The workplace often offers built-in grievance procedures, tied to policies or laws, which can be used to respond to some forms of everyday bigotry. You need not file a lawsuit to have such a policy be effective; many roundtable participants spoke of invoking such policies when speaking up, saying the mere mention carries weight.
Power, too, comes into play at the workplace. The dynamic of an employee speaking to a supervisor is very different than a supervisor speaking to an employee. Likewise, an executive's tacit acceptance of bigoted remarks can create an atmosphere where bias thrives — just as one powerfully placed comment from that executive can curb everyday bigotry in significant ways.
Who sets the tone at your office? And what leverage do you have with that person? If you lack leverage, who has it? And might that person be an ally?
An African American businesswoman in the South writes: "I was speaking with a white co-worker when, midway through the conversation, she smiled and said, 'You speak so clearly. Have you had diction lessons?' — like for an African American to speak clearly, we'd have to have diction lessons."
A manager writes: "One of my employees constantly makes 'jokes' about people being 'bipolar' or 'going postal' or being 'off their meds.' I happen to know that one of our other employees — within earshot of these comments — is on medication for depression. How can I stop the bad behavior without revealing proprietary information?"
One co-worker asks another if she wants to go out for lunch. "We're going to get Ping-Pong chicken," she says, faking a vaguely Asian accent.
An Italian American woman's co-worker makes daily comments about her heritage. "Are you in the mafia?" "Are you related to the Godfather?" There are only six colleagues in the office, and the Italian American woman doesn't know how — or if — to respond.
Workplace culture largely is determined by what is or isn't allowed to occur. If people are lax in responding to bigotry, then bigotry prevails. Speak up early and often in order to build a more inclusive environment.
Use — or establish — policies.
Call upon existing — too often forgotten or ignored — policies to address bigoted language or behavior. Work with your personnel director or human resources department to create new policies and procedures, as needed. Also ask your company to provide anti-bias training.
Go up the ladder.
If behavior persists, take your complaints up the management ladder. Find allies in upper management, and call on them to help create and maintain an office environment free of bias and bigotry.
Like-minded colleagues also may form an alliance and then ask the colleague or supervisor to change his or her tone or behavior.
Two co-workers, one of whom is deaf, are asked to meet with an executive from another firm. They go to the other man's office, and a sign-language interpreter accompanies them. The executive chooses to face the interpreter, speaking to him, not looking at or acknowledging the employee who is deaf.
An African American woman, in a staff meeting about budget issues, hears a white co-worker suggest cost-cutting measures for landscaping: "Why don't we just get the Mexicans to do it?"
A woman writes, "A good-hearted liberal co-worker makes comments at staff meetings like, 'All Republicans are stupid,' or, 'All Republicans are this,' or 'All Republicans are that.' I'm a Democrat who agrees with her politics, but I think those comments are as offensive as someone saying 'All immigrants are lazy' or 'All Irish people are drunks.' Stereotyping is stereotyping. Short of saying, 'Some of my best friends are Republicans,' what can I do?"
Seize the moment.
With the interpreter, the colleague said, "I hate to interrupt, but just as a matter of practice, you should look at the person you're talking to, not the interpreter." In the meeting, an observer might say, "What do you mean by that? What are you saying about Mexicans?"
Address the issue privately.
Take the coworker aside and gently explain what you find offensive: "You know, you're giving Democrats a bad name when you make sweeping generalizations about Republicans."
Check in with the meeting leader.
If you are uncomfortable dealing with the speaker directly, consider speaking with the person who called the meeting. Set expectations or ground rules prior to the next meeting.
My Own Bias
A Southern white woman is an event coordinator working with an African American minister. They end up talking about a mutual acquaintance who is known to be persistent and driven.
"Without thinking," the woman writes, "I uttered a phrase I grew up hearing — 'Yeah, he's a real slave driver.' As soon as it was out of my mouth, I realized for the first time the source and meaning of the word. I was ashamed and bewildered and wanted to apologize."
But before she can say anything, the minister, looking her in the eye, quickly replies, "Yes, he's a real taskmaster."
She agrees and later thanks him for "his kindness and subtle but important education."
The result: "I haven't used the term 'slave driver' since."
Be open to feedback.
Ask clarifying questions, if need be. "Please help me understand. How have I offended you?" Be gracious, and consider the moment a learning opportunity. Thank the person for pointing it out, and ask for continued feedback.
Focus on the work relationship.
Strive to reconnect and ensure that the moment doesn't sidetrack your ongoing ability to work together. "I know this has been awkward for both of us. Is there anything I should do, or that we should do, as a next step? I really want us to keep working well together."
Change your behavior.
Don't wait for someone to be offended by what you say. Listen closely to the phrases and terms you use; are some of them "acceptable" only because the targeted group is not present? Bigotry is bigotry no matter who hears it; strive to model respect and tolerance wherever you are.