Can My Last Employer Take Action About A Racism Accusation On My Last Day?

Question:

I have been accused of being racist on my last working day at my previous employer. To my knowledge I haven’t been racist but they’ve taken whatever I said to heart and portrayed it as a racial comment. I do not work for the company anymore. Can they still take action and if so what could it be?

Response:

You do not say if the racist actions or comments were said to have happened on your last day or if you were told about it on your last day, but it had happened previously—or if you were asked to leave over a number of things, racism being one of them, or if you were leaving with good feelings until the accusation was made. Those factors would make a difference in how you were viewed by managers and coworkers.

Whatever the circumstances, unless you are a high-profile person who may be talked about in public settings, the only way an accusation of that nature could be used against you now, would be if it had an effect on a reference you might get from your last employer. Most employers do not say negative things about former employees when they give references, especially if no formal disciplinary action was involved in a situation–they just verify employment. So, I don’t think you need to fear any follow-up on the accusation. You’re gone from that job and unless people there are close with people in your next job, this will fade away.

I certainly don’t want to minimize genuinely racist comments (saying something that shows a negative feeling toward a race of people or a feeling that one race is inferior to another). However, accusations of racism tend to be tossed around very easily nowadays, often without any evidence or even an understanding of the definition of racism. On the other hand, many blatantly racist comments are spoken and written and create negative situations that can’t be ignored. The totality of the situation is usually the deciding factor in how such things are handled at work.

I’m sure this has been very upsetting for you. It may also be a learning experience, even if you think you did or said absolutely nothing wrong. One thing is for sure: If you said something that people could take to heart and view as racist, you will want to eliminate that comment or that subject from your work talk in the future.

Here are some guidelines that may be useful to you and to our readers, for avoiding such accusations:

*Do not discuss your personal opinions about race, politics, religion, or anything else in those sensitive areas, while you’re at work. Even conversations about sports teams, TV shows and movies, news stories, food, restaurants, music, cars and hobbies can cause very bad feelings.

Here at Ask the Workplace Doctors, we get many letters about arguments that should never have started in the first place. When people try to get you to express an opinion, have a few comments you can automatically make, to keep yourself out of trouble. For example, “I don’t ever express opinions about stuff like this, because I usually disagree with myself five minutes later.” “Sounds like we’re getting into an opinion discussion, so it’s time for me to get back to work.” “I can feel myself getting heated about this, so it’s time for me to stop.” Or, say something non-specific and stop the conversation, “I don’t know, it’s crazy, crazy world.” Or, just exit the situation and the conversation.

*Do not assume people will understand what is in your heart and won’t pay attention to what comes out of your mouth. If you say it, you own it. Many people who write to us say that they were only venting or joking and others should know they didn’t mean what they said. However, communication doesn’t work that way, especially with those who distrust you or dislike you. Don’t give people a weapon to use against you. At the same time, do your very best to not hurt people with uncensored words. I often refer to “blah-blah-blah talk”. We step in a lot of bad stuff when we talk just to be talking. (I have to watch that all the time, because I often talk while I’m thinking or instead of thinking!)

*Assume that anything and everything negative you say about someone at work will be repeated—usually with other things added. Many of the people who write to us about getting in trouble for their comments say they spoke in confidence to someone or their comments were misquoted or blown out of proportion. If no conversation had taken place, neither of those things could have happened.

*Give other people the same break you want them to give you, when it comes to comments that sound insensitive or unpleasant. Many accusations of racism, sexism, other-isms are just ways to get to someone or make them look as bad as we think they are. If we like the person involved and have warm feelings toward them, we shrug it off as not being like the real them or we look for reasons for their comments. When we don’t know them or when we already don’t like them, a relatively minor thing can be shocking, outrageous and infuriating—or at least we can pretend we’re shocked, outraged and infuriated, because we know it will get them in trouble.

*Find positive, enjoyable and relatively uncontroversial topics to talk about. The moment you hear yourself headed down a negative path, steer it toward more positive talk. Of course, some things are serious and sad or frustrating and we can’t be a Pollyanna about those things. But, when possible, have fun or uplifting conversations.

I hope you can move forward mentally and emotionally and put any unpleasant aspects of your last job behind you. The next one will be a good, fresh start, with an opportunity for new friends, learning new things and establishing a great reputation. Best wishes to you!

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors