A reader writes:
I recently got hired at a very small company, only 7 employees including myself. I was hired about 3 months out of college, so this is my first job. I do like this position and I seem to have a good rapport with the other employees, who have all worked here for anywhere from 3 to 10 years.
However, the guy who shares my actual workspace with me, who is close to my age and has been working with the company for about 4 years, is racist and sexist. I gave him a lift home from work once, and in the 15-minute car ride, he made many sexist and racist comments about women, Asians, Indians, and African American people. Ever since that day, he has also routinely made offensive statements about these groups in relation to calls he has received (he does IT support) and in passing conversation with me during work hours. As an Asian woman and a decent human being, it is infuriating to hear this kind of talk from anyone, let alone a guy that I have to share a workspace with and am forced to deal with on a daily basis.
I just told him today that a comment he made about Indian people was “very racist,” and he just shrugged and said, “Well, it’s what I think. It’s how I’ve always thought.” These comments are never made directly at me, they are always made as a sweeping generalization about all people of a certain race or “you know how fill-in-the-blanks are,” but that doesn’t make me any less upset. And, I’m sure that if anybody else were sharing this workspace with the two of us, they would find these comments upsetting, as well.
I honestly do not know how to approach this in a way that works out well for me. What I would like to do is tell him outright the next time he makes an offensive comment that I would appreciate it if he would keep those comments to himself because they are offensive and wrong. But I don’t know to what extent that would actually solve my problem. Clearly, racism and sexism are not things I can change his mind about, at least not in a professional setting, and I do not plan on doing so. Should I bring up this issue with my boss? I’m afraid that by bringing this up so early in my employment, it could seem like I am being sensitive and prone to starting trouble, no matter how justified I am.
Lay down the law with him directly. (And I do literally mean the law, which we’ll get to.)
Normally if someone makes one isolated racist remark, I’d recommend saying something like, “Wow. What would make you say that?” That lower-key approach on its own is often enough to cause the person to backpedal and at least watch their mouth in the future. But you’ve already tried pointing out his racism, and he just dug his heels in and defended it, so it’s time to get more direct.
The very next time he makes one of these comments, say this: “Those sorts of comments are offensive to most people and unwelcome in the workplace. I don’t want to hear anything like that again.” When he responds by telling you that it’s how he’s always thought or whatever other asinine defense he comes up with, say this: “I don’t care. I’m telling you that those comments are unwelcome in the workplace, and they’re unwelcome around me. And they expose the company to legal liability under federal harassment laws, so I strongly suggest that you stop.”
If it continues after that, yes, you should talk to your boss. If your boss is even halfway aware of relevant employment laws, and/or an even halfway decent person, she would want to know about this. Don’t think of it as making trouble — think of it as bringing a serious problem to her attention before it causes real damage, just like you’d warn her about, say, a bug in a product you were releasing. It’s strongly in the company’s interests to put a stop to this guy’s comments, because the company is legally liable for the environment that he’s creating and this sounds pervasive enough that it would trigger the federal hostile workplace statute. (Although most employers will act even if it’s not pervasive enough to trigger the law, simply because they don’t want to take chances. And often because they rightly don’t want that kind of BS in their workplaces.)
When you talk to your boss, say something like this: “I want to bring it to your attention that Joe has been regularly making racist comments in my presence. I’ve asked him several times to stop and have told him that it’s unwelcome, and it’s continued. I figure that you’d want to know about this, because I’m sure the company doesn’t want an employee doing this, for legal reasons if nothing else.”
Work from the assumption that of course your boss would want to know about this, because she probably does.