How do I deal with racism at work?
September 6, 2004 10:08 PM   Subscribe

Workplace racism and etiquette advice. MI.

Let us say I have two co-workers, P and Q.

P is very competent, but has English as a second language. He and I work together closely on the same project.

Q is a newly-appointed project manager to whom we both report. Q and I are both members of the local majority. Q is located in another office, so communication is by email and phone.

Q has taken to double-checking P's statements and work with me, despite my repeated insistence that he can answer her questions better than I can. She has also sent out emails announcing things that P has just announced, as though she felt they were unintelligble (they were quite understandable if not perfect).

I was on the point of telling her I thought she had a problem, but matters have taken their own course today when P caught me in mid-phonecall to her. Since he has already seen the bizarre cc'ed emails from her, this sealed it.

P is upset, feeling that his competence is being called into question. I think Q doesn't want to put the effort (minimal to my ear) in to understand P and hasn't realised how insulting she's being. I think there is a significant amount of stereotyping (though not ill-will) on Q's part.

P doesn't want to take it up with Q, and has asked me not to either.

I really, really want to intervene before this gets out of hand. It is excruciating to have P apologise to me for causing trouble when in fact I feel that I have been aiding and abetting Q. Is it ok if I disobey P and explain to Q that she needs to apologise and change her behaviour? If I leave it to P to stew on, the workplace atmosphere is going to get poisonous. Advice very welcome.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen to Human Relations (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
It's up to P to deal with this problem directly. If he's asked you not to, then to go against his directly expressed wishes would be utterly uncool.

The best you can do is indirectly stop facilitating Q. When she calls you to check on P's work, decline to answer her questions. 'You should really check with P on that, it was his work.' Don't just protest and answer her questions. Protest and don't answer them. Insist she deal with P directly.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:25 PM on September 6, 2004


You can't do it when P's asked you not to, but you can say this to her: "I'm going to have to insist that you talk to P. about that, because I'm very uncomfortable with the idea of speaking for someone else. If anyone had questions about my work, I would be very upset if they talked to my coworkers about it instead of me. For what's it's worth, I have the highest confidence in his skill, and I'm sure you'll feel the same way after you've discussed these points with him."

Hopefully, as the "new" wears off, she will settle into actually managing what needs to be managed...
posted by taz at 11:09 PM on September 6, 2004


I disagree profoundly. Q's boss may not take kindly to the possibility that Q's behavior toward P puts the company in a potentially legally vulnerable position. And if you don't speak up about it now, if the shit hits the fan later, you could be drawn into the mess whether you want to or not. That could be bad for you.

Go to Q and tell her to join us in the 21st century. Then, if it doesn't stop, go to Q's boss.

Also, from a personal perspective, look out for your friend. P obviously lacks the self confidence to help himself at this time. Be a friend. Stick up for him.
posted by geekhorde at 11:11 PM on September 6, 2004


Consider getting a third party involved. HR hired him, so they had a chance to talk with him, review his resume, and decide he was competent. Since he's doing his job well, he is valuable to the company. Present the problem in a neutral way, bringing the e-mails along to bolster your case. They should keep your discussion confidential and be able to present the issue without casting it as a blame issue, just a problem that needs to be resolved.

One thing: if Q's e-mails or documentation are being viewed outside the company, P might feel it's essential to edit them. If she respectfully explained this to Q, it would clear the air, and he might actually find it helpful. If I were presenting financial information outside my company, I'd want a peer or manager to check it, because that's not my expertise.

However, internal material is another matter: that's control freak stuff, and is detracting from more important matters that she should be attending to, so HR should counsel her on when her intervention is needed and when it's not. She should also be counseled on better management skills: no manager should use another employee as a go-between this way. Since she's new to management, she might not have received adequate training on that, and should get some, stat.

(This is, of course, assuming your HR department is competent, which can be a tricky assumption. I hope you've dealt with them before and can find someone trustworthy and skilled to help you -- good luck.)
posted by melissa may at 11:54 PM on September 6, 2004


Can Q be tactfully threatened (if you like) with the Human Rights Commission? It may be a step too far, but managers need to be mindful of racism, let alone appearing racist. Especially in this country.
posted by malpractice at 1:31 AM on September 7, 2004


Workplace racism and etiquette advice. MI.

P is very competent, but has English as a second language. He and I work together closely on the same project.


After reading your post, I can't help but conclude that you are experiencing linguistic insensitivity rather than racial insensitivity. The distinction is significant because skin color and physical features should have no impact on one's ability to complete a job. Communication ability, however, can have a significant impact on one's ability to perform in the work environment.

Further, the scenario that you describe does not depend upon P's race at all. P could be a member of the same local majority as you and Q but speak a different dialect of the majority language. In the United States, this can occur with two english speakers of the same ethnicity. One speaker grew up speeking with an extreme southern accent, while the other grew up with a northern accent. When the two attempt to communicate, they encounter significant difficulty.

Note that in the Northern/Southern example, either party could claim personal offense when the other party's inability to communicate with them leads to a question of workplace compitence. At this point, a third party might step in and recommend helpful changes to either the first or second person. However, these recommendations can easily be taken as an affront to that person's pride in their (local) cultural heritage.

Recasting the problem as one in which the two parties have difficulty communicating effectively may make the problem easier to address than if you continue on the assumption that one party has pre-judged the other on racial grounds alone.

On preview, what everyone else has said.
posted by b1tr0t at 2:58 AM on September 7, 2004


You could well be right b1r0t (FYI, we are in New Zealand, Q and I are both Pakeha New Zealanders, P is from one of the southern Indian provinces), and in fact I hope you are.

In this particular case we are all contractors to one firm which in turn is contracting to another, so the management picture is a little cloudy.

Thanks all, I'm off to bed now. I think I'll be following taz's advice from here.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:06 AM on September 7, 2004


This may (repeat MAY) be a problem of perspective on your part, spleen.

Q may be absolutely correct. Your daily interaction with P may have diluted the communication problems between the two of you, but not necessarily with the rest of the organization. Q may be sending out revamped announcements, not on her own initiative, but at the request of other recipients.
posted by mischief at 7:25 AM on September 7, 2004


from someone who has been in a similar position to Q - thank-you for caring about this.

you'll have to decide if this is possible/decide how to suggest it tactfully, but something that i have found useful is to have others check my spanish (and, vice-versa, now that i am working in a largely english-speaking environment, i check my spanish speaking co-worker's text when he asks me too). that way, Q's reports sound OK.

the problem is, i don't see how to suggest this if Q himself hasn't requested it from you. maybe you could point him to this thread?! as i said, i was in the same position as them and i found it helped. it was also a way to improve my writing, because once you get to a level where people can understand you, it can be difficult to improve further (since people don't say "what?" or correct you any more... :o)
posted by andrew cooke at 8:14 AM on September 7, 2004


que?
posted by signal at 8:59 AM on September 7, 2004


my first report described "el sistema corriente" ;o)
posted by andrew cooke at 10:10 AM on September 7, 2004


However did you get so wise, taz? Thanks for all your good tips and advice over the years, but let me say that this is one of your best comments yet!
posted by Lynsey at 11:08 AM on September 7, 2004


With three decades in the workforce (I was very young when I got my first job), my advice is to butt out. Unless you are willing to sacrifice your own career, piss off your coworker, piss off your boss, irritate HR, fight every injustice in the world, and label yourself stay out of it. Of course, that doesn't mean that you shouldn't be cooperative if questioned about what's happened.

Keeping your nose out does not mean that you're no longer compassionate. You can still be there for your coworker wants to talk or advice, but you won't be risking your career and believe me if you get involved that is exactly what you're doing.
posted by Juicylicious at 11:43 AM on September 7, 2004


I think taz is right, but even if you felt that you didn't want to force the issue (and run against P's wishes), you could always gently but firmly that all this double-checking / second-guessing / re-representing is just a really ineffective use of your time, and could she please just follow up with P on P's work? That way, you could move towards your own objective, without necessarily broaching it in terms that P would take offense at.

If she moved on to doing the same thing with someone else, then you might worry about escalating it, or just leave it for P to deal with, but that would be a discreet first step to try and move things forward a bit.
posted by LairBob at 5:07 PM on September 7, 2004


["...gently but firmly say..."
posted by LairBob at 5:08 PM on September 7, 2004


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