Richard Wong is one of the 10 finalists in The Washington Post Magazine’s @Work Advice Contest. Read his 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?
Wong: I want to make sure I’m getting this straight. Your coworkers think you’re overly sensitive and are uncomfortable around you, so you respond by over-reacting and being uncomfortable around them. Is that right?
Racism is heinous, but not every insensitive remark is an act of racism, and not every racial incident needs to launch a crusade. Your boss’s comment was ignorant, but it doesn’t seem like it was intentionally hurtful, so don’t act hurt. He apologized. Accept it at face value, move on and show your coworkers you’ve moved on.
Your coworkers most likely don’t mean to be hurtful, either. They’re your friends. They may never have seen you in a racial light before, but since you’ve shone that light on yourself, they don’t know how to respond. So they choose the safest route: humor. And by making light of the situation, they’re trying to show you it’s not a big deal to them. You can make it a big deal, or you can laugh along and let it go away. Laughing at yourself and at the situation is a good first step toward tearing down walls and building bridges.
Letting go wouldn’t be demeaning your heritage or diminishing the gravity of racism. You’d simply be picking your battles, and this doesn’t seem like one worth fighting. Don’t be too hard on your coworkers. Unless they’re also Hispanic, you can’t expect them to understand, much less to stick up for you. This isn’t their battle; it’s yours. It’s unfair to expect them to fight it for you.
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?
Wong: Can you picture yourself working with your former classmate and his nonexistent soft skills eight or 10 hours a day, five or six days a week? Do you want to be his go-to guy every time the girlfriend drama takes center stage? On the other hand, do you doubt his judgment solely because you think he has a lousy love life? Is that fair? Which of us hasn’t made questionable relationship choices? Similarly, do you judge his soft skills only from the girlfriend situation or are there others? And have you actually seen him acting unprofessionally, or is that just hearsay?
Fortunately, these questions and their answers are irrelevant. As an attorney, you know when an employer is asked to provide a recommendation for a current or former employee, the employer is advised only to verify the dates of employment and not to provide any additional information. Although the legal standards are different, the principle is the same: Don’t say anything that may come back to bite you later.
If you have solid, verifiable evidence that he may be a professional liability, you owe it to your firm to say something. Otherwise, if you’re “uneasy about recommending him” based only on what was “known” in school, voicing your opinion would be a disservice to everyone: your classmate, your company and yourself. Whether to hire your former classmate is the law firm’s problem. Don’t make it your problem.
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Read each contestant’s Round 1 answers
Meet the @Work Advice Contest’s 10 finalists