Racism in the Workplace – An Accusation Made Against Me

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a reference to someone’s skin color resulting in a suspension.

On Wednesday I was suspended from work for a couple of comments I made about someone’s skin colour. It was a cheap attempt at a joke and the person. I consider the person I said it to to be a friend. There was another person involved in the conversation, who I believe has made the accusation against me.

On reflection I completely agree that my comments could be interpreted as racist, but without question there was no malicious intent. I do not consider myself to be in anyway a racist.

My intention, when I am called back into the office, is to hold my hands up and apologize unreservedly. I have worked for the company for quite a long time and my performance reviews have always been exemplary; however, I suspect they will want to make an example of me to reinforce the companies zero tolerance.

I am completely devastated that my comments have offended somebody, and it was never my intention. The idea that I will lose my job and be branded a racist with absolutely no chance of me ever being able to get work and get to the level I am currently at scares me to death.
Is there any advice you can offer to assist in my case?

Signed, Branded Racist

Dear Branded Racist:

Your embarrassment and dismay are understandable. You worry that this one incident referring to a coworker’s color that caused your suspension can subsequently label you as racist. Such a label you think can harm your career. To be sure Racist tattooed across a resume could damage a career.

But that has not happened. You realize that what you said to a friend about someone’s color could and was interpreted as racist. Moreover, you have resolved to apologize. Of course it is possible as you expect you can serve as Exhibit R within your workplace from now on, but that is not likely.

One such use of language is not a pattern. And unless you brand yourself as one whom you think will be blackened with the R label, it will likely pass. Can you see this as one mistake that you will not make again for which you have been suspended and apologized? I hope so.

If you need advice, it is concerning about how you refer to this incident from now on and how to make an apology. My advice is not to label yourself as racist and not to gossip about this incident and your suspension seeking sympathy. Make your apology sincere and short—don’t justify it by saying it was a joke, not your fault, a slip of the tongue, and/or that you are not racist. Just say something to the individual involved and your boss, such as, “I’m sorry I referred Kim’s skin color (or whatever is the individual’s name).” You might add, “That was inappropriate and none of my business. I meant no harm. I’m sorry, it will not happen again.”
Apparently your strong performance evaluations argue you are competent and valued. See this unintentional misuse of language interpreted as meaning color was of a different race as an important learning experience—one you will remember for a long time, and someday that you will be able to share proudly saying I paid the price for careless talk about someone’s skin color.

Talk of another’s appearance good or especially bad has no place at work, unless that appearance hurts performance, and if so, it is up to a manager or Human Resources to do that. From time to time, we get questions about poor grooming so we are aware that it’s necessary for someone in authority to remedy that, but not just anyone.

Please don’t punish yourself further. Let the past be past. Focus on the future. Look for ways you can cut costs of supplies, cut costs of time, and cut costs of energy. Be available to assist. Be a cheerleader. Please update us on how things are going for you once you are back to work for a week or two. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS in your workplace.
William Gorden