False Accusation of Racism

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about being accused of racism: And how do we go about fighting the defamation of my husband’s name? Do we have a legal standing.

My husband works for an international/multicultural company and has really enjoyed his job. Part of his job specification as an operations manager is to keep things running smoothly and deal with staff issues. Two weeks ago he was asked to address an issue with one of the sales staff, who has been keeping his clients as close as possible, and not allowing other staff in the company to deal with or communicate with them. Even though he is a paid employee of the company, he has been acting on his own. My husband was asked by his boss to send out a email introducing the rest of the staff, and detailing their ability to handle the incoming work these particular clients had coming in, offering their openness to be there if the sales rep was unable to help with customs advice or related issues. Unfortunately, the sales rep has a strong accent, and on many occasions it has been difficult for all staff to understand him.

In one email to the sales reps client, he wrote “Please come to me if you have any questions, as sometimes things can become lost in translation through our sales rep.” One week later, there were three emails from various clients, unhappy with the offer of help and friendship, and pertaining that they were *****’s clients and no one else’s. On Friday last week my husband was shocked out of his socks when he received news he has been accused of racism because of that comment in the email. Nothing else. He is coming down on Friday. There are no other grounds this sales rep can come up with that are racist in nature. We believe it is purely because he does not want his clients taken away from him.

This was never the purpose of the emails, only to offer assistance if required. The sales rep has now told all his clients my husband is a racist, and to never go to him, but spread the work in the industry. My husband has never even entertained the thought that because his own skin is a different colour, it makes him better. He has never made any remarks in the office, or acted in a manner that is not dignifying, which other staff can attest to. In fact, some on the staff have walked around talking in an Indian accent, mimicking the sales rep and none of them are being accused of racism.

My husband has made a career out of the international logistics industry; now his name and career is being defamed by a sales rep who is doing this because he is scared his “personal” clients ( who really belong to the company they work at,) might leave him. And my husband is the cause of it, so what better way to get rid of the threat than to accuse him of racism. My question is, after all that waffle, where do we stand on the issue? Does the sentence in the email justify an accusation of racism? And how do we go about fighting the defamation of my husband’s name? Do we have a legal standing.

Signed, Worried Wife

Dear Worried Wife:

Most likely this accusation will now be reviewed by your husband’s boss and appropriate personnel of his company. The Indian sales rep obviously was angered and felt threatened by your husband’s email to his clients about “things can become lost in translation through our sales rep.” If you could put yourself in this sales rep’s shoes, you might understand why he has made the racism accusation. It is not clear what was the motivation by the boss of your husband to request that he contact the clients of the sales rep. Had there been complaints or a lack of business from them?

Whatever the motivation, it was an affront to bypass this sales rep for your husband to specifically contact his clients and spell out the broad services of the company. Then to add the note “things can become lost in translation through our sales rep” prompted him to interpret this as an attack on his national origin and to charge racism. Unfortunately, the sales rep has warned “his clients” that your husband is racist and to avoid him. That probably can’t be undone. You say you husband would never use racist putdowns and that now he has been defamed.

However, if it is true as you have been told, staff in his office has mimicked the Indian dialect of the sales rep and your husband has not made it clear to them that this is wrong, is he not to some extent responsible for racist talk? So now your husband’s company must untangle and/or hopefully smooth over this situation. How? That will hinge on what the appropriate officials decide. We don’t provide legal advice, but there are several Internet sources that address the matter of false accusations of racism. From this distance as a disinterested party who wants the best for all concerned in this matter, I propose the following be considered:See this as an opportunity to clear the air and to make things right. It is important that the three parties involved be present for this; the sales rep, your husband, and his boss.

Possibly, also to facilitate such a meeting, a representative of the Human Relations and/or legal arm of the firm should be present. That meeting probably should include a candid apology by your husband to the sales rep for bypassing him rather than face-to-face explaining the reasons for contacting his clients. In this meeting, its agenda should allow the sales rep opportunity to vent his charge of racism and he should be informed that making that charge to his clients was wrong. Your husband also should be allowed a time to express how hurt he feels at being branded racist.Problem-solving should be the goal of this meeting. That entails analyzing the extent and context of the situation and clarification of the roles of all parties. This should include those of your husband and his responsibilities and how they are communicated. Also those of the sales rep, his boundaries and what and how he communicates with his clients and his department (I assume that is with your husband).

If the sales rep performance is evaluated to suffer from shortcomings that too should be explored. Saving face should be foremost in resolution of this matter; that of all concerned. More than saving face, its goal should be to make each party look good. One technique to achieve this is for collaboratively spelling out the communication dos and don’ts of the operations manager, its staff and sales reps. The give and take of such an exercise can transform a boss/bossed gap in which egos vie for solo status to what I call a WEGO operations; a team mindset.

Finally, I suggest that your husband and his staff not obsess and gossip about this. Rather it is best left to the immediate parties to resolve, and if not, it should be placed in the hands of the appropriate office. Mistakes are par for the course of business and the success of a program hinges on how one copes with mistakes drives, and sand traps. The goal of every organization is to learn from mistakes and to be resilient. Working with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. Appreciation of the deeper meaning of that maxim can make a difference on how we respond to conflict. If you can make time to do so, within a few weeks, I would appreciate an update on how this is resolved.

William Gorden