Leslie Anderson 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?
Anderson: Do you work in Scranton, PA for a television character named Michael Scott? I swear I’ve seen this episode.
Look, your boss is a workplace discrimination case waiting to happen. I commend you for speaking up (and for doing so professionally) when he made the remark. Every non-confrontational fiber of my being wants to suggest that you write it off as an isolated case of poor judgment— but if he talks like a racist, apologizes like a racist, he might just be a racist. And welcome to working for a living: he’s your boss.
It’s what you do in response that matters. Next stop: HR. Make an appointment with a senior, trusted member of the HR staff and ask for guidance in dealing with your boss. It’s also important that HR has this guy’s number—they may already—so that either his behavior can be corrected or he can eventually be relieved of his position.
Now on to what’s really bothering you. It’s pretty to think that a colleague would leap to your defense in the moment, but that kind of chivalry and honor is rare outside of feature films. A few shared meals at your home obligates them to… nothing. Still, you expected more so TALK to someone about it. Could their jokes about political correctness be a laughably clumsy way of acknowledging your discomfort?
Invite someone you consider a friend to join you for lunch, and open up a little about how you feel. What does your friend think? Chances are, if you focus discussion on your feelings instead of the Big Ugly Subject of Racism, people will relax. They will get it if you make it personal and will likely be more sensitive in the future. But don’t accuse your work friends of being defensive; doing so just guarantees that reaction. In spades.
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?
Anderson: You can and should present your opinion to HR without making it petty and personal, but you have some polishing to do, counselor.
Fine, you question “Doug’s” judgment. The issue is that your questioning seems to be largely based upon your observation of his tumultuous personal relationship, and not upon his ability to do the job. Objection #1: It is impossible for you, a third-party, to know what happens between two people in a romantic relationship, nor is it any of your business. Objection #2: You say he could probably do the job just fine. (Imagine that: a highly successful professional with a messy relationship history? Worked in Washington much?) Frankly, if I’m the HR department hearing the facts as you just presented them, the only one I see demonstrating poor judgment is, well, you.
Of course you have an obligation to your employer to share your concern about his “soft skills.” In my book these are essential skills, especially if the job requires nurturing client relationships. But you must come up with more relevant examples that illustrate his behavior in professional situations. Examples that speak to his ability to, oh, I don’t know, practice law?
Whose advice did you like best? Vote for your favorite contestant
Read each contestant’s Round 1 answers
Meet the @Work Advice Contest’s 10 finalists