Nikki Stevens: ‘No easy answers’ challenge (@Work Advice Contest Round 1)

September 28, 2011

Nikki Stevens is one of the ten finalists in The Washington Post Magazine’s @Work Advice Contest. Read her answers to the first challenge round 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?

Stevens: At some point, in each career you learn the limits of your collegial relationships and it is always surprising. Somehow we anticipate growing apart from our school friends when we scatter to other cities, but never expect to stop having happy hours with our team when we get promoted. The fact is that there are several powerful levers that will be pulled in a test of a work relationship before the friend part even comes into play. There is a livelihood to protect, a home to provide for, and an outside-of-work life to enjoy.

There is also, the right thing to do. Of course racism cannot be tolerated in the workplace. Aside from the very strict and expensive employee protections that exist, it’s a practice that limits a company’s understanding of their clients as well as their recruiting efforts and undercuts rational and ethical decision making. As such, management that tolerates racist practices will not be successful for long. You did the right thing, for you and for your colleagues by speaking up; it’s simply good for business.

However, I think it would have been awkward for your co-workers to pile on in pointing out a boss’ idiocy. I think it likely that your colleagues thought you handled the situation appropriately and thoroughly and didn’t see the point of chiming in. Ask yourself if a friend had originally spoken up if you would have audibly agreed, in a room, with your boss in front of other people. Or, would you weigh that concern and then follow up with him directly (or with HR, the EEOC, the CEO) should it lie heavily on your mind?

It is disappointing that no one has spoken to you privately to show support and perhaps the defensiveness you feel stems from your fear that they indeed, do not. It’s going to keep bothering you and this is best solved by attempts at understanding so, I suggest you ask them.

Here’s a script, “Biff, when I challenged the boss the other day about his racist comment, I feel like I didn’t get a good read on where you stood. Do you think I handled it okay?” If he shows support, tell him you appreciate it and ask why it didn’t come in the moment. If he doesn’t agree with your comment, talk about why not. Whatever the result, you can start to put these relationships into a clearer perspective and you’ll feel much better knowing what to expect.

Later, invite your boss to an office “beer summit” (cookies over tea at 3pm), privately, and ask him to answer the question he dodged at the meeting. If he demurs, ask HR to ask him for you. Professionalism is a given, and you can demand that – but your job won’t necessarily love you back.

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?

Stevens: Relax, by not immediately saying – “He’s the best! Hire him.” you’ve already said something. You have not, however, been a bad friend. It’s never disloyal to be honest and neither of you are well-served if he gets a job in which he will fail.

I strongly believe that people can be great at work and bad at relationships. I don’t think his dramatic personal history necessarily indicates poor work performance. There are some choices that, of course, speak to one’s character. Does he lie? Cheat? Beat? That’s one thing. Has he not learned enough about life to figure out what he should expect in a happy relationship? That is another.

What do you say? “I knew him in school, and he wasn’t always the most mature candidate then. I hope you guys meet him and see what you think.” Don’t gossip and don’t guess. Unless he is a sociopath (and if you suspect so, speak up), they will see twinges of unprofessional behavior and unsound decision making in the interview process, if indeed those traits are still issues for him. We all deserve a chance to show we’ve grown, but that chance should be informed by our past behavior.

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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