Racial Comment


I overheard one of my employees, who is white, talking about getting out of a ticket to another employee, who is black. The second employee was teasing the first about getting out of a ticket from the police and the first employee said, “I wasn’t drinking and I’m white”. The second laughed, however I need to talk to the first employee about this statement. I just don’t know exactly how to word this to him. Any suggestions?




Dear Uncertain:

You will need to talk to both employees about this. But, it doesn’t need to be traumatic for anyone, unless your organization requires some specific action. Otherwise, a brief counseling will be enough to clarify that the remark was not appropriate.

Consider this with the white employee: “Jim, I overheard you talking to Paul when you said you got out of a ticket because you weren’t drinking and you were white. Mentioning your race and making it sound as though white people get superior treatment was wrong for office conversation. There’s almost never a reason to mention race or ethnicity and I don’t want you to do that again. Tell me you won’t do that again.”

He’ll say that he didn’t mean anything by it and that Paul laughed, so he didn’t take it badly. Then you can say something like, “The issue is that race and ethnicity has nothing to do with our work and it shouldn’t be talked about here in the office. I don’t think you meant anything wrong by it, and that’s not what I’m saying. I’m just telling you that you shouldn’t refer to race again. So, do I have your promise that you won’t do that?”

Don’t start your conversation apologetically by saying you hate to talk to him and you know he didn’t mean it, etc. etc. Start with what you heard and say that it wasn’t appropriate for the office. Keep it brief and when you’re done, smile and say, “Thanks, that’s all I needed to hear. I knew you hadn’t intended it badly, but I also knew I had to say something to you about it. It’s over and done now and everything is OK.”

Then, go to the other person and say, “Paul, I overheard the conversation you and Jim were having when he said he didn’t get a ticket because of his race. Whatever he meant by it and however you took it, it wasn’t something that should have been said at work, and I’ve talked to him about it. I wanted you to know that I mentioned to him and he has said he won’t talk about race in the future.” Paul will probably say he didn’t mind and he hopes Jim doesn’t think he complained, etc. You can say, “Jim knows I was fulfilling my supervisory responsibility to talk to him. The point isn’t how he meant it or even how you took it, but simply that we don’t want race to be part of our conversations here at work. I just was letting you know that I’d talked to him. It’s over and done now and everything is OK.” I use that final comment about everything being OK, because employees worry that this is just the beginning and now they have to wait to see what else happens. Let them know it’s over…if it is, in fact, over.

If your organization requires that you document your actions you will need to do that. Even if there is no requirement, make a note in your calendar so if something happens again you have a record of this time of counseling.

When something like this happens it is much easier to intervene immediately. If you hear someone make a remark that is not appropriate, walk over to them and say, with a courteous and friendly tone, “Hey you guys, we don’t use those words here.” Or, “Uh, uh, uh! That’s not the kind of thing that should be talked about here.” Or, “Jim! That kind of remark isn’t appropriate here. Let’s get back to work and change the subject.”

Or something similar to stop the conversation.

By waiting, there is a chance that others will have also overheard and are thinking nothing will be said. And, they’ll never know because you will talk to Jim and Paul in private. Or, Paul may have actually felt offended somewhat and figures no one else cared. Or, Jim left Paul and since no one corrected him, he said it to several other people. Those are all reasons for my adage about supervisory intervention: “The earlier, the easier.”

But, it isn’t too late as long as you are direct, specific and adamant about it, in a courteous way that is not overdone or excessively harsh.

Best wishes with this.

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.