Abbey Kos is one of the 10 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?
Kos: First of all, what happened in that meeting is not okay. I think you already know this, but I want to emphasize it: what went down is wrong, and you deserve better.
This situation is particularly tricky, because it addresses your work life and your personal life, too. People you consider friends have effectively deserted you here -- and that’s another problem entirely.
First, the work angle: if you have an HR department, consider reaching out to them. Racism in the workplace is something they’re likely trained to handle. Your HR team can give you guidance on how to speak with your supervisor, but they can also go above your head (and your boss’s head, too) to address the larger issue of whatever’s happening in the workplace that makes statements like your boss’s permissible.
Now, to deal with your colleagues/friends -- and just as a note, it can be tricky to mix the two. It’s worth sitting down with coworkers one-on-one, especially the people you’re closest to, to discuss the “”political correctness”” jokes. Talking over coffee or snacks may help put you at ease, but the subject at hand means this will be an intense conversation no matter what.
Be honest about how their comments make you feel. The tone you’ve already taken is just right -- calmness, not anger. Your coworkers may be joking to alleviate their own anxiety or fears around the incident; any true friends will change their tune once they know you’ve been hurt.
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?
Kos: Ah, the ill-qualified friend -- the bane of every employee’s existence. If it’s any consolation, most people have to deal with this at one point or another; ask around and I guarantee you’ll get a chorus of exasperated sighs in return.
Despite Doug’s drama, there are a few positives on his side. You say he was a fine student, likely capable of doing the work. This is important; you can honestly tell your HR team that Doug has smarts and could handle his workload. Should you decide to recommend him, you at least have those positives to pull from.
Have you been in touch with Doug recently? There’s a chance he’s done some growing up in the past year -- maybe his relationship and his soft skills have matured a bit. Consider subtly gathering some intel from friends about Doug’s post-school life -- if he seems to have mellowed, that may ease your conscience about any recommendation.
If Doug shows no improvement, though, it’s okay to be firm but fair (or to opt out of the recommendation entirely). He was a decent student; he could probably manage the job. You have limited experience working with him in a professional setting, and can’t really comment on how he’d perform as a colleague. Your silence, whether on his soft skills or overall, will speak volumes to HR.
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Read each contestant’s Round 1 answers
Meet the @Work Advice Contest’s 10 finalists