Very uncomfortable work situation
April 24, 2005 12:37 PM   Subscribe

I'm at a conference for work, and have just had a very disturbing incident. I wonder if I should worry about my job...

My supervisor is here with me. We have been eating out for the past few nights. This night he was making very racist comments during dinner (not towards me, but towards other resto patrons). I became very upset and left the restaurant. Aside from having a 9hr flight with him tomorrow, should I worry about my job? What can I do to protect myself?
posted by nprigoda to Work & Money (30 answers total)
I wouldn't worry about your job, but if this makes you uncomfortable then I suppose the obvious course of action is to ask to be moved to a different department or look for a new job.
posted by angry modem at 12:47 PM on April 24, 2005

contact a lawyer? send an e-mail to somebody you trust where you tell this story, so that you can produce written evidence for your version of the facts should you end up sueing the boss?
posted by matteo at 12:48 PM on April 24, 2005

apologize for getting upset and acting unprofessionally, and start looking for a new job or a transfer away from him.
posted by amberglow at 12:49 PM on April 24, 2005

I've confronted coworkers in the past, telling them that I don't think their comments are appropriate for the workplace. But this conversation took place outside the workplace. It would be severe for him to fire you because you had a violent disagreement on private time. By the same token, as long as he keeps his attitudes out of his workplace manner and decision making process, there's not much you can do to make him change.

I think the best thing you can do is approach him with an olive branch, tell him that you disagree on some very serious levels, but that as long as you're working together that doesn't need to come between you in the office. This will not only give you a way to bury the hatchet in an immediate sense, it will set up a boundary for him, letting him know that his attitude is not acceptable to you in the workplace.

But yeah, if you want to keep your job (not just keep it but have a functional relationship with your boss) you should do something to diffuse the tension. A 9 hour fight isn't what I'd recommend.
posted by scarabic at 12:50 PM on April 24, 2005

Was he drunk? Maybe he'll just pretend it didn't happen.
posted by bingo at 12:52 PM on April 24, 2005

Disuade him from imibing the pre- and mid-flight miniatures. Look for a new job.
posted by Rothko at 12:52 PM on April 24, 2005

Best answer: I can't imagine that he could fire you or discipline you for your actions. First of all, the disagreement was not during work hours, and secondly, he was the one who really caused the problem. Hopefully HE was the one who was embarassed, and won't hold it against you. I agree with what has been said before; apologize (I know it sucks to do so), say his comments disturbed you and that you don't agree with them, but you hope that it will not impact your professional relationship.

As for your flight, to lower the awkwardness level, make sure you have a pair of headphones and can listen to some music, or rent a DVD player from the airport and engross yourself in a few movies. But if I were you I'd talk to him before the trip, just to get it over with.
posted by apple scruff at 1:22 PM on April 24, 2005

If it comes up again, he is the one who has more to lose than you do. I mean, what would the company think of him if they find he acted thus? I think he probably had an epiphany when you left.
posted by Doohickie at 1:40 PM on April 24, 2005

ha! i guess a lot depends on your employers, and i have very nice, forgiving employers, but just to give you some idea of the range of behaviours that happen - i left early from work the shift before last because i was so angry and frustrated (no doubt looking much like you leaving the restaurant, but for less morally justifiable reasons) and for me that was a good move. at least i didn't start swearing at my boss (which has happened in the past).

what to do? you're going to have to play it by ear. be ready with something about feeling strongly about equality etc etc if he asks straight out, otherwise, if he ignores it, probably keep quiet.

i would also think carefully about how to apologise. apologising is nearly always good, but you don't want to apologise for not being racist (in simple terms). so think about how to say that too, beforehand, in case you feel there's an appropriate moment.

in the longer term - i have also been in a job where i was similarly uncomfortable (in my opinion they fired someone for being openly bi, although obviously they say otherwise) and when i left i was so happy/relieved that i realised i should have moved much earlier. so i suggest you look for a new job. a better one. since you still have a job at the moment (we hope ;o) you're in a good position and can take your time. in my case - i guess maybe i say too much, but it seems to work - i actually mentioned in my resume that i wanted to work in a place with respect for individual's rights, beliefs etc and, when i found the perfect next job, they thought that was a plus, and we discussed things at the interview. that was the best employer i ever had (pity we never actually sold anything).

and, of course(?) it's quite possible for someone to hold quite appalling views and still be a decent person in other ways (life would be so much simpler if it were otherwise). you know him better than us, but he may be worried about having upset you, for example.

finally, think a bit about what to do in the future when things like this occur. in my experience it's ok once, but not so good as a habit. so you have to learn quick and find a better way to handle things for next time. i suspect - it often seems to be the case - that it would have been better to have taken some milder action sooner. just frowning and saying "actually, i have some friends like that" can change a conversation drastically. better a moment of embarassed silence than you wondering if you've lost your job.
posted by andrew cooke at 1:48 PM on April 24, 2005

i'd write down the incident for future reference f it becomes an issue ... i would NOT apologize, nor would i bring it up again ... chances are that he's embarrassed about it and may be worried about HIS position ... if he was to make an issue of your leaving, a quiet talk with h.r. or his boss should straighten things out

what he did was unprofessional and will not reflect well on him

if he should apologize, accept the apology and let it lie
posted by pyramid termite at 2:14 PM on April 24, 2005

My guess is he won't bring it up again, or he'll apologize to you. In your place, I simply wouldn't ever mention the incident again, as if it had never happened, and see what develops.

That's assuming I was the same race and gender as the boss in question, and I liked the job and my boss otherwise and had the usual reasons for not wanting to lose my job (need the pay, don't want a termination under questionable circumstances hanging over my head.) If any of those things didn't obtain, I'd start looking for a new job.

I'm not saying this course of action is the moral high ground - it isn't. I'm just saying it's what I'd probably do.
posted by ikkyu2 at 2:25 PM on April 24, 2005

I applaud you standing up- literally- for your principles. It does make it awkward for you to get through that plane ride, though. Keep in mind that YOU were right, and see if you can take the high ground (again!) by being the first to offer to smooth things over. I fully agree with Scarabic's advice. If you are most comfortable with an apology, only apologize for your response, not for your opinion. Get it over with as soon as you can, and make it brief and gracious and dignified (it may help to imagine your supervisor standing there in just their underwear), then drop it. Be sure to have a book or something with you for that plane ride so that you don't feel like you have to make conversation.

It would be a good idea for you to document this somehow. I think in your case, have a word with someone in your human resources department. You can make it very clear that you are not lodging a complaint, just ensuring that something that happened outside of work is not reflected in your next evaluation (remember, if there's no documentation, then it never happened). Take their advice on how to proceed from there.
posted by puddinghead at 2:30 PM on April 24, 2005

You should always be worrying about your job.
posted by mischief at 4:10 PM on April 24, 2005

I recommend talking with your HR department about the incident. This protects you from being fired for this reason. Also, it will probably dissuade him for firing you for other reasons, because in a lawsuit you could claim this was the real reason for being fired. I assume you have colleagures who will back you up that your performance was good, etc. HR will take your complaint seriously, and probably recommend to him that he not fire you for a good long time, after which this will probably blow over.

Finally, stick to your guns on your plane trip. You have already bit that bullet. Also, be humane. You disagree with him on this and don't want to talk about it anymore - end of story. Talk about something else, and even though it will be uncomfortable try and enjoy those conversations as much as possible.
posted by xammerboy at 5:25 PM on April 24, 2005

The extent to which you should worry depends on a lot of things - exactly what did you say to him before you left the restaurant; how good has your working relationship been, previously; would anyone else have to approve your being fired; do you have documentation (such as a recent performance review) showing that you do a good job; how easy are you to replace; etc?

Personally, I don't think you should apologize at all, but if he confronts you (say, at the airport) about what you said (lack of respect, insubordination, etc.), it wouldn't hurt to say that you might have overreacted. Or you might say that you might have misunderstood what he said. (One recommended tactic for responding to inappropriate comments is to say "Excuse me?" and wait to see if the person realizes how out-of-line he/she is; this is a variant.) In short, you have an absolute right to disagree with your boss about racist comments, but you shouldn't blow it out of proportion. (By that, I mean that while such words are wrong, the major harm is acting on them, or saying them to the face of someone being insulted.)

As for the larger issue, your job - as someone else said, you should always be concerned about what your supervisor thinks of how you're doing, and so you should (as always) pay attention (ideally, without being hyperalert to every possible nuance). My guess is that (a) your supervisor won't bring up the subject, and (b) that the event at the restaurant isn't going to change anything. (But then, as noted above, you haven't spelled out all the details.)

I strongly disagree with the suggestion to mention this to HR (or anyone else), UNLESS you have further (and negative) interaction with your supervisor on this point. What you don't need is someone (like an HR person) going to your boss and asking for his side of things (or telling him that you're talking about what he said at a restaurant meal). If your boss isn't stupid, he'll realize that he's out of line; if so, this should be a sleeping dog that should be left alone.

Finally, for what it's worth (and I'm not a lawyer), I very much doubt that a single incident of a racist comments (even if at work, which this was not), and even if admitted (which I doubt your boss would) could be considered grounds for any sort of disciplinary action of your boss, and certainly is not illegal (free speech, in this country, allows racist comments, as little as we like them, as part of the price of not having someone with State power tell us what we can and cannot say). So your boss has a significant flaw, hopefully one that only emerges every once in a while (perhaps when drinking, in a non-work situation?); none of us are perfect. (Which means there is nothing to report to HR about his behavior, in and of itself.)

Good luck!
posted by WestCoaster at 5:28 PM on April 24, 2005

What did you say to him before you left? Anything? If you just said, "I gotta go," and bolted (with bill settled) there may be no reason whatever for him to remark upon your departure. Perhaps you weren't feeling well.

If you said, "Your racist shit makes it impossible for me to eat," well, that's a different ball game.
posted by sacre_bleu at 7:25 PM on April 24, 2005

If you do get fired and you sue, you will be on your own since the HR department and the rest of the company will most likely be backing your boss. Further and given the few details you provided, I doubt you have a chance of winning a lawsuit and you will be paying your lawyer up front.
posted by mischief at 7:38 PM on April 24, 2005

I don't think you need to apologize. He's the one who is far, far more in the wrong. I also suspect that if push comes to shove, you can cause him far more damage than he, you.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:41 PM on April 24, 2005

It doesn't matter that the boss was wrong (of course he was--an ass, and unprofessional as well)--you have to apologize for abruptly getting up and leaving upset. It was unprofessional too, and it was a work-related situation.
posted by amberglow at 8:01 PM on April 24, 2005

Are you still happy to work in this workplace? You know, this might happen again.
posted by keijo at 2:47 AM on April 25, 2005

Well, I'm dying to know how this flight went.

Westcoaster is wrong, wrong, wrong. You need to discuss this with your HR department. IANAL, but I'm reasonably certain that workplace harassment provisions extend to your situation (off-site business event). If your HR department argues otherwise (I've seen worse), and you feel strongly about this, go to a lawyer.

Assuming you're not going to chalk this up to some overreaction on your part (and I don't think anyone here, who didn't see the event, can make that call for you), you need to consider your professional relationship with this guy over. Something that evokes such a strong reaction in you is going to cloud your experience with him for a long time and make you unhappy.
posted by mkultra at 6:56 AM on April 25, 2005

Best answer: Westcoaster is wrong, wrong, wrong. You need to discuss this with your HR department. IANAL, but I'm reasonably certain that workplace harassment provisions extend to your situation (off-site business event).

Workplace harassment laws may very well extend to this situation. However, WestCoaster is completely right that this conduct almost certainly does not rise to the level of harassment protected by state and federal law. In the context of sexual harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (which would be analyzed the same way as a racially hostile work environment claim) the U.S. Supreme Court has said:
In order to be actionable under the statute, a sexually objectionable environment must be both objectively and subjectively offensive, one that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive, and one that the victim in fact did perceive to be so …. Most recently, we explained that Title VII does not prohibit "genuine but innocuous differences in the ways men and women routinely interact with members of the same sex and of the opposite sex." A recurring point in these opinions is that "simple teasing," offhand comments, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not amount to discriminatory changes in the "terms and conditions of employment." These standards for judging hostility are sufficiently demanding to ensure that Title VII does not become a "general civility code." (Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 118 S.Ct. 2275 (1998)
This single event would not give nprigoda reason to sue. In addition, the boss's First Amendment rights are probably enhanced by the fact that his conduct took place outside of the typical work environment. However, that doesn't mean the conduct would be viewed as acceptable from a corporate policy standpoint, so the issue probably should be referred to HR.

(Note: IAAEL,BNYEL (I Am An Employment Lawyer, But Not Your Employment Lawyer))
posted by pardonyou? at 7:08 AM on April 25, 2005

I'd be very cautious before bringing HR into this. Depending on their latest training you and your boss both will be in for many delicate and painful meetings. The fall out will destroy any relationship that you two have and you'll be getting a new job one way or the other.

Even an anonymous report could poison your relationship: either via your boss's suspicion or your paranoia.

* People are allowed to have their opinions (no matter how f-d up and backwards you and I might think they are).

* As long as this is an isolated incident and it doesn't affect the workplace I'd make a mental note that your boss is racist and try to move along.

* If this turns out to be the begining of a hostile work environment then, of course, it's appropriate to bring the issue to HR. If it does come to that you'll be happy to have some notes documenting this and other occasions.
posted by deanj at 8:51 AM on April 25, 2005

Your best bet in this situation is to say nothing and hope that the situation blows over. If you're out to dinner with the boss because you're both at a conference, you're not on the company's clock, and the standards of behavior are somewhat relaxed, for both of you. An apology is not required and would only serve to remind him that either he's boorish (from your point of view) or you're overly sensitive (from his point of view). If he brings it up, then you have to deal with it, and I would recommend being honest but vague. If he doesn't bring it up but repeats the behavior, then he's probably trying to get under your skin, and you might want to get your resume out, but you should generally always have your resume out, anyway.
posted by anapestic at 9:33 AM on April 25, 2005

I recommend talking with your HR department about the incident. This protects you

Strongly disagree. HR department's first and last priority will be to protect the company from liability and lawsuit. Only where this dovetails with your interests, if at all, will this be of any protection to you.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:49 AM on April 25, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the advice, and for considering my situation so carefully. I didn't want to put too many details about the situation out there, but I think it is important to note that the young family (with small child) that he was discussing heard his comments. I don’t think I flew off the handle, I just pointed out that his comments were offensive, and that I thought it was best if I left for the hotel at that point. Just to give everyone an idea about resolution:
I asked the airline to seat me in a different section of the plane, so I managed to survive the flight. My supervisor wrote me a letter thanking me for pointing out his inappropriate behaviour, and apologizing for putting me in a situation where I needed to do that. I, in turn, apologized for reacting so violently and for making him uncomfortable. We seem to be on good terms. I've written an incident report, which I will keep, along with his apology letter, in a signed, sealed envelope on my personnel file.
posted by nprigoda at 3:17 PM on April 25, 2005

Wow. That seems to be a great resolution. Good job for keeping so level-headed, yet firm, in your response both to the incident and to the apology.
posted by fionab at 6:31 PM on April 25, 2005

Hooray! Hopefully some good karma will find its way to that family.
posted by mkultra at 8:05 PM on April 25, 2005

Well done.
posted by puddinghead at 1:08 PM on April 26, 2005

Wow. I was righter than I would have guessed! You handled it well. Congrats.
posted by Doohickie at 2:41 PM on May 3, 2005

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