She Made Racial Remarks!

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about discriminatory remarks:

We have an employee who has made several inappropriate remarks about people of color. In what kinds of training can we have her participate?

Signed, Color Blind

Dear Color Blind:

As I sometimes tend to do, I wrote a lengthy letter to you, discussing whether or not training was the answer in this case. I stopped mid-way, realizing that likely in your role, you know all about everything I was writing and don’t need to hear more! I can sum up my long diatribe by saying that I think other kinds of intervention, rather than off-site training, are more appropriate for cases like this.

But, training may be an organizational requirement or simply a step to document.

1. If training is one of the interventions, consider your own staff or the staff of the college, for one-on-one training, rather than an off-site generic class. The Fred Pryor Company has some reasonably priced, generic classes. The Internet can provide long lists of organizations that offer classes. But it is not likely that the employee would learn enough in one day to change his thought process and behavior solely because of the training. What is needed is focused attention on his specific environment and his specific lack of knowledge and skills–if he truly lacks knowledge and skills.

2. The training could be in a number of areas, based on the setting in which he says inappropriate things. Is this a conflict management issue? An anger management problem? A deeply felt bias issue? A lack of communication skills generally? Is it a sensitivity issue, in that he thinks he is showing camaraderie when in fact he is being offensive? Is this related to other workplace issues so that it is only part of the problem? Often we send someone to a class on interpersonal sensitivity when what she/he needs is a class on stress management. There is also the issue of the complainant about the remarks. Is something else going on there that needs to be handled from both sides?And of course, there are the key questions of, does he know what he did wrong and why it was wrong and is she capable of doing it right? If she knows that she did wrong and why it was wrong, and if she can do it right if she has to, she likely doesn’t need a class to make a difference. The training may reinforce how serious your organization is, and that has value of course.

3. My feeling always is that the supervisory role is key to training about this kind of issue. If the employee knows she was in error, knows what she shouldn’t have said and what is OK to say and is mentally and psychologically capable of saying the right things, she would likely benefit from some focused supervisory counseling and follow-up. The message that needs to be conveyed from the beginning is that she will be dismissed if the remarks continue–and she is a good employee otherwise, so we don’t want that to happen. THAT is training, even though it is punitive sounding. (I’m assuming he is a good employee otherwise.)Incidentally, one of the things I tell supervisors to not say is “You’re a good employee, so I don’t want to see you lose your job over this.” Instead they should say, “You’re a good employee in other ways, but in this area you’re not behaving to the standard we require. I don’t want to see you lose pay or your job over this, so you will need to change your behavior.” That conveys that is issue is part of being a good employee, not something separate from being a good employee.

4. Among the best ways of training in situations like this is to identify when the remarks are likely to be made, based on when they have been made in the past. That way, the employee can trigger his own censoring methods when those situations occur. If it happens when she’s angry, having coffee, joking around, complaining about a specific person or whatever, those situations should immediately send warning bells to his brain. It also is crucial that the employee say what she will do next time. The supervisor can use those past cases to say, “Here’s what was going on. Here’s what you said. What will you say next time instead?” Make the employee say the right words or options for remarks she might normally make, or say that she will remain silent. Not only does it put the words in her mouth, which will be a good reminder in real situations, but also it documents that she knows appropriate options.

5. This may or may not have assisted you! But I would like to know how you approach the situation and the challenges you have with it, if you have the time to correspond with me briefly. Whether or not you have that time, I certainly wish you the best.To see WEGO look through a rainbow.

Tina Lewis Rowe