Accused of Racial Slur–Didn’t Mean It That Way

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about use of the N word: I was telling them about how on a vacation a friend and I heard a song in the dance club and we both thought for sure the name of the song was “Dance (insert N-word) Dance” – only I didn’t say “N-word” I actually said THE word.

I have had a spotless work record for 30 years and have been accused of using a racial slur. During a company sponsored winer/brewery tour where beer and wine was also available on the bus, I was telling a story to two African American co-workers. I was telling them about how on a vacation a friend and I heard a song in the dance club and we both thought for sure the name of the song was “Dance (insert N-word) Dance” – only I didn’t say “N-word” I actually said THE word.

The two women did not appear to be offended at all but the African American gentleman was immediately offended. Now – remember – EVERYONE was drinking – including him – this was sponsored by a Vice President who was also in attendance. Most there are salaried so while it was technically a work day – we were technically not working and were in wineries and breweries all day. This gentleman does not know me, this word is NOT normally in my vocabulary and the only reason I said it was because I thought it was the name of this hip hop song (there is actually a hip hop song with that title).

I did not use it to insult anyone, I did not use it in a derogatory way all. I believe the two ladies will back me up. I even tried to apologize to him and he would not accept my apology. I have a very good reputation with my co-workers and am one of the most compliant – passive people around. This was a one-time incident that occurred while everyone involved was under the influence of quite a bit of alcohol. If I am fired over this- would I have a case for defamation of character given the circumstances and that I did not call anyone that nor was it used to insult or degrade anyone?

Signed, Worried

Dear Worried:

We aren’t attorneys, so for a legal opinion you would need to consult a legal expert. However, given the situation you describe I can give an HR opinion, which is that if you are fired–and I hope, for your sake, that doesn’t happen–you would not have grounds to sue for defamation of character. Defamation of character would indicate that you did not do the thing of which you are accused and your company is lying about it to make you look bad. You acknowledge you said it. The only question is how seriously your company wants to view it. The cooking celebrity, Paula Deen, is dealing with a similar issue that happened in a much different setting, years ago. So, you can see how a recent event would have even more impact. As for the fact that everyone was drinking beer or wine: Alcohol is not an excuse for behavior that is viewed as offensive, whether the remark was racial, sexual, about religions, to mock someone’s age or gender, or for any other reason.

You were sober enough to recognize the reactions of others. Besides, it was a work event, not a party with your buddies. I don’t doubt you when you say that you didn’t mean to be derogatory. But, you obviously thought the WORD was derogatory or you wouldn’t have thought it noteworthy that a song was titled that way. In the process, while talking about it, you said the very word you know to be considered derogatory by many people, black and white–and that even you view as a negative word to say. You don’t have to say it AT someone or call them by the name for it to be offensive to hear in conversation. And, you acknowledge that someone was offended and you apologized. More than likely, knowing how these things can happen, you couldn’t think of anything else to say to three black people you didn’t know well, and thought that talking about hearing hip-hop music in a dance club would give you something in common. (And you had just enough to drink to think that was a good idea.)

Rather than spend your energy justifying what happened, I think you should put your efforts into writing a letter, if you haven’t already done so, in which you explain your actions and also point out your long history with the company, as well as the fact that you have never had any kind of negative actions until now. Even if you have written a statement for your manager or HR, consider writing another one, reiterating how sorry you are that this occurred. Be honest about the role of alcohol and also about the fact that you were trying to make conversation in a setting that was uncomfortable for you, given that it was neither business or a party. You may end up sounding socially inept, but at least you might be able to explain why the conversation took place and that you deeply regret it. The nature and size of your company will have a lot to do with the action they take.

Hopefully, they will only give you a verbal or written sanction, warning you of what will happen if such a thing is said again. I’m sure you never would want to do it again anyway, so that won’t be a problem. This was a bad situation for everyone involved and I know you are concerned about it. Your managers probably wish it would go away, too. If you feel that talking to an attorney will help you, certainly do so. At the least an attorney may help you craft your responses about this matter and may be able to give you advice about other issues related to it. Best wishes to you with this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe