Didn’t Mean A Remark To Be Racist

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about racist motivation: I said another waitress (who happens to be black) was “like a sheep; you have to lead her along to get her to do her work”.

I mentioned to another waitress where I work that another waitress (who happens to be black) was “like a sheep; you have to lead her along to get her to do her work”. This girl told the other, and the other is apparently pursuing the possibility that my comment was racially motivated. It was not, but just an analogy, as she is often not where she is supposed to be, and once found, you have to lead her to the work. When someone is “sly as a fox”, we don’t think of the person as an animal, but think of the characteristic. I was making an analogy about her work initiative only. What is your opinion? Thank you

Signed, Worried

Dear Worried:

There is probably a much bigger picture than this one incident. But, considering it on its own, I think it will be difficult to show that the remark was about race, if what you quoted is precisely what you said and you said very little or nothing else. Unfortunately, unlike “sly as a fox”, “sheep” implies lack of intelligence, dullness and even stupidity. That concept, plus the tone in which you said it, was probably transferred in a way that sounded demeaning and hostile—and aimed at that specific employee, of another race. If you have said similar things before or if you have not been supportive or have been unpleasant to her before, the totality of the situation could be viewed as being hostile to someone of another race.

Also, if you used any word, phrase or tone of voice that referred to her race, that will add to the feeling that your remark was primarily racial.However, if you have been generally pleasant to that coworker and others, cooperative, helpful and trying to work well with everyone, your comment probably will be viewed as a critical remark but not with racial overtones. The thoughts and experiences of your manager, especially in relation to your work, will probably make the big difference.You can see how it might look from the outside—which is where your manager or HR will be viewing it, if the coworker complains to them.

I know it’s frustrating, when really you were just venting your feelings and didn’t mean this to become such a big deal. But, you will be better off now to be proactive about dealing with it.I think it would be a good idea to go to your manager, whether or not you think he or she knows about it. Discuss the situation, apologize without making any excuses, and say you are sorry you let your frustrations overcome your judgment. Then, as much as you may think it will choke you to do it, you need to make things right with the coworker.Ask the manager if he or she will help you by being present (maybe he or she could call the employee to a private office.)

Then just say it briefly and with a sincere tone. “Donna, I’ve talked to Jim about what happened and I’ve apologized to him for the situation. Now I want to apologize to you for criticizing you behind your back. I shouldn’t have done it and I won’t do it again.”That’s all you need to say. She will probably say that you were wrong and the remark was this or that. Just stick with your statement, without getting caught up in emotions. “I can see how it sounded to you and I’m sorry I said it. I won’t ever do that again.”If she says something more, just force yourself to stay unemotional and non-defensive and repeat that you are sorry and you won’t do that again. If she implies she is taking the matter higher, continue to stay unemotional. If she does, you’ll have your chance to tell your side of the story then.

Your manager will be much more impressed with your humble silence than if you become upset and say something back. He or she may want to encourage more communication about it. If so, you will have more chance to tell what you were thinking. Otherwise, just stick with your apology.Keep this in mind: Your coworker is the one who was being talked about and whose day was ruined by having an insulting remark repeated to her. It probably is justice that she gets to push back a bit when you apologize, so expect it. Maybe she won’t and that will be doubly good for both of you. Once this is over, make it your resolution to stick to your work and let the manager deal with whether an employee is doing enough work or not.

If her actions are keeping you from providing service, bring it up to her in a cooperative way. “Lisa, I’m busy with my customers right now, could you get the drinks for your area?” Or, “Lisa, could you help me refill these containers?” Or, whatever you need help to do. If you don’t need help, then it shouldn’t matter if she’s not available to provide it. If her lack of work is completely out of proportion to yours, talk to your manager about that. Many restaurants are arenas for backstabbing between employees. You can use this to be a leader in moving forward with work and going home happy, rather than complaining and having a whole weekend ruined with worry about it. I hope this all works out OK for you. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe