Q: I work in a small office within a university, where I am the only African American employee. During a lunch meeting with my boss, she said she was worried that there was tension between me and another employee because of what she thought was an inappropriate comment he had made at an office party. I asked what comment she was referring to, and she said he had used the term "slave labor" to discuss working conditions at a law firm. I don't remember hearing the comment, but it wouldn't have bothered me because I don't think it's that offensive. To me, it's just a figure of speech.
It bothers me more that she spoke to him about it, and he probably thought I had raised the issue with her. If what he said had bothered me, I would have said something to him myself.
I think she is trying to show her sensitivity, especially since she took a sensitivity-training class. Now it has created tension between my boss and me. How can I handle this situation?
A: Sounds like a case of good intentions gone awry.
In the past decade, many workplaces have undergone sensitivity training of different kinds as employers try to find ways to bridge employees' differences. Sometimes the training is sparked by corporations' genuine interest in improving their company culture, and sometimes it occurs in response to a particular incident or a lawsuit by angry workers who believe they have been treated unfairly.
Unfortunately, even when undertaken with the most altruistic of motives, sensitivity training sometimes creates new problems.
The letter writer's plight "is a common situation," said Cathy Dixon-Kheir, director of organizational development at management consulting firm Alignment Strategies Inc. in the District. "As people experience diversity training and education and do more reading, there's a heightened sensitivity and people start getting almost paranoid. It's like an alarm goes off in every situation."
That's what Dixon-Kheir, who is African American, believes happened here. Dixon-Kheir, who has worked with numerous Fortune 500 firms on diversity issues, said these awkward moments can prove so problematic that at some companies, minority employees have opposed management efforts to conduct training because they think it will only make things worse by creating new tensions and highlighting differences.
Donna Klein, vice president of diversity and workplace effectiveness at Marriott International Inc., also viewed the situation as an "overreaction" by the supervisor. "Once an awareness is new, it's like an open wound and you don't want to be offensive," said Klein, who is white.
But here's the rub: What is offensive or inoffensive is sometimes hard to gauge. Of course, some behavior is clearly out of line, but in many other cases, different people can view the same set of facts differently. The white supervisor thought the phrase "slave labor" was offensive. Her black co-worker did not.
"The danger is: Don't assume," Dixon-Kheir said.
But once it has happened, how do you make the tension dissipate? Assuming the previous relationship was good, Dixon-Kheir advised the letter writer to approach the supervisor at a quiet and neutral moment and explain her feelings about the incident. The worker needs to be careful, however, because she risks making the supervisor feel foolish all over again.
It's a shame, Dixon-Kheir added, that the writer "ends up being the person who has to deal with it," even though the situation was not her fault.
On the other hand, however, she said: "The good news is you could instead be working in an environment where that comment was made, and where there was no sensitivity to it at all."
It's a sign of the times that racial, gender and nationality questions are deemed so controversial that typically they are only discussed by close friends, preventing much true exchange of information. A new Web site has sprung up that is designed to provide an anonymous forum for human beings of all kinds to talk openly. Its Web address is www.yforum.com.
Q: I unfortunately work for the king of micromanagers. You know the kind: He has to check on everything every five minutes, wants to check with so-and-so about this-and-that. He does this to everyone in our department.
The ultimate trial is when they sit in your cube watching while you perform a task they just gave you. My manager actually grabbed my mouse and start clicking and dragging! How do I keep my sanity?
A: Keep the big picture in mind, said career consultant Jean Isberg Stafford, president of Great Falls, Va.-based Executive Coaching for Women. If working there is helping the worker achieve a personal goal, the letter-writer needs to redefine the overly controlling manager in her mind as a "minor irritant," Stafford said.
"He's exerting power," Stafford said. "But managers need to be managed just like they manage us."
In this case, she said, the best reaction is not overreacting. "If he starts grabbing the mouse, go get a drink of water and let him sit there clicking away," she said.
Some readers thought we let the employer who didn't reimburse his employees' expenses promptly off the hook way too easily. "Ms. Grimsley is more than nice to an employer who is dilatory in paying his bills," wrote one reader. "These are bills that shouldn't roost on the employee's door like vultures for over a month."
He continued: "When I had an employer who was an extremely slow payer, I did not incur the expenses. I told my boss that The Employee Bank was out of business. Ruined by failure of debtors to pay their bills. He started prompt payment after that."
Other readers reacted strongly to the column about the supervisor at a municipal government agency who was praying aloud at staff meetings and offering public praise to workers he called fine Christians, making workers who didn't share his beliefs uncomfortable. Three experts we consulted said that while it was inappropriate, the supervisor's behavior had not necessarily broken employment laws unless someone had complained about his behavior and it continued anyway.
One reader, for example, worried that this implied the experts were condoning the supervisor's actions. On the contrary, they agreed it was insensitive, though not clearly illegal under employment law.
Another reader thought the column improperly implied it was wrong to pray on the job. She said it would be better if everyone had a chance to conduct a prayer before meetings. "Like the Baptists could pray one meeting, and the Jewish the next meeting," she wrote.
D.C. lawyer Michael Wolf, coauthor of "Religion in the Workplace," wrote to say he believed that prayer sessions of any stripe could potentially violate constitutional provisions separating church and state because the supervisor is a manager in a government workplace. Wolf said it would be appropriate for the man's supervisors--in this case, higher government officials--to step in before the municipality finds itself sued on constitutional grounds. But he added that the law is not entirely clear on this issue.