How to Deal
In the Workplace, It's Best to Play It Safe
Thursday, November 27, 2008; 12:00 AM
Hi Lily, I'm in my fourth week of a new job as a manager. On Friday, I got a call from human resources telling me that one of the people I supervise has filed a complaint against me. Apparently, he's offended because I referred to a friend as my "gay husband" and also says that I told him people in Austin, Texas, don't know how to read. As to the second issue, I don't remember saying anything like that. I've never been to Austin. I think of it as a college town with a great music festival and huge technology industry. There's also no reason I would have been talking about the city. What really worries me is that someone who hasn't worked with me for any substantial amount of time would go to the extreme of filing a complaint with HR without first trying to talk through his issues with me. If he had come to me, I would have apologized for offending him and talked about how I can readjust my tone to make him more comfortable. He works on my office's multicultural practice and I need to be able to talk to him about working with different segments, including GLBT, without offending him. Other than monitoring myself to try and not say anything personal, is there something I can do to protect myself? HR is treating this as a verbal warning and I want to make sure that this doesn't happen again. Thanks for your help!
It is unfortunate that the person who made the complaint about you did not feel comfortable coming to you first. However, it is not surprising. If he has not reported to you for very long, then you have not had a real opportunity to build a relationship of trust. He does not know you well enough to know that you would be receptive to his overture and that you would be absolutely mortified to know that you had offended him. So why should he choose to give you the benefit of the doubt and raise his concerns with you rather than with the HR department? Practice putting yourself in the shoes of this employee. Imagine a comment that would deeply offend you. Now imagine that your new hypothetical boss makes this comment to you as a joke. How comfortable would you feel approaching that person with your concerns?
When it comes to workplace humor, it is best to play it safe. Jokes about personal characteristics that are unchangeable are categorically off-limits. This includes sex, race, ethnicity, disability, age, and sexual orientation. Jokes regarding people, things, or beliefs to which someone has an emotional attachment are also risky. This would include topics like religion, political party, and a person's loved ones. It is also a good idea to steer clear of such provocative subjects as violence, profanity, and sexuality. As a supervisor, it is doubly important that you internalize and apply these guidelines. Otherwise, as you have seen, you risk offending and alienating the people who work for you.
I am not sure that many people can claim never to have offended a coworker. It is rarely intentional, of course. Just as in your case, we usually cause offense in our efforts to be funny or otherwise bring a sense of levity to our jobs. Humor succeeds when it conveys some keen observation about life in a clever or unexpected way. It is not surprising, then, that so much humor focuses on personal characteristics, including such sensitive topics as race, religion, and sexual orientation. What might be funny to you, as you have learned, can therefore be hurtful or offensive to another.
However, I don't think that this complaint should be an impediment to the effective execution of your duties. You and the complaining employee can surely talk about the diverse population segments that you serve without making jokes about them. In addition to being careful about what you say, I would suggest working on establishing an open door policy with your employees. It is not enough to say that you are receptive to feedback. You must demonstrate over time at every opportunity that you take the opinions and concerns of your employees to heart and that you do not retaliate against people who speak their mind. If you work on fostering this sort of environment, then your direct reports will be far more likely to come to you with grievances in the future rather than resorting to the formal complaint procedure.
As a first step in this process, you should ask your HR department to facilitate a conversation in which you have an opportunity to apologize to your direct report for the "gay husband" comment, express your desire to foster an inclusive workplace, and ask him to consider coming to you in the future if he has further concerns. This might also give you an opportunity to ask for feedback and clarification regarding the alleged comment regarding the literacy of people in Austin. It is possible that something you said was taken out of context, and it would be helpful and instructive for you to hear exactly how.
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Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.