Rachel Homer is one of the ten 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?
Homer: Before I answer your question – and I will, I promise – I’m going to do my absolute best to convince you not to bring this up with your coworkers.
Let’s start with the meeting itself. What your boss said during the meeting was completely inappropriate, and you did a nice job standing up for yourself while also keeping your cool. Sounds like your boss immediately apologized (even though it might have been a hollow apology). My takeaway is that the whole transaction was over pretty quickly. Realistically, when would your coworkers have had a chance to speak up with you? After your boss apologized, it would have been odd if they didn’t let it drop so that the meeting could continue. I think you need to cut your coworkers a break here.
Which brings us to what happened after the meeting. Maybe it’s my misguided faith in humankind, but I have a hard time believing that “everyone at work” is uncomfortable with you and poking fun at you behind your back. Is it possible that your hurt feelings are projecting something that isn’t there? The alternative is that you do, in fact, work in an office where everyone is a racist. If that’s really true, then you can look at this situation as a gift, and start shopping for a new job.
What seems more likely is that your feelings have been freshly hurt and you’re feeling overly sensitive as a result. I don’t want to minimize the hurtful comment that your boss made – because it truly was a stupid and racist thing to say – but I think it’s a stretch to assume that your coworkers all agree with the statement and are no longer comfortable being around you. It seems as if you wrote this letter pretty soon after the event, and my guess is that the entire thing will completely blow over in a day or two.
If you bring this back up to your coworkers, I think it will do more harm than good. I think you’re looking for an apology, and looking for an apology is a lot like fishing for a compliment. You might get one, but you’ll be left wondering about its sincerity. In other words, even if you get what you want, it probably won’t make you feel any better.
All that said, you wrote in asking how to bring the topic up and until now I’ve completely ignored your question. So if I haven’t managed to convince you not to bring it up, here are some rules of engagement.
1) Wait a few days to bring it up. Your emotions are running high right now, and when confronting someone – especially at work – it’s better to wait until you’ve cooled down a bit.
2) Avoid putting someone on the defense by not being on the offense. The moment you accuse someone of something is the moment they get defensive. “I” statements are not just corny, they’re actually useful.
3) Start with the person you feel most comfortable talking to. It will be a good trial run, and who knows, it might be enough just to get it off your chest once.
4) Do it in person. When tone of voice is important to a conversation, email just isn’t sufficient.
Whatever you do, don’t make a final decision about it for at least a couple days. I have a feeling the situation will look different to you by then.
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?
Homer: Acting unprofessionally in professional settings is sufficient reason to not recommend your friend. But before you say anything to HR, I think you should ask yourself if you have a personal reason for not wanting Doug at your firm. Doug’s relationship should have no bearing at all either to you or the company, and yet it seems like you’re focusing on it. Why do you care about it either way? From here it’s hard to tell whether you’re personally invested in it somehow, or just annoyed by the histrionics. So if you have a clear conscience about your motives, then by all means, tell HR you wouldn’t recommend him.
In terms of what to say, I think you already said it best yourself: “Doug can likely do the work just fine, but I’m uneasy about recommending him based on his lack of ‘soft skills’.” It’s simple and to the point. But more importantly, it doesn’t mention his relationship, which is not appropriate to bring up as a reason for not hiring someone in a professional environment.
You’ll probably feel a pang of guilt, but look at it this way. Your recommendation is ultimately going to be a reflection of you. If you keep quiet, and Doug’s lack of professionalism ends up costing the firm, then people might start questioning your judgment.
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Read each contestant’s Round 1 answers
Meet the @Work Advice Contest’s 10 finalists