Karla Miller: ‘No easy answers’ challenge (@Work Advice Contest Round 1)

September 28, 2011

Karla Miller is one of the 10 finalists in The Washington Post Magazine’s @Work Advice Contest. Read her answers to the first round of questions below.

Racism in the workplace

My boss made a racist comment about my ethnicity in a meeting, I spoke up (I didn’t blow up - He said that Hispanics don’t value education and I simply said, “I’m Hispanic, and this is not true. Could you explain what you meant by that?” He gave an “I’m sorry you were offended” apology) and now everyone at work is uncomfortable with me. Joking about “political correctness.” I was really hurt that no one spoke up with me. My coworkers are my friends as well as my colleagues, I’ve invited them into my home for dinner parties and such. What’s a good way to bring such a hurtful topic up without running into a defensive wall?


Karla Miller

Miller: First, kudos to you from all of us who have been stunned into silence by outrageous insults.

But speaking of stunned silence, let’s cut your coworkers a little slack. When a meeting takes a sharp left into Awkwardville, most people freeze like kids watching their elders fight at Thanksgiving. Their joking about “political correctness” (ugh) tells me they aren’t sure how to deal with what happened. Just carry on with them as you always have. Maybe even talk the incident over with one or two close, trusted colleagues.

On its face, the comment you report—””Hispanics don’t value education””—is just plain ignorant. But I’m curious about the context. Is your boss prone to expressing racist views? Or is it possible that he was trying to make a point but, through a bit of cerebral flatulence, his mouth let slip the unthinkable?

(Cue “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” from the AVENUE Q soundtrack.)

The first part of your response— “I’m Hispanic, and this is not true”—was personal and direct. That’s an effective way to shut down a discussion. It leaves the speaker two options: back down, or escalate. “I’m sorry you were offended,” is, of course, inadequate and clumsy—but it could be the response of someone who was mortified at himself, but too rattled to properly explain lest he dig himself deeper. Or, if he is a practicing racist, he got to duck the issue, instead making it all about your reaction.

Using our 20-20 Hindsight Goggles (TM; patent pending), let’s examine some other responses that might have made your point less dramatically.

Personally, I’m a fan of good-natured gibes, delivered with a grin: “”Dang, I wish someone had told me before I took out all those student loans!”” Or, more pointed: “Hmm, someone should let Justice Sotomayor know.” That lets the offender navigate his way out of a humor-defused minefield. But except for George Lopez or John Leguizamo, not many of us are that quick on our feet.

You could simply start with a neutral, “Could you explain what you meant by that?” That’s still a challenge of sorts, but it removes the personal edge of “I’m Hispanic.”

Or you can use verbal judo: Anticipate where your boss was heading, and redirect. “Oops, surely you don’t mean *all* Hispanic people don’t care about education, right? Were you just pointing out that we’re not seeing many Hispanic applicants from four-year private schools?”

But if on-the-spot diplomacy isn’t your forte, a private follow-up chat might be best. “I wanted to revisit something from our meeting today. When you said Hispanics don’t value education, it touched a nerve with me. I worked hard to get through school, and a lot of my family and friends do as well. But I’m sure you didn’t intend it to come across that way, so I wanted to ask if we could go back and discuss the point you were trying to make.”

You could even have that discussion with your boss now, with this preface: “I’ve sensed a tension around the office since our meeting two weeks ago. Do you have a few minutes to talk about it?”

Your boss will either (1) be relieved at having the chance for a do-over, or (2) stand by exactly what he said. Either way, that conversation will show him where you stand, and you will get an idea whether you’re dealing with a simple misunderstanding, or a hostile work environment.

Loyalty to company or friend?

The human resources department at my law firm recently asked my opinion of a job seeker who is a friend of mine and a former law school classmate. I think “Doug” was a fine student, but knowing him personally makes me doubt his judgment. Doug was known in school (we graduated one year ago) as being involved in a very dramatic on again off again relationship, which is currently on, and for not always acting professional in professional settings. Doug can most likely do the work just fine, but I’m uneasy about recommending him based on his lack of “soft” skills. How do I respond?

Miller: Whoo boy, I would hate to think that my hiring prospects hinged on gossip about my bad relationship. Unless that relationship features police showing up at the parties’ respective workplaces, or you know Doug spends seven hours of every workday arguing into his cellphone—both of which would relevantly affect his work performance—you should take that factor out of your thought process.

Now: Would *you* work with Doug? Based on what you personally know about him—not what “was known in school”—is he a stand-up guy who just laughs a little too loudly, or is he someone you wouldn’t trust alone with your red Swingline stapler?

If it’s the former, let Doug speak for himself at the interview. Part of the purpose of an interview is to get a sense for how good a “fit” someone will be in a particular environment. Odds are, the folks talking to Doug have seen all types, and unless he’s sociopathically charismatic, they’ll pick up pretty quickly on any quirks that would make him unsuitable. And if you are in fact friends, you’ll need to be able to look him in the eye next time he asks if you’ve heard from HR about his application.

You say he was “known as” being unprofessional. Does that mean you haven’t worked with him yourself? Do you happen to know anyone who did work with him? If so, let the HR person know. “Doug was a good student in law school and is a friend of mine, but I can’t speak to his professional qualifications. Let me give you the name of someone who can.” If that other reference gives the most vanilla-beige description of how Doug’s job performance “fulfilled minimum standards satisfactorily,” the HR person will start to fill in the missing pieces.

However, if you think he would be a toxic presence in your workplace, it’s not fair to inflict him on your coworkers—and it could taint your professional reputation as well. In that case, you need to stick with the old name, rank and serial number routine. An HR person recognizes the difference between a reference who sings his friend’s praises to the heavens and one who says, “Oh, uh, yeah, we were in school together. He . . . has a nice car.”

Whose advice did you like best? Vote for your favorite contestant

Read each contestant’s Round 1 answers

Leslie Anderson | Dean Buckley | Cindy Coe | Moira Forbes | Rachel Homer | Abbey Kos | Karla Miller | Nikki Stevens | Richard Wong | Michele Woodward

Meet the @Work Advice Contest’s 10 finalists

Leslie Anderson | Dean Buckley | Cindy Coe | Moira Forbes | Rachel Homer | Abbey Kos | Karla Miller | Nikki Stevens | Richard Wong | Michele Woodward

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