Complain to HR About Racist Remark?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about being offended at racist remarks:

I am white. I have family members and friends who are of various races. Recently a co-worker and manager made some racist remarks in my presence and one commented that I wouldn’t be offended because I am white. I was stunned and did not say anything at the time, but I was extremely offended. Am I justified in complaining to HR about this?

Signed, Offended

Dear Offended:

Based upon what you say happened, you would be justified in reporting the remarks to HR. The actual decision to do so may not be so easy. It most likely will depend upon the nature of the remarks, your relationship with the people who made the remarks and the policy of your company about such situations. I realize that some people might think you should certainly report such a thing, but I think the reality of the work situation should also be considered. For example, if you have had a good working relationship with your coworker and manager and they have always shown themselves to be positive, unbiased and ethical people, if this is the first time you have ever heard them say anything of this nature, and if the remark did not indicate they have acted in a biased way in their work, you may want not want to escalate it to the point that the coworker and manager would be disciplined or lose their jobs over it.

If, on the other hand, these people are often mean-spirited and have treated others unfairly in the past, the remarks they made may indicate a chronic problem that needs to be handled at a higher level. At least you would want to have documentation that you were offended and reported it. And, HR could then investigate it or at least warn them to never say such things again. If the remarks indicated the two people had acted in a biased way against someone, you would certainly want that to be known and investigated.

You say you were stunned, which indicates the remarks are not commonplace and the two people do not always talk that way. But, you also indicate the remarks were far more than a brief or supposedly witty comment. Even if they were brief or meant in jest, they would be inappropriate. But, there is a difference, I think, between how we should respond to one-time poor judgment compared to vicious or deep-rooted bias or mockery.

A guideline I have always used, and that seems to fit this situation is: If it was my best friend saying these things, would I be so offended I would report him or her anyway? Or, am I more likely to report it because I don’t like the people who said it? Complaints should not be used as a weapon of revenge or to get someone in trouble just to be doing it. They should be a tool to make things better and to ensure that a one-time situation doesn’t become habitual, and a formal complaint is the only way to achieve that.

Perhaps you can talk to the people involved, at least to the coworker, and bring up the thing that was said. You can say, “I have to admit I was a bit stunned when you said that. But, now that I’ve had time to think about it, I realize I should have let you know right then that the remarks really upset me. I worried about them for days afterwards and wasn’t sure what to do. I decided to just talk to you about it and let you know how wrong I think remarks like that are.” Or, whatever you think would be best to say, given your feelings about it.That way if the coworker apologizes or admits he or she used poor judgment, you will have accomplished something positive.

If your remarks are brushed off, you will know that only a formal complaint is likely to make a difference.How you handle it with the manager is a bit more tricky and will be based on how well you know the manager and if you can talk to him or her about this in an informal way.The bottom line is that you are justified in complaining about anything that seems to be inappropriate or a violation of policy. I’m sure your company would not want a manager and employee to make racist remarks at work. But, at the same time, the nature of the remarks, the setting at the time, the likelihood of a repeat, and whether or not you can accomplish anything through a personal conversation, should also be considered as you decide what to do.If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what you decide–and perhaps what your thought process was about it. Best wishes!

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.