my coworker says she’s the office stepchild because her race

A reader writes:

I work as part of an admin support team for an international company. One of my fellow admins constantly claims that she’s treated differently because of her race. She says that she’s the “stepchild” of the office and if anyone asks her to do anything, or remarks on the fact that she is constantly late (at least 4 times a week) and also leaves the office for long periods of time to take personal calls, she says they are doing so because of her race. She goes so far as to tell even coworkers on other teams that she’s hated because of her race.

Alison, our office is not only multiracial, it’s also multicultural as well because we are a branch of an international company. She is not the only person of her race in the building either. No one is treating her any differently because of her race (other than the fact that she’s getting away with constant tardiness and leaving her desk for long periods of time) and it’s making everyone on our team very uncomfortable. We’ve tried including her in group outings and after work plans. We make a point to always ask her out to lunch. Even though she takes us up on these offers, she still seems to think that we treat her like a “stepchild”.

At this point, we don’t know how to make the situation more comfortable. Do we confront her about her attitude? Do we contact HR?

I’d talk to HR and/or your manager immediately because she’s basically accusing you of discrimination or creating a hostile workplace (in the legal sense of the term, not just the plain language sense), and that’s something that you should take seriously even if you know there’s no merit. Or at least your company should.

That said … I do want to say that it’s possible that she really is being treated differently because of her race. It happens even in diverse workplaces, and it can often be subtle enough that people in the dominant demographic group don’t easily see it. It’s not always about open hostility or blatantly racist remarks; it’s more often things like a manager not giving feedback to a person of color because she’s not comfortable having a sensitive conversation with someone of a difference race, thus leading to that person not hearing where she could do better … or not giving someone of a different race hard or important projects because the manager has unconscious questions about that person’s work ethic. That’s the kind of stuff that you might not easily see as a member of the dominant group.

However, if indeed her only complaints are that she’s being asked to do work and that her absences from the office are remarked upon — which is what it sounds like from the letter — then it doesn’t sound like what’s happening here. Or if it is, she’s handling it in the worst way possible. But it’s worth pointing out since we’re talking about this stuff.

In any case, though, you’re not her manager; you’re a peer. It’s really someone in management who needs to know about and address this issue, so make them aware of it.

{ 227 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    I feel for the OP, if the situation is as described. My girlfriend is going through a similar issue in her office, with “I’m being discriminated against” being the person of question’s defense against constantly coming in late and spending hours chatting with her friends.

    Sadly her managers are spineless and are unwilling to confront her, for fear of it turning into a racial discrimination case, so they leave her be.

    1. The Other Dawn*

      “Sadly her managers are spineless and are unwilling to confront her, for fear of it turning into a racial discrimination case, so they leave her be.”

      Sounds like the managers where my husband works. A certain few people that have been there for 15+ years and work the night shift routinely fall asleep on the job and miss certain tasks. But no one says anything anymore because any time they do, the employees pull the race card and threaten to sue. HR runs for the hills each time.

      1. WWWONKA*

        I am so tired of the race card getting pulled. Maybe this person has pigeon holed herself by having the attitude that she has. Everyone goes out of the way to coddle this person when the manager should be disciplining her for her work performance. I had a guy that reported to me tell me one time that the company discriminated against him. I challenged his beliefs rather than running away. We never had to have that discussion again.

          1. JM in England*

            Agreed WWWONKA, the race card is getting played too often in the workplace these days. The result of this will be the dilution of its effectiveness for genuine racial discrimination cases.

            My best friend’s fiancee is a team leader at her work and has encountered this situation firsthand. The employee concerned was in a minority group and was not pulling her weight. When my friend’s fiancee pulled her up on this, the first thing the problem employee said was that she (the fiancee) was a racist.

      2. Linda*

        +100 Way too many managers are intimidated by incompetent and/or lazy employees pulling the race card.

        1. SevenSixOne*

          At one job, a conflict between a white employee and a minority management employee got physical. The minority employee shoved the white employee in view of another employee (me) and at least one customer. This was all on camera… but not only did upper management refuse to do anything, upper management refused to even acknowledge anything had HAPPENED.

    2. WTF*

      I am going to post this right at the top and save people from having to read 128 responses like I just did.
      Why has no one found offense that this woman has used the term ‘stepchild’ to define herself? That is discrimination against stepchildren and she needs to be stopped, immediately.

      1. Rachel*

        I agree. I hate it when stepchild is used as a metaphor for someone who is mistreated. It contributes to a culture where there is a message that stepchildren are somehow not “real” children, which at the population level leads to some serious consequences. If I were a manager and I heard this, I would immediately put a stop to the offensive way the complaint was phrased. Also, since this is such a common phrase, I would be aware that the employee probably did not mean to offend.

      2. BCW*

        Wow, really? I mean its a fairly common term, and everyone knew exactly what was meant. This is a perfect example of our oversensitive society. As a black man, if the term used instead was “she feels like the black sheep” I wouldn’t call that discrimination. Its a colloquialism that, while maybe outdated, is very well known. What about if Allison wrote “rule of thumb”? Would that be sexist? I mean it came from the belief that a husband could hit his wife with something as long as it was no bigger than his thumb. Many everyday sayings have origins in things that were less than PC, but it doesn’t mean that we should take them all offensively.

        Furthermore, I know that just because something doesn’t offend me, I can’t say it shouldn’t offend anyone. But this seems a bit much. I say this as someone who was a step child growing up.

          1. BCW*

            Ah, well I stand corrected on that one. My overall point is the same though. There are plenty of common words with origins that aren’t great.

        1. Jessa*

          Because if we don’t change that language it carries forward with all the baggage and discriminatory history attached to it. The REASON that language can be used as short hand for someone being mistreated or treated differently is because stepchildren often WERE. That’s wrong. And has to be recognised. And if we don’t change the language and point that out every time it’s used…see my point?

          I don’t like the use of “race card” as concept either. And the concept of someone in a discriminated against class complaining of discrimination when there arguably is none, hurts every genuine claim and needs to be shut down. Because well it allows people of privilege to turn around and say “see there is no such thing they (persons in that class of people) always play (fill in the card) when this happens and it’s NEVER the case.” This is dangerous and allows them to shut down genuine discussion of real and actual discrimination. And people need to be clear on what real discrimination is. And it’s not letting someone get away with NOT doing their job.

          1. Elikit*

            I hate the concept of “playing the race card” as well. That accusation gets thrown around as if “playing the race card” has some actual effect in real life.

            Someone here – probably a manager, needs to step up and open a dialogue about the situation with this person and HR and get all this crap noted down, so that it either forces the co-worker to say, “Hey, when you expect me to be on time and do my job, that’s racial discrimination” and leads to “hey, no that’s not”, your door prize is a PPE or if it is actually a “these things are going on”, whoa that’s not okay situation.

            If anything, “the race card” doesn’t “get played” anywhere near as often as it should be because there are too many potential negative consequences in a workplace.

            In my last job, if I had wanted to make a discrimination complaint, I would have been complaining to the de facto HR manager, who wasn’t actually HR, since we weren’t large enough to be required to have one, and the people I would have been complaining about would have been him, his wife who worked for the company, and two co-founders of the company who he had been working with for decades.

            Needless to say, that race card went unplayed.

          2. JuliB*

            Ack. Who are you to define language? Language is evolutionary and changes over time due to popular usage. I utterly reject the notion of such control of words. Unless you are actively working to remove the concept of homosexuality from the word gay, I think you are blind to your own assumptions and biases.

        2. Rachel*

          Unfortunately, the research shows that stepchildren ARE still more subject to abuse of all kinds in the home. It is not an outdated problem. And I am not trying to be overly-PC, it just seems like a sad and ridiculous way to phrase “I am being mistreated.”

      3. fposte*

        Can’t tell if this is serious–while some people might be offended by the terminology, no, it’s not discrimination against stepchildren.

        1. Another Emily*

          I think it’s pretty rude to be honest. I also feel uncomfortable when people say stuff like “blended family” because it feels othering to me.

          She’s saying being treated like a stepchild is being treated worse than the other people (who are not the stepchildren), and this is part of the weird dynamic we have in our society about families.

          I do think it’s hypocritical to stand up against discrimination against one group while simultaneously being discriminatory or judgemental to another group. Sadly, this happens a lot.

          1. fposte*

            I’m not saying it’s great to use a term pejoratively (though I’m not actually personally bothered by this one myself); I’m saying that’s a very different thing from discrimination. For it to be discrimination, an actual person has to be the subject of it.

    3. Linda*

      It is beginning to seem like almost everyone has stories like this. There is a guy in my office who can’t/won’t do his job, comes in late (if at all), deliberately does things to piss off his coworkers, and then says he is treated differently because he is a black man. True, he is, because he pulls the race card and gets promoted whereas any of the rest of us would be fired if we were as incompetent and as big a jerk as he is.

  2. Joey*

    I’d tell her something like this: “I have never and will never treat you differently because of race. I’m sorry you feel that way. If you feel someone else has you need to do something about it.”

    1. Lily*

      I don’t think that telling the stepchild this will improve the situation. Why should OP make a categorical statement like this?

      1. Joey*

        I think its important to refute when you’re personally being accused. And the last part is the equivalent of “if you have a problem do something about it because I don’t want to keep hearing about your complaints.”

        1. Lily*

          I didn’t understand that Stepchild had personally accused OP of racism. I would want to counter accusations, but I think a blanket statement of innocence “I have never and will never treat you differently because of race” is likely to be met with disbelief since Stepchild (and researchers) think everyone is susceptible to subtle forms of discrimination.

          I’m sorry to criticize your statement, when I can’t make a countersuggestion of my own!

          1. Joey*

            she still seems to think that we treat her like a “stepchild”.

            That sounds like a personal accusation to me.

          2. TL*

            I think saying something like, “I take such accusations very seriously and I would really appreciate it if you could walk me through the specific incidents/remarks/attitudes that are indicative of racist behavior.” And then listening very hard, both to the sum of the incidents and each incident individually.

    2. TheSnarkyB*

      I think this is a terrible idea. The OP doesn’t even have any way of knowing that this is the case. People cannot make promises like this. Especially since dominant or privileged groups (of any category) don’t always know or recognize these things, even in themselves, as Alison said.
      This almost (I said almost) falls into the category of, if you have to ask…. i.e. if you have to profess you’re not doing something racist…

      1. Joey*

        So are you saying if someone accuses you of say sexism you shouldn’t refute it because you don’t know your subconscious biases? Silence is often assumed to be a non-denial.

        1. TheSnarkyB*

          Uh, yeah. That’s exactly what I’m saying. If someone accuses you of sexism, you say “I’m so sorry – I didn’t mean to offend you. Could you explain what I said/did that you felt was sexist?”
          Everyone has their own reality. You won’t get others to accept yours simply by proclaiming it.
          And for all you know, the person accusing you of sexism (in the example above) could point out something that makes you have a facepalm moment b/c you never thought of it as sexist but once explained, the connection is so obvious.

          If intent were everything, “I didn’t mean to do that” would equal “I didn’t do that” -but it doesn’t.

          1. Joey*

            That may be the nice thing to do, but if I’m accused of something I didn’t do at work I’m going to say so.

            And if a manager or HR person asked me if I treated her differently because of race I’m not going to say “well I may have subconsciously,but I have no way of knowing you know because subconscious”

            1. LF*

              How can you know that you weren’t being biased, though? I doubt anyone on this site ever intends to be racist (I have seen some occasional sexist comments), but your intentions do not always equal your actions. The only way you would learn that you were unintentionally racist is if someone called you out on it, and you showed an openness to learning about it.

              1. Joey*

                You don’t. But if you truly believe you’re weren’t basing actions on race you say that at work. Saying you may or may not because of unconscious bias will get you in trouble.

                I’m not getting why people have such a problem with that.

                1. fposte*

                  I think we’re seeing different things as refutation. “I truly believe I wasn’t basing my actions on sexism” is a legit thing to say–it’s about your conviction and intentions and allows, at least at that point, for the possibility that you believed wrong. “It couldn’t have been sexist” wouldn’t be.

                  I also think that the thread is flowing around different kinds of discourse on this, and that we’re talking not just about what you say to defend yourself on the record but how to talk to people to move forward and work with them effectively; those are often two very different kinds of statements.

                2. Ruffingit*

                  Some of what people are saying is that it’s not the unconcious bias, it’s that you might have done something that was in fact racist or sexist, you just didn’t realize it and when someone points it out to you, you’re like “YIKES, I see now how Sally could have thought that was sexist…”

                  That said, I’m actually in agreement with you Joey. I’m not copping to anything discriminatory at work unless someone can point out exactly how it was discriminatory. I like the suggestion another poster made of making the “step-child” explain exactly what was said and how she believes it to be racist. Putting the onus on her to explain may make the problem go away quickly because it’s likely she can’t explain in any way that will make sense. “I’m not allowed to come in late 4 days a week because I’m black…” Yeah…NO.

                3. Lily*


                  “we’re talking not just about what you say to defend yourself on the record but how to talk to people to move forward and work with them effectively; those are often two very different kinds of statements.”

                  This is so true, not only in discussions of possible racism, but in practically all areas of conflict!

          2. Anonymous*


            So, in your little world, there should be no way to defend oneself from an accusation of sexism?

            I hope that you never become one of my coworkers. Hell, I hope we work in completely different industries.

          3. BCW*

            Thats a bit much. by your logic there is really no defense if you are being accused of something because you believe anything can be subconscious

    3. Emma*

      Nopenopenope. Not only is the phrase “I’m sorry you feel that way” an incredibly invalidating and frankly douchey response to a concern but this whole statement assumes that you as a member of the dominant racial group get to decide what being treated differently based on race means.

      1. Joey*

        Douchey? If I’m accused of racism I’d surely say that because I would be sorry the person felt that way.

            1. TL*

              It comes off (to me) as pretty arrogant to make a blanket statement that nothing you could ever do or say in a work context could be racist.
              Just because something is not deliberately intended to be racist doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be addressed (or apologized for.)

              1. Joey*

                I never said that. I only said if I feel I didn’t do anything wrong I would t apologize. If I agreed I said or did something offensive I’d apologize.

                1. TL*

                  “If someone accuses me of racism I’m going to dismiss my part in it.” (because there’s no way you could do something racist?)
                  “If I’m accused of racism I’d surely say that [I’m sorry you feel that way] because I would be sorry the person felt that way.” (Because it would be clearly their feelings that were mistaken, not anything on your end?)
                  “Its a non apology because that’s true. I don’t apologize for things I didn’t do.” (Because you could never do anything racist?)

                  All of your comments here seem to be predicated upon the notion that you (and the OP) aren’t being racist, can’t be racist because you KNOW you’re not being racist, and thus would always be unfairly accused of being racist.

                  Not even once do you allow for the possibility that someone could be unintentionally racist and thus accusations of racism should be taken seriously.

                2. BCW*

                  @TL, but your response is going on the assumption that he IS doing something racist. Just because someone takes something a certain way, doesn’t mean thats so.

                  Here is an example. Say I’m having a bad day and I’m super moody. You and some friends are going to KFC for lunch. You say, “Hey BCW, we are going to KFC, you want anything”. I could take that as a racist statement because you are offering me as a black person fried chicken (assuming everyone has heard that stereotype). My point is just because I took it that way, doesn’t mean you did anything wrong. Nor does it mean you should have to apologize for saying something innocent that because of my state of mind at the time, I decided to read too much into it.

              2. Kit M.*

                Yes. There’s this idea that you have to be “a racist” to be racist, which just isn’t true.

            2. KellyK*

              You’re not *incapable* of saying or doing something that’s discriminatory, though. People are reacting strongly to that comment because it comes off as extremely arrogant.

            1. VintageLydia*

              You do realize what we say and do can have consequences beyond what you intended, right? We are still responsible for things we did, even accidentally.
              You might not have meant to step on my foot, but you did, and the proper thing to do is apologize and try not to do it again. And there are a lot of things people do that are racist (or sexist or otherwise bigoted) that you don’t even realize is so until they’re called out on it. I didn’t know until late last year that “lame” was ablist and the “gypped” was racially offensive. I never intended to offend anyone by saying those things, but they are indeed offensive. I apologized at the time I was called out, and I’ve taken steps to eradicate those words from my vocabulary.
              It doesn’t even have to be bigoted language or behavior. Some people think doing your make up at your desk is gross or otherwise impolite. I don’t care, personally, but I’d avoid doing it in the future if it was called to my attention. Stamping my feet in stubbornness helps no one but does make me look like a child.

              1. Joey*

                Of course, but I base those sorts of things on reasonableness, societal standards, the culture of the company, and the spirit of the law.

              2. Elizabeth West*

                “lame” was ablist

                Say WHAT?!

                adjective: lame; comparative adjective: lamer; superlative adjective: lamest

                (of a person or animal) unable to walk normally because of an injury or illness affecting the leg or foot.
                “his horse went lame”
                synonyms: limping, hobbling; More
                crippled, disabled, incapacitated;
                “the mare was lame”
                antonyms: able-bodied
                (of a leg or foot) affected by injury or illness.
                (of an explanation or excuse) unconvincingly feeble.
                “it was a lame statement and there was no excusing his behavior”
                synonyms: feeble, weak, thin, flimsy, sorry; More
                unconvincing, implausible, unlikely
                “a lame excuse”
                antonyms: convincing
                (of something intended to be entertaining) uninspiring and dull.
                (of a person) naive or inept, esp. socially.
                “anyone who doesn’t know that is obviously lame”
                (of verse or metrical feet) halting; metrically defective.

                verb: lame; 3rd person present: lames; past tense: lamed; past participle: lamed; gerund or present participle: laming

                make (a person or animal) lame.
                “somebody lamed him with a stone”

                I believe the use of “lame” as in “That’s so lame” would fall under definition number two, which doesn’t strike me as particularly discriminatory. On that one, I think it’s reaching.

                You’re absolutely right about “gypped,” though.

                1. VintageLydia*

                  It’s in the same vein as using “gay” or “fag”. Using language describing a certain type of person (in the case of “lame” it’s disabled people) as analogous to something unsavory or not desirable.

                2. Elizabeth West*

                  Wow, I never heard that one before. Most people don’t use lame these days to describe someone who is disabled–they say disabled. Come to think of it, I can’t remember ever hearing the original usage in conversation. Interesting.

                3. fposte*

                  I’m not wholly on board with the “anything used to pejoratively categorize humans isn’t acceptable” thing myself. “Lame” is just one of many, and since it doesn’t make sense to single it out, that’s all the “dumb,” “stupid,” “moron,” and “idiot”-based words gone right there, no matter what they’re applied to. Then there’s the periodic attempts to deal with “woman,” which etymologically means “wife of man,” a fact which doesn’t thrill but which also doesn’t have much day-to-day effect in 2013.

                  I think this is the complement to folk etymologies for words like “handicap,” in that both are arguments for etymology, even bogus etymology, being what’s important about a word rather than its contemporary meaning and use. In general, if somebody has a preference for how they’ll be referred to I’ll go along with that, because why not? But the notion that etymology makes something inherently offensive–I’m not convinced.

        1. Emma*

          There’s a difference between saying “I’m sorry you feel that way” (which is a non-apology) and “I’m sorry *I made you feel* that way,” which acknowledges your role in a person’s emotional response. That’s what I mean by the first one being douchey.

            1. Leslie Yep*

              Then maybe you shouldn’t allow yourself to feel offended that someone accused you of hurting their feelings?

            2. fposte*

              In that it happens in my brain, sure. In that it’s a conscious choice to feel or not to feel, no, not usually. We’re really not hugely advanced mammals, in a lot of ways, and we don’t have a whole lot of capacity for reasoning ourselves out of basic mammal responses like stress when we’re on the outs with our group. Much as I love Eleanor Roosevelt, she was wrong on “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

              I would agree that we’re not completely powerless over influencing our feelings and reactions to a situation, but most people really don’t have the wiring to simply choose not to be bothered. (I’m reminded on the article in the NYT about the way even people who’ve learned to sleep through the noise of a neighboring airport and say they don’t mind it still show stress markers from the noise.)

              1. Joey*

                We can disagree on that point if you’d like. But really no one has as much control of your emotions as you do.

                1. fposte*

                  We probably do just disagree. And for the record I’m definitely not espousing a “Nobody can ever change anything and we must assume that all wounds are permanent” thing–I think there’s the emotional equivalent of the statutory reasonable person, who can get over getting cut off in traffic but needs some help to process being the victim of a violent crime.

            3. P*

              If this is true, why would anyone ever allow themselves to feel anything negative? That’s bullshit.

              1. P*

                Alright, not so eloquently worded. But this sounds like the type of thing a white male would say – “why are these women and minorities whining about being oppressed? don’t they know they can’t be a victim without their consent?”

                1. TheSnarkyB*

                  Yep. I’m hearing a lot of white male things today. And whether they’re actually coming from a white male or not is a little irrelevant- but a lot of these proclamations reek of unchecked privilege.

                2. Joey*

                  I’m of the mind that if you’re being wronged get off your ass and do something about it. Throwing up your hands and having a pity party does nothing.

                  And I’ve experienced racism.

                3. TheSnarkyB*

                  Wow. “Get off your ass and do something about it”?
                  And then you get accused of pulling the race card.
                  You really don’t get how this works, do you? It’s a Catch-22. You sound really unsatisfied with how everyone else looks at this sort of thing, and I hear you bringing personal choice and personal power into it in ways that, honestly, aren’t always applicable when it comes to imbalanced power in the world. I feel like that sort of outlook (unreasonable expectations given the limitations placed on actors within the system) could lead someone to feel really indignant and think that everyone is always wrong. Sounds like a crappy and angry way to go through life.

                4. Joey*

                  Not everyone, just those who complain with no action. I jut don’t see the point in complaining to co-workers. It does nothing but bring other people down. And I’m of the opposite view-surrounding yourself with whiners is the recipe to unhappiness.

      1. TychaBrahe*

        “I hear that/get that/understand that you feel you’re being discriminated against because of your race. However, I don’t see it that way. Can you explain why you feel this treatment is race-based?”

        You acknowledge their feelings without admitting that you are causing them.

        1. iseeshiny*

          “You acknowledge their feelings without admitting that you are causing them.” Why not admit you caused someone to feel bad?

          It’s totally possible to make someone feel bad without intending to. It’s possible to make someone else feel bad in a racial sense without being a racist. Decent human beings make an effort not to do this, but it can be hard with our society set up the way it is and sometimes people in dominant demographics make mistakes. The decent response to this is apologizing and not doing it anymore. You lose nothing when you apologize, and admitting to a racial misstep does not make you a racist.

          This insistence on not admitting to causing bad feelings can be worse than causing the bad feeling in the first place, depending on the offense. When we don’t admit that there is a problem, we are prioritizing our needs to not feel like a jerk for the second it would take to correct our behavior over the injured party’s more lasting need to have the common respect due that every person deserves but only the dominant demographics tend to take for granted.

          1. Jen in RO*

            I know that intent is usually ignored in such situations, but I will not apologize for something I didn’t do. Take BCW’s example above (KFC and a black person). If I were the coworker, I would not feel bad for saying something completely innocent that got misinterpreted due to someone’s else’s bad day. I will not take responsibility for everyone else’s feelings, that’s ridiculous.

            1. BCW*

              I think that is what people like me and Joey are trying to get across. But it seems many people seem to think that we should take responsible for someone else’s bad day and their interpretation, and thats a bit ridiculous to me.

            2. Jamie*

              Totally agree with Jen.

              If someone had issue with something I said I would certainly ask for clarification and listen with an open mind to see if they had a point. But I’d never just apologize off the bat because I wouldn’t just assume I was they were correct.

              If I’m having a crappy day and BCW parks in my parking spot and I accuse him of doing it because I’m a woman and he knew he could get away with it and he’d never try that with a man….well that would be based on nothing and he doesn’t owe me an apology for my spin on motives he never had. It’s the same thing.

              I’m all for apologizing if I’m wrong, and I expect the same of others…even accidentally wrong. The stepping on foot analogy is apt, just because it wasn’t intentional doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt. You still say you’re sorry.

              But I’m not going to apologize if I was no where near your foot when it got stepped on. That’s kind of how I view the knee jerk apologies over isms like race and sex – just because you’re a member of a majority or privileged group doesn’t mean you’re always guilty of subconscious bias and it doesn’t mean you need to apologize because other members of your group have acted badly in the past.

              That said, I do think we owe it to each other to examine such claims when they come up each time – to make sure there isn’t something we’re missing. And it doesn’t matter how many claims are not true, you still examine each one because you don’t want one innocent party to suffer career damage because others claimed discrimination when there was none.

              1. iseeshiny*

                I’m not saying people need to say, “Wow, I was being really sexist there!” Not at all. Because most people don’t actually say or do things with that intent. But I would say, “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you feel bad, I definitely did not have that in mind when I parked there, and I won’t park in your spot anymore.” Followed by actually not parking in your spot anymore. (Unless we don’t have assigned parking, in which case, um, I would remind you of that.) This is a pretty good blanket statement. If someone calls you out on doing or saying something to them, basic human decency calls for respecting their wishes even if you think they’re silly. For BCW’s chicken hypothetical (which I realize was BCW’s example of someone being unreasonable and having a bad day) I would do the same thing – apologize for any offense, intentional or not, and tell them I wouldn’t offer them chicken again, explained that we were actually just all going to get lunch together. And then not offer them lunch, because clearly it’s a weird thing for them and it costs me nothing to respect their wishes – absolutely nothing. Not dignity, not the respect of my peers, not professionally. Insisting you have the right to keep doing something someone has asked you not to do (within reason) is not something a decent person does.

                1. Jamie*

                  I agree with your intentions, but I think we disagree on the point of the apology.

                  I’ll apologize if I’m wrong, even if I didn’t intend to be wrong and I said something hurtful out of ignorance. But in the two examples were using where absolutely no racism or sexism was intended nor could a reasonable person infer that from the exchange – then no apology for that is warranted.

                  Let’s drag BCW back into this since I’ve got him parking in my spot…

                  If I accuse him of sexism because he parked in my reserved and clearly marked spot (because I agree with you about unreserved spots being first come first serve) he can certainly apologize for parking there and inconveniencing me – and then go move his car. But with nothing else to indicate his motives were sexist or anything beyond coveting my parking spot near the door he shouldn’t apologize for me for my feeling discriminated against. Because I wasn’t.

                  The same as in his example – if I were the one making a chicken run I might ask him if everything is okay and clarify that it was just my love of chicken and office lunch courtesy that prompted the question…but I’d never apologize for discrimination because no reasonable person would infer (absent other factors) that “hey, would you like some chicken” is racist.

                  This may be semantics – but I see an apology as an admission of guilt (intentional or not) and I’d never apologize for someone elses feelings or their negative interpretation of a totally benign act.

                  Although, since we’re in the same city, if BCW and I ever find ourselves working at the same company I will be watching my parking spot carefully and not take any lunch orders for anything! :)

                2. iseeshiny*

                  We might have to just stay on different pages on this one.

                  I think if you hurt someone’s feelings (regardless of whether you think they have justifiably hurt feelings or you think their feelings get hurt too often or anything to do with your feelings about their hurt feelings) you apologize. To not do so, or to try to explain that you don’t need to apologize because they’re feelings shouldn’t have been hurt in the first place is going to result in their feelings being even more hurt because invalidating another person’s feelings is a really surefire way to show them how much you don’t respect them. It’s actually a way of showing that you mean it when you say you’re not racist or sexist, because by not acknowledging the feeling of a minority is a privilege that dominant demographics enjoy and is one of the ways racists and sexists add insult to injury.

                  Intentionally or not, you hurt their feelings, and apologizing for that while explaining that it was not your intention is in no way an admission of guilt.

                3. BCW*

                  I don’t know how to say this without really sounding mean, but I’ll try. In your example, you are kind of apologizing for no wrong doing, and I refuse to do it. Its like if my girlfriend has a rough day at work, and I go home and do something totally innocent and she lashes out, I’m not going to apologize. I may ask if everything is alright with her and if there is anything I can do to make it better. That is what kindness and decency is. Kindness and decency is NOT apologizing just to pacify someones (possible) misplaced anger when you did nothing wrong.

                4. Jamie*

                  Kindness and decency is NOT apologizing just to pacify someones (possible) misplaced anger when you did nothing wrong.

                  I agree. If the auto response is to apologize because someone else is hurt/angry even if you did nothing to cause that (after reflecting and making sure you did not) that would just give people way to much power to hold offices, families, what have you, emotionally hostage.

                  I’m not saying repeat whatever set them off – I’d never offer them lunch again, in the example…but there is a cost for apologizing for something you didn’t do. Self respect as well as helping validate feelings that aren’t accurate to the situation. If I just placate people with an insincere apology not based in logic or reality, that’s condescending. I think it’s more respectful to clarify what happened and move on.

                  But I’m on board with agreeing to disagree on this – because reasonable people can see things differently.

            3. Elizabeth West*

              This and what Jamie said are also well put.

              I guess you have to take these things on a situational basis. I can’t think of any way to generalize it.

        2. Lily*

          I like this.

          iseeshiny, I’m probably in the minority on this, but I don’t see the OP’s colleague as accusing the OP directly of racism, so I don’t think OP has anything (yet) to admit.

          However, defensiveness might explain the reactions that I have gotten when I complained about blatent racism and people dismissed it. If people think that I am blaming THEM, then I understand their reaction, but I’d like to know why they react that way. If I complained about my wallet being stolen, they wouldn’t assume I was accusing them of stealing it, so why can’t I complain about someone else calling me names in public without them assuming I blame them?

          The catch-22 is that if they assume that I am blaming them because they are the same race as the person who offended me, then they are assuming that I am racist if I complain about racism. I guess I shouldn’t complain about racism!

          1. iseeshiny*

            Yup, defensiveness is the murderer of rational discussion, like in pretty much any other situation.

  3. Mike C.*

    Great response. Being part of the dominant group can sometimes be a huge set of blinders. Ans sometimes not, but it never hurts to double check the data.

    1. TheSnarkyB*

      +1 Agreed- when I read that part of your response I actually said out loud “THANK you” because it’s somewhat rare for people to remember this and/or point it out

  4. JenTheNiceHRGirl*

    There may be others in the group who may be treating this employee differently and you are unaware that they are doing so. If she makes a comment to you again about being treated differently due to her race, I would suggest that you very nicely (and with a concerned tone) advise her to talk to her manager or HR about her issues. Maybe if you let her know that her feelings are of concern to you and that it makes you feel uncomfortable knowing that one of your co-workers is upset about their treatment at work, it could help the situation. If there are a couple of people discriminating against her (or harassing her), the manager needs to know about it so that the situation can be immediately addressed. Of course, another possibility is that this is all in her head and she is just making excuses for always being late. I believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt, so I would start with assuming that she may have some sort of valid complaint. If she keeps the comments up, then I would definitely suggest that you go to your manager or HR and let them know what is happening. The lateness is an entirely separate issue… Good luck!

  5. Jubilance*

    Thank you Alison for pointing out this woman really may be treated differently by others in the office. The OP can only confidently talk about herself and her own actions – she’s only speculating about her coworkers. She has no idea if her coworkers really are biased against this woman because of her race. It may not be solely the reason but it may be playing a role. For example, there are stereotypes of certain races of people being lazy, not hard working, etc. If the complaining coworker is of that race, its possible that those stereotypes are playing into other people’s opinion of her. If you already think a group of people are lazy and shiftless, you’re going to be less tolerant of those people being late, leaving early, disappearing, etc. There’s less benefit of the doubt.

    There have been studies that show that people exhibit race-based preferences based on stereotypes, however subtle, even when they don’t mean to. It’s unfortunate but it happens. Instead of treating the coworker like she’s crazy for saying that she’s treated differently (which really is a form of gaslighting) you can try to talk to her privately to have some dialogue on specific instances that made her feel that way. Challenge your coworkers to do the same. Get to know her as a person & understand where she’s coming from. There may be some truth to her statement.

    1. fposte*

      I think also we want things to fit neatly, so the fact that she’s apparently generally complainy and unpunctual may make it easier to dismiss her words–but even if she is unpleasant, that doesn’t mean she’s not being discriminated against or that it’s okay to do it. This isn’t a choice between whiner/legitimate complaint; both can be true.

    2. TheSnarkyB*

      +1. I’d actually argue that the OP can’t even speak for themselves on this one (h/t to comment about subconscious racism below)- they might be contributing to the issue without even realizing it. And a dismissive posture toward OP wouldn’t help.

      1. fposte*

        I would agree–we do tend to find ourselves innocent when we investigate ourselves.

        And what would it hurt to consider it an open question since we’re talking about somebody else’s experience? It’s not like it’s a capitulation to decide not to dismiss her. You don’t lose anything by being a person and a workplace who takes this issue seriously, even if it turns out that the impressions aren’t supportable or there’s another motivation, or alien possession, or whatever.

        I can understand why the first reaction isn’t that–I think it’s human to go first to “I know I don’t hate Slobovians and my co-workers don’t hate Slobovians, so therefore any suggestion that a Slobovian is being discriminated against must be wrong.” It’s certainly my default reaction, and it takes some work to back up and say “But what if there’s stuff I don’t get or know about that means it’s not wrong?” But I think it’s more productive to ask that question than to defensively close it off.

        1. Leslie Yep*

          This is a really excellent point. There is literally nothing lost by taking your colleague’s claim seriously as something to be investigated rather than dismissing it out of hand.

    3. Leslie Yep*

      Exactly. It’s important to remember too that the “stepchild” is also likely coming from a lifetime of experiences of everything from microaggressions to outright hostility based on her race. That kind of experience can make even small, well-intentioned, totally benign things feel like big, mean-spirited, malicious things because you learn that you can’t trust others to take your feelings and safety into account.

      1. Jen in RO*

        I agree. But that doesn’t mean that the people saying the totally benign things should tiptoe around this person! Everyone had had problems in life, if we avoid all potentially triggering topics, we might as well shut up and not bother anymore.

        1. Leslie Yep*

          Definitely not. You don’t need to avoid triggering topics. You just need to recognize that your perspective is limited, that other people might be hurt by things that don’t hurt you, and that it’s legitimate for them to have feelings you wouldn’t necessarily have.

          If someone does react in a way that seems disproportional or excessive to you, instead of dismissing the validity of their feelings on an objective scale that doesn’t exist, you stop and think, “Huh. Maybe there’s something going on with Sally that I don’t know about.” And you apologize, because whether you meant to or not, and whether it’s “legitimate” or not Sally’s hurt. Basic human decency.

    4. Kou*

      I also wonder if coworker is making these comments to the OP (and whoever else) because she thinks they’re her friends and will sympathize, *not* as a way of accusing them. So the OP doesn’t see it and assumes coworker is accusing, not commiserrating, with the friendly colleagues and comes to the conclusion that coworker is just making things up.

      I’ve seen this happen many times in discussions of gender and race, where someone talks about their personal hurdles and someone of the dominant group who’s in on the conversation feels like a finger of blame is pointed right in their face. Some people take a very us vs them mentality to prejudice , where mention of sexism is inherently accusatory of men or race is inherently accusatory of whites.

  6. PEBCAK*

    I’m curious as to who is remarking that she is constantly late. While it’s obnoxious, and possibly disruptive to her peers, when I hear “remarking,” I think “snide comments,” not “legitimate attempt to address the issue.” It should either be coming from her supervisor or, if someone’s work is directly affected, addressed in a constructive way in a face-to-face conversation, like “hey, Jane, when you are late, it makes it really difficult for us to have phone coverage in the group,” or something.

  7. FD*

    Full disclosure: I am white. The place I live is fairly multicultural and multiracial compared to most of my state, but there’s still a definite majority of people who are Caucasian and of European ancestry over other groups. So this comes from my background and from introspection in myself, and not from experience as being in a minority when it comes to race or culture.

    In your post, you say:

    “No one is treating her any differently because of her race (other than the fact that she’s getting away with constant tardiness and leaving her desk for long periods of time).”

    That *is* treating her differently, by definition.

    Here’s the other thing. Here in the US, racial discrimination has only been illegal for about 50 years. That means that the people who are young adults now? Their grandparents lived in a time when racial discrimination was legal. And in general, changing the law doesn’t change people’s behavior overnight.

    I’m a young adult now. I know that being a racist is wrong. I would never do something overt like using the n-word or telling someone ‘their kind’ isn’t welcome here. But, there’s still that lingering sense of different races being *different*. And I think most of us know it’s wrong to think and feel that way. But our species in general distrusts things that are Different, so there’s always that bit of self-consciousness about it, as we have to deliberately set those feelings aside.

    I guess what I’m saying is this. Let’s say you’re a reasonably self-aware person, and you’re a manager. You have two candidates who are reasonably closely tied for a position. One of them happens to be black. You’re leaning towards the white candidate. You’ll probably still ask yourself, “I’m choosing this candidate because she’s the best qualified, right? Not because of her race?”

    Right now, I think most people who are in their mid-twenties can’t truly say that they don’t see race. There’s still that lingering sense of “We need to treat them the same” that wars with “They are different from Us.”

    Understand that I’m not justifying your coworker being tardy or using racism to justify her behavior. But do also bear in mind that even though you may be doing your best to *treat* her equally, you still are probably a little more self-conscious about it with her than with people of your same race, which unfortunately is likely to have the side-effect of making her feel different. And people who feel different often feel uncomfortable in a group, or that the group doesn’t really want them in it.

    I guess what I’m saying is that it’s possible that she is simply being lazy and is looking for an excuse to justify it. But don’t forget that it’s also really hard to get invested in a job where you feel like you don’t really fit in.

    1. Chinook*

      FD, you are right that someone is being treated differently once the treator (??) asks themselves if they are treating the treatee fairly. I would never ask myself if the girl with the Ukranian name would find my behaviour offensive but there is always a lingering thought in the back of my head if I am talkign to someone from the local reserve. True equality occurs when it becomes a non-issue and it does, over time. I say this because there was a time not 50 years ago on the prairies when that Ukranian would have been activly discriminated against but now her children don’t register as being an issue because they moved from “one of them” to “one of us.”

      1. FD*

        I agree. No one seriously expects that they’re discriminated against because they have Saxon background instead of Norman anymore. Or Irish background, for that matter, which was a very deep-seated prejudice for some time. We’re just not there yet with what we call ‘race’ now.

        And I feel like we *have* to question ourselves still. Because there is still unspoken and often unconscious bias, and if we don’t want it to translate into action, we need to be aware of it, I think.

        I wonder, if it might be productive for the OP to have a talk with her coworker. Maybe start with something like: “Jane, I can’t help but notice from what you’ve been saying that it seems like you feel we’re treating you differently because of your race. Do you think you could tell me some of the things that we’ve done to make you feel that way?”

        It might turn out there are legitimate grievances that you didn’t think about or notice.

    2. Helen*

      “”No one is treating her any differently because of her race (other than the fact that she’s getting away with constant tardiness and leaving her desk for long periods of time).”
      That *is* treating her differently, by definition.”

      +1 to this. The OP kind of invalidated her own argument by acknowledging this. It sounds like either manager could be treating the employee differently, or the OP could be misunderstanding the situation herself. Either way OP, look at the situation again after reading some of the other comments here and you might start to understand your co-worker’s perspective a little more.

  8. Chinook*

    I want to play the devil’s advocate here because everyone else is pointing out that the coworker maybe treated differently by others and the OP may not see it (which I agree is a possibility).

    But, what if that is not the case. What if others of the same background as “the stepchild” are treated the same as any other employee (as an example of how there is no cultural discrimination)? What is this individual is playing “the race card” (and I do hate that term) because they believe it will allow them to get away with bad behaviour (since that is exactly what is happenning if the OPs description is taken at face value). If the OP is in a position to do something about this behaviour (i.e. not just a colleague), how could she approach the ‘stepchild” so that she acknowledges that prejudicial behaviour is unacceptable but that that is not why the person is being tsingled out?

    1. fposte*

      Same answer: bring in the manager and HR. This is not a co-worker job. (It sounds like there’s a manager not managing here already, in fact.)

      And from a cultural standpoint, it’s not as simple as “We’re nice to the other Slobovians, so we can’t possibly be anti-Slobovian.” Discrimination doesn’t always operate so crudely as that–there are a lot of difference markers that can make responses vary but still be discriminatory. It’ll help you in a lawsuit, but it’d be great to have a higher standard for workplace function and civilization than “would probably beat this in court.”

    2. JenTheNiceHRGirl*

      Sadly, there are some folks who do this. It ruins it for the people who are legitimately being discriminated against.

      1. Lily*

        I understand the feeling completely and I feel it, too, but this is already a form of discrimination.

        People who belong to the majority group who do bad things only tarnish their own reputation while people who are in the minority (tokens) both have stereotypes applied to them and have their individual actions seen as representative of the whole group.

        1. Broke Philosopher*

          YES. Thank you. That argument has always seemed to me to be saying “well, we would give you your rights, but some people in your group are mean, so we’re not going to do that.” Discrimination is incredibly common, and the fact that a few people might be oversensitive to racial bias doesn’t negate the fact that WAY WAY more people perpetuate discrimination.

    3. Laura*

      You summed up what I wanted to say very nicely. It’s entirely possible that the OP’s co-worker is experiencing some different treatment because of her race, but it’s also possible that she’s “playing the race card.” (I hate that expression too.)

      A guy I dated years ago told me that he once hired a college intern, and then hired her on full-time after she graduated. After a few months, he realized that she was routing all her work to his manager without letting him see it first. He was suspicious that she was trying to take short-cuts to move up the ladder, but gave her the benefit of the doubt. He told her that everyone’s work, even his, needed to be reviewed before leaving the group, since everyone makes mistakes and it’s easy to fix them before anything is distributed.

      Fast forward a couple months, and he started noticing that many of the women he worked with were treating him differently…not being as friendly with him, avoiding eye contact, and so on. Finally one woman he worked with came into his office one day and told him that this intern had gone to HR and accused him of sexual harassment, and HR had launched an investigation which included interviewing all the women he worked with – before even talking to him about it.

      He was incensed, and went to HR and told them that their investigation had damaged his reputation, credibility, and working relationships (especially with women) with his peers, and unless the investigation stopped immediately they would be hearing from his attorney. He then told them what had happened with the intern and set them straight. That was the end of the investigation.

      He said the worst thing about that was that now, whenever he hears claims of sexual harassment his immediate instinct is to doubt its validity, because of what happened to him – understandable. It’s people who make these frivolous claims that make it so much more difficult for true victims of mistreatment like this.

      1. Commsie*

        I’m not saying that HR handled that situation perfectly, but A. Telling your friend there was going to be an investigation and then interviewing the women in the office is a recipe for retaliation and intimidation and B. Why would his lawyer be involved? As far as I know, it’s not illegal to look into sexual harassment claims, and it shouldn’t be!

        1. Laura*

          No, you’re absolutely right. In my comment below I explained that this investigation went on for months, with no end in sight before my friend approached HR and told them that he would involve his attorney if they didn’t wrap it up.

          I think people tend to be “conditioned” to immediately believe all claims of mistreatment, and automatically believe that the accused is guilty. Many times the truth is not that simple.

          This is completely unrelated, but we tend to do the same thing with single mothers/child support. People tend to sympathize with the mother, and vilify the father as a deadbeat dad. I used to do this, until I met my husband and saw, first-hand, what he had to go through with his daughter’s mother. He was never, ever even 5 minutes late with a child-support payment, and we can count on one hand the number of visits he missed in 15+ years. And it was still not enough to satisfy his ex – nowhere near enough.

          1. Forrest*

            Maybe when it comes to stealing or murder but not crimes that involve sexual harassment, sexual assault or rape. With this crimes, our (US) society tends to believe the accuser is lying, guilty or at fault somehow for the crime against her (and in some cases him).

            Just because people investigate sexual harassment claims doesn’t mean they believe the accuser or will even act in their best interests. Legally, they’re supposed to but we all know of some cases when they don’t.

      2. llamathatducks*

        That really sucks that you ex had to deal with that.

        That said, I don’t think HR was in the wrong here. What if this guy really had sexually harassed a subordinate? It could compromise the integrity of the investigation to tell him about it before interviewing possible witnesses, because the guy, in a position of power over the witnesses, could easily intimidate them against saying anything about him. It absolutely sucks that he had to deal with the fallout of a false accusation, but I don’t think the investigation was badly run.

      3. KarenT*

        I’m not really sure what your argument is, though. It’s coming off as “we shouldn’t investigate in case the accusation isn’t true.”

        1. iseeshiny*

          Yes, this. The fact that false accusations ruin careers doesn’t negate the fact that sexual harassment and discrimination also ruin careers. In fact, percentage-wise, sexual harassment and discrimination ruin lots more careers than false accusations do.

          1. Laura*

            In my friend’s case the investigation had been going on for months. What made him so mad is how long the rumors of his alleged improper behavior had been circulating on the office grapevine, which was affecting his reputation and his relationships with other women in the office.

            At some point HR needs to talk to the accused person and get his/her side of the story and make a decision one way or another about how to proceed.

        2. Anonymous for this*

          Accusations should be investigated, but not with the assumption that they’re true.

          At a company I worked at a few years ago, an employee emailed HR saying that another employee had made threats of workplace violence.

          HR sprang into action, and immediately cut off all his building access, end-dated all his network access, notified the sheriff’s office, put up flyers on every building entrance with his picture, and terminated his employment. And they did this all before ever talking to him to get his side of the story. The person in HR who authorized that course of action was fired.

            1. Anonymous for this*

              I don’t know. I was on the periphery of the whole situation, just picking up bits and pieces of what was happening.

              1. Ruffingit*

                I was hoping he sued that company for all it was worth and is now retired on some island. It’s just astounding how quickly that got out of control.

          1. iseeshiny*

            I agree that was a total overreaction and an investigation should not begin with the automatic assumption of guilt. I do think that a response to a threat of violence does need to be met with immediate action to ensure the physical safety of employees, though. While in this instance the HR director was totally in the wrong, obviously, (posting flyers? terminating employment? over one unsubstantiated email? really?) I don’t think it would be an overreaction to notify the sheriff’s office.

    4. BCW*

      I have another example, although not work related. Me and 2 female high school friends (all of us are black) went to a bar near my house, which I happened to frequent. This bar happened to have a mostly white clientele, but in no way was it out of the norm for black people to be there. I knew the rules, and knew in winter, they didn’t let you upstairs with a coat, you had to check it. Of course, on occasion a coat or 2 would slip by, but it was a uniformly enforced policy.

      Well one of my friends wasn’t happy with the policy for whatever reason. However, when she saw that a white woman (very attractive I may add) came down the stairs and had her coat already, she was incensed. She started saying it was all racial, etc. Essentially accusing the bar and bartender of racism. Conveniently she chose to ignore the fact that everyone in front of us in line, white or black, had checked their coat. Me and the other friend tried explaining, rather unsuccessfully, that it most likely wasn’t racism. She wouldn’t budge on her stance.

      Now can anyone of us be 100% sure it wasn’t motivated by racism? No. Maybe he just let a hot girl get away with something (Because you know, that NEVER happens at bars). However this girl I was friends with was the type of person (and there are plenty that I know, some even in my family) that assumes that anything that negatively affects them must be because they are black. Some people are just like that. In fairness, it probably came from some bad experiences in the past, but either way, you can’t paint everything with that same broad brush.

        1. BCW*

          Ha, I honestly didn’t stay long enough to find out how many other hot girls were let up with coats, etc, because I was trying to get my friend out of there.

          But whether it was a hot girl, or the bouncers sister, or the girl just slipped by, my main point is we have no idea why this 1 person was let up. And I do mean in the 30+ people I saw go up, guys, girls, all different races, I saw one person come down with a coat.

                1. TL*

                  I think iseeshiny was calling you out on the sexism of that statement, not the lack of attention to potential racism.

                2. Em*

                  Joey’s assumption that they might not think black girls are hot, instead of they might not think a particular black girl is hot, is a perfect example of how minorities supposedly represent their entire race. If the subject were a white girl, I highly doubt that Joey would have said that it’s possible they don’t find white girls hot, especially because our cultural standard of beauty is based on white girls.

  9. BCW*

    This is an interesting topic and very hard to see. One one hand, some people really do take race (or gender, or any other thing that puts them in the minority) and assume that they are being treated worse because of it. Even on this board, you see some women saying certain things are happening and they think its because of their gender. Thing is, its almost impossible to really say one way or another. Its possible people are treating her worse because she is whatever other race. Its also possible its all in her head, and that people are treating her different because she is a horrible worker.

    I wouldn’t bring it up with this person AT ALL if I were the OP. Bring it to HR sure, but not to her. I’ve learned from experience, even on this board, that if someone thinks they are getting discriminated against, if you even bring up that its possible that their minority status isn’t the reason, then you may as well be reaffirming their belief. There is almost no way to navigate this safely.

    1. Anonymous*

      Sure, that makes sense in some cases. But often you have to look at the lowest common denominator. For instance, if you’re having a lot of women on this board calling you (in particular) sexist on a consistent basis, maybe it’s not them. Likewise, if there is one woman on the board who thinks that every thing every man on here says, then it’s probably her.

      1. BCW*

        Here is the problem with that logic. Whether or not you think I’m right or wrong about something being motivated by gender bias, unless you are in that specific situation, your argument of why it probably is gender discrimination is really no more credible than my argument why it may not be gender discrimination since we are both going off of the same second hand information. What I’m saying is its EXTREMELY hard to say, and even if you witness firsthand daily, you still can’t say with any certainty what someones motivations are.

    2. TL*

      “Even on this board, you see some women saying certain things are happening and they think its because of their gender.”

      Perhaps because women in the workplace are often discriminated against because of their gender? I’m not sure what your point here is, unless you just phrased that really, really badly.

      1. BCW*

        People are also often racially discriminated against in the work place. My point is that whatever may or may not be happening you can’t really tell from the outside, or even sometimes from the inside. So just because the OP in this case doesn’t think there is any basis to co-worker feeling like the step child, doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Similarly just because co-worker feels like the step child, doesn’t mean people are treating her like one.

        1. TheSnarkyB*

          Some people are also really inept at recognizing racism, sexism, etc. when it’s happening to them. I feel like I generally tend to see racism and sexism or point out things that could be motivated b/c of marginalized identities, etc. But I don’t walk around criticizing those who never see racism that’s right in front of their face… so I do take exception to comments like, “some people see racism in everything” etc.
          I know that you (obviously) weren’t talking about me – heck I wasn’t even in this thread til now- but I just wanted to provide this counter-point. I think it’s often useful to remember this. I also have had friends from high school/early college years say “Hey, thanks for having my back before I realized that you were going to bat for me” when they finish college or whatever and start to have a little more radar for that type of mistreatment.

          1. BCW*

            I think many times though it comes down to a matter of perspective. Some people choose to see things as being because of their minority status, while others choose to look at more factors within themselves. I’ve been the only black person (or 1 of maybe 2 or 3) at every single job I’ve had since graduating college. Yes, I got in trouble at times. However I chose to look at it and question what I did before jumping to the conclusion that “it must be because I’m black”. Now thats not to say it wouldn’t have been possible to find that I really wasn’t doing anything wrong and the fault lay completely with the other person. But it never happened. When I was honest with myself, I found that there were things I could improve, and when I improved those things, the trouble tended to go away.

            So I guess what I’m saying is, sometimes people jump directly to race (or gender/weight/sexual orientation) issue before asking the question of what (if anything) THEY are doing to elicit these reactions.

        2. Lily*

          I agree that it is very difficult to decide if racism is an issue in many cases. And people do play the race card and get benefits because of their race. And I think that the disadvantages of belonging to a minority still outweigh the advantages.

        3. TL*

          My point was, that particular sentence carried the implication that women who say things like that are mistaken or not fair or not sensible.

          And, while I can’t speak for racism, there are a lot of times where it’s pretty easy to tell if something is motivated by sexism. There times when you can’t, of course, and there are people who don’t see it as a problem or see it when it isn’t there, but for the most part, most reasonable people I know have a generally good handle on what’s okay and what’s not.

          1. BCW*

            I didn’t say they were or weren’t mistaken, although your assumption that thats what I implied really says something about you though.

            1. TheSnarkyB*

              You wrote it that way. There was a typo/grammatical oversight in it that make it look that way.

              1. BCW*

                It wasn’t a typo or a grammatical oversight, it was people reading the words and reading into it what they would like. But its really a good representation of this whole point. If someone wants to assume that my point was that the women were wrong, even though I never said it, fine. But I shouldn’t have to apologize because they took it that way.

    3. Joey*

      I disagree. There is a way to know. And that’s by applying the law and its standards to the objective facts of this situation. If it were my friend I’d tell them to go to the EEOC website, look up race discrimination and make an objective as possible determination if the facts and only the facts meet the definition.

      1. TheSnarkyB*

        No, this does not tell you whether somebody’s actions are motivated by racism or any other -ism. I hope you’re being hyperbolic here and that you don’t actually think that looking up a workplace-law definition will tell you whether discrimination is taking place.

  10. Joey*

    You say “don’t give them any legitimate reason to treat you differently if you want your complaints taken seriously.”

    1. iseeshiny*

      If someone said that to me I would be furious. I’m sure you don’t mean it this way, but it sounds like you are saying that only saints and paragons deserve protection from discrimination. It’s along the same lines as a woman complaining of sexual harassment and being told she was inviting it due to her clothes or behavior.

      1. Joey*

        Its saying don’t give them the ability to divert the conversation to defendable work issues like your excessive breaks/ tardies and possibly let them get away with discrimination.

        1. iseeshiny*

          I knew what you were saying the first time. It still carries the message that a person must be a model citizen before they can have their discrimination complaints taken seriously. If you think about it, it’s pretty patronizing.

          1. iseeshiny*

            To clarify, I’m not saying that her management shouldn’t address performance issues. I’m just saying they should be handled separately from the discrimination issues, and that the discrimination issues definitely should be addressed regardless of her performance.

            1. Joey*

              Its not that easy. They could say for example they were picking on her because she’s always late ad they have to pick up her slack. These things are easy for a company to intertwine.

              1. iseeshiny*

                Yeah, I’m not actually debating this with you. Look, I’m not saying you can’t say this to anyone you feel like – it’s a free country with free speech and you can give whatever advice you like. I’m just saying it’s really patronizing and will offend the person you’re speaking to as well as making it evident that you don’t intend to actually do anything to help them.

                1. Joey*

                  I wouldn’t stick my neck out for someone who I wasn’t sure was a victim of discrimination or was just being treated differently because she was a poor performer.

                2. Lily*

                  Joey, I agree completely with “I wouldn’t stick my neck out for someone who I wasn’t sure was a victim of discrimination or was just being treated differently because she was a poor performer.” However, saying “don’t give them any legitimate reason to treat you differently if you want your complaints taken seriously.” may shut the conversation down rather than help you get additional information which you can use to decide what is going on. Once you understand her point of view (you don’t have to accept it), you can decide what you think is going on. If she really is trying to claim racism to excuse performance problems and cannot be convinced otherwise, then ending the conversation with “don’t give them any legitimate reason to treat you differently if you want your complaints taken seriously.” at least fits with her world view.

                3. Joey*

                  As a co worker I’m not understanding why I would have to know whether her claims of racism are legit. I’d be more interested in refuting the allegations against me (if I felt I didn’t do anything wrong) and preturbed that she’s a slacker. So I really wouldn’t be inclined to help.

          2. Joey*

            But its true and its something you need to know before you complain. You have to be willing to be scrutinized yourself if you make discrimination accusations. And employees frequently don’t win when they are screwing up themselves.

            1. Chinook*

              “You have to be willing to be scrutinized yourself if you make discrimination accusations. ”

              This is so important because, in order for bias to be investigated thouroughly, all aspects of the situation should be investigated. This means that the alleged victim has to be prepared to defend their actions as well. While you shouldn’t have to be a saint in order to accuse someone of racism, it sure makes the arguement clearer if the other side has no way to justify their actions.

            2. Brett*

              “You have to be willing to be scrutinized yourself if you make discrimination accusations.”
              Scrutinizing an employee more than other employees because they made a discrimination complaint can very easily lead to retaliation. And that leads to a hostile workplace environment when discrimination can go unchecked because employees are afraid to make any report as it will lead to scrutiny.

              1. fposte*

                I would differ on the phraseology and say you should be willing to have your claim scrutinized. And that’s fair, if you want action taken; it’s not reasonable to expect action to be taken about anybody else just on your say-so.

                The complication here is that, as far as we know, the OP’s co-worker isn’t officially making the claim or asking to have action taken. I think, though, that since she’s *openly* making it, even unofficially, that’s enough to make it subject to exploration, because it affects her workplace and co-workers as well as herself.

      2. Joey*

        And no its not the same as a short skirt because tardiness and excessive breaks are usually justifiable reasons for treating people differently.

    2. TL*

      If the bosses are refusing to manage her because she’s not white – and they’d tell a white employee to shape up or get out – that’s a problem she can’t do anything about.

  11. Tiff*

    I’m glad that AAM answered the way that she did. Too often people in a minority group have their concerns dismissed because people who are in the majority group don’t see it.

  12. LisaD*

    I like your response, Alison. Great to point out that OP may not be seeing this. I pretty much come into work when I feel like it and if my work is done, that’s explicitly okay. Same is true of most of my casual, “is your productivity in great shape, if so do your own thing and we love you for it” team. It happens to be an all-white team. If a non-white person joined and got called out on lateness when the rest of us set our hours according to the time we need to do our work, it would certainly be a problem, even if the statement “Please be at work by nine AM sharp” is not by itself an objectionable statement in any way. Even a perfectly reasonable expectation becomes unreasonable if the context is that only one person meets it.

    She might also be putting less effort into her work and her punctuality because she has some legitimate cause to feel that she won’t be rewarded the way her majority-group peers are. Who among us can really say we’ve done our best work in an environment where we feel unfairly mistreated?

    1. Chinook*

      “She might also be putting less effort into her work and her punctuality because she has some legitimate cause to feel that she won’t be rewarded the way her majority-group peers are.”

      But those are her perceptions and not necessarily the reality. From what the OP describes, this is an office that is multicultural by nature. Should they be held responsible for slights that the “step child” thinks might be there?

      1. LisaD*

        They should be responsible for honestly investigating any complaint of discrimination and acknowledging her feelings, yes. You can’t make someone feel equal by refusing to let them speak. If she has a complaint, she should be invited to present it to someone willing to really listen, and if it’s determined to be unfounded, she should receive constructive feedback.

        1. BCW*

          I agree that any credible complaint should be investigated. But the whole “acknowledging feelings” is where I think it goes too far. Look, if you go to someone with actual evidence of wrongdoing, I’m all for checking that out. But everyone’s feelings of inadequecy don’t need to be addressed without that evidence of wrongdoing

          1. LisaD*

            I do think that all feelings which are destructive to the quality of someone’s work need to be acknowledged and addressed in the workplace. That may mean just saying, “Susan, I understand you’ve felt discriminated against here. I looked into the specific instances you described to me, and I didn’t find you had been treated unfairly, but I want you to know I’m committing to ensuring that doesn’t happen here. My door is always open and I will not tolerate discrimination in this workplace.”

            Then you transition to giving some constructive feedback on how her work habits may have contributed to what she felt was unfair treatment, and giving some examples of times that others had the same consequences for poor work habits.

          2. fposte*

            I think you don’t have to *assuage* everybody’s feelings, but it can help move things forward if you acknowledge them. I think LisaD’s sample, for instance, does that even as it says that I don’t think there’s an actionable problem.

            I definitely agree that you can’t just say everybody’s absolutely right or make everybody being absolutely satisfied and happy your goal. But if you ignore feelings, you’re likely to set yourself up for trouble. (You know which doctors get sued? Not the ones who hurt their patients–the ones who brush off their patients.)

      2. fposte*

        Depends what you mean by “responsible.” If you mean “attentive to the possibility that it’s true,” then yes, they should be held responsible–or, more accurately, they should be responsible.

        That’s not the same thing as ensuring that an employee is happy every minute of her job and that everybody’s nice to her, but right now there’s an employee who’s openly stating her workplace is discriminating and management is apparently shrugging or covering its ears. Sure, if they explore the situation and conclude that there’s no illegal discrimination going on, that’s going to be a tough conversation with the employee, but that’s the job, and right now they’re not doing it.

  13. HR Competent*

    Discrimination charges legally have to be investigated. I’d recommend talking to HR, just giving them a heads up on what you’re hearing, it’s something I’d want to know of.

    As for the employee making the statements, advise her (nicely) to take her concerns to her manager or HR. If your company has written policies the reporting process is likely in there.

    1. Joey*

      As HR I would want to know too, but wouldn’t your first option be to hear it directly from the complainant. And if you mentioned discrimination to a co worker would you want that co worker to report it before you did?

      1. HR Competent*

        Of course I’d want to hear it from the complaintant first however it doesn’t sound like she’s taken it there.

  14. TheSnarkyB*

    I just feel the need to say this based on the things that this topic brings up. Please everyone, remember that when it comes to race, color blindness is not the goal. I say that because I think once people hear racism there is this thing that pulls us toward wanting to not be a part of it at all, which I get, but I cannot tell you how mad I get when people say “I don’t see race” etc.
    I think everyone here is smart enough for a more nuanced approach that appreciates differences and histories (good and bad) etc, and sometimes using the phrase “color blindness” helps people to see how useless it is. So I’m just throwin it out there.

    1. Joey*

      That may be true in social settings, but i think in employment decisions color blindness is the goal.

      1. Jubilance*

        I disagree. That’s a blanket statement and there may be times where the race or sex of the applicant may be vitally important. For example, hiring a male gynecologist may not work so well in a country where unrelated men and women are not allowed to touch each other, therefore the doctor wouldn’t be able to examine any of his patients.

        I agree with you that people shouldn’t be disqualified or given an undue advantage solely because of their race or gender when they are otherwise qualified, but there may be some situations where factoring in a person’s race or gender needs to be a part of the overall hiring decision.

        1. Joey*

          Race in a hiring decision? Why?

          I agree with race in recruiting, but it has no place in the hiring decision.

          1. Rachel*

            One of places I recently interviewed at had an interesting way of dealing with this. They were a social service agency that worked with a neighborhood that was over 90% African American. So a listed requirement of the job was “familiarity and comfort with African American culture” as well as “ability to communicate effectively with African Americans.” I passed the phone screening and interview even though not AA due to years of working in AA communities. I imagine an AA person would meet those requirements easier.

            1. Joey*

              You could say the same about a language requirement or age. That doesn’t stop people outside that group from being able to effectively do the job

          2. Natalie*

            I just met a woman who does outreach and sex education in the East African community in my city. In her case, also being East African is crucial to her job – there are huge cultural hurdles to the work she is doing. The community, rightly or wrongly, is more accepting of the message when it comes from one of their own, so to speak. You could certainly argue that it shouldn’t be that way, but it is and the organization in question is more focused on being effective.

    2. Also Kara*

      Amen, amen, amen. When people tell me they don’t see me as black, it feels really dismissive and insulting. I AM black, always have been, always will be. Acknowledging that is neutral, not negative.

      1. Jen in RO*

        Yes, but – intent. They might not be expressing their thoughts very well, but (unless they are being dickish) they just mean that they are not discriminating against you because you’re black. I’m sure that if you explained to them what you just told us, they would not say it anymore; otherwise, don’t expect them to read minds.

  15. Mena*

    She IS being treated differently because her tardiness is being ignored. HR needs to be involved here.

    1. Zed*

      That aside made me wonder. Is the OP implying that the coworker is getting away with tardiness and so on because she is not white? If so, the OP may indeed be making some unpleasant assumptions about how the coworker’s performance is tied to her race.

  16. Leslie Yep*

    In addition to recognizing the possibility that the colleague may be objectively experiencing disparate and negative treatment on account of her race, OP and department must realize that whether this is “actually” happening or not (big-time quotes there), the colleague is probably being honest that she feels that it is. Or at the very least, you should operate under the assumption that she is being serious when she says that she feels alienated and poorly treated. It’s just the right thing to do as a human, not even getting into issues of structural racism.

    You can get defensive and insist on being delivered your no-racist-bone-in-my-body cookie. You can dismiss her feelings as being too colored by her race. You can assume that she is trying to make excuses for her poor performance. None of those are productive, though, and none of them get you any closer to what I have to assume is your goal of an efficient team working toward your priorities.

    I’d also be really careful about assuming that just because other people of color haven’t mentioned negative experiences that they haven’t had them. It’s emotionally exhausting to have to advocate for yourself, especially when the response you get is, “Well, tough cookies, I’m not racist.” Which in effect says, “I don’t care at all about your feelings; I only care about being perceived the way I want to be perceived.” It’s a common and perfectly legitimate self-preservation strategy to put your head down and ignore it. That doesn’t mean you should have to, of course; it’s just to say that just because no one else is verbalizing the same experience doesn’t mean that the colleague isn’t having it.

  17. Ann O'Nemity*

    This is a tough one, and it’s probably going to spark a lot of good debate.

    It’s entirely possible that the co-worker is deflecting legitimate performance concerns with allegations of discrimination. And it’s entirely possible that the co-worker is truly the subject of ongoing discrimination – overt and/or subtle. I’m betting the truth in somewhere in the middle.

    Subtle discrimination can take so many forms, but it can be hard to identify, prove, or address. And once someone feels like they are the subject of it, it’s all too easy to see the discrimination tainting all workplace actions and decisions. For example, let’s say someone feels like they are already the subject of discrimination, and then their new idea gets shot down by the team. Is it another case of the going discrimination? Or maybe just a bad idea? Things like this can snowball if not addressed.

    1. FD*

      I tend to agree with you, that it’s probably somewhere in the middle.

      And I suspect it feeds on itself too. Once a person feels that their team doesn’t like them/is discriminating towards them, why should they try?

      Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s okay to do a poor job at work–minimally it burns bridges you don’t want to burn. But I think a lot of us here have had an experience of doing work that we know was sub par because we just didn’t click at the workplace for whatever reason.

  18. Brett*

    Differential treatment is very difficult to see, sometimes even if you are on the receiving end.

    I knew we have issues in our organization with pay, and I had even heard whispers that race was a factor in pay because people of certain races and ethnicities were receiving higher or lower starting pay (raises are uniform).

    Well, our salaries are published in the paper, so I took everyone of the same pay grade and similar job titles to me and laid them out in a table, about a dozen employees in all.

    Education was random. Some of the best paid employees had high school educations while the bottom tier was all made up of people with grad degrees. Gender looked random, with a mix of men and women straight down the line.
    Oddly, experience and tenure had no real effect either. People with short tenures were at the top and bottom. Experience was all over the place. Even title steps did not account for the differences (different title steps are still the same pay grade)! So, with education, experience, tenure, steps, and gender seeming to have no effect, I added on race.

    I was shocked.

    Top tier was all non-hispanic white males. Next was non-hispanic white females. Then all Asian females, then all Asian males. Then all Hispanic females, then all Hispanic males.

    The racial/ethnic breakdown with straight down the line like that with no overlap whatsoever. Each ethnic/racial group was tightly clustered in pay with big gaps between groups.

    Unfortunately, once I realized this I became much more aware of the day to day differences too. Hispanics are always excluded from high level planning meetings (even, oddly enough, when they have been project leads). Asians are never project leads, even when they outrank the actual project leads education, experience, tenure, and title.

    I wasn’t aware of any of this despite being in an affected group, and as far as I can tell, very few people are aware of these disparities other than the occasional rumors that led me to investigate this.

      1. Brett*

        Well, more than 12 employees; I did not want to use any exact numbers. The gaps between groups were 2x-3x as big as the ranges within groups (and multiple employees in each group).
        I did run some Fisher’s exact tests on different break downs of null hypothesis that a characteristic had no effect on earning above median pay.
        College degree/No degree: p= .0476
        Graduate degree/No grad degree: p=0.473
        White/Non-White: p=0.0079
        Exp>15/Exp<15: p=0.159
        Female/Male: p=0.317
        Supervisor Title/Technical Title: p=0.555

        What was important was that the salaries (which, again, were set at hiring, since there are no merit raises and performance has had no effect on salaries over time) made me wake up to the possibility that real issues were going on beyond salaries.

        1. Brett*

          Whoops, that’s 0.476, not .0476 on College degree/No degree.
          And yes, people with supervisor titles are more likely to be below the median compared to the people they are supervising! (They are more likely to have been promoted from a lower grade whereas everyone with a tech title was hired directly into the grade from the outside.)

    1. TheSnarkyB*

      Wow, this is.. Sadly not surprising but very interesting. Thanks for sharing your data with us!

  19. Lily*

    Whether Stepchild might be playing the race card seems a bit too important in this discussion. Let’s not forget that it is only one of the reasons why Stepchild’s manager might not have brought it up with her. Stepchild’s manager might
    1. not be bringing up the tardiness / absences because he is afraid of being accused of racism
    2. not be bringing up the tardiness / absences because he doesn’t address the issue with anyone
    3. not be bringing up the tardiness / absences because Stepchild has a good reason, for example, medical issues.
    4. not be bringing up the tardiness /absences because he is measuring performance rather than face time
    5. be dealing with the tardiness / absences with Stepchild.

  20. FD*

    I think this has all brought up some very good points.

    If it’s not too far off topic, what do you all think a good manager who comes from the majority group should do, in terms of trying to be as equitable as possible?

    (Let me know if you feel this is straying too far from the topic, Alison.)

    1. Leslie Yep*

      I’m White and manage (directly and indirectly) people of color. This hasn’t really emerged in my work in this same way, but here are my thoughts, both as a manager and as someone who is committed to eliminating racism and other bigotries in her personal life.

      In the short term: Listen. Especially when you’re the accused. Take other people’s feelings seriously, and take ownership for how your words and actions affect others. Listen with a really open mind. Understand what your colleague feels, what behaviors and situations led to those feelings, and what could be done to help your colleague feel better. Take actions that show you take that person seriously–including by asking them what they want and need.

      Note that this doesn’t mean that you assume that any time your colleague says “racism” you concede to precisely their interpretation. It doesn’t mean that you jump on the other teammates who caused the hurt, just to make a point. It doesn’t mean that if the colleague says they want the offending person fired, you just do it. It just means that you listen until you understand, and then you show you respect your colleague by taking (and explaining) a reasonable measure.

      And note that that reasonable measure might be nothing (especially if that’s what the colleague requests). And that reasonable measure might not satisfy your colleague! All you need to do–and need to want to do–is show your colleague and your team that you are listening to them, and that it matters that people care for each other and treat each other with respect. I hope it goes without saying that this means that you treat the offending party with dignity and compassion too, up to the point they no longer merit it (e.g. knowingly shooting off racial epithets, but there’s no bright line).

      In the long term, I think this means committing to inform yourself about racism. If you’ve never heard the experiences of Black people being trailed in stores, you might not have context for why your Black colleague is reluctant to be the one to run to Staples for office supplies. In your mind it’s a performance issue, because it doesn’t occur to you that your colleague might have a legitimate reason for not wanting to do this–that they might not be comfortable sharing with you, based on past experience with you and with others–and so you start treating them as insubordinate.

      I can easily see something like this snowballing to something like the OP’s issue, where even very benign comments are viewed through a malignant lens because the colleague has experienced that her workplace won’t make minor adjustments to help her maintain her personal security and dignity. Is anyone malicious here? No, not really. But this is the kind of obscured vision that can occur when you’re not actively accounting for the different lenses your colleagues bring to the table as a result of their past experience.

      This applies to situations other than protected classes and people who have experienced systematic racism. Think about regional speech patterns for example, like how people who grew up in the South often incorporate much longer pauses into their speech, and then feel like they’re being interrupted when people from the Northeast interject after what feels like an appropriate amount of time to them. We’re all looking at the world from our own angles; part of the work of getting a team to collaborate effectively is understanding how to account for and harness that diversity of experience.

    2. Joey*

      You listen to what your employees are saying, treat people in similar circumstances similarly, take allegations seriously, periodically check yourself, and look at the makeup of your staff as compared to the company and the available applicant pool in your area from time to time.

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