just reminded me of what my own kid is going through with [condition or disability]. It sounds like your poor kid is struggling, too." All at once and non-combatively, you've just drawn your boundaries, identified where your sympathies lie, and invited a roomful of witnesses to choose a side. That's not to say the VP won't lash out if she recognizes how bad her reflection looks in your response, but no reasonable witness could argue that she was rightly provoked.