how to deal with a racist coworker

by Alison Green on October 21, 2011

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.

Bookmark and Share

{ 59 comments… read them below or add one }

clobbered October 21, 2011 at 2:07 am

Are any of the other employees women? Any chance of a common approach to the boss over the sexist thing? Then there is less danger of the “new employee rocking the boat” distraction.

(By the way, I am very sorry anyone has to put up with this ^@&, and I fervently hope that the OP’s workplace addresses this as they should).

Oh and the whole “that is what I have always thought” line? “You are of course free to think what you like… as am I [said slowly, with eye contact and dripping meaning]“.

Reply

Cannuck October 21, 2011 at 2:26 am

Yes, but what if your BOSS is the one making the comments? I once worked as a summer student at an NGO and my Indian boss clearly had a dislike for people of African descent. She would randomly tell stories about police brutality against Africans then come up with strange justifications for the treatment, or she would speak badly about our African volunteers and accuse them of all sorts of things , or she would speak more harshly to African employees and finally she decided to drop the N-bomb while recounting a story she’d heard on the bus to myself and another younger summer student. I stopped her, told her the story was inappropriate and she did pause briefly before turning to me and saying the N-word three more times. I mentioned the incident in my exit report and provided a letter to the secretary board of directors (who was unfortunately her BFF) but nothing was ever done. She did however try to bribe me by giving me baked goods. Didn’t eat ‘em! I’ve tried to move on but it still makes me mad.

Reply

Tanya October 21, 2011 at 9:58 pm

Eerily similar experience but I had an Indian professor – also told inappropriate stories and dropped the n-bomb quite a bit. Made a point of singling me out (and some other Hispanic students) as if I were a screw up even though I had a 4.0. *Had* meaning she waited until my last semester to find a way to give me a ‘B’ despite violating multiple academic guidelines to do so; small-town school so nobody really gave a you-know-what. From what I understand she was able to carry on like this for years because whenever a higher up confronted her on it she would accuse them of oppressing her because she’s a brown woman. It was amazing. She’s still there.

Reply

Anonymous October 22, 2011 at 2:13 am

Interesting that the immediate counter anecdotes are of Indians being racist.
Hmmm. Not that I condone it, but still….

Reply

Cannuck October 24, 2011 at 2:08 pm

@Tanya: Sorry to hear about that.
@Anonymous: Nobody drew that conclusion but you. We are simply explaining situations that occurred.

Reply

Hannah October 21, 2011 at 2:52 am

“And they expose the company to legal liability under federal harassment laws, so I strongly suggest that you stop.”

“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.”

In a 7 person company where the only person who has to work in this jerk’s vicinity is the OP, this approach comes off sounding like a really passive aggressive threat. It basically suggests that she is going to sue her own company, which probably won’t help the OP avoid looking like she is a troublemaker.

If it was me I wouldn’t bother telling him he is racist or wrong because he obviously doesn’t care, and you will only get more upset by trying to change his views. Just tell him every time he says something offensive “Tom you can’t say things like that at work!” and end the conversation without allowing it to turn into a discussion or argument. If he doesn’t get it after you shut him down like this a few times I would talk to the boss but leave the talk of legal action out.

Reply

A Nony Mouse October 21, 2011 at 7:33 am

I somewhat agree with you about the passive-agressive thing, but only if the OP can get around it by making it clear that she isn’t the one who would sue. I think those comments would work if she used them in reaction to comments made about other demographics. (and if talking to the boss is necessary, I would leave the lawsuit stuff out, unless the boss seems really dense).

I think a more serious tone is needed than just, “you can’t say that.” (It sounds like that’s been her strategy so far.) My boyfriend has a few racist in-laws. They are generally proud of the fact that they aren’t politically correct and think that their racism is just “being honest”!

Reply

Long Time Admin October 21, 2011 at 8:56 am

Yeah, a lot of cruelty is done in the name of “honesty”.

Reply

Aswin October 21, 2011 at 4:31 am

@Cannuck: I am terribly sorry for the comments made by an Indian against you. As a fellow Indian, I am totally disgusted by the comments made by your Indian boss and I absolutely feel that she/he should stop being racist or atleast stop making open-racist comments.

Racism should be condemned no matter what. It is disgusting to see Indians getting involved in racism despite the fact that they hail from a country with almost 800+ different castes :(
Please do warn your boss. Don’t file a lawsuit yet because while it ensures that he/she gets punished, it may also indicate you as a trouble-maker to prospective employers (Weird as it might seem, some companies have strange opinions of prospective candidates. You never know)
@OP: I suggest you directly tell your colleague to stop his racist rants. If he doesn’t oblige, try speaking to your HR or your boss (Depends on how good your boss is). If the problem is still not solved, I suggest you change your workstation or move on to another concern.

Reply

Cannuck October 21, 2011 at 6:06 am

I appreciate the reply and the suggestions. I no longer work there. It was just a summer job and I no longer have contact with the organization. My employer asserted that she could not possibly be prejudiced because she “also had dark skin.” Anyway…

I would never have sued 1) because I was a student and didn’t have the kind of money to hire a lawyer and 2) it’s a stressful and lengthy process. I did want her to acknowledge that her behaviour was not right but she was in complete denial and nothing was going to convince her otherwise.

Reply

raghu July 23, 2012 at 7:50 am

I can understand what you are going through and I am saying this as an Indian. The problem is not ith this particular person but in us Indians as a whole. Some give in a little early some a little later. I try my best to steer through it but I must confess I sometimes am an asshole myself(atleast I confess). Now coming to what the problem is… Its not that we/ anyone of us are racists, its justb that we suffer from an inferiority complex that makes us to show we are superior.

I in my early days had these problems, managers not acknowledging, indian colleagues seniors helping but acting as if they own you if they do help you a bit technically/otherwise at work , office politics and I guess as a victim of these, it has made me into a bit of asshole. I am trying to give this up now that I work in a different culture ina different country(UK) and be as uncomplicated as I can.

As for your case I think if you are dealing with an Indian, dont hope for a miracle that he/she is going to change. It wont happen. Just ignore that and continue giving your best at work. I am sure it will be noticded. Otherwise there are job agencies. Sorry this mightn look a bit pessimistic but with all my experience being an indian and dealing with fellow indians, this is the most honest advice I can give you.

PS: I have tried my best to be as diplomatic in my reply as possible and thats saying a lot

Reply

Zara January 19, 2013 at 12:03 pm

Hi, regards to your being indian and underestand why indians cannot help it but being racists or discriminating towards other races but English; I found it very interesting, becasue I am an iranian and I have seen this a lot between Iranians, including myself ( being arssy sometimes) it is either our inferiority complext (due to being Pi…. off regularly) or it’s our culture, as you see in our countries we discriminate so much in our own nation.

Reply

Anonymous October 21, 2011 at 9:00 am

OP, you should start documenting every single time he says something inappropriate, along with dates, times and names of other witnesses. You need to keep track of this, especially if you want to take it to your boss. It will make more of an impact if you can say, “Joe said quote X, Y and Z” rather than “Well sometimes Joe says racist stuff. No I can’t remember what he says, but it is inappropriate.” It will also help in case you possibly get in trouble for bringing it up in the first place.

Reply

GRA October 21, 2011 at 10:30 am

Yes, document what he says!

Reply

Cary October 21, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Yes document, document, document. Along the lines of Joe said y on x date and xyz were present. I said X (hopefully made it clear that what he said was unacceptable to me.)

Reply

Ask a Manager October 21, 2011 at 12:26 pm

Toward what end? It’s useful if you might bring legal action, but the OP isn’t interested in that.

Reply

Anonymous October 21, 2011 at 1:57 pm

As I said, it will give more credence to her complaint than just a vague “He’s sexist and racist because I think so”. With concrete evidence, there’s no way that the employer can worm out of it by saying that he’s just joking or has a different personality.

Reply

Jaime October 21, 2011 at 2:58 pm

And if you’re really feeling bold you can be absolutely obvious about what you’re doing. If you show your coworker that you’re documenting his inappropriate comments it might make him knock it off around you. Something like “Ok, Bob let me get that wording verbatim, you just said …….. That is wildly inappropriate in the workplace, so it is going into my file here of all the other times you verbalized your racism and sexism at work despite my repeated requests for you to stop.” It certainly won’t make your relationship better, but it might make him paranoid or annoyed enough to just stop talking to you.

Reply

fposte October 21, 2011 at 9:04 am

Though I don’t think it should really change the approach, the OP’s workplace sounds like it may be too small to be covered under federal EEOC law; however, some states have lower thresholds for their EEO laws to apply, so she may be covered by a state law.

Reply

Ask a Manager October 21, 2011 at 10:54 am

Good point. Title VII (the law in play here at the federal level) requires 15 employees or more.

Reply

Anonymous October 21, 2011 at 9:42 am

Sometimes it can be very difficult to approach these things especially in a small company. Because no matter what you say about the law chances are good people like this will continue to make those comments.

So here is my totally not legal, totally not going to fix it fast suggestion. Remind him every single time that it is an individual, not a group.
If he makes a comment remind him that women are people and individuals and some are like this and some are like that and they are all different. If he makes a comment about Indians say some are like that and some aren’t. They are all people. Push the individual idea on him every single time. If he makes general sweeping comments come back with a counter example, and lie if you have to. People who don’t look like you are people too.

This is very very slow.

And honestly I’d look for a job somewhere else in the mean time.

Reply

Ask a Manager October 21, 2011 at 10:48 am

Except that it’s not her job to fight this battle over and over. She should tell him once, clearly, that his comments are unwelcome, and if they continue after that, her manager should step in.

Reply

Anonymous October 21, 2011 at 11:50 am

I sure hope that the manager can and will but I’m not very optimistic that it will matter. And it could certainly cause an increasingly hostile enviroment for the OP. Someone who is racist and sexist at the office is suddenly going to go, hey I can’t act like that and act professionally, I’m doubtful.

Really this leaves the op with the option to find something else.

Reply

Ask a Manager October 21, 2011 at 11:52 am

Wow, I totally disagree. I mean, it’s possible that it will play out like that, but it’s not the most likely scenario. There are racists and sexists holding down jobs all over the place, and they manage to restrain themselves from making offensive comments in the workplace, because somewhere along the way someone made it clear to them that they needed to.

Reply

Anonymous February 23, 2014 at 2:29 pm

What if the offensive person is a customer screaming derogatory comments in your place of employment? This is the situation I am faced with. I let the person know it was not nice and I didn’t like it. He continued, my manager who was 2 feet from the person allowed it to continue until I avised her I was upset. She did tell him to “calm down” and he did end up leaving. My problem here is I was told by my manager that I have to consider the source and not let it get to me. She then proceeded to tell me I have to deal with people being like thatthat. She tried to justify the customer screaming these comments by saying this race of people call each other that writers all the time. I replied, so that doesn’t make this any less offensive to me. She then stated, “who do you think is out here playin the knock out game” again…who cares that had nothing to do with this situation. Now, making yet another attempt at justifying the comments she states that the small town I work in is a different world. Really..no it’s not! Any advise would help in regards to dealing with this situation.

Reply

Andrew October 21, 2011 at 9:50 am

In a 7-person company where most of the staff has been there for years–including the racist jerk–it seems likely that the powers that be already know about this and have done nothing. If that is the case I don’t know what the OP can really do except think seriously about leaving. Yes, it means not fighting an injustice, but it may be an unsinkable fight.

Reply

Andrew October 21, 2011 at 9:51 am

I meant an “unwinnable” fight. I hate auto-correct!

Reply

Ask a Manager October 21, 2011 at 10:48 am

I wouldn’t assume they know. Very often people are quite different in front of a boss than in front of coworkers.

Reply

Malissa October 21, 2011 at 10:16 am

This is the way I read this situation.
The jerk really hadn’t said anything in the office that was all that offensive until the OP gave him a ride home one night. The jerk took that as an opportunity to let his racist flag fly. The OP was probably stunned into silence. The jerk took this silence as acceptance of the behavior and has started to exhibit the same idiotic attitude at work. I’m guessing nobody else at work knows this is going on.
I’m sure if the OP could turn back time she’d pull the car over and throw the jerk out at the first remark and make him walk home. But now the problem needs to be addressed. Directly addressed.
I would stop the jerk in his tracks every single time with a WOW statement. As is, “Wow I can’t believe you just said that, Wow You really think that? or Wow that was offensive.”
At the end of the day this is a harassment issue. The jerk is creating a hostile work environment. I doubt the management knows what’s going on, as it seems that this is recent behavior. In this case I’d be tempted to record one or two of the Jerk’s gems to replay for management. If the jerk is talking about customers like this when he’s off the phone, it’s likely affecting his attitude while servicing the customers, and that’s a problem the management should be concerned about.

Reply

Joey October 21, 2011 at 10:38 am

I think Alison’s approach is off base. Throwing out the legal card can easily turn into “those comments are illegal” which you don’t get to decide and as the others said its passive aggressive. The best course of action is to tell the guy to stop in a clear and blunt way. If he says why or that’s just the way he is say although they may not all apply to you you take offense to all of the the comments and they’re not appropriate at work. Then I’d let your supervisor know about the comments. Point out how it’s bad for business. Is he around customers that might hear the comments and take offense? Does he deal with vendors? Are you Ina small community where reputation is everything? It also drives away current/potential employees. So if you can identify how it might be bad for the company’s bottom line you won’t sound like a whiner and he’s more likely to take action.

Reply

Riki October 21, 2011 at 10:42 am

Honestly, I am always amazed when people make insulting, derogatory things about certain groups when they are having casual conservations with people who are actually members of those groups! Does this guy think the OP will nod in agreement and give him a high five?? Jeez.

This jerk is a bigot and a bully. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he’s saying all these things to the newbie. OP, perhaps you should remind this jerk that you are both a woman AND Asian. Therefore, a lot of the comments that come flying out his mouth are really offensive to YOU. Then, tell him to STFU. He can think what he wants, but you don’t want to hear it.

I also agree with the above poster who recommended that the OP document each incident. If he doesn’t stop, go to your boss and hopefully they will step in.

Reply

Joey October 21, 2011 at 11:01 am

Don’t document…..unless you think you might later file a complaint with EEOC or your state office (which it doesn’t sound like you will). If your boss or any coworkers find out you’re documenting the assumption will be that you’re trying to build a case against the company. If you are thats fine, but you dont want to unnecessarily put yourself in harms way if you dont have to. What other reason is there to document?

Reply

KellyK October 21, 2011 at 11:31 am

Good point. However, you can be subtle about documenting. You can keep that info at home rather than on your work computer, if it’s a concern. (Anything that wasn’t egregious enough for you to remember when you get home is probably not worth documenting.)

Reply

ThomasT October 21, 2011 at 12:41 pm

The documentation will also help have a specific, fact-based conversation with the boss. It’s not only for legal action. See the original Anon comment about documenting – you can speak more clearly, and can also defend yourself against being called a troublemaker.

Reply

KellyK October 21, 2011 at 11:42 am

Especially since the legalities may not apply depending on what state you’re in, I would keep the conversation with the boss focused on the other issues. It’s making you really uncomfortable, which makes it hard for you to get your work done. It probably offends other people. It might be overheard by a customer, a vendor, or anyone else who might occasionally show up at your work environment.

It also has the potential to affect recruiting. You wouldn’t recommend applying for a job where they’d have to listen to a steady stream of racism and sexism to anyone you know, would you? Unfortunately, that’s only a concern if they’re actually looking to hire employee #8 in the foreseeable future. Otherwise, recruitment isn’t really a concern.

Reply

Laura October 21, 2011 at 12:35 pm

I would be sooo uncomfortable with this so I understand the OP’s position. I’m fairly non-confrontational, but I rarely have trouble with things like this. If I’m uncomfortable, people know. One look and people can tell if you’re uncomfortable. Seriously, the words “Excuse me?” with the right intonation after a comment can mean he’ll never want to make another comment like that. People apologize when they swear in front of me. I’m not kidding; my supervisor was at his computer and it stalled or something and he dropped an f-bomb, which is something I do regularly outside of work and he noticed me look at him and apologized immediately. If the racist/sexist moron had any idea that the OP was worried enough to talk to her manager he would not be saying offensive things. That doesn’t mean it’s the OP fault but as soon as he realizes, he’ll more than likely stop. Of course, because it’s becoming a big issue I would bet that he never asks for another ride home!

Reply

Anon October 21, 2011 at 12:46 pm

Talk about passive aggressive. Sounds like something a nun would do.

Reply

Sister Diane October 22, 2011 at 1:22 am

I think Laura is saying her expression is so sudden and inadvertent that her first thought is broadcast whether she likes it or not. That’s not passive aggressive, that’s just a bad poker face.

And I’ve met nuns who are direct, sweet, avoidant of all conflict, one who was outright scary, but no passive aggressive ones. But that’s me reacting to two sweeping generalizations in a post about not wanting to work with assholes who make sweeping generalizations.

Reply

ThomasT October 21, 2011 at 12:47 pm

If you haven’t ever seen Jay Smooth’s great “How to tell people they sound racist” video, I HIGHLY recommend it:
http://youtu.be/b0Ti-gkJiXc
Short, succinct, smart. It’s been around a couple years, but I just got pointed to it a month or so ago.

In this specific situation, the OP shouldn’t have to have this conversation over and over. But given that there seems to be enough repetition of the bigoted comments, it will be more difficult, but more critical to stay in the “what you said” frame rather than the “what you are” frame.

Reply

Kathy October 21, 2011 at 2:58 pm

Great video – thank you a ton for sharing. I ocassionally teach a harassment class for my employer and I think this would fit in nicely.

Reply

Jaime October 21, 2011 at 3:07 pm

That is an awesome video – thanks for sharing!

Reply

Nathan A. October 21, 2011 at 7:25 pm

This video is probably the soundest advice anybody could give on the subject. I definitely would recommend this.

Reply

JT October 22, 2011 at 11:05 am

Good video with a lot of good points.

I have to point out that there comes a time, when someone has done/said racist things repeatedly that it is correct to conclude that they actually are racist. Patterns of actions define who we are. Not saying that’s the case with the OP, or even that that is the appropriate way to talk to a particular person, but it’s true and worth recognizing. We can’t let people off with “you don’t know what I believe” when they say and do something consistently. Maybe they don’t believe they are racist, but in their actions and statements they are racist.

Reply

jmkenrick October 21, 2011 at 1:10 pm

For what it’s worth, I had a good experience where I told a co-worker who made a lot of homophobic and anti-Muslim comments (similarly, she was well into her 60s and I knew I wasn’t about to change her mind) that I found her statements distasteful and that they were irrelevant to the work we were doing.

I had to say it three or four times for it to sink in, but she evetually changed her behavior. Also, it’s worth noting that it might get tense when you make the initial comment but:

a) it’ll probably blow over (it did in my case), especially as you get busy & if you can continue to be friendly and show interest in the person (kill them with kindness!)

b) the feeling you get for standing up for your beliefs, especially in a polite & mature manner is well-worth any awkwardness.

My office was even smaller than yours (only 4 people) so everyone heard her make the comments & heard me respond. Not sure if/how that would change the situation, but my experience was that it went over fine.

Reply

Anonymous October 24, 2011 at 1:02 am

Your comment about things getting tense are well-noted. When someone says that’s what they think… then one might assume they have no intentions of changing their attitude anytime soon. So the OP should just be prepared for “things to get tense.”

Reply

Harry October 22, 2011 at 1:58 am

Why dance around the issue? Tell him and the boss straight up that ‘Joe’ is violating the law, they can be liable for a lawsuit.

Reply

Nathan A. October 22, 2011 at 2:20 pm

Because that is a sloppy way of handling the situation. The best way to handle this is to assume that the comment was made in error and address the comment. Some people do not know that they are creating a problem until they are told that they created a problem. There’s a better way to address this without being threatening.

Reply

Ro Ka October 24, 2011 at 7:45 am

Being direct is the best approach. “I would expect a man of your experience to know this kind of talk boarders on racism and unacceptable. You certainly don’t expect me to listen to this if you value our friendship, do you? And walk away. He will get it. If he doesn’t, then he will never get it, some people are not educable no matter how much we try. Racism is a cancer and some people live with it until it kills them.

Reply

anonymous nicole October 28, 2011 at 2:02 pm

the OP should tell her supervisor that her co-worker is consistently making comments that she finds offensive and ask the manager to address the situation. any good manager will want to know this information, even if it’s not documented. the OP should ask for a different work space, and her manager should accomodate the request.

but there’s no legal action (certainly, no federal harassment or discrimination claims) the OP can take against her coworker just for saying offensive things. as ornery as his opinions are, the coworker is an American with a Constitutionally protected rights to his backward, offensive opinions.

employees are liable under the EEOC through vicarious liability. this means that if an employee does something that is both in the scope of his employment and a violation of the law, then the employer is liable for those violations too. but in most jobs, when you leave work at the end of the day, your company is not liable for your actions (an example of people who can be liable off-hours are cops: they are still within the scope of employment any time they flash their badge off-hours, or if they borrow a squad car on personal time).

most likely, the coworker was not “in the scope of his employment” when the OP gave him a ride home. therefore, the comments he made in her car cannot be transferred to their employer. at best, if the coworker said or did something really offensive, the OP may have a civil claim. but anyone’s who’s ever seen judge judy should know that you don’t recover because someone said mean things — there has to be tangible proof that the words caused you harm. the best way for the OP to avoid similar circumstances in the future is to not spend personal time with this coworker. it’s not her job to change his bad behavior, or to entertain his offensiveness.

under the EEOC, “unlawful harassment” is a defined term in the agency’s code. off-hand/off-color remarks, teasing banter and other comments that are not “extremely serious” (another defined term) are NOT grounds for harassment or discrimination claims. only a few states have anti-harassment laws that are more stringent than the EEOC’s — without knowing what jurisdiction the OP lives in, we should assume that her state uses the same definition of harassment.

to plead a Title VII claim, the coworker has to do more than just say things that normal, reasonable people find offensive. his comments have to create an “extremely serious” situation — they have to create a tangibly hostile work environment for the OP and/or others. there must be demonstrated proof that the coworker’s words were said with the intended purpose of causing harm to her and/or someone else just because of their race, sex, gender/sexual orientation, religion or disability. the OP herself said that this is not the case: “[The coworker's] 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…””

the OP should request a new workspace. moreover, she needs to actively avoid interacting with this coworker — no need to talk to him in the break room, no need to give him rides home from work. just because there’s no legal action, doesn’t mean that the OP has to voluntarily engage with this employee for anything but professional reasons.

the off-color generalizations and similar comments should be addressed by the manager. many employers have very stringent anti-discrimination policies that employees have to adhere to. the coworker’s comments may be in violation of the OP’s company policies, in which case, the manager may inform the coworker that he is risking termination with his opinions.

but there is probably no legal action here for the OP. and it’s certainly unwise for the OP to *threaten* the coworker that there is one!! the coworker has not harassed her or discriminated against her — he just has offensive opinions.

a personal note: as a bisexual woman of black and native-american heritage, if i could litigate every time someone said something derogatory and offensive to me in the workplace, i would always be in court!! you wouldn’t believe how ugly people’s attitudes can be. in my opinion, the most dangerous attitudes are those of covert racists — people who seem all sugary-sweet on the outside but unconsciously harbor prejudiced attitudes that people of color are inferior to them.

personally, i would love to exile all bigots to an archipelago near the north pole. but just like there’s no right to recover for offensive remarks, there’s no boat loading up and shipping out bigots. since the reality is that this is America and bigots get to work too, the best way to deal with direct and covert bigotry is to know your rights, be proactive at work and **avoid social interaction with people that offend you**. OP: you may have to work with a bigot, but you don’t have to spend break time, lunch or after-work hours with him.

Reply

Ask a Manager October 28, 2011 at 3:54 pm

Just a couple of clarifications here: There’s no legal action the OP can take against her coworker, but if the company were large enough to be covered by federal anti-discrimination laws (which it’s not), she could potentially take action against the company. (And either way, a good company would want to know about this and put a stop to it.) Also, harassment laws do apply to conduct that occurs outside of work, if it’s with colleagues.

To qualify as harassment legally, the conduct must be “severe and pervasive.”

Reply

Anonymous November 17, 2011 at 6:58 pm

I’m Indian and have grown up with blacks making racist comments at Indians all my life. The fact that there is an Indian being racist needs to be taken in context. How many Indians are on the net and at work subjecting blacks and others to racist attacks. I can tell you that Indians and other south asians bear the brunt of subtle to outright attacks. But we suck it up and move on.Who are we going to complain to anyway?

Reply

PPM February 6, 2012 at 10:05 am

I am here because Girl, I am in the same situation as you are.
I am an asian woman just got out of college sharing a room with a racist attorney. When I told him that he was racist, all he commented was “who isn’t racist? This is a racist country.”
His comments are not limited to stereotype, but they are mean, like Asians smell funny. Why working in a Chinese law firm then? *smh

Reply

Slimebags April 27, 2012 at 12:22 am

If I had a dime for the numbers of times I have met people like this at work, we would all be rich. The fact is people like this are usually very sarcastic and do it with a big smile on their face and if you confront them, they will say “oh common, have a sense of humor,” ect and get a way with it. Simply put, if you were to go to the boss or confront him the wrong way, you and not him would most likely loose your job and be told you don’t fit in with the company. Sorry, I have been trying to figure out this one for a long time. I guess the best way to do it is to be equally sarcastic and funny to his ethnicity, place of origin ect. Dig up dirt about his background and make sarcastic remarks about the whole group, with a smile! He will shut up real quick. If his ancestors were Dutch, dig up some Dutch dirt, if they were Brits, dig up some British dirt ect if he is a mix breed, dig up dirt on each on.

Reply

Anon February 27, 2013 at 11:30 pm

Hello, I was once a racist and realized that it is never good to be one and I am used of having them around. I work in Singapore and seems like a karma for me since some of my Singaporean colleagues are racist. They frequently laugh at me* and they feel like degrading me*. To tell the truth they are much better because they have worked on this for months or even years. IF we only worked at the same span of time, I bet they are far behind of what I would have achieved.

Reply

A Manager September 6, 2013 at 2:20 am

Working with an expat Boss. Person of Indian origin but several generations of her family have settled abroad. Continuously makes depreciating and denigrating remarks about India, Indian work culture and Indian politics. While yes, India like any other country needs to improve; should this offensive behaviour be tolerated? If you find the country so offensive; why are you here??? Honestly, if the senior most person on this team has this kind of an attitude, what an image we must be portraying to the world???

Reply

PugsCare November 13, 2013 at 9:52 am

I’m really glad I found this thread… I am so sorry to all who encountered such ignorance and racism. My boss has been saying racists comments and it completely burns me up. She’ll say things that have shocked me (including a time when she said the n-word, recounting a story) but it seems like it’s okay to her because she’ll say offensive things about her culture as well. Yesterday a client said something like “there are no more white people on the subway any more” which is 1. totally not true, white people are everywhere 2. dude, that’s really offensive and ignorant. I want to call him out but I feel that would threaten my job security. I really appreciate all of the suggestions that have been made so far and I am going to start documenting these comments.

The hardest part is calling something out when something is said that isn’t overtly racist/homophobic/sexist but is pretty ignorant nonetheless.

Reply

Leah Boggs February 13, 2014 at 8:20 pm

I am in a situation where I work in a majority black environment and the department was all black until recently when things changed and they had to hire multiple new hires and some of which were white. Since I have been in this environment it has been one of the most challenging times just to stay in a job that I actually like doing. The whole department is segregated and people won’t even ask someone near them if they would like to order lunch and purposefully leave people out. Here lately aside from one other previous incident when I was disrespected and confronted unprofessionally by a black woman that hates me for no reason other that I am breathing up her air, she has been making very snide remarks to me every day when I leave saying things like, “Why are you still here?” and yelling “Leave!” This happens right when I get ready to walk out the door I feel so attacked and I am so offended because I haven’t done anything to her or anyone else I actually like a lot of the people I work with. I am not sure how to deal with this and I got so upset that I called in today and I am going to quit tomorrow because I can’t deal with it anymore. She did this before and I tried to quit and everyone convinced me to stay and I didn’t want to get her fired or cause any trouble so I didn’t tell on her and I stayed. At the point I am at now I now I can’t go on like this I have cried my eyes out every time I leave and on my lunch breaks. She has made me feel so bad about myself for no reason and I have to leave in order to respect myself and love myself. So upset I really need and like this job.

Reply

Chris April 3, 2014 at 3:08 am

The honest truth is, in a small firm, sometimes the boss values the person that brings in the most money for the firm, and issues like racism might even be overlooked.

Not to mention, even if you are right and he got disciplined, if you need him for anything, then don’t expect anything good to come out of that.

That particular racist person seems quite simple minded, being outright racist about things.

In Australia, a typical racist at work loves to put people they don’t like on “mission impossibles” or give them very little support on a new task that the racist person would later review and report upwards to seniors to sabotage this person they don’t like, and then be extremely critical and harsh about that individuals work when it’s lacking a bit of quality, and then bad mouth the victim to the upper levels. A racist engineers a scenario to burn their victims. The coloured-race male are particularly hated and challenged in the office, particularly those from a very hard working culture.

Reply

Jason April 3, 2014 at 3:41 am

Haha Australia…

They are such a crafty bunch when it comes to expressing their dislikes on the coloured races. They are great at creating that polite and fair go facade.

They will make sure that everyone has access to a job selective process, to make it seem fair, and then behind the scene when they know that they do not have the obligation to be transparent about their decision rationale, that’s when they exercise their biased judgements. Think about it, they legally can’t be transparent about why person B was hired instead of other candidates, due to confidentiality issues. They are safe to be biased and they will.

Australians even created institutions to combat racism in the work place. But let’s think about it, how much evidence do you have to provide to prove that you didn’t get a promotion because you were ethnic? How are you going to collect those info? and how many possible reasons these racists can use to defend themselves. All it takes is for these ethnics to have 1 flaw, and that’s what the racist will use to discredit them on, and all it takes is for the favoured person to have 1 noticeable strength, and the racist person would amplify on that and use that as the trump card on the ethnic candidate. These ineffective institutions are only there to give Aussies a good image, that they appear to be very fair.

Even the job selection process is heavily skewed towards the things that white people are good at.

It is also uncommon to see that large organisations in Australia would be willing to pick up school drop out candidates that are white who fortunately can just do the job, while for ethnics the same never happens. On the other side, ethnics from well renown schools get put to admin and other shit kicker roles to do the work for these drop outs. You’ll never see a master degree Aussie being put to data entry role, but for ethnics with master degrees some might end up there.

That’s not to say that if you are ethnic, you’ll definitely never get far in the work ladder. A very few will. Why? The Whites would always need these few examples to appear that they are fair to all cultures. These few successful ethnics in the work place are just necessary symbols to paint a healthy image on their corporate cultural in order to motivate more ethnics to work hard for them.

Reply

Leave a Comment

If you'd like your picture to appear next to your comments, just upload a picture at Gravatar.

Previous post:

Next post: