Wrongly Accused of Using N Word

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about accused of using the N-word:

During a phone call while both phones were on speaker, the person on the other line thought she heard me say the “N” word. A complaint was filed 4 hours later. I denied the use of the word and thought that a word I said was misheard. Two employees in my office did not hear that word used. Nor did a black woman in the office I called hear me say the word. HR is handling the investigation. I have not been interviewed yet. How should I prepare? Thanks.

Signed, Didn’t Say It

Dear┬áDidn’t Say It:

Dear Didn’t Say It:
To prepare for the investigation, consider what the HR person might ask you or might be wondering and be prepared with ready responses. You may also want to have a written statement prepared, to enter into the record. The first question I would ask, as an HR investigator, would be: “What were you talking about in the conversation being investigated?”

The context of your conversation will be the first place to begin. If you were talking about a black employee or about black people in general, the likelihood of racial words being used is greater than if you and the others were discussing a marketing plan or how to set up a computer program. Briefly but completely explain why you were on the call and what was being discussed around the time the word was alleged to have been used.

The next question I would ask is: “What were the exact words you said that contain the words or phrases that have been alleged to contain a racial term?” Since this hasn’t been that long ago, I would expect you to be able to repeat, almost verbatim, the words you said. If they were not about a black person or if the “n” word would not even fit the sentence, that would be something in your favor.

If you said something negative but are now saying it wasn’t racial, the negative thing should sound close enough to the racial word that it could have been misunderstood–unless you think the accusing person is simply lying and knows he or she is lying. For example, in a situation I investigated, a supervisor was accused by an employee of telling her he wasn’t placing her in charge of a team until she gained more self-confidence. He said, “I don’t want someone leading a team when they have this “little itty, bitty, bitty, bitty voice that wouldn’t inspire anyone”. She complained and said he told her he didn’t want a team leader who had such “little itty bitty, bitty t*****s.” I talked to the woman and taped her voice for documentation. She spoke in a very high, very soft tone that was almost impossible to understand without asking her to repeat quite often. She really DID have a little itty, bitty, bitty, bitty voice that wouldn’t inspire anyone! Her physique was average and there was nothing about her to cause a comment about her figure, one way or the other, but I didn’t refer to that in the investigation, of course.

My decision was that although I thought the supervisor should have used a less hurtful and rude description–and he should have offered her some solutions for how to develop a more confident sound–it made sense for him to say she had a little, itty,bitty,bitty voice. I could also see how it might have been misunderstood in the emotion of the moment. Probably the employee will always believe otherwise, but I still think the supervisor was either misunderstood or the employee purposely wanted to get him in trouble. The bottom line is that you should prepare by having a concise explanation of the topic of the conversation in which the word was alleged to have been made.

Write out the few sentences before and after the phrase or word you think was misunderstood, so you can show how it might have been misunderstood. The investigator has already spoken with others, and we’ll assume they told the truth. If they did and you do, the statements about the conversation and what you said and what was misunderstood should be the same. You may be asked if there was any reaction at the time, from anyone, indicating the word was taken to mean the “n” word. If not, remind the investigator of that fact, to show that you didn’t have a chance to clarify at the time because you didn’t realize you had been misunderstood. All of those things will get you ready to talk to the investigator.

Those, plus the statements of the others should certainly make your case for you. It sounds as though there are general issues related to communications, openness, honesty and trust, for someone to make such a complaint without talking to you about it at the time or shortly afterwards. I hope you will move past this quickly and show by your actions in the future that you are a good employee and an ethical person. Don’t rehash this with others, let it go. The less said, the better. Otherwise people will remember the complaint but not remember the outcome. Best wishes to you. If you have the time and wish to do so, we’d like to know how this works out

Tina Lewis Rowe