How Do I Handle a Bigot?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a lead who is intolerant toward those holding different opinions:
My team lead is not a leader. She is unapproachable, arrogant, inconsiderate and downright mean. This girl’s significant other also works in the same building and it adds fuel to this fire. A positive? She’s good at her job and knows her stuff. She moved up quick and management is her fan.

The problem is the way she acts around management is like night and day compared to how she treats her co-workers. She’s unapproachable. Any issue or concern you approach her with is immediately shot down or laughed at. Everything is a joke to her or “someone is so fucking stupid”. No exaggeration, exact words. She’s so arrogant, she makes Kim Kardashian look modest. It’s to the point where if you approach her with a mistake she made, she immediately says sorry 5+ times and takes it as an attack. But if I were to do that same mistake, I am just useless.

She makes her opinions of others so clear to anyone who will listen. She’s inconsiderate in how she handled a tragedy at work. Without getting into details, it was utterly heartbreaking and it was not her news to share. How did she find out about it? The news was shared in the department by the person to whom it happened. The department her boyfriend works in. It’s clear how much shit talking this girl and her boyfriend do. It’s been confirmed in both his and our departments. It’s like they think they’re the power couple who is so much better than everybody else. If she was reading this she would laugh at that because “it’s true.”

She’s mean for many, many reasons but I’ll indulge you in a few. One: She had once asked a coworker (at that time her lead) if she was pregnant. First of all, you never ask a female that. Even if she’s at seven months! Two, (I had recently lost like ten pounds.) She had approached me one day without even saying hello or good morning, and she said “So I see you lost weight here…but you still have that gut. And you’re never going to get rid of that”. Now what is so ironic about one and two is that this girl had the audacity to say these comments to us when she herself has had her stomach stapled. She comments on girls’ bodies all the time when in fact she is far from perfect. She’s incredibly in your face such a “hand talker”, it makes it worse. She’s also a mother. Which is the cherry on top.

Signed, Disgusted

Dear Disgusted:

You’ve made your case. You are in a workgroup with someone assigned as a lead who makes it easy for you to dislike. Rather than refer to her as that “girl”, as you do, I’ll take a tip from you and name her something more positive as Ms. Cherry. You say she knows her stuff and that management likes her.  She is lead, but she doesn’t lead. Rather she’s “unapproachable, arrogant, inconsiderate and downright mean.” She laughs off her mistakes, but not others. More than that she insults.

In the title of your question you ask: How Do I Handle a Bigot? Therefore you imply that neither you nor Ms. Cherry are going anywhere–that at least for now she will continue as your lead and you as a member of the group she leads. You don’t say how you have responded to her arrogance or insults. I imagine you have vented about Ms. Cherry’s behavior to coworkers and that possibly she provides someone you can put down to your friends and family.

You have a live example of how not to lead, how not to gossip and how not to be respectful of others.  Those like Ms. Cherry, who is incompetent as a lead and with despicable manners, raises your and my awareness of the importance of good leadership and behaving with courtesy and modesty. In this way, she’s doing some good. Knowing her makes us better just is Jesus’ parable of nine persons he helped not expressing gratitude and only one doing so alerts us the value of expressing gratitude. Incidentally fresh out of my graduate work, I got a job that included directing the theatre program in a small college in Georgia and I hadn’t much training in that, so for a summer I took my family to Boston where I was accepted in a summer stock company. I expected to learn from an expert director, but instead that man by his example taught me how not to cast, how not to block, and how not to inspire actors.

So let me sketch four options of how to cope with Ms. Cherry you and coworkers have: 1. Bite your tongues and gossip about her. 2. Individually, when she displays insulting behavior, firmly say, “Ms. Cherry, stop. You wouldn’t like me or any one of us to treat you as you have us, would you?” Or privately confront her about the way she is behaving. 3. Log specific incidents of her shameful behavior and take them to management–that is you can fight to change her behavior or to have her transferred. She should be disciplined for her remarks to you about your weight and other criticism of women’s bodies. Human Resources and her superiors should not be a fan of such poor manners. 4. As a workgroup you can make incivility/civility as number one on your staff agenda. This would require one or more of you sticking your neck out to say, “We can do better work if we talk about talk.” The focus of such a session would be how might you communicate more effectively in doing your jobs and also how might you talk to and about each respectfully?

A work group is most effective when it collectively spells do and don’t communication rules. Sports teams have skull sessions in which they review what is and isn’t going well–what talk is misunderstood and what talk fails to show respect to those on the team. They before and after each game discuss what they can do to communicate to be a winning team?

As you might guess, I see the last three of these four options as overlapping. They are based on more than simple annoyance with Ms. Cherry. They hinge on the fact that working with incivility is miserable and stressful. Having a winning work group does not just happen–coping with a difficult lead requires dealing with specifics you want and don’t want, just as it is if you are dealing with how your work area is organized. Someone has determined where desks would be placed and who would be assigned where. Someone decided the colors of its walls and what kind of barriers would enable some measure of privacy and muffle distracting noise. You as an individual of your team can have a say in how your work space is arranged–or you can bite you tongue and complain to others outside your workplace about working conditions. A coworker committee could become excited about redecorating your work area–new paint, different configuration of work areas, and choice of artwork and green plants.

Determining how to handle intolerance begins with thought and informal conversation. You have begun that with your question about this lead you have labeled to be a bigot. I’ve challenged you to think about what has been going on and to compare the communication you have now with what you can have if you have the courage to talk about talk–the way it is and the do and don’t rules that will make it more effective and pleasant.

Achieving a harmonious working situation will require some uncomfortable talking about the unpleasantness that has occurred, but that can be minimized if the focus of such a meeting between two or more individuals is on do and don’t communication rules. Once what you do and don’t want are spelled out and maybe posted, you have a good chance  that your workplace will be one to which you want to come to rather than dread to come to work.

Do some of these thoughts make sense? Let me know what options you decide are best. Working together with hands, head and heart takes and makes big WEGOS is my signature way of challenging you to fit your situation into the larger goal of your part in making your workplace a success.  –William Gorden