Dean Buckley 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?
Buckley: Ugh. What do you do when someone – someone with power over you – says something reprehensible? Kudos to you for speaking up. And to your boss for his (weak) apology.
You’re hurt that your colleagues didn’t chime in too, but what more could they have said? You didn’t just challenge your boss, you lobbed a grenade at him: “…Explain what you meant by that.” What’s left for them to do? Bang their fists on the table? Grab their torches and pitchforks? Frankly, they were smart to shut their mouths.
If only they had continued to do so afterward. Dismissing the incident as political correctness is absolutely insulting. But your colleagues aren’t as comfortable with conflict as you are. To me, their chatter sounds like a witless attempt to ease the tension. Try to see through it; and respond to the jokes by putting your thoughts into words: “I’m uncomfortable with what happened too. I hope you don’t think the way Boss does. I consider us friends and I’d like to get past this.”
Even if you don’t get the response you want, please continue to invite them for dinner. Just as your boss can’t be summed up by one offensive remark, coworkers who don’t always see your point can still be friends. Let them bear witness to the fact that you belong to a broad, richly nuanced group of people.
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?
Buckley: That’s a great term, “soft skills” – personality attributes that may or not make a person suitable for the job. Unless he’s a marriage counselor, Doug’s passion for tempestuous romance (full disclosure: we may have dated off and on in the ’90s) has zero bearing on his business skills, soft or otherwise. Ignore it.
Here’s another great term: “hearsay.” It’s awesome because it means exactly what it sounds like. From what you’ve written, your case against Doug amounts to a hill of it. You never worked with him, right? So how can you repeat with certainty that he behaved unprofessionally? Hearsay is inadmissible in court of law; it shouldn’t be acceptable in a firm of law either.
Rather than focusing on what “he was known for,” stick to things you have seen first-hand which do have relevance to the job. Does he meet deadlines? Can he explain a complex idea in lay terms? Does he have boundless enthusiasm? In other words, what made him such a great student?
If you still feel with these parameters that he might damage your business reputation, you can decline to comment: “I know Doug but have no insight on his suitability for the firm.”
I hope it turns out well for both of you. Tell Doug I said hello, and if he’s ever single again ...
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Read each contestant’s Round 1 answers
Meet the @Work Advice Contest’s 10 finalists