asking interns to stop greeting everyone individually, coworker used a racist word, and more

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. Should I ask my interns to stop greeting everyone in the morning?

I manage the internship program in my small office. We have 10 employees and typically a couple interns per semester. When our interns arrive for their shifts, they have to walk past every single person’s office to get to their desk. I’ve noticed that the interns stop to greet every single person when they arrive and then again to say good bye to every single person when they leave.

I certainly understand why they do this — it seems polite and it can feel awkward to just walk in and walk out without acknowledging anyone. I was in a similar situation as an intern at a different company and my supervisor abruptly told me it was weird to greet people and say goodbye, which was very embarrassing for me as a student who had never worked in an office before! I want to say something to our interns since part of what they learn here is how to work in an office, but I don’t want them to feel embarrassed or unwelcome to talk to our staff. Is there a way that I can let them know that this isn’t standard practice (at least in our office) without embarrassing them?

Do you do any kind of regular group training for your interns? If so, I’d bring it up there. Ideally you’d cover it at the start of the internships by having a “how to be in an office” segment to your initial training. It’s a lot easier to explain this at the start, when it’s not already in the context of “you’ve been doing this wrong.”

But that only helps you with future interns. For your current ones, I’d still see if you can bundle this together with a few other “things you might not realize about being in an office” tips, which I think will minimize some awkwardness (and I bet there are more tips that would be helpful to them). But if not, then I’d just say this: “I love that y’all make a point of being friendly to coworkers here. One thing you don’t need to do — in fact shouldn’t do — is feel obligated to greet each person individually when you come in and say goodbye individually when you leave. I know when I was new to working, I felt awkward about coming or going without acknowledging people. But it’s not expected, and it can actually be an interruption to people who are concentrating.” You could add, “This is the kind of thing that isn’t obvious when you first start working, and we’ve all been there.”

2. My coworker used a racist word at work

I work at a public library with a small staff, of which I am one of the most junior members in age, title, and length of time employed (less than a year). Pam was hired around the same time I was and despite our differences in title we were trained together. She is around 30+ years older than everyone else in our workplace and I think she is self-conscious about it, which makes this issue even more difficult.

Yesterday Pam hosted one of our usual storytimes for preschool patrons. Afterwards when she came to the back room to put supplies away, she mentioned that there were only three kids, including “two little mulatto girls.” I was horrified by her use of a word I believe is generally considered racist if not just poor taste. Being the junior staffer and also caught off guard, I was at a loss of what to say. Other staff members were near, but did not say anything.

We are an entirely white branch, but we have a racially diverse crowd of young patrons, particularly after school. I shudder to imagine her saying this to a member of the public. Am I overreacting? Do I share this with my manager? Just let it go and hope it never happens again? I have a hard time imagining bringing it up to Pam myself as she is a bit of a steam roller and oftentimes condescending to me as junior staff. How should I handle this?

Yeah, you need to say something. It’s possible — probably likely — that Pam doesn’t understand that this is now an offensive term, but someone needs to tell her so that she stops using it at work (and hopefully anywhere else, but work is the issue here).

If you’re not comfortable bringing it up with Pam yourself, you can talk to your manager and suggest that she does — but it’s probably going to be obvious to Pam that you’re the one who talked to your boss about it, and that’s actually more harmful to the relationship in most cases than if you say something directly.

Obviously the ideal thing is to say something in the moment, like “I don’t know if you realize that term is considered a slur.” But it’s certainly not uncommon to be so taken aback in the moment that you miss your opening. So in this case, you could go back to Pam now and say, “I should have said something in the moment, but it’s been bothering me so I wanted to say something now — you referred to some kids the other day as ‘mulatto,’ and I think you didn’t realize that that’s now considered a slur. I know you’d never want to say something hurtful, so I figured you’d want to know.”

Read an update to this letter here.

3. Our employee takes lots of leave without pay

I’m the coordinator at a small satellite law firm, and my office administrator and I were hoping you/readers could weigh in on this situation. Our firm offers 4 weeks of PTO (at minimum) to staff. One of the best secretaries on our staff currently has 22 days of PTO, and each year, she not only uses all of it, she has a negative PTO balance usually well before the end of the year. The usage is always for travel, not because she’s dealing with an illness or family issues or anything serious. She has no issues taking LWOP (Leave Without Pay). Her attorneys have historically allowed her to do this, as long as their workload is covered when she’s away.

The rest of the secretarial team (as well as the office administrator and I) have always covered for her, but the team is starting to resent the amount of time she’s away from the office, and have started making comments along the lines of “why does she get to take so much time off” and “must be nice.” I suppose I should also point out that she frequently states that this is not a job she needs — that her husband makes enough to support both of them.

This year, she has already started saying that she will be taking much more than her allotted time off (using LWOP again) in order to travel for multiple weeks at a time, and if she doesn’t get to take the days off, she’ll quit. Do we call her bluff?

It can be tempting in a situation like this to just go with the principle of the thing — as in, you hired her to be there for a certain number of days per year and she needs to do that, period. But especially because this is one of your best secretaries, it’s better to look at the real impact of what she’s doing on your workflow and on the rest of your staff. If other people’s workload becomes heavier and more stressful when she’s out, it’s reasonable to explain that to her and use that as the basis for a “no.” (Do explain it though, so she understands where you’re coming from and doesn’t just think you’re sticking to rules for the sake of rules).

But you also need to balance that against the fact that you might indeed lose her over this. So then the question is whether her work when she’s there is strong enough that you’re willing to accept the impact of her being out a lot. It’s possible that her work is so much better than everyone else’s that you could decide it is, despite the potential morale impact that might have on others. But the key to deciding, whatever your decision ends up being, is weigh the value she brings versus the disruptions this causes. Keep that equation clear in your mind, so that it’s really about what makes sense for the work and not about fuzzier ideas of what she should or shouldn’t be entitled to do.

And of course, this only applies to the leave without pay. You don’t want to mix in her use of actual PTO, which is part of the compensation you’re giving her, as long as she’s scheduling it in a way that doesn’t cause massive, avoidable inconvenience.

4. Someone in my network might want to hire me, and I’m not interested

A former coworker who now is running a small consulting firm contacted me via LinkedIn. They said they were “hoping to connect with you about a professional opportunity.” I’m taking that to mean an opportunity for me to work them in some capacity. (I am not in a position to hire their firm to do work for my organization, so I don’t think they are pitching for contracts.) I worked closely enough with them in the past to know I do not want to work for this person. I have seen them take credit for other’s work, they do not take criticism well, and they have a tendency to derail meetings with speeches about how great or under-appreciated they are.

How do I respond to make it clear that I’m not looking for a new job without sounding presumptuous that that was the intent or without burning bridges with someone who I worry would take a negative answer personally? I would like to keep them in my professional network, despite the poor soft skills, since they are a leader in my industry and someone who I considered a bit of a role model.

It could indeed be that they’re trying to recruit you, but it could also be that they want to pick your brain on whether you know anyone who would be right for a role they’re trying to fill, or who knows what else. Rather than assuming you definitely know what they want and preemptively shutting it down, it makes sense to hear them out. Then, if they are indeed trying to recruit you, you can just say something like, “Thanks so much for thinking of me for this — I’m really flattered. It sounds interesting, but I’m very happy where I am right now and not planning to leave any time soon. But I’ll think about who else might be good for this and will let you know if anyone comes to mind.”

If this weren’t someone who you cared about staying on good terms with, you could just reply back right now with, “I’m not taking on anything new right now, but thanks for thinking of me!” But since that’s not the case here, it makes sense to engage a little.

5. Should I offer to consult for my old job for a few months after I quit?

I’m job seeking as my current position is in a toxic workplace, mostly due to a bad supervisor (who is also the owner of the company). We are a multi-location small business, and as second-in-command I am responsible for many aspects of the business that no one else participates in. I feel that my leaving without more notice than the standard two weeks would put the entire company in a bind and am not looking to burn bridges. Can/should I offer to stay on for a month or two after resignation as a consultant to help them through the transition? If so, is it reasonable to expect any compensation for it?

You can offer that, and if you do, you absolutely should expect to be paid for it — and should negotiate exactly what that compensation will be ahead of time.

Whether or not you should is a different question. There are real benefits to making a clean break when you leave a job — and that’s a time when it’s going to be particularly important to be throwing your energy into your new job, because they don’t know you yet and you want them to see you at your best, not exhausted from doing two jobs (and new jobs tend to take a lot of mental energy). And while you might be inclined to make this sacrifice for a job you loved — although I’d still urge you to be cautious about it — I can’t see an argument for doing it for a manager who’s been toxic. You’re talking about doing them a major favor, and it doesn’t sound like they’ve given you much incentive to do that. I think you’re thinking of it not as a favor, but instead as a professional obligation — but it’s not one. Most people, even in senior level positions, don’t stay on to help after they leave.

If you do feel like you need to do something, I’d confine it to agreeing to schedule one or two phone calls in the month after you’re gone, so they can save up any questions for those, and which will force them to prioritize because there will be clear limits on your time. (But if you go that route, it’s not as typical to expect to be paid for the two calls — this is more like an informal good will arrangement.)

{ 905 comments… read them below }

  1. Cathie F*

    Regarding the legal secretary, its not fair that the office makes her co-workers take on the extra work when she is away. So why doesn’t the office hire a temp to cover for her when she is away ? If she is taking leave without pay, then the office would certainly have the money to hire a temp to replace her whenever she is away. If the person doing her work needs to be experienced in that office, then another staff member could be temporarily assigned to her desk, and the temp person could do the staff member’s job instead.

    1. Green*

      Work doesn’t have to be “fair.” I do other people’s work while they have parental leave. Some colleagues get paid more for me for doing less work. Some get paid less than me for doing the same amount of work.

      In a legal office, usually secretaries are pooled or assigned in groups (i.e., 3-5 attorneys per secretary). So it’s usually not that one person has to cover for them, but that each attorney has a “back-up” attorney. Also, the numbers of attorneys assigned per legal secretary and their respective workloads (and how they utilize secretarial support) are already not “fair.”

      1. neverjaunty*

        Work should be fair. Covering for other people when they’re on parental leave is fair when they’re expected to cover for you in your absences; it’s not fair when the rule is “you have to take on more work but don’t expect anyone to return the favor.” And getting paid more or less for the same work may be fair if someone brings more experience or other skills to the job; it’s not fair when the pay discrepancy is ‘he has a family to support’.

        1. Roscoe*

          But I mean, everyone doesn’t get paternal leave. Everyone doesn’t get sick in the same amounts. Those things by definition are unfair

          1. Grapey*

            I am not a parent but my boss/coworkers are super accommodating if I have to, say, take a sick pet to the vet. They even let me take a personal day so I could watch a panicking friend’s kids in a pinch.

            “Fair” doesn’t always need to mean for every one day Fergus takes, I should get that too. I see it to mean the same flexibility is given to everyone on the team over time. (Also that parents don’t get special pick of holidays.) My life is more flexible on account of the choices I’ve made, but on the few days that I DO need some slack, my coworkers are happy to give it to me.

            1. Snark*

              I think the distinction at work is between fair and what I believe the objective should be, which is equitable.

            2. Roscoe*

              And I think that is great. But again, people above me are talking about things being fair. Fair doesn’t always mean equal. I’m not arguing that I should get time that a new parent gets, just that they get it and I don’t, so that by definition isn’t equal, though I wouldn’t say its unfair.

                1. Corporate lawyer*

                  1. Good legal secretaries are worth their weight in gold. If the law firm has to go out of its way to retain one, I say that’s fine.

                  2. This law firm seems to have decided on a policy of letting employees take leave without pay. Rather than complain about the legal secretary in question, the other secretaries should take advantage of this policy as well. Have they asked to do so?

                2. Ego Chamber*

                  @Corporate Lawyer “the other secretaries should take advantage of this policy as well.”

                  My guess is that most of the secretaries working at this firm can’t afford to take unpaid leave, since most people in general can’t afford to take unpaid leave, and suggesting that they should simply use a privilege that not everyone has is less than helpful.

        2. Trout 'Waver*

          “fair” is an arbitrary standard. I’m not trying to nitpick; I’m just saying that it means a lot of different things to different people. Rather than going wide on this one, we should focus on the specifics of this particular letter.

          In this case, the secretary has put her cards on the table and named her price. She’s fortunate to be in a position the other secretaries aren’t in. The firm needs to decide if she’s worth the price.

          Also, the other employees are being childish here by making snide comments. That absolutely must be addressed.

          1. eplawyer*

            I don’t know. If I were taking on extra work so someone could take extra time just to travel, I might make comments too. I would do the work, but I would certainly be venting. If other people could take extra time — provided their work output was stellar enough — too it would probably cut some of the snarking.

            1. Trout 'Waver*

              My read is that the others can’t take extra time because they can’t afford to not be paid. But that’s just my take.

              Also, I agree that comments are warranted. But they shouldn’t be snide, and they should be directed to management to provide better coverage when this particular worker takes extended vacation.

                1. Trout 'Waver*

                  but the team is starting to resent the amount of time she’s away from the office, and have started making comments along the lines of “why does she get to take so much time off” and “must be nice.”

                2. Natalie*

                  Oh for goodness sake. “Snide” ( indirectly derogatory or mocking) is a perfectly reasonable characterization of the comments quoted in the letter. Complaining that this exact word doesn’t appear in the letter is excessively literal IMO.

                3. Snark*

                  Little nitpicky, here. The tone of those comments could be reasonably described as snide, even if you would personally not use that word.

              1. Nita*

                That’s probably not the whole picture. If she’s away a lot and others are picking up the slack, it doesn’t matter whether they can afford leave without pay. They won’t be able to take the leave because they need to be in the office, filling in for her. If she gets first dibs on getting large blocks of leave approved, and this affects others’ vacation plans, that’s a really unfair situation. And she probably does get first dibs, because she’s said numerous times she’ll just quit if she doesn’t get her leave, and management has gone out of their way to accommodate her.

                1. Veronica*

                  And if she’s taking long trips, she’s probably planning them in advance, which means her leave gets approved when other people are still trying to figure out if a shorter vacation will fit in their budget. We have this issue at our nonprofit — we have a number of employees who don’t need to work to pay their bills, and because they have that financial security, they’re often able to put in vacation requests far in advance. Our employees who work to support their families often have to take a “wait and see” (if they’ll be able to afford to take a vacation) approach, so they might be asking for time off a few weeks out versus months and months.

              2. Stranger than fiction*

                Me too. But, that begs the question are the others even taking their four weeks of pto? Like if they were taking their four and this person was doing eight, spread out across the year, would the Op and coworkers still feel resentful? Because at least that way everyone is getting a taste of covering for each other.

            2. Jesca*

              But then what if the employer turned around and awarded her extra PTO? And she instead starting using that? Sometimes employers do things to keep people they value that they don’t do for others. She could quit and then reapply and renegotiate. No, things are not at all always fair. You just gotta focus on doing you. She isn’t breaking any rules here. The attorneys allow it in order to keep her. She can just afford to do it – thus the true resentment (which is why Alison is asking the OP to focus on how it affects workloads. And again, the attorneys may accept how it affects work loads)

                1. miss_chevious*

                  I’m a lawyer as well and it would depend on the abilities of the other secretaries as well when I was considering whether to accommodate her. I’m not prepared to lose or alienate other good legal secretaries over the behavior of one, even if she is one of the best.

              1. Luna*

                I’m sure the attorneys will accept how it affects work loads, because it isn’t their workloads being impacted. It’s the other secretaries taking on the extra work.

                They might not care, but the message they are then sending to all the other secretaries is basically “we don’t care, or at least we care less about all of you than we do about this one person.” That might be a decision the company is willing to make, but I honestly can’t see how that would benefit the company in the long run.

                1. boo*

                  Also, as far as the others who are covering her are concerned, there’s not a material difference between her taking unpaid time off, or getting extra PTO. They are doing the same amount of work to cover her regardless. So, “But she’s not getting paid for the three weeks she’s not working,” doesn’t really make the situation better.

                  If she were getting paid, I suppose it would make the morale of it all a lot worse.

                2. Miss Betty*

                  That’s kind of the attitude in law firms though. I’ve only ever worked at one where we were told we’re all one team – and even there, attorneys would be very jealous of their secretaries’ time. Both of mine, whenever they’d see me helping someone else, would suddenly find something pressing for me to do. At least one attorney there told his secretary he didn’t want her helping other secretaries out because he needed her to be able to assist him at the drop of a hat. Law firms are a culture unlike any other that I’ve worked in.

          2. Alli525*

            Re: “snide” – honestly, if I had to hear all the time about how my coworker didn’t need her job because her husband was so rich, and had to hear about all her fabulous vacations that ate into more than my share of covering for her, I’d be pretty dang snide too. She doesn’t sound particularly sensitive to the attitude she projects.

          3. Jadelyn*

            To be honest, if a job not only expected me to pick up the slack for a jet-setting coworker (who it seems took a full-time job with no intention of actually working reasonably full-time hours), but then scolded me for being understandably a bit resentful about it and grumbling once in awhile, I’d be looking for another job. That sends a really unpleasant message about not being allowed to be upset about apparent inequities in staff privileges.

            It’s the odd comment here and there, and entirely to be expected when you have a situation in which staff feel they’re being treated differently from someone who’s receiving extra leeway on something. The solution isn’t to scold the coworkers, it’s to address the actual issue.

            1. Specialk9*

              I’m gonna push back on that, because you clearly have some “should” rules in your head that I just don’t think are true. (Well, except that “people who are financially comfortable should not mention that to people who may be struggling” – badly done, bragging lady)

              People should work full time and not negotiate work to fit their lives. Why? She’s getting paid for the work she is doing, and the company agreed to her negotiated terms because her work is good enough. That’s why we work hard, and why we manage our own careers.

              Everything at work should seem fair to everyone. Nope. Work is not kindergarten. Are you being paid for your time, supported as needed to get your work done, and treated professionally by your manager? Then good, that’s what you can expect.

              Companies should expect us to grumble when we don’t like things. Uh, no. You’re expected to be professional and keep your eyes on your own yoga mat. They can expect professionalism of you, and will reasonably ding you for failing to be professional.

              1. Globe Trotter*

                So they should expect professionalism from everyone except the person that brags about not needing their job, how much money their husband makes, and then makes everyone else shoulder their work? Right…I think expecting people to react in a neutral fashion while someone dips into the negative on PTO, takes unpaid leave adding up to weeks of extra vacation, and then gets a fresh balance of PTO every year is a little naive and frankly, unrealistic. They’ll likely end up with their barely-working “full timer” when everyone else quits and looks for a better job where their responsibilities aren’t just picking up the slack for someone else.

              2. JustMe*

                It seems to me the key to all of this is that the secretary in question is supposed to be full time, but isn’t working full time hours. I think there are some general expectations held by others in the office with the same job title and full time status that she will be held to the same standard, which they don’t feel is happening.
                It seems like the simplest solution would be to renegotiate the secretary’s job duties and hours now, while she has laid her needs and expectations out so clearly. If she doesn’t want to work full time, then move her status to part time and set out a clear plan on when she will be available to work and how her job duties will be covered when she is out.
                If she no longer has the same assigned job duties and full time hours assigned – and there is a clear plan for how those things will be handled – then other employees won’t feel resentment when she is treated differently.

                1. Green*

                  I think you guys are overly concentrating on “full time status.”

                  She’s not working full-time, and she’s not being paid for working full-time. A lot of organizations, especially law firms, have people who are at 90%, 80%, 70%, 60%, 50%, etc. with flex-time, depending on disabilities, work-life balance (child care, elder care, stress, vacations), etc.

                  They don’t need to share the specifics of their arrangements with Employee A with Employee B. I’m not sure why Employee B would feel entitled to know that Employee A is at 85% pay and hours with flex-time or why Employee B would feel entitled to complain or be angry that the person is still referred to as an employee.

                2. myswtghst*

                  Ran out of nesting, but to Green – you’re right that she isn’t being paid for full time hours, but has the workload been appropriately manged to account for the fact that she does not work full time hours? Because it sounds like the company is still planning as if she is a full-timer, then dumping the work she obviously won’t be able to do while she’s out onto other people, when at this point, they can reasonably assume vacation admin will be out x weeks per year and either adjust workloads proactively or look into hiring seasonal / part time / temp coverage to pick up the slack.

                3. Specialk9*

                  It’s nobody’s business but her and her manager. If the manager agreed to the hours and hasn’t staffed appropriately, then it’s on the manager.

              3. Specialk9*

                I’m not sure how you missed where I started out by calling out the other lady for bragging and said it wasn’t cool.

                But yes, I do believe that we each own our own professionalism, and a lapse by one person doesn’t reset all professional rules to null. It’s kinda the theme of this whole site.

            2. Luna*

              Agree with Jadelyn, I’m really surprised more people aren’t understanding about this. I really don’t think this has anything to do with financial jealousy. I’ve had co-workers who often take additional leave for vacations, and I really don’t care. Good for them! But that’s because I don’t have to cover any of their work while they are gone. If I had to constantly take on more work because they were away for weeks at a time on vacation? Yeah, I’d definitely start to get resentful. I think OP needs to work out a different method of covering for this employee while she is away that does not involve passing any additional work onto the other secretaries.

            3. Corporate lawyer*

              If the company is OK with the secretary taking leave without pay, which is absolutely its right, that’s the decision.

              Economically, this is no different than if the secretary had negotiated additional vacation days when she joined in exchange for a slightly lower salary.

              I was about to write “the only way the other secretaries could have a reasonable beef about the situation is if the LWOP policy was not available to all secretaries”; but given the point in my previous sentence, I’m not even sure if that is true. However, OP should at least find out whether he/she could also take LWOP. If so, she has zero grounds to complain.

              1. Annonymouse*

                It’s not the economics of the situation it is the covering of her work.

                It sounds like she is taking off at least 8 maybe even up to 12 weeks off a year and/or taking them in large blocks.

                This causes problems for other secretaries trying to organise their own time off and having to cover a lot of extra work. I’d get pretty annoyed.

        3. Green*

          Other employees get substantial parental leave in addition to vacation. I’m not planning on having children. But I just suck it up. Other employees take secondments (more work for me), sabbaticals (more work for me), leave or retire before someone else is hired (more work for me), get promoted to another department (more work for me), have more seniority and thus more vacation time (more work for me), don’t work as efficiently as I do (more work for me), or have the awful luck to get a serious illness or a family member requiring long-term care (more work for me).

          These things are fundamentally “unfair” because they negatively impact my workload, but it’s just life, and work, so that’s how it goes. Opportunities, vacation, workloads (and misfortunes) are not distributed equally.

          1. Koko*

            Yeah, I think other commenters are spot on when they say this is really about being envious of her financial situation.

            All those other benefits are ones where culturally, it’s a bad look to begrudge someone a perk that they have “earned” – whether as a reward for hard work or compassion for misfortune. Nobody wants to be the grouch who resents a new mother caring for her baby, complains about a coworker who just lost his sister, or mutters sour grapes when the top performer gets promoted. Even if a person feels that way, they won’t say it to anyone but a trusted confidante for image reasons.

            But as soon as a benefit has the appearance of being unearned/arbitrary, the feelings of envy become socially validate and the person is given social permission to openly disapprove. The envy still comes from the unfair benefit, but the unearned dimension–and the fact that they subsidizing the benefit in a more obvious way than other benefits that just affect money behind the scenes–is what makes them feel empowered to make snide comments.

            Her coworkers resent her financial ability to take the LWOP. Because her husband earns the money, they perceive it as an unearned privilege that makes her life better and theirs crappier. I suspect they would still resent her financial situation even if the org brought in a temp to help out when Traveling Secretary is away, but given that she’s very good at her job, they’d probably be less inclined to bitch about because of fear that it would make them look petty over sour grapes.

            1. JHunz*

              Her coworkers would probably resent her financial status less if she didn’t “frequently” comment on how she doesn’t need the job and that her husband makes plenty. I think OP needs to shut down her bragging to coworkers who are less well off as much as they need to shut down the pushback from the coworkers.

              1. Dust Bunny*

                Yeah, I can easily forgive people being able to afford more than I can a) if they don’t talk about it constantly b) while I am doing the work they are not doing because they’re on vacation.

              2. Green*

                I’m not sure what context those comments are being made in. (As I mentioned in another comment, from recently having gone to an expensive vacation place, people have a tendency to ask “How can you afford to go to Seychelles?” or say “I wish I could afford to go to the Maldives”, which either leaves you talking about your financial situation or theirs… people are just awkward.) But if she’s being rude, then OP needs to handle that separately. Similarly, if others are being rude to her, that also needs to be handled.

            2. Specialk9*

              Personally, I’m finding it HI-larious that secretaries who get 4 whole weeks of vacation are complaining.

              Must be nice.

              (Yes I know it’s all relative, and it needs to be managed, but I mean… Come on. That’s a LOT of leave to most of us, in the US at least.)

              1. Luna*

                Why, because secretaries are less deserving of having good benefits than other workers?

                I’ve been working in the US for 10+ years and have always had at least 4 weeks of vacation time. It’s not that unusual these days.

                1. JCB*

                  Uhhh… it’s very unusual to get 4 weeks off in the US, your situation is unique/lucky. My husband works for a large national corporation with great benefits otherwise, has for years, and still only gets 3 weeks off. I’ve worked for probably 5 different companies and only one got me close to 3 weeks off. I don’t know any friends or family who have 4 weeks off. Depends on the industry, my experience is 2-3 weeks being more common. I don’t think SpecialK9’s comment was at all meant to be derogatory towards secretaries, I think it’s just true for most US workers.

                2. Specialk9*

                  Hoo boy! Way to come out swinging rudely. Soooo… actually, no, because when *I was a secretary myself* I got 0 days of time off. I’m a senior program manager and still only get 3 weeks. 4 weeks of paid leave is ridiculously generous in America.

                  As I said, must be nice.

            3. Globe Trotter*

              The person with the problem is the person bragging about how much they don’t need their job…at their job. I can’t imagine many workplaces that wouldn’t call your bluff if you’re being that arrogant that often, especially when you drive the point home by rarely ever working.

          2. Ann O'Nemity*

            Green, I’ve noticed that really good employers will do what they can to mitigate one employee’s situation so it doesn’t affect another employee’s workload. Sometimes that means hiring more help – a temp, part-timer, etc. Sometimes it’s even turning down a client or delaying a project until there’s sufficient staffing. But it doesn’t always have to mean that the rest of the team takes more work.

            Also, I think the resentment and snide comments should be aimed at the *employer* instead of the rockstar secretary. The team shouldn’t be so irritated with her, because it’s the employer who is ultimately increasing workloads. They’re making the choice – and it is a choice – to keep a great employee who only works 10 months a year. But that shouldn’t mean that the rest of the team has to make up the difference.

        4. CmdrShepard4ever*

          I don’t know for sure but it could be the high performer does not have to help cover for their coworkers when they go on vacation, although maybe not if the high performer works for high volume/time sensitive work attorneys. Also a rule “you have to take on more work but don’t expect anyone to return the favor.” could very well be fair. For example Andy works in position that is not time sensitive and does not have a huge amount of work, so when Andy takes time off no one covers for him and the work can pile up and be done when Andy gets back. But Bob works in a position that has a lot of work that is time sensitive and needs to be covered by someone else. So when Bob takes time off it is part of Andy’s job to cover the vital aspects of Bob’s job. Does this create more work for Andy yes and Bob does not help out Andy when he leaves.

        5. ArtK*

          “Fair” is not the same thing as “equal.” Something that I’ve had to explain to small children and certain adults multiple times.

    2. JKP*

      Also, quite often temps cost more because you’re paying the hourly rate for the worker plus an additional fee to the temp agency.

      1. Anastasia Beaverhausen*

        But you’re not paying anything else though – payroll taxes, Worker’s Compensation, or any benefits.

    3. Thlayli*

      I also think LW 3 should at least look into the option of hiring a temp, at least part time, to take some of the load off.
      Given that LW is already concerned about the impact of this on other staff morale, it seems like good business sense.

      1. Green*

        It’s not clear that they’re overworked when she’s gone, just that they’re starting to make resentful comments, which could easily be this misperception that things need to be fair and that companies must value everyone the same day or just jealous that she has the financial capability to travel all the time or doesn’t “need” the job. (“must be nice” and “why does SHE get to do X?”)

        1. Not Australian*

          I wonder if part of this could be allayed by revisiting the unpaid leave allocation to the other members of staff. I agree that there’s no need to be ‘fair’ across the board (although I’d argue that in a small firm it does make a kind of sense), but if other staff have been unable to get time off when they needed it and yet this person is swanning off on multiple trips and not being especially tactful about it (another cause of resentment) there may be an argument for more flexibility where the others are concerned.

        2. Sam.*

          You say that like those aren’t issues many people would find demoralizing and frustrating, regardless of whether or not that’s a logical reaction.

          I’m one of my office’s highest performers, and I’m burned out as hell. So, yeah, I’m resentful that the one other person with my title doesn’t have to work during our slow period (which made sense before our business needs changed, but no longer does) and that he’s able to take month-long vacations because his family wealth makes LWOP doable and he doesn’t need to stockpile vacation days anyway. Technically this is all aboveboard, but the fact that I’m covering his job while running on fumes and he’s frolicking on a beach angers me and contributes to a general dissatisfaction at work. Managers need to weigh potential tradeoffs – reasonable or not, this may lead to my boss losing his more valuable employee.

          1. neverjaunty*

            This. I’m a little baffled that the people covering for the LWOP employee are being treated as unreasonable.

            1. paul*

              Yeah. I’ve been in that situation before; it sucks. There’s right and wrong ways to handle it sure, but it sucks, and I woudln’t be surprised at all if it leads to more turnover among the rest of the staff.

            2. Roscoe*

              I think people are saying people are mad at the wrong person. Don’t get mad at your co-worker for playing the cards they were dealt. Be mad at management for not handling it properly.

              1. Luna*

                It sounds like the LW is a manager, or at least somewhat in charge of the secretaries and their work schedules. LW is asking us whether this is an issue she needs to be concerned about and people are saying, yes it is. Management needs to figure out how to deal with this, or risk losing good employees (or having to deal with the brunt of the employees’ resentment themselves, which is never fun!)

            3. Green*

              There’s no indication that they’re upset about covering, or that their workloads are unreasonable, just that they are jealous of the vacation time. When I go on vacation, for example, unless there’s an emergency, nobody has to do my work. I do it when I get back or I’ve done it before I leave. When my secretary goes on vacation, I typically just hold tasks until she returns or do things myself rather than another secretary getting that “work.”

              But even if it is unfairly impacting others’ workload, the solutions here are not to be passive aggressive (or aggressive) about someone else’s benefits but instead to be proactive about what YOU need to be happy, healthy, and productive at work.

              “Must be nice” and “Why does HE get to do that?” aren’t helpful.
              “Jane, I’ve noticed that when Bill goes on extended vacations [is on FMLA, parental leave, etc.], my workload is substantially increased and it’s just not sustainable for me. What other options do we have?” starts a conversation about solutions. One solution may be that Bill doesn’t get extra vacation, but other solutions may be development opportunities for more junior staff, temps, part-time staff, secondments, better planning around Bill’s vacation, etc.

              1. neverjaunty*

                Well, yes, even setting aside the OP’s further comment, there are plenty of indications that the other staff resents having to cover for Jane. They’re not complaining that she can afford to fly first-class, they’re complaining that she’s out of the office frequently and they’re covering for her.

                1. Green*

                  Based on OP’s further comment, it seems like the workload might be part of the issue, but the comments aren’t very specific or productive, and if they want to see a change, then they need to also negotiate.

              2. Someone else*

                Speaking just for myself, if my workload were reasonable and I were not upset about covering, I’d probably not notice or be bothered by someone else’s vacation. The only reason someone else not being in the office bothers me is if it makes more work for me. Otherwise I wouldn’t notice. I don’t identify at all with the “just jealous of the vacation time” you’re suggesting is occurring independent of the rest.

          2. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

            Right, but in this case the secretary taking the additional leave is the more valuable employee.

            1. CG*

              OP says she’s a great worker when around, but if she demoralizes everyone else on the team, OP hasn’t opined on whether she’s more valuable than all the others combined.

              1. Green*

                There’s no indication that *she* demoralizes others, aside from the fact that she is financially able to not work. But so is my boss, and many of my colleagues who are at retirement age, and folks who got large inheritances …

            2. serenity*

              An important point to remember. I’m frankly surprised people are glossing over this fact. Hasn’t it been said on this site, multiple times, that sometimes high performers get better perks because they are high performers? That’s not unreasonable, IMHO.

              1. Green*

                Yes. Excellent legal secretaries are highly valued. There are a lot of law firm partners who are very particular, the consequences for miscalendaring or missing dates can be VERY bad, lawyers can be difficult to work with, and lawyers often expect high performance and few errors. I’ve had five secretaries in my career; only two have been what I consider very good. Plus, at a law firm, it’s not just the chief administrator (or whoever technically supervises the secretaries) that has influence here.

                The secretaries primarily work directly for attorneys, even if they are technically “managed” and reviewed by someone else, and they typically have independent relationships with those attorneys. The attorneys also have their own respective place in the firm and can get very attached to secretaries who know how to work well with them. If OP forces out a popular secretary who has been working for a powerful partner by making her dissatisfied with the job, that’s not going to go well for OP.

                1. Fiennes*

                  As a law-firm veteran, I’m nodding in recognition. The only legal secretary who can manage/placate a high-performing, high-stress partner is an immensely powerful person, and one who won’t be fired for anything much below outright criminal activity. If that’s the case here, LW is probably stuck.

                2. Leslie*

                  Exactly. Depending on the lawyers the secretary is working for, the manager might not be able to fire her. I’ve seen managers forced to rehire former employees at the request of lawyers, and at one firm I worked at, the Chief Human Resources Officer was afraid to fire her own secretary because of the protection she enjoyed from senior lawyers. The OP might not be the only one with a “call her bluff” card to play. In addition, depending on how difficult those lawyers are to work with, it might be worth keeping her because nobody would want to replace her permanently.

                3. Hc600*

                  Another lawyer, and yes, the difference between a mediocre secretary and a very good one is huge.

                  I would take a great secretary who was gone more often over an average one hands down. And if I were a partner I’d really care about what other secretaries thought since they don’t usually directly work with me. And of course the reality of law firms is that since partners generate revenue they’re the ones you ultimately have to keep happy.

                4. CmdrShepard4ever*

                  +100 As an ex-floating legal secretary this is so true. Besides the work quality of the legal secretary, sometimes for attorneys it can be hard to find a secretary that they click with on a social/personal level. As a floater working in various departments I would say I was good at my floating job, I may not have been as good when I filled in at a particular desk because it takes a while to figure out how certain attorneys like things. As I filled in more frequently at certain desks things got better. But with some attorneys I clicked right away and they thought my work product was great, and with others I just didn’t click or it took longer and they may have thought I wasn’t that great but okay until their real secretary came back.

                  At my current job not everyone has the same number of PTO days. You can roll over a certain amount so one year someone might have 6 weeks when other might only have 4, or maybe even 2 weeks if they constantly use up a lot of it. Also after being here for x amount of time people get an extra week of PTO.

                  OP I know you said it was a small office and hiring someone else entirely might not be feasible, but would a full time or even a part-time floating secretary be possible, they can come in even when no one is out and help out everyone else with different things that need doing at the time? There were times although rare when I would go to work and no one would actually be sick/vacation/away and I would just go around the whole office taking extra work off peoples hands, or organizing and filing.

                5. teclatrans*

                  In another lifetime I was a legal secretary who always did my best work with and was valued by the most demanding, high-maintenance attorneys. Everything y’all are saying about the particularities of law offices is bang-on, and most likely makes this situation more complicated to navigate than many posters are imagining.

                1. Koko*

                  And they work as pairs in other ways, too. A regular department can do quite well with a bunch of average to slightly above average employees and one super-achiever. If you have 5 difficult, ornery, but highly-talented attorneys, you need 5 super-achievers. The fact that you have 4 left if 1 of them disappears still means you’re setting someone who isn’t skilled enough up to fail by assigning them to the difficult attorney.

              2. Anna*

                I think the difference is that those perks shouldn’t be at the expense of other employees. It isn’t good policy to give a high performer LWOP if (and that’s a big if, I realize) it means when they’re gone more often other people are expected to pick up their slack with no fuss.

                1. Stranger than fiction*

                  Yeah, I mean, the more I think about it, I don’t think we allow employees here to take lwop. If they’re sick and use all their pto, we allow them to go negative. Similarly, if they wanted 10 vacation days but only had 8 accrued, we’d probably approve it and let them go negative a couple days. So maybe that’s why they frown upon it, for reasons like what the Op is going through.

                2. Specialk9*

                  Why? I all genuinely baffled by your statement. She negotiated a work schedule that they accepted. Any schedule problems are up to the company to find a coverage solution, given that they agreed to her negotiated schedule. This isn’t a zero sum game, this is basic project management.

                  She’s managing her career masterfully, and should be applauded for it.

                3. Anna*

                  Because at no point did the other people working there agree to that? It’s one thing to cover when you are short-staffed and everyone is pitching in; it’s another to negotiate being short-staffed with one employee who at the time of negotiation hadn’t proven her worth. Again, giving perks to high performers shouldn’t come at the expense of other employees. I don’t understand what’s so difficult about that.

              1. Dust Bunny*


                I think she’s getting too much credit for what she does while she’s there, and maybe the rest are not getting enough for what they do of hers while she’s gone. Obviously the place can run without her, because it already does.

              2. Green*

                See my comment above, about working for lawyers in a law firm, with replies from people who have also worked in law firms.

              3. Corporate lawyer*

                Once again, that’s for the firm to decide, not other personal assistants.

                And for what it’s worth, in a transaction based environment or consulting firm, it’s very possible for high performers to take extra leave. You think star political consultants are as busy on November 9th as on Election Day?

          3. pope suburban*

            Exactly. I was in your shoes at my last job, always covering for people who burned through their paid leave and took unpaid, what felt at the time infinite, leave on top of it. Granted that these people were not high performers, and trying to control for that, it was still difficult. It was just a lot of work with no real time to recharge. I mean I can see the argument for “sour grapes” here, but having been in that particular hot seat for too long, I can also see that this could well be the basic fact that people cannot work all the time, with no or very few breaks. Even people who love their jobs need time off. Having to balance needing the job with trying to time your vacations to someone else’s schedule (on the regular; I didn’t feel any way at all about covering for illness or maternity leave) all the time is…ick. It makes me remember being the one to pick up the slack. I feel for these people, and I hope everyone involved in this situation can sit back and look at the optics- and then maybe make changes accordingly, though I don’t know enough to recommend any in specific.

            1. Specialk9*

              The thing is, though, you’re blaming the wrong person. If the OP’s situation is anything like what you just outlined (which is not indicated in the letter, so in speculation territory), then the manager needs to step up and did staffing levels, not the coworker step back. The company agreed to the negotiated schedule, and if they didn’t find additional staffing to meet any shortfalls, that should be the focus of your own career negotiation. With the manager.

              1. pope suburban*

                I seem to have missed the part of the comment where I blamed anyone. Odd. Though for what it’s worth, I was immensely irritated with these people for being irresponsible in general (See: not stellar performers), with HR for being passive about the constant dumping of work for no reward, and the CEO/President for allowing it in the first place (It was a small company and he played favorites, to say it plain). I’m not sure what else I could have done to control that, given that multiple talks with HR and with the CEO concluded with something a bare shade above “Sucks to be you, dummy; do it or be homeless.”

                In the letter writer’s situation, there is a lot going on that is perhaps not being handled well. Maybe the absentee employee should be more tactful. Maybe the other personnel, or the personnel in general, are not being appropriately compensated, either with money or benefits, and the firm should reevaluate that. Maybe the other personnel just ought to start job-searching. Maybe there are interpersonal conflicts or cultural issues that are the real root cause of this, and should be investigated. Like I said, it’s really hard to say without a lot more detail, and given the law-firm culture. Bottom line is that a lot of people are feeling, as far as we can tell, burned out, and that may be something management can/should address. Putting this solely on the shoulders of employees who seem to be junior, and may feel quite powerless, is one way to deal with it, but it seems pretty shortsighted. This seems like a good time to really look at company culture and see if maybe there aren’t better ways of handling these things. If there aren’t, well, nothing’s lost, and best of luck to the other employees on their job hunt. If there are, well, good for management for being willing to self-examine.

              2. Luna*

                But when you say the manager needs to step up and change staffing levels- yes, exactly, and that manager is the OP. The other employees will eventually figure out who to blame and direct their resentment towards the OP if this situation is not figured out before that happens. That’s why many of the commentators are confirming to the OP that this is a problem and should be dealt with in some way.

      2. Bagpuss*

        Or looking into whether there is scope to pay overtime if staff are picking up extra work to cover absences.

        Also, are the other employees aware that she is using unpaid time? (Speaking as someone who once had to explain to a disgruntled employee that their colleague was, in fact, a part time worker and paid accordingly, and was not being allowed to skive off scot-free every afternoon…)

        1. Goya de la Mancha*

          Good point about the overtime – if her work is being distributed among 3 secretaries and they all have to work over time in order to finish her work and theirs, the LWOP isn’t saving anything really.

    4. Nacho*

      Temps cost significantly more than normal workers, about $50-60 an hour for a worker who normally makes $15. Plus the time and money wasted training them every time.

      1. Snowglobe*

        This is true, but if this employee is one of the most valuable employees in her role (and it sounds like she is) she may be paid well over market rate. The cost of a temp with minimal experience (who can do things like filing and answering phones) may be within the range of a top secretary.

      2. Natalie*

        More like 2x the rate in my experience, and you have to factor out employer taxes and benefits tied to pay like 401k match.

        1. Koko*

          In this instance benefits wouldn’t come into play because they aren’t replacing the role with a temp, they’re covering her absences – so they’re still paying full benefit costs and partial salary costs for the regular employee, plus the temp’s hourly rate.

          I still agree with others who say a legal secretary this good is likely paid enough to afford an unskilled temp with the hourly rate she gives up when she goes on vacation. Other secretaries can cover her work, and give their filing and scheduling and other rote work to the temp.

      3. Detective Amy Santiago*

        There is not a 300% markup on temps.

        Part of the upcharge is to cover payroll taxes and workers comp insurance, so it’s not pure profit going to the agency.

        1. Jadelyn*

          I’ve seen up to about a 275% markup, personally. I don’t think saying 300% markup is that much of a stretch. When I was originally hired as a temp at my current employer, I was making $11/hr – I’ve also seen the old invoices (I was doing some filing to clear things out and ran across a folder of old temp invoices, and seeing my own name caught my eye as I was flipping through to make sure that’s all they were and I could get rid of them), where the organization was being charged just shy of $30/hr for me. So that’s about a 260% markup.

      4. K.*

        The markup on temps isn’t that high in my experience, and I’ve hired a lot of contractors. The ones I’ve hired are mostly skilled creatives who are taking home $30-$45 an hour. The total cost to the company is typically about twice that. There may be agencies that charge $50 an hour for a $15 an hour worker, but I’d imagine it’s pretty easy to find ones that don’t.

    5. WM*

      Maybe they could discuss her actually going down to a part time contract so she works fewer days in the year. Or a job share situation? (I guess it might be hard to find someone else who wants to work as a secretary for just part of the year). I think there’s definitely room for some sort of agreement/accommodation if they work with her.

      1. C in the Hood*

        Exactly what I was thinking. If she doesn’t need to work full time and does not work full time, then why should her job be categorized as full time?

      2. EddieSherbert*

        This was my thought – it sounds like she should be a part-time or seasonal employee. Something along those lines!

      3. Genny*

        100% agreed. I’m okay with covering the occasional PTO and FMLA absence. I’m not okay with being asked to work my full-time job plus half of my co-worker’s full-time job without any additional compensation.

        1. Corporate lawyer*

          So quit. The fact of the matter is that economically, the company and employee have negotiated extra time off for the employee. It’s not your place to interfere in compensation arrangements that other employees have negotiated.

          1. Genny*

            I would quit, and I suspect that’s what’s going to happen to some of the LW’s secretaries. If this continues, she’s likely going to continue losing people who don’t want to work 1.5 jobs for the same pay they get for working 1 job.

    6. Temperance*

      That’s how most law firms work. A temp couldn’t know the individual attorney preferences the way that someone working there would.

    7. Candi*

      “Fair” is not a realistic standard, especially for the workplace.

      The word you’re looking for is balanced.

      Balancing all emplyees’ needs, wants, and rights against each other, so no one bears the bulk of the load, yet everyone gets their sick leave, religious days, vacation, and everything else as the terms of their benefits say they should.

      So the question becomes, how does this one woman’s actions affect the balance where the other employees’ are concerned.

    8. FunTillSomeoneLoosesAnEye*

      I also think one of the small parts of the letter, that is getting overlooked, is that the attorneys are fine with this arrangement (Mostly due to I am sure her being one of the better if not best one there) so I am sure any ‘fixes’ that result in her leaving would not go over well with the attorneys at the firm, which would have significant blow-back on those who are still there.

      1. Danger: Gumption Ahead*

        That was what I was thinking. I wasn’t clear on who was approving the LWOP: the LW, the attorneys or, if the attorneys approve, the LW has to as well.

    9. Samiratou*

      In addition to what others have said, unless you have a temp agency that specializes in legal secretaries, this might not be realistic. Legal secretaries have some specialized skills beyond normal admin duties and I wouldn’t expect someone without that background to be able to jump in and be effective for a couple weeks or a month here and there.

      1. Natalie*

        There are all kinds of specialist temp agencies, it’s not just receptionists or file clerks these days. I’m positive you can hire legal secretaries through one.

        1. K.*

          Yeah, I work specifically with agencies that provide creatives, from graphic designers to writers to copyeditors to web designers. My former company used one that specialized in financial services professionals specifically for nonprofits. You can drill down pretty deeply these days!

        2. Hc600*

          there are maybe 150 attorneys who practice in my specific niche (not counting judicial clerks and judicial officials) and that comes in at around 40-50 secretaries. A temp can’t know how things are supposed to be done and when my secretary is out, I either use a backup from my department or if it’s a legal secretary from my firm but not my department I have her do it but end up redoing about 30%.

          1. Natalie*

            Okay? The comment I was replying to was about whether or not temp legal secretaries *exist*, not whether they would be appropriate for your specific specialty or firm.

            1. Hc600*

              The point is that the “specialized skills” (referenced in the comment you initially responded to) legal secretaries have a different from one practice to another.

              As in, a generic temp might be able to do 30% of what my secretary can do without much instruction and a legal secretary from my firm but a different practice area can do about 40%. Law is hyper specialized (by type and jurisdiction) in a way graphic design is not. It’s my secretary’s job (and mine) to know all the particular things about that niche. That’s why the general counsel and/or out of state counsel hired us in the first place.

              1. Ali*

                But on the case here with 4 people having to cover for the one who is out couldn’t the temp take on 25% of the work for each of the other skilled experienced secretaries freeing them up to cover the skilled parts a temp can’t do? Or the least difficult 20% for all of the 5?

      2. teclatrans*

        I was a temp legal secretary, and yes, there are agencies that specialize in that, or at least in high-skill positions of that sort.

    10. Stranger than fiction*

      It sounds like she’s gone a few weeks at a time, which may be hard to train a temp that quickly. Like by the time a temp got everything down, the person they’re covering for would be back. Idk, just a guess.

      1. teclatrans*

        Nah, a few days is unlikely but a few weeks is fine, depending on the type of law and the way the firm distributes work.

    11. Former Hoosier*

      I agree that the workplace isn’t always fair but in this case you need to consider both your desire to retain a valuable employee with the clear impact this is already having on morale.

  2. Get out*

    Re 2, there is a chance she will share more racist thoughts with you. She may not have as neutral intentions as we hope.

    1. Cambridge Comma*

      She also may not know that OP 2 told the manager as people who use this kind of language typically don’t just use it on a single day of their life.

      1. Specialk9*

        Agree on assuming the best – a 50-70 year old may just not be up on the less well known slurs – and gently informing. (My grandmother also has used that term, without knowing better.)

        I’m 40, and was shocked to learn that the 80s slang “jipped” was actually “gypped” and based on a racist stereotype of Romani (not “Gypsies”). I assure you I haven’t used it since!

        But my friend learned that same term was actually a slur by being publicly humiliated and labeled a racist in front of coworkers. She was working on a project for her grade school newspaper, republishing children’s poems from the past, and one from the 80s had the term. Her boss failed to catch the term in his review (that he didn’t do), but after printing, he slammed into the room and yelled at her for being racist in front of coworkers. Awesome. Don’t be that person, OP!

        1. J*

          I’m under 30 and mentally spelled it “jipped” as well. I was shocked to learn the same thing you did a few years ago and have no used it since!

        2. Jules of the Riverside*

          I’m in my mid thirties and had no idea “Boss Man” was a racist term (I thought it was the male equivalent of “Boss Lady”). My coworker pointed it out in a “woah, did you know that’s super racist?” kind of way. He was completely right to do so and I’m really grateful he did since I haven’t used the term since.

    2. SignalLost*

      No, but it’s really reasonable to approach people as though their intentions were good if you have to work with them. She might be racist af, but shouting “J’accuse!” at people does not engender an atmosphere of harmony and collegiality.

      OP, I generally like Alison’s script for this, but if Pam is feeling sensitive about being older than her coworkers, you might want to consider rephrasing the bit about “is now considered a slur”. I’m drawing a blank on how to do that, but suggesting to someone sensitive about their age that they’re out of touch isn’t a strong move here.

      1. MommyMD*

        “Yes, those biracial children were beautiful. I think mulatto is a term that’s not used anymore”.

        I think you take the lecturing out of it.

        1. Anon For Always*

          I really, really don’t want to derail this conversation, because I know so well how quickly this topic can become A Whole Thing, and I truly believe you meant this as an innocuous example, but perpetuating the stereotype of beautiful mixed children (and the general issue of exoticizing the other) is just as racist and harmful as the word mulatto.

          1. Trout 'Waver*

            “I don’t want to derail this conversation, but…” sounds quite similar to “I don’t want to sound racist, but…”

            If you don’t want to, don’t complete the sentence.

            1. Lady Phoenix*

              I think in this case, however, it is good that Anon brought it up. We have this habit of “exotifying” other races and their cultures… which lead to human trafficking, rape, colonialization, and general objectification of that race. We still gets this attitude today with Asians (More specifically Chinese, Korean, and Japanese) and South Americans (specifically Mexicans and Brazillians) —viewing the as sexual because of exoiticism.

              1. Trout 'Waver*

                You’re missing the point.

                Anon for Always is intending to derail the conversation, but leads with “I don’t want to derail this conversation.” Also, the whole thread is about how to correct someone when you find something they say offensive. Anon for Always took an oddly aggressive way of doing so, in a thread about doing so, when the the general consensus (and site commenting rules) has been to assume good will in the absence of a larger pattern of behavior.

                1. neeko*

                  I got your point. And I know the site rules.

                  And there was nothing aggressive (in fact they went out of their way to not be aggressive) about Anon’s excellent and non derailing point. And with that, I’m out of this back and forth.

                2. Derailleur*

                  Not true. A for A was taking ONE SECOND to point out other harmful language that’s being used in a discussion about harmful language and acknowledges that this is not an invitation to tangent-town.

                  This is exactly how someone, in a professional setting, should handle inappropriate language. “Hey, Finance Director, I don’t want to derail the conversation about our Year End Budget Report, but that word you used isn’t really appropriate anymore. But back to the report …” Calling someone out on language, ESPECIALLY when people feel there’s a power imbalance at work, can be done in a gentle, semi-discreet way. I think that’s one reason why people like AAM – it gives examples of how someone can fix an issue at work without it becoming An Issue At Work.

                3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                  That’s pretty uncharitable and doesn’t seem to reflect what Anon for Always actually wrote. The comment also wasn’t aggressive.

                  Analogizing it to “I’m mot racist, but…” seems particularly off.

                4. Trout 'Waver*

                  Saying that calling biracial kids beautiful is just as racist and harmful as calling them mulattos is in fact oddly aggressive when there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that the previous commenter goes around perpetuating stereotypes. That’s my opinion.

                  Also, my initial response was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. If your intent is not to derail, don’t derail. If you think it’s important enough to derail, then at least acknowledge that you’re derailing. You don’t get a pass for claiming to not want to do the thing you’re choosing to do. Anyway, speaking of derailing, I’m going to see my way out of this one.

                5. Afiendishthingy*

                  Oh hell no. It’s an absolutely pertinent point for white people to take into account when talking about race.

          2. bloody mary bar*

            Agreed. This script also softens the message way too much–the point of the conversation is to stop the coworker from saying racist things, and talking about how cute the kids are (can she say racist things to less photogenic children?) and using hedging language like “I think” do not make the message as clear as Allison’s script.

          3. TootsNYC*

            Actually, there’s no need to mention their race at all. None.

            And that’s another point I might make to my colleague, as a piece of up-to-date information that I have and she hasn’t encountered: “there’s a new movement to simply not comment on people’s race”

          4. Annoyed*

            Agreed. I was also struck by the fact that she even felt the need to point them out as “other.”

        2. Trig*

          Yeah, yesterday a coworker of mine used the term “orientals” to refer to Asian people. He did it in the context of “I don’t think of myself as racist, but I realised that I grew up in a very white area/family, with very few blacks and orientals and…” As we were discussing things over beers, I interrupted him right there and said “Hang on, ‘orientals’ is not a term that’s used anymore, it’s considered offensive.” I offered Asian or using a specific nationality as alternatives.

          He was surprised and amenable; he didn’t mean anything by it, just genuinely didn’t know. Other coworker then said “oh it’s just people who are looking to be offended who are offended by it” and I countered with “actually, it’s a term associated with a lot of fetishization and I don’t really think it’s up to us as the racial majority to decided what’s offensive to a group.”

          I’m not sure I convinced them, but they were open at least. These are otherwise intelligent, kind people, they just haven’t experienced that much diversity in their lives (and are members of a more conservative religious organization, so a lot of their viewpoints, friends, and family are from that cultural tradition). I think, short of other evidence, giving people the benefit of the doubt/ability to gracefully recover is a kindness. If they don’t take the olive branch you offer, then, yeah, you’ll know what kind of person they are.

          1. a-no*

            Until about like a week ago, I had no idea that orientals was actually offensive. Half my family is from India which in America’s is technically “Asian” (according to forms that ask about my ethnicity) and my grandfather has always referred to Chinese/Korean/Japanese etc as orientals. Thankfully I had never said that to a person of Asian decent, but I was always under the impression we used that in order to not assume if they were Chinese/Korean/Japanese etc as we don’t like it when people assume where we are from. Turns out that was wrong, but again I had no idea as no one had ever said anything to me about it until about a week ago.
            So I am on the team of talking to people like it’s a genuine misunderstanding as I would have been mortified if someone just starting shouting racist at me.

          2. De Minimis*

            I’ve tried to have that discussion with my mom numerous times….she just can’t or won’t get it. Honestly she’s not really old enough to use age as an excuse. I don’t think that people in the Baby Boomer generation can really get away with the “we grew up in a different time” argument.

            Big issue is similar to what Trig mentions, just not a lot of diversity.

          3. TootsNYC*

            I used that term, “Orientals,” once. It was just the term I had in my head; it didn’t have any negative connotations. I thought that was the word.

            A colleague came and said, “I know that you are the type of person who would never want to use an offensive term, so I feel that I ought to let you know that ‘Oriental’ is not an appropriate term now. The word to use is ‘Asian.’ ”

            It worked. And I didn’t feel judged or scolded–just informed an updated.

        3. Sketchee*

          Generally I would recommend not commenting on race in this way at work. Or the looks of others or children, especially about traits that aren’t their choice.

          That it’s meant as a positive compliment still doesn’t make the mention of these children’s race a good territory to tread into.

          1. Lehigh*

            I think convincing her coworker she’s not to comment on children’s looks at all is going to be a much bigger battle than telling her she’s used an offensive term.

      2. Ramona Flowers*

        Exactly. If you put someone on the defensive, they’re less likely to hear what you’re saying.

        There’s more than one way to be right.

        1. Jesca*

          Exactly. I once worked in the small little town with these much much older ladies. I’m talking rural and white AF. They had NO IDEA that the term “colored” was not acceptable anymore! I mean literally no idea at all. They did not have TVs or socialize much further than their local gathering place. I could have reigned down on them or I could have taken the approach above and recognize that yeah some people do “fall behind the times”. And yeah, taking the time to point out their color is showing some rather prejudice tendencies, but OP is not going to break that in her by flipping out.

          1. Keep Your Eyes On The Prize*

            We had an 85 year old friend and she was trying to remember the name of a talk show host. She said, “that coloured girl who has a TV show.”. Silence. Then someone asked, “Do you mean Oprah Winfrey?” She did. Her daughter was beet red and took her home sooner than planned. But everyone else was, well she is 85 yrs old.

            1. Anna*

              Over this. You can tell an 85 year old person who is still in control of their faculties that calling someone “coloured” isn’t okay today. Probably the 85 year old person would be able to understand that.

              1. LBK*

                Agreed – just having been raised in a different era isn’t an excuse. There are plenty of older people who are capable of keeping up with the times and choosing their words carefully. If you still have the mental capacity to learn and you choose not to, your problem isn’t being old, it’s just being stubborn.

      3. neverjaunty*

        “A lot of people take that term as a slur, and might mistakenly assume you’re racist” is usually pretty safe, because you’re not telling the person that they’re racist, you’re telling them that other people might think they are.

        1. Oranges*

          It has the added benefit of if she is racist she’ll probably back down because no one wants to be labeled racist. (See alt-right).

          Also I wish that there was a more in use word for the implicit bias (which is racist) vs outright hatred (which is hella racist) because racist makes people think I’m accusing them of being KKK when I really meant “your implicit bias is showing, please cover it back up and rethink things”.

          1. Specialk9*

            Yes. Implicit bias is such a thing for pretty much everyone, woke or not, good decent people and all. If the culture around you is filling you with racist messages from birth, you’re going to internalize that. We all need to admit our own racism, and watch ourselves closely so we don’t act on it, and be open to correction. Hard to do, but good people do it anyway.

        2. Mints*

          +1 I like this script

          A weird side effect (unsurprising, but I still find it weird) is people’s milder racism comes out like anything is mild as long as it’s not literal genocide. Like “I don’t hate black people of course, but I would disown my daughter if she married a black man” or like “That new Hispanic family seems perfectly nice but wouldn’t they be happier living with their own people?”

      4. TheDangerousSoup*

        I had no idea that this was seen as a racist word and I’m African American. My grandmother would use it every once in a while. We were simply told not to use it because it was no longer in everyday use.

        1. sacados*

          I think it’s more the association? As in, it’s a word that was commonly used back during slavery through pre-Civil Rights movement, when the world was arguably more overtly racist than it is now. So the word becomes racist by association with that time period.
          Similar to “Oriental” (tho you could argue that word is more inherently racist in the sense of lumping many different cultures and countries together under one simplistic umbrella).

          1. Wintermute*

            “oriental” is a funny one, because in some places (like the UK and much of the Commonwealth and some parts of the US) it’s not considered suspect in the slightest. In addition it is appropriate in some circumstances, though I think the preferred term is now “southeast Asian”, but it’s the antonym to “occidental”, which you rarely hear these days, but in that context is not racist if you really mean “all of this part of the world.” Using it to describe a person shouldn’t be any less offensive than saying “Caucasian” or even “European” because it’s the same level of imprecision, but for some reason it’s considered that way in parts of the US…

            1. JessaB*

              In the US the connotation is usually people are Asian, rugs are Oriental. So it really does go over as offensive here. In Europe things are different. Also in Europe, Asian also covers the Indian sub continent and in the US it usually doesn’t. It’s a weird dichotomy, but here it’s like calling them things instead of people. Vis the Indian sub continent you get weirdness in the US when people say Indian, and then because it’s also a bad catch all term for Native Nations, they then say “Indian, Indian,” to mean the sub continent.

              But mulatto goes back to a time in the US where there were one drop rules that anyone with any Black blood going back was considered Black by law, no matter what they looked like, and there were terms for just how many drops of blood there were, and different legal rules for how those people were treated. It’s REALLY not a good word at all. Also it’s doubly racist because it feeds into the stereotype that darker skin is “worse.” Because by definition mulattoes were lighter skinned. Very not good word. Very racist.

              1. Trout 'Waver*

                Words can mean different things to different people. Absent a larger pattern of behavior, I think you just let people know when they use a word you find offensive. And I think that is the case in this particular letter.

                As for myself, I grew up not knowing the word mulatto was a slur, because I read a lot and only encountered it in older books. As a side note, I also didn’t know how to pronounce it. I honestly thought it was just a descriptive word until I got older and got more perspective.

                So, I think the polite thing to do is to point out that the term is a slur and not impute motive from a single incident.

              2. ThisIshRightHere*

                That and, the etymology of the word itself is pretty disturbing. It was derived from the same root as “mule,” i.e. a beast of burden bred from mixing two different animals. Plenty of people (even biracial ones) would have no reason to know this and might simply consider the word archaic, but harmless. The only way I hear it used today is in literary terms, i.e. the archetype of the “tragic mulatto,” and even then it’s said with unspoken quote-unquotes and it’s understood that it ought not to be used to refer to actual people (sort of like “house negro” and similar terms). With that said, there is no one who needs to use this word so badly that they refuse to self-censor after learning that it’s considered offensive.

                1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

                  Yep, this is a great point about the literary terms. “Noble savage” is another one that is still a relevant trope term, but dear lord, don’t call people that!

                2. Word Nerd*

                  That is one etymology, and it’s common enough that people believe it to be true, but it’s akin to clutching your pearls at hearing the word ‘niggardly’ — which, despite its sound has nothing whatsoever to do with its N-word homophone.

                  The word Spanish/Portugese word “Muladi” is derived from the Arabic ” Muwaladeen”, which means white mixed with Moor. It comes from medieval times and defines a person of mixed ancestry, especially a descendant of an Arab father and a non-Arab mother. It has a much stronger claim as being the progenitor of “Mulatto” than the mule story.

                  I am from an English-speaking, non-USA country, and like some others in this thread I had no idea this was considered an offensive word by anyone. It have encountered it only as a description rather than a derogation – akin to saying that someone is Irish, or tall, or in a wheelchair. It says nothing about their character or personality, only their ancestry. I suppose it all depends on the social milieu.

              3. Mahkara*

                ‘Mulatto’ also comes from the derivative ‘mule’ so is pretty offensive for that reason alone. (Even not getting into all the other context around it.) It’s not nice to compare people to sterile farm animals.

                1. boo*

                  I can’t reply to Word Nerd above, but I think derivations (and even past usages) are not a great tool in the decision tree of “Should I Say This?” I’m also a bit of a word nerd, and I’m a descriptivist. The point of words is to communicate, and if Word means Thing, and everyone understands that, then Word means Thing.

                  It’s literally how language evolves, and when I think about it, my head literally explodes.

                  The example of “niggling” above, is I think one of the most obvious places to invoke the “and everyone understands that” part of my clumsy description of descriptivism. It sounds so similar to the N word that most people (at least American, I think) will immediately make that connection. It doesn’t really matter where the word really came from, it’s now got an associate with a violent, racist past, and that’s the connotation that comes most rapidly to mind. And “but the derivation…” doesn’t have enough moral weight for me to get behind it.


                2. Lehigh*

                  I’ve never in my life heard anyone associate “niggling” with the N word.

                  Does “no, that’s a pretend derivation made up to be sensationalist” have any moral weight?

                3. Word Nerd*

                  No, it doesn’t, Mahkara. I deflated that just above.

                  Referencing Boo and Lehigh below… I didn’t use the word ‘niggling’. (Where did that even come from? Reading comprehension, people!) I used the word ‘niggardly’ which means cheap or stingy. And there is literally an entire Wikipedia page devoted to people conflating ‘niggardly’ with the N-word.

                  From that page: “Julian Bond, then chairman of the NAACP, deplored the offense that had been taken at Howard’s use of the word. “‘You hate to think you have to censor your language to meet other people’s lack of understanding,'” … to which I will add ‘or their desire to feel offended.’

            2. Feline*

              Oriental is considered an impolite descriptor in only parts of the US? Can someone expand on this?

              I’ve been trying to figure out how explain this to my father, who calls people Oriental all the time since he started dating a Taiwanese woman. Maybe I’m the one in the wrong thinking he’s being impolite!

              1. Lora*

                People are Asian, things are Oriental.

                It helps to also understand that unless the person you are talking with is actually a tourist or hasn’t been in the US long, race is treated really, really weirdly here. Not that other countries don’t have their own racism thing going on (hello, Han Chinese vs Tibetans and Argentinians vs Uruguyans and Indians vs Pakistanis) but it’s weird to them that all Asians are lumped together here, all people who have Spanish as a first language are lumped together as Latino, etc. because from their perspective they have NOTHING in common with their long-standing political enemies. If your dad’s girlfriend has been in the US for a while, she will probably understand that we are weird, but if she is relatively new and just learning our odd customs there may be some explaining in order…

                1. TL -*

                  Yeah – it makes sense in the context of the USA; we have a huge and incredibly diverse population and so we don’t tend to be able to pick out differences like other parts of the world can. I can’t tell Italians from Russians from Jews*, but my roommate’s Russian Jewish family can easily pick Russians out of a crowd, and when they’re in Russia, people know they’re Jewish just by looking at them.
                  Thus, people become European, Asian, Latino, ect… I think it’s generally more polite to refer to someone as Chinese American if you know it to be true and Asian American if you’re not sure.

                  *I’ve worked with enough Chinese people that I have a sense of Chinese versus not-Chinese. I have some idea that Scandinavian people are mostly taller and blonder than other Europeans. That’s the extent of my abilities to “place” by sight.

                2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                  Indians v. Pakistan? I’m not sure that’s racism; it’s a pretty distinct geopolitical issue. U.S. racism is a very particular beast.

                3. Lora*

                  PCBH, I get the impression from colleagues and friends that it’s kinda a mix of both at this point? I could be wrong, of course I am hearing / reading / seeing this all very secondhand and no doubt there are some cultural translation issues – not directly language issues necessarily, but in the “not comfortable talking about that really, so will use euphemisms and odd language to describe it” way.

                4. Former Employee*

                  I can’t reply to TL, so I am commenting here.

                  Jewish is a religion. If you weren’t born to a Jewish mother, you can convert and become Jewish. You can’t convert to being Italian or to any other group that has to do with your national origin or race ir ethnicity or that of your ancestors.

                5. Raine*

                  @Former Employee, Jewish is a classification for an ethnoreligious group, so it refers to both people who are Jewish in faith, Jewish ethnically, or both.

                6. Raine*

                  @Former Employee, Jewish is a classification for an ethnoreligious group, so it refers to both people who are Jewish in faith, Jewish ethnically, or both. There are certain features that are common of people in the Jewish ethnic group, and I believe this is what TL is referring to.

              2. SophieChotek*

                Although I have to say I work an Asian company and they used the word Oriental to describe themselves all the time! (If anything I’m going back to correct their US-based press releases and take the word Oriental word out, just so US readers don’t think some insensitive US employee used the term Oriental!)

                But the concept of “Orientalism” being used to described an Exotic “Other” is what seems to be at issue with the word being seen as racist/exotic as well as all of Asia getting lumped together as “the Orient” — Edward Said wrote a seminal book on this, as I recall.

              3. Coalea*

                I think that age plays a big role in the use of “Oriental” vs “Asian.” In my experience (in the US), most people who say “Oriental” are older, like my 65-year-old mom, for example. You would think as someone who is part Filipino, she would know better, but that hasn’t been the case. I’ve mentioned it to her a number of times, and now she’ll usually correct herself, but for whatever reason, her default word is still “Oriental.”

              4. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

                The success I’ve had explaining it is to point out that as a term, it covered an area stretching from Turkey to Japan — taking all those very different people and basically calling them “you folks over there who are defined entirely by being to the east of Europe and actually have little or nothing in common.” Quoting the carol ‘We three kings of Orient are’ also helps, since that’s most certainly not talking about East Asia!

                1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

                  Yep! I should have said, Turkey to Japan, Siberia to Sri Lanka — in any case, a ridiculously broad swath of peoples.

                2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                  I didn’t man to nitpick :) I just raise it because people often do what you were describing—use “Oriental” or “Asian” in a manner that lumps over half the world’s (very diverse) population by their geography. But I’ve also noticed that folks increasingly refer to Russia as if it’s part of Europe when historically (and geographically) it’s always been part of early Orientalism.

                3. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

                  Oh, I didn’t take it as nitpicking at all :) It’s a great point that the major bulk of Russia is east of the Urals and therefore part of Asia, and formerly “Oriental.” (And that Russia itself is a very diverse country!)

              5. Anion*

                My husband, who grew up in the UK, used to use “Oriental” all the time. I just told him what others here have said: “Baby, rugs are Oriental. People are Asian.”

                It took a few reminders, but it worked. In the case of your dad, you could add something like, “Nobody says ‘Oriental’ anymore,” or, “It’s not considered polite anymore to call people ‘Oriental.'” (Which is what I said to my husband the first time it came up, before using the rugs/people line.)

            3. Bagpuss*

              I’m in the UK and wouldn’t agree that ‘oriental’ used to describe people is ‘not considered suspect’.

              I think it is potentially less offensive than some of the terms used about people who are black, possibly because it has less history as a specific slur, but it isn’t a term which would be used in describing people. I suspect that for a lot of people hearing it the reaction would be ‘oh, dear, granny doesn’t know any better’ rather than ‘that person is probably a card carrying member of ‘Britain First’, but still, not a good word choice.

              I can’t comment on how it is perceived elsewhere in the commonwealth.

              1. Media Monkey*

                agreed. it isn’t acceptable to call people “oriental” in the UK. i would guess some people might say “chinese” even if the person concerned isn’t from china. calling rugs/ furniture oriental would be OK.

                confusingly when Americans say Asian they mean someone from SE asia, but in the UK we mean someone from India/ Pakistan/ Bangladesh.

                1. Lora*

                  Sometimes we mean both, because here “Indian” can also mean Native American. Have had some UK folks insist that this is a slur, but American Indian is commonly used to describe indigenous people here.

                2. TL -*

                  In the States, calling someone Chinese when they’re not Chinese, just east Asian, generally gets you either laughed at (because even children can tell the difference) or a deservedly acerbic retort that not all Asians are Chinese.

                3. Coalea*

                  The American use of “Asian” isn’t just limited to SE Asia – it also includes China, Japan, and Korea.

                4. Media Monkey*

                  TL – i have a friend from Taiwan brought up in the US, and she refers to herself as Chinese American. so maybe YMMV

                5. Media Monkey*

                  however admittedly that might be dependent on what side of the taiwan/ china divide her family fall on so probably isn’t that relevant!

                6. Asian*

                  Media Monkey, plenty of people (including some people from Taiwan) consider Taiwan to be part of China and not its own country. Please don’t police your friend’s identity because you disagree with his/her politics– so icky for you to imply that it’s wrong for her to self-identify as Chinese-American (and to preempt arguments against this, it’s pretty obvious from context that’s what Media Monkey means since they’re using their friend as a counterexample to the statement that calling someone Chinese when they’re not Chinese is offensive, which clearly shows they disagree that their friend is Chinese-American).

                7. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                  Yeah—that’s my understanding, too. It’s really not acceptable to call people “Oriental” in the UK. There’s a distinction between SOAS, which refers to a geopolitical area of study, and calling humans Oriental.

                  The Asian thing is driven in part by immigration flows. South Asian (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Maldives) immigrants were the largest and first immigration wave to the UK in the 1950s-70s, while the first large “wave” of Asian immigration to the United States was primarily East Asian (China, Japan, Korea). To be sure, South Asians also immigrated to the U.S. over 120 years ago, but because their migration started later, they were hit at a different point in their second migration wave by the Chinese Exclusion Act (which South Asian immigrants sued over, arguing the Act was intended to exclude East Asians and not all Asians. The Supreme Court did not agree).

                  In the U.S., Southeast Asian typically refers to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, etc.—folks aren’t usually referring to this migrant group when they say “Asian” in the U.S.

                8. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

                  @Media Monkey – re your Taiwanese-American friend, that has to do with some fairly complex politics in which Taiwan considers itself to be the ‘real’ China — ie the government that was overthrown by Mao. So people using ‘China’ to mean ‘Taiwan’ aren’t being wrong or using ‘China’ indiscriminately, they’re making a fairly political point.

                9. Media Monkey*

                  umm, yes, i said above that i was probably thinking about it incorrectly. and i have no particular thoughts either way on whether my friend is chinese or not. just giving an example from my own experience as were plenty of other people across the whole comment section who don’t appear to be having words put in their mouths.

                10. Media Monkey*

                  umm, yes, i said above that i was probably thinking about it incorrectly. and i have no particular thoughts either way on whether my friend is chinese or not. just giving an example from my own experience as were plenty of other people across the whole comment section who don’t appear to be having words put in their mouths.

                  response to Asian above rather than Countess Bouchie who said the same thing without accusing me of policing my friend.

                11. Asian*

                  Hey Media Monkey, I replied to you before your second response (the one saying you may be incorrect) showed up on my screen, so it really did seem like you were just saying you had a friend who wasn’t Chinese-American but who identified as such. You may understand why someone would be uncomfortable with a person outside of a group making a normative statement about how that group should identify. No need to accuse anyone of putting words in your mouth. We’re on the same page (I think), and mea culpa, my apologies.

                12. Media Monkey*

                  Asian – no problem. i was just shocked that my comment that i thought was fairly innocent had been taken so differently to how it was meant.

              2. Wintermute*

                My apologies for misunderstanding, my source for that was a video by a fairly well-educated British gentlemen who explicitly said “In the U.S. it’s a racist term of abuse, but in the UK it’s not, so they’re not being racist”. When describing the game Oriental Hero. (the youtuber in question was Dr. Stuart Ashens, and he is a doctorate in a social science so I presumed he was fairly versed in such things.

                1. Media Monkey*

                  it’s not like OMG racist like the n-word, it’s just pretty tone deaf/ old fashioned and i think a lot of people would object to using it/ being called it.

                2. Huddled over tea*

                  I mean, he’s also white, so…

                  (Chiming in to say I would def be offended if other people in the UK called me Oriental.)

        2. VioletEMT*

          It was my understanding that it’s considered offensive because “mulatto,” like “quadroon,” was used to describe mixed-race slaves at sale/auction.

          As a white person, I’m not going to tell POC how to describe themselves or what words to find offensive. But I am going to avoid words I’m told a lot of folks find offensive.

          Additionally, “mulatto” has a specific meaning, and it’s a bit of a stretch to assume you can tell someone’s racial background by looking at them. It might not even be correct to describe these children. Heck, “biracial” might also be inaccurate. I’d just say “mixed-race.”

          1. Media Monkey*

            derailing from a UK perspective to say “mixed race” is no longer as polite to use in the UK (although clearly better than mulatto. or half caste which used to be the horrible term i remember from growing up). “dual heritage” is the current term.

            1. nonymous*

              what about people who identify from more than two backgrounds? is “mixed heritage” appropriate?

              1. Media Monkey*

                now that i don’t know! however a few people elsewhere in the comments suggesting they dislike the term “mixed” and don’t use it.

              2. Mints*

                Multiethnic might work? Especially if you’re talking more about culturally than the way they look

            2. Nope*

              I’m in the U.S. so this may not carry over, but I tend to use multiracial for myself in settings where I don’t know people very well and it comes up, or mixed in more casual settings. But I probably wouldn’t use mixed to describe someone else, I’d go with multiracial out, if I know what they prefer, that.

          2. No Green No Haze*

            I’m there with you, VioletEMT — I’ve almost always run across the word on the written page, not verbally; and then, in history books or historical fiction. White & nerdy book person here, my take on it has been that it’s an antique, archaic word not a lot of people in my area (US Midwest) know, but I would never use it to describe a person because I’ve never met a person who did, especially a biracial person, and I think it’s most polite to call people what they want to be called (see also ‘Oriental.’)

            That said — ice cream chain Dairy Queen has for several years now sold a coffee drink called the “MooLatté” that dropped my jaw to the floor when I first heard an advertisement. I just don’t know what other word they can imagine they think they’re making a pun of, or who thought that was a good idea. The fact that there seems to not have been a general outcry is the main reason I think “mulatto” is not a word commonly (whitely?) in circulation. And we’re not very historically literate in America, so while I’d imagine our black community has more intimate awareness of historical slurs than our white community, passed down through family oral history of, you know, being called garbage things, I doubt almost anyone’s learning this academically. (If you like historical mystery fiction, Barbara Hambly’s ‘A Free Man Of Color’ Benjamin January series is pretty cool. 1830s New Orleans.)

            1. many bells down*

              I had a friend in college in the 90’s that referred to himself as “mulatto”. Like you, I’d only seen it in historical novels so I was pretty surprised to hear him say it. But of course there’s a big difference between identifying yourself that way and having someone else call you that.

            2. Specialk9*

              “MooLatte” made me lose my mind. Every time I saw it, I had a furious internal dialogue about how disgusting and awful it was to turn a slavery tool of racial oppression into a joke. (Also, obscure much?)

          3. Nita*

            Yes, I think this must be it. I have not heard this word used, ever, only seen it in old books. It’s been forgotten (at least around here) for a reason. It wasn’t just a word that meant bi-racial, it was one of those words that was used to parse exactly how much black ancestry someone had, and carries all kinds of racist baggage.

          4. MashaKasha*

            Additionally, “mulatto” has a specific meaning, and it’s a bit of a stretch to assume you can tell someone’s racial background by looking at them.

            That was my first thought too. It sounded just as absurd to me as it would’ve been if Pam had gone on to say, “and one 50% Irish, 25% German, 25% Italian girl”.

          5. Oranges*

            I have heard it. In Archer (TV Show) because racism (both kinds) is something they play with. I had no clue what it was at first. Then my friend told me.

            1. MashaKasha*

              I learned it from when I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a young child. I was 7 or so. It was the 70s.

            2. Wintermute*

              that’s where I heard “quadroon” first, when he’s discussing his child’s race, and if I recall the rejoinder is something like “who USES that word, what are you, from the 1700s?!”

          6. Mints*

            I use mixed race for myself, or sometimes just “mixed.” I see how multiracial sounds better, but I don’t think it’s that negative

          7. Anonimouse*

            I call myself a quadroon, I like it. My sister and I started using it as kids to annoy my father, but it kind of stuck.

        3. NaoNao*

          I think it’s highly contextual. I don’t think it’s on par with, say, the n-word or other hateful, aggressive slurs meant only to wound and “other”. But I think it’s just acquired an “old fashioned” and “non-woke” patina such that people would be better to choose another phrase/word.

        4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I think it also depends on who says it. I have a multiracial friend who refers to himself as “mulatto” in part to be provocative and in part as reclamation of a slur. I find it deeply uncomfortable, but I’m not going to police how he identifies himself. Notably, he doesn’t call other multiracial Black/White folks by that term because he knows how loaded and offensive it is, today.

          I’m not surprised your grandmother used it, though—it was in the Census well into the 1950s.

          1. Natalie*

            I’m fairly sure the census I filled out in 1990 still had either “negro” or “colored” as a synonym alongside African-American and Black. It was… jarring.

            1. Reba*

              Yes, “negro” was in the 2010 census, although I think it’s going to be removed. The argument in favor was that many old people still use it/would recognize the term.

              There is some good googleable stuff written about this notable example of semantic shift (a once-neutral term became derogatory).

        5. matcha123*

          From what I’ve seen and experienced, black people almost exclusively use it in a derogatory fashion towards people they know are part-black or suspect might be. A small number of people are trying to “reclaim” the word, but it is in general (in the US) an offensive word for someone that is part-black mixed.

          1. Wintermute*

            This is the context I’ve seen for it to, basically when they’re saying “what are you doing spouting that racist stuff/ voting for / acting like this doesn’t affect you/ acting like you’re better than me, if one drop makes the whole, you’re as black as I am!”

        6. De Minimis*

          It’s such an archaic term now that I can see how a lot of people might not think of it as racist and just as an old word that isn’t useful for anything.

          The only thing like that I’ve heard in the workplace is from an older African American employee who would refer to some of the other coworkers as “high yellow.”

      5. Topcat*

        I agree. I would phrase it: “that term isn’t considered acceptable any more, and some people might take offence when none was meant.” Then specify whatever phrase is currently acceptable: person of colour/mixed-race/whatever.

        Of course the issue is also that some people will be offended by race/skin-colour being mentioned at all, but that will likely send you down a rabbit hole of indignation with someone like Pam. Better to just guide her to terms that are neutral.

        1. Jay*

          I’m appreciative of this topic as I had no idea that the word was racist (not that I’ve heard it a lot over the years and I’m thankful it’s not part of my lexicon). Is this regional? I heard it the odd time when I used to live in Toronto and used in a context to describe a person’s background – the word both used by my white & black friends. It’s either that or we were all ignorant of the word’s context.

    3. Drew*

      It costs LW2 nothing to assume good intent until she has evidence to the contrary – or, as my mother says, “don’t borrow trouble.” Pam may in fact harbor racist attitudes, but she may just as easily be using a word she learned as a child, before it became an uglier term.

      In either case, coming out swinging is going to lead to a more uncomfortable workplace than saying, “This is awkward and I know you wouldn’t want to insult or upset anyone.”

      1. MommyMD*

        Coming out swinging is rarely good advice. Unless there is obvious ill intent, which is not present here. It reminds me of the LW so fiercely upset about the frog emoji her coworker was innocently using and the aggressive response to it.

        1. Mike C.*

          Yeah, people get upset when presented with symbols that have entries in the ADL’s Hate Symbols Database, go figure.

          1. JessaB*

            Until I saw it here, I had never even seen that frog, and had absolutely no clue whatsoever what it meant. If I’d seen it, I’d have thought “okay person likes weird frogs.” So not everyone knows everything. But yeh people who come out swinging when told something is actually racist are a problem. If they don’t intend to be racist, why should they be upset that they’re being told something they didn’t know. Unless the TELLER comes out swinging about how OMG racist they are instead of finding out they had no clue.

            1. Emi.*

              *Especially* with something like Pepe where part of the point is that it was a normal thing that got co-opted.

          2. Wintermute*

            Except the ADL is not an unbiased source and many people, including the work’s original creator (who had no racist intent and is really upset it’s become, in his words ‘stolen’), don’t see it that way at all.

            So it’s pretty controversial, and you shouldn’t assume ill-intent because a co-worker might not be up to day on the latest meaning of something that started innocent and may or may not have been according to some people co-opted

      2. Temperance*

        I’m from a rural area. I wouldn’t have used that word because that’s just not how I talk, but I can see others who I grew up with thinking that it’s a fine word.

    4. Nacho*

      Complete honesty here, I didn’t know that word was racist either. I think it might just be an old word that people used to use, but don’t mean anything bad by it. Obviously they need to be informed it’s no longer socially acceptable, but it doesn’t necessarily mean she’s racist.

      1. Stinky Socks*

        ^^^This. It would never occur to me to ever use the word, because I don’t categorize people based on my guesstimation of their parentage, but also because it’s archaic.

        1. Ramona Flowers*

          I am glad I live in an age when people do ‘come unglued’ on hearing racist language. It’s an improvement.

          1. Hub*

            Really? Because I’m of the opinion that freaking out about something never does any good. Taking a calm and mature stance does, however. :)

          2. Engineer Girl*

            Becoming unglued is hardly the way to convince someone you are right. Most people will shut down under those circumstances and you’ve now lost your opportunity to engage with them and correct them.

            1. Mookie*

              Becoming unglued is hardly the way to convince someone you are right. Most people will shut down under those circumstances and you’ve now lost your opportunity to engage with them and correct them.

              Sauce for gander, though; if someone can’t handle being told they’re using racist language and instead lash out, they’re also missing out on something important. Good faith works both ways.

              1. Wintermute*

                This is LITERALLY the definition of “white fragility”– That white people are taught all their life that racism is evil and racists are Bad People, when in reality a ton of culture is systemically and implicitly racist and racism is baked right into the culture to such an extent that your best attempts at cultural sensitivity are often going to come up short.

                So when they’re told “that’s racist” they HEAR “You are being intentionally racist” and that means you’re calling them an evil, bad person.

                Jumping right to assumptions that they’re a bad person because they used a racist term is playing right into the problem of white fragility and the inability to have racial discourse. Like it or not you have to overcome the initial fact that they will hear “you said something racist” as “I am calling you an evil person”, so assuming good faith generously is the best way to overcome that reaction.

                1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

                  Yes, good lord, the white fragility involved in that “don’t tell people they’re being racist, that’s mean!” discussion is pretty incredible.

                2. Allison*

                  I’ve had to learn that part of not being racist is being open to the idea that you might still be a little racist in ways you’re unaware of, and you need to keep listening and learning. So if I said something and someone was like “hey, that’s kinda racist” (or biased, prejudiced, classist, ignorant, whatever), a super defensive “BUT I’M NOT RACIST” response accomplishes nothing and probably just starts a really ugly fight, but saying “oh crap, I had no idea! I won’t say that again!”

                  So even if you’re sure Pam is a not-racist person with perfectly fine intentions, it’s still worth it to let her know that some people find that word offensive, and it’s best not to use it. Especially if she works at the public library.

                3. Oranges*

                  Triple co-signed.

                  Also adding if you do freak out or need to talk things out. Please do so at/with a person who is NOT a minority or a minority person who has purposefully stated they are there to ask questions of (thinking of the cultural ambassadors at many community centers). Making the persecuted do the emotional work around this stuff is not okay. Not okay at all.

                4. Delphine*

                  White fragility is a negative though. I’m great with white people catering to other white people by assuming good faith and being careful in how they correct it, but people of color should not have to bear the burden of white fragility and police their reactions to racism. So, I would avoid the catch-all “assume good intentions”, unless we’re talking about white people correcting white people.

                5. Countess Boochie Flagrante*


                  Yep, because ‘White fragility’ was never the basis of labeling someone as okay to enslave.

              2. Engineer Girl*

                Unglued is the nuclear option. Someone is not fragile if they get upset at someone else calling them names. That’s what make slurs offensive! So why is it OK the other way?
                If you want someone to stop then you are calm and address the issue. That way the other person can’t write you off as a nutter.
                That goes for labels too, including “white fragility”.
                Name calling and labels are both logical fallacies and are part of ad hominem attacks. Instead, calmly tell them why it’s wrong. Then they may listen to you.
                If you don’t get that then I can’t help you.

                1. Sketchee*

                  I wouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Too often racism doesn’t get called out *at all* because people are afraid of not doing it properly.
                  If becoming “unglued” is the way you need to call out racism than do it.
                  The only completely wrong way to not call out racist behavior is to say nothing.
                  Say something.
                  Too many people judge the way other’s call out racism way harder than they judge the racist behavior. That’s the problem.

                2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

                  Engineer Girl, I’m sure you aren’t intending it this way, but what you’re saying seems to really boil down to “this person can be as rank as they like, and we have to safeguard their feelings and be very delicate and non-accusatory with them even though they’re the one in the wrong.” Can you see why that really comes across badly to people?

                3. Sue Wilson*

                  No, that’s not why slurs are offensive. Slurs are offensive because of a discriminatory history of use. Regardless, I’m not sure you understand how “calmly addressing the issue” has not inoculated us enough against violence against us for you to suggest it’s the best option. Historically, being disruptive has proved very effective.
                  Secondly, if you don’t like sociological terms because they’re describing social phenomena…I can’t help you.

                4. Starbuck*

                  I hope I am misunderstanding you but it sounds like you are saying calling someone a racist is just as bad as calling someone a racial slur. The word “racist” is not a slur, so it’s not really comparable.

                5. Engineer Girl*

                  I am not saying calling someone racist is anywhere near the level of a racial slur.
                  I am saying that starting off the conversation in a clear rational manner is far more likely to get results. Even if the person is being crassly racist.
                  “I can’t believe you said that” can have far more power than a diatribe. The calm level response is emotionless and therefore harder to argue with. It also opens up dialogue with the other party. A rant will shut the dialogue down.
                  The goal isn’t to be righteously right but to convince the other person that they may be wrong. Once the gears start going you are far more likely to convince them to change their ways.

          3. TL -*

            Most of the time it’s sufficient just to say you find that word offensive (or racist or sexist or whatever) and ask them to not use it around you.

            Or sometimes to just interrupt with the proper term and a raised eyebrow, as in, “You meant mixed race?” Optional: “Mulatto’s pretty offensive to a lot of people.”

            1. Just Another Techie*

              I’ve found that often times when I hear someone say very calmly matter of factly “that word is a slur and I would rather not hear it” everyone who used the word describes the objector as having “come unglued” or “thrown a tantrum” or other hyperbolic lamguage.

              1. TL -*

                I wouldn’t be surprised if people have described it that way behind my back, but I don’t think anyone’s ever had the nerve to say it to my face. Either way, as long as people stopped using that word in my presence, I would consider the matter done with. If they want to whine about it, it only reflects badly on them.

              2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                In my experience, people who are uncomfortable/defensive being called on racist behavior generally find it more offensive to be called out for saying/doing something racist than the offense of the underlying racist behavior.

                I usually hear the hyperbolic language deployed when POC raise the issue. I’ve seen it deployed against white folks who comment on racially problematic language, but it seems much much less common compared to the reactions I’ve seen to POC.

            2. N.J.*

              I like your line of thinking here, as in approaching it directly but calmly, but I would personally be squicked out by mixed race. Since we are talking about pointing out the right term to replace an outdated and offensive one, thought it was worth mentioning. Mixed race is technically correct, I guess, but as someone who is half black and half white, I’d be, not furious, but judgemental of someone who called me mixed race. I think part of the problem with the library employee’s behavior for me is that she mentioned the race of the children at all. She could have just said that only three children showed up for story time. It would still be off-putting to me to hear “only one boy and two little Hispanic girls showed up!” That’s really two separate issues I’m reflecting on then—correct word choice and noting race at all. So I’m not sure what to use in place of mixed race, but it still feels uncomfortable to me.

              1. Mookie*

                I would have the same reaction because the whole thing is a non-sequitur unless someone’s perceived ethnicity matters in the context of the discussion; otherwise it’s an observation that serves no purpose and make it sounds like my interlocutur is amazed at the existence of small children of color. But I also recognize that, of course, many, many, many people do See Color and that’s not necessarily the problem. What’s objectionable is that only certain colors are marked as “other” and that the Color One is Seeing often gets in the way of someone treating someone else like a complete and individual human being. So, when I hear a white person speaking in incredulous tones about merely encountering a person of color, I instinctively get my back up (but I also stay silent and wait for more information and, when the need arises, ask the person to re-evaluate both their language choice and the thinking behind it).

                1. JessaB*

                  Usually in a library talking about a program’s ethnic make up matters, if you’re in an area that’s 60% Black, 20% Hispanic/Latin@/x, 10% White and are getting for instance 75% White kids in your reading group, you have a programming problem. So yes race actually matters there. But you still don’t A: talk about it in open spaces and B: use words that are unacceptable. And C: if the goal is for the programme to lean towards the local demographic you want people FROM that demographic in the discussion.

                2. Case of the Mondays*

                  +1 to Jess B. I do volunteer work with a community health organization and we are required by federal law to keep track of the racial makeup of our participants and make sure we are not only serving the needy base in our community but also that our board and staff reflect the make up of those we serve. We can’t have a 90% white board/staff if 85% of our customers are non-white.

                3. PersephoneUnderground*

                  In response to JessaB- it’s actually important to note that discussing racial makeup and population impacts is something that can have positive results. Being 100% unaware of race is actually something only people who are he majority really have the luxury of since their race doesn’t effect their lives negatively regular basis. (I used to think race didn’t matter. Then I married a man who presents as black but has asian and black and latino ancestry. It matters to him.)

                  Example like your library/serving the community example: France doesn’t measure racial groups at all in any of their census or other government survey data because they believe as a matter of philosophy that “we are all French”. The problem there is that they still have public policies that disadvantage certain groups, and they still have racism in France (especially against Muslims), they just officially don’t acknowledge the problem. So saying bringing up race at all is problematic or bordering racist behavior isn’t true from many points of view.

              2. TL -*

                Now that I think of it, I usually hear people described themselves as mixed (instead of mixed race) or a description of their ethnicities, like my half-Swedish/half-Mexican friend.

                But I do agree that their race didn’t belong in the conversation anyways. (Barring some major context we totally missed.

                1. TL -*

                  (my friend being an example of someone who always describes herself using the half&half terminology; I don’t think I’ve ever heard her call herself mixed.)

                2. Athena*

                  I also do the half/half thing; my brother uses other terms but only ever between the two of us. The times I have been referred as “mixed” usually came from people who didn’t have much of an idea, or that one delightful time someone called me “mixed breed, like a dog” then helpfully clarified “but it’s okay, you’re passably white!”

                  Anyway. Point of that is to add to terminology, and provide anecdotal evidence for what you’re saying. Also, to agree with you: Pam could have just said “the children” or similar and been done with it.

                3. Athena*

                  (And by “much of an idea” I mean “came out with something explicitly offensive” afterwards. Not people who are genuinely trying to be kind. Like most of the commenters, I’m happy to educate because race can be a touchy topic – I don’t know how to navigate nuances of it half the time. But the openly racist people who then delve into further murky territory when you correct them… they’re the ones I refer to. Generally, “are you mixed race?” would not bother me one iota.)

                4. matcha123*

                  This reply is for Athena. I am mixed and a lot…most of my friends are, too. We call ourselves mixed. Some of my friends will state their specific mix, but in my friend group “mixed” is the default word for “multiracial.”

              3. JessaB*

                Yeh unless the idea of the conversation was because they have legit targets to try and get kids of many backgrounds, it’s hard to deal with. Libraries have an unusual issue. They want to get all kinds of people in the door, and if they don’t have a way of at least counting who they’re reaching they may have a problem. They may not be getting x kids because the programmes are not geared toward their interests, or they only read books with white protagonists, or whatever. I don’t think this person was being racist, I think they were trying to talk about the demographics of the story telling session in a “okay we had 1 black kid, 1 white kid, 1 girl, 1 boy, no the latin@/x/hispanic kid didn’t come back this week, damn we only have two kids, now what? Do we kill the programme? Were we not serving Flora well? Etc.” In words you shouldn’t use any more.

                In which case it’s okay to tell them look just say “Black. or if we know the kids just say Joe and Antoine.” And also in a place where people cannot hear you. There are legit reasons to talk about race and to count people up. But they should be used in private and in words that are okay to use.

                1. Frank Doyle*

                  I dunno, I think you’re giving this lady too much credit and extrapolating a LOT. If there are only three kids there, who cares what color they are? That’s not exactly a huge sample size.

                  Also, to the LW, your branch serves a diverse community yet the staff is “entirely white?” I hope someone is working to change that.

                2. IntoBooks*

                  OP here. My library doesn’t really track our demographics beyond age, so her mentioning the race really isn’t connected to that. She was just telling me about the group (it was a slow morning and a smaller group of kids than usual) and she wasn’t tracking their race for library purposes.

                3. neeko*

                  Best practices in collecting demographics (race, gender, age, etc) is to ask what the person identifies as. Not assuming based on appearance.

                4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                  This woman’s behavior, however, seems completely unrelated to demographics and the delivery of programming.

                  I agree there are legit reasons to talk about race and notice it. But I don’t think this anecdote is one of those occasions.

                1. IntoBooks*

                  I very much agree, I wish we were more diverse, however in my position there isn’t a lot I can do beyond encouraging others to apply. We are aware it is a problem, so hopefully that will be something considered with the next hiring round. We’re located in the Midwest, and generally not in a particular diverse part of the country, but we have recently seen a boom in our immigrant population which is why we have predominantly non-white an after school crowd.

                2. lulu*

                  This. That’s why to me it goes beyond not knowing that a particular word is considered racist, but it could be indicative of a pattern of thinking that’s problematic.

              4. CM*

                I was thinking the same thing. Two issues (and #2 bothers me way more than #1):

                1. “Mulatto” – easy enough to use Alison’s script or some variation of “You might not realize, but that word is often considered offensive.”

                2. Identifying the children based on their race, even though their race has no relevance. In the moment, you could say, “Oh, why do you mention that they’re [race]?” and if you consistently say that, your coworker might realize and stop doing that. After the fact, I think it’s difficult to address unless it’s a consistent pattern and then I think you would need to address it explicitly, like, “It makes me uncomfortable when you point out the races of nonwhite children. Can we just talk about kids, without mentioning what race they are?”

                1. neeko*

                  Not to mention, if coworker doesn’t personally know those children, she has no idea how they identify.

                2. CM*

                  neeko: Yes — I think all the suggestions here about telling Pam an alternate acceptable word, like “bi-racial” or “mixed,” are a little off-base for that exact reason. First of all, you don’t know which words will be acceptable to which people. But way more important, you don’t know anything about this person’s racial background and it’s none of your business.

                  My MIL noted that her marriage was considered “mixed” because she was Catholic and he was Baptist! And two parents with completely different skin colors may not consider their children “mixed” because, for instance, the parents come from the same country or ethnic group. My own children, with ancestry from three different continents, don’t self-identify as “mixed,” “biracial,” or anything else, because I’ve chosen to live in an extremely diverse place where nobody comments on the racial makeup of our family. They just don’t think of race as a primary identifier for themselves. And I’d love to keep it that way.

                3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                  Agreed, CM. I have friends who use all sorts of descriptors, including “hapa,” “multiracial,” “half and half,” etc. (I don’t want to open a debate on the terms—just acknowledging that people self-identify in specific ways, and that in the absence of information, it’s better not to race/erase them).

              5. paul*

                That’s where I am. Noting the race is weird to me. I honestly didn’t know mulatto is an offense word now, but it’s also just not a word I’d really ever consider using either because A: you don’t know they’re actually mixed or what mixed races they are (there’s more options than black and white after all).

              6. neeko*

                I agree that “mixed race” isn’t really ideal either. People shouldn’t be assuming how other people identify in the first place.

              7. bearing*

                Boy, I would really love some language to reply to the problem of “other white person irrelevantly mentioning race when relating a story about individuals,” especially when it is necessary for organizational reasons to not burn bridges with said other white person.

                It’s just so freaking common, I don’t want to stand there being complicit by my silence, and yet (because I’m not a tactful person by nature–when I disagree with people they always think I am argumentative) I can’t think of a response that would actually *help* or that I could deliver in a way that would be heard. Especially not in the moment.

                1. Anna*

                  Way back I tried to describe a sales associate to other sales associates in a shop. “Are you being helped.” “Yes, someone is helping me.” “Did you catch her name?” “No. She has short hair, was wearing a top X color. She went in the back to check on thing for me.” Blank stare…”Oh, was she black?” “…Yes.” “Oh, you can describe her black. She doesn’t mind!” What did I learn? A: Nobody saw anything about this woman except that she was black. B: There were no other WOC there so they knew exactly who I meant when I affirmed she was black. C: Thank you white woman for unilaterally deciding the other sales associate “doesn’t mind” being singled out as black.

                2. Mints*

                  Depending on the context you could draw attention back to it. Like “Joe, the Japanese accountant at work…”
                  “Does Joe only work with Japanese customers?”
                  “Does Joe speak exclusively Japanese?”
                  “Does Joe only work with companies based in Japan?”
                  Like, if you’re willing to let the awkward joke keep growing, it can work.

                  (Also, I think it’s fine to describe someone based on race if you’re only describing how they look. “Joe is Asian, tall, average size, black hair, he wears lots of red tyes and sometimes red sneakers,” whatever).

              8. xkd*

                Your comment made me realize there is a reason for her to mention ethnicity in passing. If she has worked with other projects that were tracking diversity, she could still be programmed that way. It’s a surreal feeling when discussing an event to crow about having 60% POC! Hey and half of that was X! But since I work to increase diversity, we hear things like this all the time in the office – granted, I’ve never heard mulatto spoken out loud in my life! – but if she thinks the library is interested in their demographics, that could have prompted it.

                1. neeko*

                  OP has stated that they do not collect race demographics. There was absolutely no reason for her to bring up the race of the children.

              9. GriefBacon*

                This was my thought exactly. I work in program evaluation, and it’s terrifying to me to think that a) this woman is identifying other people’s racial/ethnic backgrounds for demographic purposes or b)she’s identifying other people’s racial/ethnic backgrounds for gossip purposes. Since OP said she wasn’t tracking for demographic purposes, it’s B, and that’s a problem. She has no idea how those children identify themselves, and even if she did…it doesn’t matter. There’s no need to bring up their race.

              10. Delphine*

                Also, how is she deducing that a child is XYZ race? Did she see a light-skinned or hazel-eyed black child and just decide on her own?

            3. Wintermute*

              That’s because unless they are actually racist, they’ve probably been taught their whole life that racism is a choice you make to be evil and bad, rather than something that all of us bear the traces of because it’s baked into our culture and everyday life in ways huge (a LOT of etymology and cultural symbology) and small. So when you say “that’s is racist” they hear “you are evil, I am calling you a bad person.”

              So by hedging it with your knowledge/the assumption that they are not intentionally being racist you get past the gut-level defense and can actually talk about it.

              There will always be some people that just dislike language policing for good or ill, and other people that are just racist jerks, but most people don’t intend to be racist and you have to coach your challenge to their language in terms that avoids the accusation.

            4. LCL*

              But the approach of correcting someone without any explanation, except further correction, isn’t useful for society in general because it’s so combative. I know it’s a subtle difference, but telling someone what they meant and that (word) is pretty offensive is coming out swinging when it isn’t necessary for the situation OP describes. For that kind of generational/cultural language issue, better to interrupt and say that word used to be acceptable but is now considered a slur.

            5. Live and Learn*

              Approaching it as an opportunity to help someone learn if ill intention is not perceived has helped me in the past. My mother (early 60s) has used this term as well as oriental to describe people in the past because she honestly did not know those terms were inappropriate. When I informed her they were considered offensive and suggested she use biracial/multiracial or Asian instead she was thankful to have been corrected so she wouldn’t offend in the future. Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know.
              I used to work for a policy organization and wrote an entry our our website using the term “Disabled person(s)”. I received a very irate email informing me that that term was ableist because it put the disability before the person. While I would have preferred a more polite correction, in the end I was embarrassed that I didn’t know and had unknowingly used an inappropriate term, I quickly corrected it and thanked them for teaching me the correct term, which I now use.
              It’s no one else’s job to teach awareness but I’m always thankful when someone does.

          4. President Porpoise*

            I’m not – ‘unglued’ is a problem because it changes no one’s mind about the acceptability of the term. It just makes the unglued person seem easily offended or unreasonable – even if the term is indeed offensive and a reasonable thing to be offended at. Setting up a fight is a dumb way to make peaceful change.

        2. Jen RO*

          I agree, MommyMD. I obviously don’t know Pam, but I think it’s perfectly possible that she does not know that the word is considered racist nowadays (or she does know, she realized she made a mistake and will not make it a second time).

        3. neeko*

          It is very frustrating that you are acting like you are better than people who have an emotional reaction to racist terms. It’s not ok.

        4. NaoNao*

          It’s almost like…the casual use IS part of the problem. The ability to be casual about the terms you use is a privilege and a lot of people don’t even think about it. Racism isn’t always mean/hateful/directly, obviously harmful, the same as sexism. Opening doors with a flourish, insisting on driving, threatening to “beat up” men who “look at my woman”—those aren’t someone one comes unglued over, but they are a type of sexism that points at or hints at a worldview that needs some adjustment, shall we say.

          1. Mazzy*

            I like the way how you word the opening the door with a flourish. That is one of my pet peeves, not just for women, but it’s a societal thing that we think it’s rude to let a door close when someone is anywhere near approaching it, and I often laugh at how people go so out of there way to hold a door open for multiple seconds for someone who is so far away that you don’t even know where they are going, that its awkward.

      2. Akcipitrokulo*

        Yes, exactly. Assume honest mistake unless proven otherwise – and I’ve been in this situation with friends. (Not the same as colleagues obviously, but same type of awkward). I’ve always had a positive “Really? OK, thanks” to saying “Oh, by the way – that’s not a good word to use…”

        1. Gigi*

          With some of the older generations they can forget that certain words are now considered offensive. I occasionally have to remind my great aunt that “half-caste” is considered not nice nowadays. She doesn’t mean any harm by it, things are just different as to what words are now acceptable. It doesn’t help when various shows from the 80s are shown on
          the TV and they use that word.

          1. Thlayli*

            Honestly it’s hard to keep up sometimes. Words change so quickly it’s very easy to use a word that used to be a simple descriptor and is now considered offensive. When I was growing up “half-Caste” was the term for someone who was half-black and half-white, and it wasn’t considered derogatory at all as far as I know. I can totally see an older person using it with no ill intention.
            Another example is “retarded”. When I was a kid that just meant someone with a mental disability with no derogatory associations. Now it’s considered derogatory.
            I guarantee you all that words you currently use will be considered insulting in a few decades and there is a good chance you will probably slip and use them in conversation at some point in your life. So don’t assume all older people are bigots just because they speak a slightly different language to you. Language changes fast and it’s getting faster each decade.
            Some day your younger coworkers could be calling you a racist for accidentally saying “mixed-race” isn’t

            1. Thlayli*

              ignore that last “isn’t” dunno what happened there.
              Also think this is a nesting fail – not meant to be aimed at Gigi.
              Meant to be reply to someone saying the older lady is racist because she used a word that was not racist at all when she was young.

            2. Akcipitrokulo*

              No, it isn’t that hard to keep up. That really isn’t a good excuse (except possibly for elderly whose memory isn’t as great) … not knowing and being told is innocent, but continuing to use something you know is offensive because it’s “hard” not to isn’t ok.

              1. Thlayli*

                Well I’m only 38 and I have already been very surprised on a couple of occasions to find out that words I’ve used my whole life are now considered offensive. It’s happened to me twice so far, that a friend of mine has said “you can’t say that” and both times it was a word that was commonly used when I was a kid and is now offensive, and both times i had no idea it was now offensive until someone told me.

                You may not find it hard to keep up now, but some day you might. And I hope people show you a little more compassion when you inadvertently use a word that used to be ok and then changed, than you are showing older people now.

                1. Akcipitrokulo*

                  Being surprised and stopping using isn’t the issue! It’s being surprised and then saying “oh well, who can keep track, it’s too difficult” and continuing to use that’s a problem.

                2. Jesca*

                  Akcipitrokulo you are assuming reaction that neither this letter writer nor any comments have actually stated. It is not part of the discussion, and I am not sure why people keep interjecting it.

                  I am a raging #metoo type person (as others here may remember lol) because of very emotional personal experiences (which I have shared here), but I do not rage at people if they make casual sexist comments. There is a difference between someone telling me to smile more and someone telling me I do not belong in the work place because of the sex I was born. And yes, if let the person know it is sexist to tell me I need to smile more, and they rage about it, I’m going to be annoyed. But if they don’t? If they just shut up? I’m good with it.

                  If I took the approach people take in this country in regards to change in the work place, I would never ever be successful. And the ideology I use is based off of significant education in both social science and modern business management. You never come out swinging to promote change.

                3. music*

                  it’s very likely that they’ve been considered offensive all along, and you’re only just learning about it.

                4. Akcipitrokulo*

                  Hey Jesca :)

                  I think there’s been a misperception of what I’ve actually said.

                  “Akcipitrokulo you are assuming reaction that neither this letter writer nor any comments have actually stated.” – I don’t know what assumption you mean here? if it’s about the “too hard…” then it was stated explicitly in the comment to which I replied:

                  “Honestly it’s hard to keep up sometimes.”

                  No-one is suggesting “raging” – I get the impression that the argument is aimed at the perception Thlayli has put forward of what I said, rather than what I actually said?

                  I think we actually agree from what you said! “And yes, if let the person know it is sexist to tell me I need to smile more, and they rage about it, I’m going to be annoyed. But if they don’t? If they just shut up? I’m good with it.” – tell someone, they stop, all good; tell someone, they continue, not good –

                  that is *exactly* the approach I have been advocating – including in this thread…

                  ” not knowing and being told is innocent, but continuing to use something you know is offensive because it’s “hard” not to isn’t ok.”

                  “Being surprised and stopping using isn’t the issue! It’s being surprised and then saying “oh well, who can keep track, it’s too difficult” and continuing to use that’s a problem.”

                  Also not suggesting coming out swinging. At all. I’ve consistently advocated a quiet “did you know….?” converation.

                  But “It’s so HAAAAAARD….. ” whining does need to be challenged, I think.

                5. Mazzy*

                  This. I never head mulatto was racist. I’ve literally heard people refer to themselves that way, not in a while now that I think about it, but it wasn’t that long ago.

                6. Thlayli*

                  Well akcipitrokulo I can only assume you didn’t read my initial comment or the original letter. Because I was not in any way suggesting it is ok to keep using racist terms after being told they are racist, and the letter wasn’t about such a scenario. The letter was about someone using a term once. Given the number of comments saying “oh I don’t find this racist” or “that wasn’t racist when I was young” it’s very very likely that she doesn’t know it’s racist. And since OP has yet to tell her it’s racist, she still doesn’t know it’s racist.

                  It is hard to keep up. It’s only getting harder as the internet speeds up language change. I can almost guarantee you will use a word innocently at some point in your life and be corrected. And you may remember your comment “it’s not hard to keep up” when that happens.

          2. PhyllisB*

            Amen to that, Gigi. My 87 year-old mother still uses the term (and I hate even typing this out, so forgive me!!) “nigra” In her day this was a genteel way of referring to people of color. No matter how many times my girls and I tell her this is unacceptable, she can’t seem to remember. She gets flustered and apologetic, and then does it again the next time. Luckily, this is not something that surfaces very often, so now we just inwardly cringe and roll our eyes at each other. The thing is, she is not a bigot or racist at all, this is just a term that Southerners used years ago.

        2. Traffic_Spiral*

          “Assume honest mistake unless proven otherwise” is especially good for more obscure things. And since the opinions on ‘Mulatto’ are about 33% “I kinda-sorta don’t like it because of old associations,” 33% “I don’t consider it offensive,” and 33% “Huh?” it’s not exactly something you need to come out swinging for. It’s one of those “ok, it’s probably never come up before, but enough people don’t like that word that it’s better to drop it.” If she then goes on a rant about “those people,” that’s another story, but until she does, it’s not worth a fight.

          1. CM*

            If somebody works at a public library, they should be aware of words that may offend library patrons. The point here isn’t to make Pam feel bad, it’s to let her know not to use that word at the library.

            1. Akcipitrokulo*

              Agreed that it is something you’d expect someone at a library to know – I think the suggestion elsewhere of some sensitivity/diversity training for *all* the staff is a good thing for this reason!

          2. matcha123*

            It is definitely an offensive and derogatory word. It may not apply to you or you might not find it offensive because you don’t fall into that category, but my mixed friends who could fall under that category definitely find it offensive and as a multiracial person myself, I find it extremely offensive.

          3. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

            I’m not sure where you’re thinking that 33% of responses are “I kinda-sorta” don’t like it as the main negative reaction. There are quite a few people here saying that it is entirely unacceptable and very racist.

      3. Kathleen_A*

        I think there is an excellent chance that the coworker honestly believes that “mulatto” is a polite term (it is a pretty unusual word these days – I can’t remember the last time I heard an actual living person say it). So the “You probably aren’t aware…” approach is a good one.

        1. CMart*

          My 74 year old father has expressed his angst over the last, well, 74 years of constantly putting his foot in his mouth by using outdated, at-the-time-“more polite” words. He always takes correction in stride (I believe me wincing at “oriental gentleman” several years ago was the more recent one) but is frustrated at how he can’t seem to keep up with how to speak respectfully about people.

          Back when he was a kid living in a segregated city, “negro” was the “politically correct” term instead of the N-word, and he always took pains to use the “right” word because he wanted to be nice to people. And language and our society has evolved from there, and now that he’s retired he’s much less exposed to the ever changing new normal.

          Which is a long way of saying that the coworker might really have thought she was being nice, and would welcome correction.

      4. soos*

        It comes from the spanish word for mule. I have a white mother and a black father and while I wouldn’t necessarily take it as a slur, I would find it very off putting due to the history behind the term. It really is a bit of a generational thing as I’ve never heard anyone under the age of 60 use it. My own grandmother has used it without any ill meaning meant but has since switched to saying mixed. I’ve always brushed the word off as part of the old casual racism of my grandparents era that will eventually die out with them.

        1. Anna*

          This reminds me of Chrissy Teigan getting a Twitter feed full of white people schooling her on “oriental” after she said she doesn’t mind it. Like, you guys know her mother’s from Thailand, right? And that she gets to decide on her own what she will and will not tolerate? She wasn’t saying it was okay to use it to describe people, she was saying it didn’t bother her and she wasn’t picking that hill to plant her flag.

    5. HannahS*

      It’s true, and if Pam responds with racism and fury to the OP’s mild-mannered “Hey Pam, sorry I didn’t say anything in the moment, but remember the other day when three kids came to preschool storytime? I wanted to let you know that the word “mulatto” is considered a slur nowadays. Use the word ‘biracial’ instead,” then the OP will know that she should loop in the boss. If there’s good intent, the not-racist-Pams of the world are horrified and change words. If there’s poor intent but some social intelligence, then the racist-Pams of the world learn that they shouldn’t use those particular words around the OPs of the world. If there’s poor intent and an insistence on using slurs against patrons, management needs to know so that Pam can be fired.

      1. Lindsay J*


        You can approach assuming good intent, and also be prepared to deal with it if she then shows that her intent was not good.

    6. Kali*

      I am mixed race, and I can see how the coworker might genuinely not know that it’s not a good term. Plus, even being mixed, I’ve had like one conversation about it in the past year. I can see how it would come up so infrequently that no one’s updated her. Plus, there are people who don’t mind using that term for themselves, which doesn’t make her use okay but would explain why no one’s pointed it out before now. I was taught to use the term half-caste as a kid, so while I wouldn’t say that now, I wouldn’t consider it too offensive if someone else did.

      1. Kali*

        To add; just remembered a conversation I had about being mixed race with another mixed race someone about ten years ago. I got really mad at him for calling me a mutt, and he was genuinely astonished that anyone would be upset at that.

        1. acmx*

          I’ve never heard of half caste and would be kind of offended. Mutt was kinda common at least between mixed race. Can’t recall if any non-mixed used that.

          1. Kali*

            I’ve always heard half-caste specifically used to refer to people who are mixed white and Indian.

        2. Becca*

          I’ll call myself a mutt from time to time, but I more often hear ‘mutt’ for people with a mix of many, possibly not entirely identifiable, European ancestries.

          1. matcha123*

            I have always found it really offputting when white people jokingly call themselves “mutts.” Because then they think that I feel the same way and they try to act like being a bunch of white ethnicities they have no connection with in the US is on the same scale as being a multiracial minority in the US.
            And, in my experience, those types of white people have been happy to use racial slurs because “I’m a mutt, too!”
            If they were having that conversation in Europe, then it would be different. But in North America…

            1. Lindsay J*

              Yeah, ugh.

              I’m white myself and I hate this.


              “Well I’m part Irish and they were discriminated against, too.” As if that makes their experience the same as being black or Hispanic or Arabic in the present day US (and I’m hoping those are the correct/preferred terms there. Please correct if they are not.)

              First of all, yes, maybe your great-great-grandparents were Irish. But unless your family follows cultural traditions that are Irish (no, having corned beef and cabbage and soda bread on St. Patrick’s Day does not count) it’s not really the same.

              And second, are Irish people in the US systematically, institutionally discriminated against based on their assumed ethnicity in the present day? Are you less likely to be hired *in the present day* because you are Irish (or because you look Irish? Are your interactions with the police more likely to end with you being shot because you are Irish or look Irish? Are you told that you are really well spoken for an Irish person? Do people assume that the only way you could have gotten a high paying job is due to affirmative action because you are Irish?


              Then it’s not the same.

              (And you can enter whatever generic/typical European background you want in there. I just used Irish because I do have some Irish blood somewhere and it’s one I hear white people using a lot for this “well my ancestors were discriminated against, too” argument.)

        3. Batshua*

          I think there’s a difference between being called a mutt by someone you don’t know well and calling yourself a mutt or being called a mutt by a close friend.

      2. Kali*

        I really need to start putting all my thoughts in one comment. Just wanted to clarify that I’m not arguing that the coworker’s in the right, just that I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt right now. I agree with comments above about following the script and seeing how she responds.

        1. Akcipitrokulo*

          People get it wrong innocently. I generally see the test not as “do you always get it right?” (hint… you don’t) but “how do you respond?”.

          “Sorry, I didn’t know.” followed by changing is fine.

          Any variation of “well, how am I supposed to know?” or flat out defence of the word (bonus points if free speech or “but they use it about themselves!” is thrown in) means you failed.

          1. Oranges*

            I love this comment because it encapsulates it perfectly.

            Note: I will give them a pass for grumbling acceptance (eg. are you sure? followed by I’m sorry I’ll stop style of thing) because even the gentlest of reprimands still can put up the defenses.

      3. Lisa*

        I think the term is not so much offensive per se, as it is out of vogue to use. It’s an old-fashioned word. Kind of like calling black people “colored.”

          1. HannahS*

            I think that’s what Lisa means; it’s a word that used to be used as a neutral descriptor that has become offensive, rather than something like the N-word, which has always been used pejoratively.

              1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

                Sorry, that came across very unclearly. When you said “not so much offensive as out of vogue” it sounded like you were saying it wasn’t actually offensive, just old-timey.

            1. Lady Scorcher*

              This. NAACP hasn’t removed the word “colored,” but the org more often uses the acronym in their communications.

                1. Lady Scorcher*

                  Could you explain this (especially for those of us for whom English is not our first language)?

        1. Great*

          Colored is a very normal word in South Africa though – it means a mixed race person. It’s not offensive there.

          As a non American and a non native English speaker, it was very weird to me that Americans consider the n word offensive but the word black is OK. Where I’m from, saying black sounds really rude and a word sounding similar to the English n word is a completely normal and non offensive word. So is the word mulatto.

      4. soos*

        I dislike the word because it come from the word mule and don’t use it to describe myself but I have cousins who do use it. It’s one of those things you need to take the others lead on. I would absolutely be offended being referred to as half-caste and I would probably assume some racist intent with that term. I think the safest term is probably bi-racial.

      5. Mazzy*

        This. I said above that I didn’t know the term was racist, but yeah, it never comes up. The last time someone used it was 10+ years ago when we were out and people were talking about what nationality they were.

    7. nanabucaros*

      #2. Well, I am “mulatto” and had never consider that word offensive because we never use it to offend anyone, is very common to refer to us like that in songs or in our regular daily bases, and I personally like it; but I guess the culture here is different, people get offended when you try to describe it saying their skin color aloud.

      1. Lisa*

        I think it’s one thing if you are referring to yourself than a white woman you don’t know using the term.

      2. matcha123*

        Well, from one mixed person to another, I find the word horribly offensive and derogatory. I’ve never met a mixed person in real life who uses that word for themselves or anyone else. Moreover, they also find it offensive, out-dated, and more. I don’t know where you’re from, but if you are not from North America, I would suggest limiting use to spoken use with your in-group.

    8. Lisa*

      I think that she probably doesn’t know that “mulatto” is now considered offensive and has gone out of vogue. I think it would be best to let her know that we tend to say “biracial” now.

    9. Runner*

      Please can we not do this? Honestly, I’m quite progressive and didn’t know the term is now considered a slur (I don’t and never have used the term, it did always seem archaic and thus … off). The dynamic of casual slinging around of the word RACIST here left and right and in the headline and against the coworker is frankly as much of an issue in its own way.

      1. Junior Dev*

        Racist is not an insult. It’s a description of someone’s attitudes or actions. It has a negative value judgement attached, but that’s because the thing it describes is quite destructive. We can argue about whether the co-worker’s statement was racist but please don’t act like calling someone’s actions racist is a worse offense than doing something racist.

        1. K.*

          I’m going to print out this comment for use in future discussions, because it is excellent. I have a huge problem with the idea that describing racist actions as racist is more offensive than using racist words or doing racist things. The “But I’m not racist!” kerfuffle that ensues derails the conversation and lets the person get away with doing or saying racist things, because that person has diverted the attention away from the racist thing s/he said or did. Same goes for sexism. As a woman of color, it is actively harmful to me to expect me to let that stuff slide – it’s expecting me to prioritize white fragility above my own self-interest, and I’m not going to do it. It’s not about who the person IS, it’s about what they DID (Google Jay Smooth’s “how to tell people they sound racist” video for context for that quote – the video is excellent).

        2. Raider*

          There’s a marked intolerance on this board to even consider how inflammatory and unfair it is to smear people as racist. I don’t get it. Calling someone racist is in fact an issue in its own right.

          1. K.*

            It’s not unfair to call a racist thing racist. “We can’t call people racist because it makes them feel bad” prioritizes white comfort and ignores the tremendous, tangible, sometimes life-threatening harm that racism causes people of color. That is racist in and of itself.

        3. please*

          “Racist is not an insult. It’s a description of someone’s attitudes or actions.”

          THIS. Frankly, I wish we “slung around” the term more often to make white people more aware of problematic language.

          “The dynamic of casual slinging around of the word RACIST here left and right and in the headline and against the coworker is frankly as much of an issue in its own way.”

          No, it’s not as much of an issue in its own way. People who use racist language aren’t systematically discriminated against in the housing market, the job market, the public health system, and the justice system. And they can their behavior.

          1. Afiendishthingy*

            There was an episode of code switch the other day about the “r word” and how reluctant we are to use it. There’s also a great Ted Talk by Jay Smooth about how most white people think of racism as a binary, you’re either racist or you’re not— like tonsils. “No I’m not racist, I had that removed in 2004 when I saw that movie Crash.” But in fact we should be thinking of it like dental hygiene — just because you brushed your teeth this morning doesn’t mean you don’t have something racist stuck in your teeth at lunch. Obviously I’m explaining this poorly and you should all check out the ted talk for yourselves :)

      2. Annabelle*

        But it *is* a racist term. The very history dates back to slavery, which is like, the pinnacle of America’s racist history. Nearly everyone has some sort of internalized prejudice they’re working through, and pointing that out isn’t an insult. I think it’s a kindness to let people know when they’re accidentally saying something offensive, which I’m hoping is what happened here.

        1. RVA Cat*

          This, plus apparently the root of the term involves mules, which are the (sterile) offspring of two different species. That is beyond gross when applied to human beings.

          1. Annabelle*

            Yeah, the term is just completely awful and dehumanizing. There’s no reason not to hold onto it.

      3. NaoNao*

        I mean, here’s the thing though:

        Let’s balance on the scales of justice the offenses:
        On one side we have a discussion in which accusations of racism are being incorrectly or overly-eagerly applied. Feelings may be hurt, or internet friends at odds.
        On the other, we have participation in a culture that directly harms people of color for hundreds of years in every possible way.

        Which is the more severe “crime”? Which is something we should care more about? Which is something we should be on the lookout for and try to fix with eagerness to the point where we sometimes “cry wolf”?

        Also, really think through what you’re saying here. To me, it reads like “If we “cry [wolf] racism at every turn, than “they” won’t believe us or listen to us when we *really* need them to.”

        They aren’t listening and don’t care now.

        We are trying to reach those whose minds and hearts can be changed. We are trying to educate and change our own minds and hearts. We are showing solidarity with those who can’t speak up or are scared to speak up. We are using our considerable privilege to protect and defend those who are less fortunate.

        Caring too deeply about dismantling a deadly, criminal, hateful system is not a crime.

        1. Akcipitrokulo*

          So much this. Being upset if someone calls out your words as racist isn’t nice. It’s happened to me, and it sucks, I get that. But the idea that its anywhere close to actually being the subject of racist language… or even more ridiculous, that it’s somehow worse and people should let racist language slide so as not to cause offence is incredible. The idea in itself is so deeply racist.

          Harming someone… deliberately or not… is always worse than someone saying “hey, you harmed someone”.

      4. soos*

        I was always taught the word comes from the word for mule. It is also a term used back when the “one drop” rule was used to justify discrimination. I personally have never had anyone under the age of 60 use the word to describe me but I would absolutely be taken a little aback and would correct the person as it is seen as trying to classify how “black” I am. I wouldn’t immediately assume the person was racist and as I mentioned above I feel it comes from a generation of casual racism that will simply have to die out with our grandparents.

      5. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        Friend, you’re not very progressive if you care more about your own feelings than about not perpetuating oppressive systems.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Absolutely this. If you did not know it was racist, the solution is to stop using racist terms—not to argue that the terms themselves are not racist (when they very clearly are, today) and that everyone is over-sensitive or over-aware of racial inequality.

          1. Cuddles Chatterji*

            Kind of related to this…if Pam did come back with something along the lines of, “People are so sensitive today!” or “Sheesh, gotta be ~politically correct~ nowadays,” or “Why have people gotten so thin-skinned?” what would be a workplace-appropriate response?

            1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

              I think it’d be something along the lines of “Well, society does change over time, and we want to make sure the library remains a welcoming place for everyone.”

              In other words, you don’t need to convince Pam that this is the correct way to be all the time, you just need her to understand the priority here.

              1. HannahS*

                Yeah. I’ve found that with one of my family members who’s an immigrant, speaks English as a second language, and is somewhat isolated, saying things like, “If you use the word ‘Oriental,’ people will think you’re racist. Say ‘Asian’ or ‘East Asian’ instead* is enough. Like many Pams of the world, they don’t really get it, but so what? The point is that they shouldn’t use those words.

            2. Akcipitrokulo*

              Personally I’d turn ice cold and say something like “It is not permitted here and you will not repeat it.”

              1. Akcipitrokulo*

                Although OP is junior so may want to soften a bit! But whatever is said in the moment, I would report her if there was any pushback. Using wrong word out of ignorance is one thing. Justifying it or minimising is quite another and boss would have to know… CYA for me apart from the need to know!

            3. Lindsay J*

              “I don’t see why it is a problem to refer to people they way they prefer to be referred to.”

              “Making a small adjustment in the words we use shouldn’t be difficult for us to do, and helps make everyone feel safe and welcome. I don’t understand what the problem is.”

              “I don’t think it is thin-skinned to not want to be called a racial slur.”

              “I don’t think it is thin-skinned to not want to [be compared to a mule/talked about using a word that was used in slave auctions/whatever makes that word problematic].”

              “Personally I am glad that people are becoming more comfortable with speaking up when people use a word that they are uncomfortable with when in the past they might have been afraid to do so.”

              “I’m glad. I would much rather have someone tell me when I am doing something that makes them uncomfortable so I know not to do it again.”

              “Why is being sensitive a bad thing?”

      6. matcha123*

        If you’re not multiracial, you probably have not needed to think about terms that are offensive to multiracial people. If you were multiracial, had a large group of multiracial friends, and were involved in activities related to multiracial identity and activism, you would have hear of this term and how offensive it is decades ago.
        Unfortunately, multiracial people as a whole are not very vocal about identifying as multiracial and are not a cohesive group like other monoracial minority groups. It also doesn’t help that our more famous members are often identified as monoracial by the media and public.

    10. Confused*

      This is so interesting because I’m not white & 1 of my closest friends from childhood is biracial…his MySpace name back in the day was “Mulatto for Life” and until I read this letter today, I had no idea this term has been moved into politically incorrect. I’m 26. I think it’s huge leap to call anyone racist due to them using this word, and probably not getting the unwritten memo that this is frowned upon (probably by mostly non biracial people; just a guess though)

      1. neeko*

        Your one friend doesn’t speak for everyone. It’s generally a good idea to stay away from terms dealing with race that some people find offensive even if others don’t mind it. See: g word for Roma folks.

        1. neeko*

          Just wanted to add that terms people call themselves perhaps close friends from the same community aren’t always the same terms they want someone from outside that community calling them.

        2. Jesca*

          Confused is stating that they did not know that word was offensive. They grew up with it being used by bi-racial friends. They were not aware it was considered “bad”.

          You are saying that everyone should stay away from words that are “bad” which is not really relevant to what Confused is actually saying which was “I was not aware that was bad!”

          Which completely proves the point as to why you should never assume someone is being racist outside of some very specific, extremely well-known words and phrases.

          1. neeko*

            My comments were more directed towards the last part of Confused comment about the unwritten memo and it being written by non biracial folks. I realize that it went a little reraily. But I don’t agree with your point to never assume that someone is being racist outside of very specific cases. That is just very Pollyanna and unrealistic.

          2. Confused*

            Yes, agreed, that was my main point. I do not know many people that enjoy swift condemnation based on a moment of ignorance. Though yes, my last bit did have a bit of snarkiness in mind mostly stemming from the visual image of a white person wagging their finger at me for using that word without me knowing the new implications. I would be tempted to cuss that person out.

        3. Live and Learn*

          Thank you for mentioning the “g word” for Roma people. So many people don’t realize that is offensive or understand why the expression “I got gypped” is incredibly racist. I only knew because I did my graduate thesis on exclusionary policies against Romani populations in Europe and now because of that my friends and family know better than to use those terms.

      2. Annabelle*

        People reclaim slurs all the time. There’s a massive difference between a biracial person identifying that way and a white person using it as a descriptor. It’s a term that dates back to slave auctions so of course it’s racist. It’s not unkind or dramatic to let someone know that something they’re saying is problematic, especially if they might genuinely not know that.

      3. Akcipitrokulo*

        saying a word you used is racist is not calling you racist. It’s giving you the knowledge to avoid in future.

      4. Delphine*

        I call myself a bitch sometimes, doesn’t mean that I won’t be pissed if a man calls me a bitch, and that I won’t judge him for being comfortable with using a misogynistic slur against a woman.

      5. please*

        “I think it’s huge leap to call anyone racist”

        Saying someone is using racist language (as the OP suggests) is not calling them racist. It’s calling their actions (their speech) racist. Those are not the same thing. The former is easy to spot and identify. The latter is not.

    11. MashaKasha*

      Right? I have all the bad feelings about this. The main reason being, why and in what way did it matter what ethnicities/races the two little girls were? Absolutely irrelevant. Yet Pam somehow thought it was worth mentioning, and I really wonder why.

      That said, I agree with Allison’s and the other commenters’ advice to tread carefully.

      1. Great*

        Why wouldn’t is matter? I’m white, I lived in Asia for a while and every time I saw another white person and it came up in a conversation, I would always say that it was a white person – they just stand out. The same way you might comment on someone’s hair color or hair style that is unusual.

        I don’t like racism and I’m all for cultural sensitivity but all this word policing is getting exhausting. I moved to the US only recently and I want to be sensitive and respectful but focusing on words to this extent is ridiculous in my view.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Words have power and shape how we perceive the world. The issue is not about policing words—it’s about recognizing the subtle ways in which we treat our community as “other.” The soft bigotry in problematic word choices often signals that there are greater systemic inequalities. We create those inequalities through our behaviors, policies, institutions, and actions.

          You noticed other white people because you thought they were rare when you were in Asia. However, OP works in a neighborhood in which children of all races are not rare. Unless the comment is related to measuring the demographic effectiveness and reach of the library’s programs, it’s problematic to refer to people exclusively by your perception of their racial identity. It’s doubly problematic if you use a racial slur in doing so. It’s not the same as unusual hairstyles, although comments on hairstyle can certainly be racially problematic, also.

          1. AsIsIt*

            I’ve heard someone complaining about how white people’s hair (and eyes) are racist, because by their existence they make those who aren’t white want to copy their hairstyles/color, bleach their skin, etc. No I don’t get it either, but I live in a part of Asia where political correctness is not de rigueur (although this wasn’t an Asian complaining about hair). No one is telling countries such as India or China that they are too Indian or too Chinese, but this is the mantra said in western countries of western countries. It’s very strange to see this from afar (distance and time).

            And yes I’ve been discriminated against because of my skin color. From being refused service in shops to being refused accommodation, but for those of different ethnicities (subsets of the main ethnicity) it’s worse. There is this ‘myth’ that only white people are racist but there is that policing of words in the west that Great mentioned, and now in places like the UK white people are barred from applying for some jobs. So I understand where Great is coming from. Everything in the west is about race and white guilt, but then there are black/Asian police associations, black caucuses, black tv stations. Can you imagine the horror of a white police association? The idea is to ensure equality but when non-whites are allowed to be non-white and white, with whites not allowed to be white, where is the equality?

            And don’t get me started on having sushi in a university canteen as being cultural appropriation!

        2. MashaKasha*

          But, in the US, no one stands out! The great melting pot and all that. Unless the library is doing a study of how many kids of each racial/ethnic group they get in their reading groups, I am really racking my brain trying to understand how the two girls’ races mattered at all. And why not the third kid? what was the third kid’s heritage, I need to know (/s not really).

          Maybe where I’m coming from is, I am an immigrant here and I was not the majority ethnicity in my home country. It gets really old when you are being referred to as the other for decades everywhere you go. I am a person, not a (ethnicity/country of origin).

        3. please*

          ” all this word policing is getting exhausting.”

          Not as exhausting as being subject to racism. Just sayin’.

      2. Mazzy*

        If the story was historical, it would have mattered. In the early 2000s there was a show on Lifetime based wholly on the fact that a white and black woman had been friends since childhood – in the 50s and 60s, for example. Alot of racist stuff was rehashed precisely because it made since in that time and place (the South).

    12. Lindsay J*

      I agree. (I’ve had the unfortunate experience of having people assume that because I am white like they are, I must also share their prejudiced views).

      However, there is also a good chance that she will not, and may just be uninformed about the level of offensiveness of the word. (I try to keep myself informed on proper/preferred terminology, but I know there have been some that I just never thought about until someone brought it to my attention. “Gypped” being one of them. I had only ever heard it spoken, not spelled, and I assumed it was just like “jipped” or something. That, combined with Americans not having as much of a gypsy stereotype present as Europe meant it never occurred to me that it might be referencing that group of people. Once I was informed, I was mortified and struck it from my vocabulary immediately.” Though mulatto seems more overtly offensive than that to me, there are a lot of people in the thread commenting that they didn’t know it was offensive so it might just be a case of different exposure.)

      I would go with the gentle correction Allison recommended first, but also perhaps mentally prepare how to shut it down if that correction sparks further racist comments or a rant about “political correctness” or similar. Coming up with and mentally rehearsing responses will help you to be more comfortable responding if she does in fact not have neutral intentions. And it won’t hurt (and will help prepare you for other future situations since unfortunately this is likely not going to be the only time you encounter someone being racist in your life) if she does have good intentions and takes the correction in stride.

    13. datageek*

      Again Regarding the legal secretary, it may make sense to move her into a part-time position. It sounds like she’s already comfortable working less than full time and the job could be structured in such a way that she could lump her work time together to give her time to take long vacations (maybe?).
      I also think calling her part-time could alleviate some of the tension with her peers because the expectation would be that she won’t be working as much as they would be.

      1. datageek*

        Sorry! I attached this comment to the wrong thread. Obviously not as good of a geek as I’d like to be!

  3. Casuan*

    OP3: Is this person considered as one of the “best secretaries” because of her longevity at the company or is she truly good at her job? Answering this question will help you to evaluate her value to the company & how to proceed.
    Hopefully she is the latter. :)

    1. FTW*

      I also wouldn’t assume that she is bluffing regarding quitting if she cannot take leave without pay. It could be that she is being upfront and honest with you.

      1. Akcipitrokulo*

        Yeah, I’d see that as honest communication about what she needs to stay in the job, not a bluff.

      2. Danger: Gumption Ahead*

        Yeah. Anyone who can take that much time without pay to travel probably isn’t bluffing about not needing the job

      3. Koko*

        I have absolutely left a job because they wouldn’t give me time off that, to me, was non-negotiable. I left a waitressing job that I needed pretty badly because they wouldn’t give me time off the day of one of my college final exams, and I needed to pass that class even more, so I quit without notice and scrambled to find a new job that I could start after finals. Scheduling/time off needs are one of the more common reasons people quit.

    2. Green*

      I think OP3 should really consider the value of this individual. I would basically stay forever at a job that let me take vacations sufficient to actually accomplish my real goals in life (which are NOT work!) AND I would work for much less money at that job than I may otherwise require. She likely considers this flexibility a substantial portion of her benefits.

      If it doesn’t make business sense, it doesn’t make business sense, but if it’s sustainable, then why wouldn’t you let her? (Also, I’m a big fan of organizations with lengthy paid sabbaticals after several years. You often need several weeks to go on safari or to Antarctica or do a volunteer project or a language immersion, or many folks have family members who live on the other side of the world. Flexibility to take several consecutive weeks off makes people happier at work and happier at life.)

      1. neverjaunty*

        YMMV on that last part.

        But the OP explains why this is a business problem; the absent secretary’s work is falling heavily on everyone else.

        1. Elle*

          Except that’s not what OP says. The problem, as described, is that her colleagues are jealous that she has more disposable income than them.

          1. Murphy*

            I didn’t read it like that. I read it that they don’t think it’s fair that she gets so much extra time off to travel, not that she has the money to do it.

            1. Murphy*

              I read it again, and I think I was wrong. I think it’s both. Obviously her husband’s income isn’t a thing OP’s company can address, but the time off is, if they chose to.

            2. neverjaunty*

              Right. They’re not complaining that she has expensive shoes or a fancy purse; they’re complaining because they’re covering for her when she’s taking vacation time off above and beyond the normal PTO.

              As someone else pointed out above, the issue seems to be that the firm filled a full-time role with a less than full time employee.

            3. MCMonkeyBean*

              But there is nothing to suggest other people are asking for unpaid leave and not being granted it. Presumably most people can’t afford to take long unpaid vacations, but this secretary can.

              1. neverjaunty*

                There is, actually. OP states in another comment that this is against policy, but they have “looked the other way” in regard to this employee.

                And on a practical level it’s going to be tough for anyone else to do the same, because their workload is already increased by covering for the absent employee. What happens when yet another person takes a long leave?

              2. Decima Dewey*

                If I’m repeatedly asked to cover for Lucrece while she’s out, unpaid or not, it’s an annoyance.

                Back when I worked for an accounting firm, Audit’s busy season began earlier than Tax’s. So people in the Tax department had to be sensitive to the feelings of those in Audit who could not take the weekend off, or were facing a week in a hotel in East Jabip going over a client’s books, when Tax Season wouldn’t start for another few weeks.

      2. MK*

        If this worker’s happiness comes at the cost of the rest of the officer being overworked and disgruntled, that’s a very good reason not to let her. It seems to me that right now, the worker gets to have as much leave as she wants, the company pays less for the same work done overall and the co-workers are stuck with the extra work (and apparently a jerk of a coworker who likes to remind them that she is not working for money like them).

        Also, I don’t think anyone can reasonably consider something as part of their benefits, unless it has been negotiated and agreed on at some point.

        1. JessaB*

          But at this time we do not know they’re overworked. Right now the complaint seems to be jealousy that they can’t do what this person does because they don’t have the income. They can’t take off without pay. They are therefore limited to their paid leave. Nothing was actually said about whether or not THEY could take unpaid leave if they asked for it.

          1. SinSA*

            Hi, I am OP3 –

            It’s a combination of the fact that everyone is very busy here, and taking on this secretary’s work (she’ll leave for 2 weeks, be in the office for one, and then leave for another week, for example) is definitely a lot of extra work to take on as her attorneys are very busy.
            Technically, our firm policy is that you are only supposed to use LWOP for emergency situations/circumstances beyond your control after you’ve exhausted your PTO days.
            We have looked the other way for years now, because she does bring a lot of value to this firm. In the past, we’ve looked into hiring a temp during her absences but it’s possible this is something that we can revisit this year as an option.
            However, I do agree with Green’s point, that the point of living is to LIVE (not work) and if she has the ability to do the things she wants to do and still does stellar work here, we should allow it. On the other hand, it looks like we are giving her preferential treatment to do whatever she wants to do as no one else here has taken so much time off (besides maternity leave) .

            1. neverjaunty*

              Oh, OP. Looking the other way is never a good policy at a law firm. And you’re ignoring the fact that it’s a little harder for your other staff to “work to live” when they’re taking on a lot of extra work.

              And what are you going to do when (not if) someone else gets into a financial situation where they can take unpaid time off? Make everyone left take on more work? Selectively enforce the policy?

              If she’s that fantastic and you want to keep her, then staff her time off with a part-timer or temps.

              1. SinSA*

                OP3 again: by “looking the other way” I mean that if her attorneys say that it’s fine she goes on vacation (whether it is PTO or LWOP), then we have to approve the time off — the thing is, the reason her attorneys are okay with this arrangement is because they are covered while she is out of the office.

                1. CmdrShepard4ever*

                  I mentioned it before I understand if it is not possible, but could you find someone that can be trained in her job that works on a as needed basis/part-time, or even hire someone on a part-time or full time basis that can be in the office and fill in for people when they are away and just generally help who ever has extra work when no one is away.

                2. Devil's Advocate*

                  Maybe I missed it–but why haven’t you just talked to the attorney’s she works for? In our firm, this would be a partnership decision. If A’s secretary was taking off so much time causing B,C, and D’s secretaries an issue (or now allowing them to do their own work) then this would certainly be an issue. However, that doesn’t sound like the case here. The revenue of the partner (but also the revenue of the secretary) would be considered. The optics would be looked at as well—when she takes LWOP are the other secretaries working overtime? are they missing lunch? are they having to come in on weekends? or do they simply have less downtime during the day?

                  This situation is an easy fix–speak with the attorneys affected (the ones who secretary this is and the ones whose secretaries are complaining) and go from there. I wouldn’t do that without clear evidence of it being an overload in work issues vs. a jealously issue. Evidence of that comes by answering the questions above.

            2. Shirley Keeldar*

              Well, wait–you’re saying right here that the secretary’s absences mean her coworkers are overloaded. They have “a lot of extra work to take on as her attorneys are very busy.” That’s where your focus needs to be–not on the rules, not on the amount of vacation, but on the fair division of workload.

              You’re asking if you (the supervisors) should make an accommodation for this employee, but in fact you’re already asking her coworkers to make the accommodation. That’s not fair or right. You’ll end up keeping one stellar employee (How is she stellar if she isn’t doing her own work for weeks at a time?) and losing or demotivating a lot of others.

              The comments saying “let her take vacation if she can afford it” are based on the assumption that her stellar work does not include dumping extra duties on colleagues. You’re saying here that it does. Not good.

            3. Fergus, Stealer of Pens and Microwaver of Fish*

              But if someone did want to take additional unpaid leave, would you deny it? If everyone were taking weeks off at a time and work wasn’t getting done, that’s a problem. Someone being able to afford something that others can’t is not. IMO.

              1. As Close As Breakfast*

                THIS! I may be in the minority (as far as the comments here go today) but this would honestly be my biggest, if not only, concern if I were one of the other secretaries. My resentment wouldn’t have anything to do with her wealth or my lack thereof. My resentment would be that she gets so much LWOP approved contrary to firm policy. Now, this resentment would really only exist if I knew the answer to me requesting vacation time that would be LWOP would be no. If I knew that I would likely be afforded the same or similar leave, I wouldn’t feel that resentment. I would know the opportunity was available, making it a case of another employee taking advantage of a benefit I didn’t. If the opportunity was the the same, and there was still resentment, I think it’d be fair to believe employees were venturing into wealth resentment territory. Since some of the comments were along the “why does she get to take so much time off” variety, I don’t think it can all just be written off as jealousy of coworkers wealth. If I made that comment I would mean it literally in terms of the firm granting the time off.

                On the flip side, for me anyway, it would actually help to hear that the employee was so good at her job that yes, she is just going to be given this special leeway. At least own it if that’s the case. Or course, that would leave the door open for any employee that achieved that level of performance to receive the same benefits, so I’d make sure that’s the case.

            4. MLB*

              You have a policy in place that you’re not following – that’s what needs to be revisited. It doesn’t matter how valuable she is to the firm, she’s bragging about not needing the job, and is willing to quit if she doesn’t get her way. She’s essentially creating a hostile work environment.

              1. Natalie*

                I probably wouldn’t use “hostile work environment” to describe this because that’s a particular legal term relating to unlawful discrimination, not just any work environment where there is unpleasantness or hostility.

              2. Green*

                This isn’t a “hostile work environment.”

                She’s not even being hostile. She’s not bragging about not needing the job. She’s not being bratty. She’s saying “these are the terms under which I will work, and I have the ability to leave if those terms are not met.” There’s no reason to assign emotional terms to what she’s doing — she’s negotiating in a transaction. We all work primarily in exchange for money. We each get to use the negotiating power we have to set the terms of that employment, whether it’s benefits, salary, vacation, job responsibilities or pay.

                And “but there’s a policy!” is not a great argument if you can just change the policy.

              3. serenity*

                It’s absolutely not helpful (and actually weakens your point considerably) to throw around loaded terms like “hostile work environment” when they don’t remotely apply.

            5. EW*

              I agree with everyone else who is recommending moving her to part time. She’s technically not following the LWOP policy in place, but this could be rectified if she instead moved to a part time position structured to benefit both the company and her. Especially since these weeks off are affecting workflow. She may still choose to walk which is a risk, but it seems reasonable that you could restructure things so everyone is happier. This of course is assuming she’s so good you want to do what you can to keep her.

              Something like where her schedule is determined 3 months in advance to coordinate the coverage for any days off, non PTO time off is scheduled for at least a week at a time, and she’s paid weekly salary instead of a monthly salary (not 100% sure how those details would work).

            6. Nita*

              Agreed – the point of living is to LIVE, and props to this secretary for having the ability to do good work and live a full life. I think many of us would want that, given the opportunity to keep a job while we take off for long periods. However, it seems like she’s effectively part-time, and this is affecting the rest of your staff very negatively. Would it make sense to move her to part-time officially (possibly with a pay bump to compensate for that), and hire another secretary part-time to fill in for her when she’s out? I’m sure your other staff also have lives outside the office, and could use the opportunity to take a longer vacation once in a while with someone filling in for *them*.

              1. Sunflower*

                I totally agree and I think this is your best bet. The issue is not the other secretaries- anyone who comes into this situation is not going to be happy with this situation. Perhaps there are some secretaries who have retired who would like to come back and work as ‘on-call’ of some sorts?

            7. Master Bean Counter*

              Personally I’d hire somebody the “share” the position with her. If she’s planning on traveling a lot in the coming year it would be good to have some one trained up to step in when she’s gone. This person can also cover for others when they are on vacation. Or be somebody you could call in when things get crazy in the office.

            8. Nerdling*

              Except that this one secretary is LIVING at the expense of her coworkers’ ability to LIVE. That’s unbalanced as all get-out and is likely to end up with your firm needing to replace a whole lot more than one secretary as the others all burn out.

            9. Green*

              I was thinking about how my office manages attorneys being out for extended leave, and thought this could be an idea for you.

              Do you have a network of retired secretaries at all? We have several attorneys who have retired, but are often willing to come “babysit” projects for a few weeks or months at a time for a daily pay or on contract. They fit into the office well, colleagues are excited to see them, they know our systems and our work and how to get things done, don’t need or want a full-time permanent job, but don’t mind getting out of the house and back into the office for short periods of time (and getting a supplemental paycheck to pay for house renovations, vacations, etc!).

              Relying on a bench of retirees from your office to be short-term substitutes (or even longer term for long maternity leaves and illnesses) avoids the need for training and working through temp agencies.

    3. Lunching*

      I also think OP3 needs to consider the attorneys the secretary works for. How would they feel if their secretary leaves? Some attorneys (particularly very senior partners) get very attached to their secretary and would probably go over your head to save her. I do think it stinks, but I also think it’s the reality of a law firm. So I would focus on the problem of the overextended staff, rather than the absent secretary. Any chance of hiring a flex-time floater that could cover absences?

      1. Academic Addie*

        This is where I’m at – the people who rake in money for the firm are happy. They’re happy with her, and because the work gets covered when she isn’t around. Would they be as happy if the amount of time taken off caused other secretaries to miss deadlines for other attorneys at the firm? Law firms are weird environments, so I’d keep it to a proactive discussion about how to keep standards and coverage high.

      2. Amber T*

        This. I don’t work for a law firm with attorneys, but our set up is similar enough that our admins (I think) report to someone else entirely, but the partners they support really get the final say in everything.

    4. Casuan*

      SinSA, the real issue seems to be that there’s a morale problem among the staff which stems from the time off policies & this one secretary’s use of these policies. If there is evidence that work or staffing suffers because of her time off then that is something you should address.
      Time off policies work best when they are fairly implemented.
      If this secretary if the exception to the policy & your firm is okay with any issues this might cause, then you should use a firm tone & say that this employee has negotiated a different arrangement for her time off & that it isn’t open for discussion.
      [this phrasing is off, so perhaps others can suggest something better].

      You can deal with the morale issues by insuring that Secretary has her work in order & that she can hand it off to others & by giving direction in how to manage the shifting workloads to those who cover for her.
      This secretary is contributing to the problem by bragging about her time off & financial situation. She should be told to stop that behaviour because it impedes productivity.

  4. Aphrodite*

    OP #3, I sometimes fantasize that is the exact situation I might do to my employer, a college, if I were the win the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes. Kind of a “you’ll do it my way or you’ll do without me” attitude. Of course, I know I would definitely not do that because I am not that kind of person (and I love my new supervisor) but it’s fun to occasionally smile at.

    However, you are faced with someone who is not fantasizing it. This secretary actually has your firm by its … well, you know, and she is telling you how it is and how it is going to be. I think that if you give in to this any more than you have already you might as well let her run it according to her preferences. Do it and you give up any semblance of respect and responsibility for the firm, the other employees, and the sense of professional responsibility that is a given in a good workplace.

    In addition, should you go along with this I think you will likely end up with a toxic workplace and the loss of the other good employees who see not just blatant favoritism for one but disrespect and abuse for themselves. I don’t think Alison went far enough with her comments. I believe that no matter how great she is this employee is poison to a professional office and to other people.

    Think seriously about the impact all around. This is more, far more than the desire for more time off. She is subtly threatening your firm and won’t hesitate to follow through with it. The only question I think you should ask yourself is how far you are willing to let her destroy the office and employees.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Hmmm, I don’t know that she’s threatening them in a toxic sense. She may simply be saying that these are the conditions under which she’ll stay in the job. That’s okay for high performing employees to do, as long as they’re willing to accept that the answer might be “no, we can’t accommodate that.” It sounds like she has options, and she’s being up-front about that. It’s okay for the employer to say “no, this won’t work for us.”

      1. Aphrodite*

        I suppose you are right, Alison. The way it was phrased felt to me as if it had to be her way or no way. Perhaps not toxic, but I was looking at it from my point of view if I was one of her co-workers. I might not be able to afford to take as much time off as she could, and I might well be envious of that, but I know I would begin to feel very resentful of having to cover for her when I felt she was abusing leave policies and leaving myself and other co-workers picking up pieces.

        Or maybe I would just be jealous.

        1. Lehigh*

          But companies are constantly saying “my way or no way” when it comes to hours, coverage, etc. etc. Why is it so wrong for an employee to do the same? The company, like any employee, is always free to say, “That doesn’t work for me” and part ways.

      2. Topcat*

        A better compromise might be to switch her to a three-quarters time contract. Same money, same hours, but accepted in advance that she’s only going to be there 75% of the time.

        1. Koko*

          Yes, and she may well not need benefits anyway because of husband’s job, which would save them more than enough money to afford a temp while she’s out.

        2. Steve*

          One benefit is PTO. If she is working only part of the year but earning a full share of PTO, that’s actually not fair to the other company nor the other employees.

        3. Ani are you okay*

          It sounds like she already has this just not spelled out in a contract. Perhaps it would be helpful to morale to have it spelled out, though.

      3. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

        Right. “Ultimatums” get a bad rap. They’re just boundaries.

        (This plays out in relationships, too. We’ve been taught that it’s wrong to give an ultimatum… but shouldn’t we all be clear about what we will and will not accept, and act on that?)

        1. Koko*

          Agreed 100%. It’s poor form to elevate minor preferences to an ultimatum just because you can, as when one person in the relationship is more committed to it than the other, and the other person takes advantage of that by insisting on all decisions going their way as a condition of remaining in the relationship – in that scenario, the right move is for that person to leave, because they’re not in a good faith relationship of equals.

          But we all have some big dealbreakers, and those pretty much have to be ultimatums. “I want a baby or I need to leave you and find someone else who will have one with me,” is valid. “Quit your job because I’d rather have you make dinner for me every night or I’ll leave you,” is not.

          1. Lehigh*

            I think that ultimatums are only bad if they are either
            1) fake (“I’ll leave you if you don’t start going to counseling!” *no counseling* *no leaving* –> this relationship now operates on a basis of hollow threats)
            2) late (“I will require you to make dinner for me every night when we are married” is ridiculous, but on a first date it’s important information, after the wedding it’s controlling.)

            In the case of the secretary, the conditions may not have existed at the start of the relationship, but the company is not entangled the way a spouse would be AND still has an expectation of a reasonable notice period so I don’t see it as unfair.

    2. Green*

      It’s a transaction. You don’t need to worry about “sense of professional responsibility” here or demonstrations of power here.

      If I say, “In order to stay in this position, I’ll need 7 weeks vacation” or $300,000, or a title bump, or a corner office, or stock awards, or my own secretary, the organization is free to decline and I’m free to leave. But they shouldn’t decline just in principle if I’m bringing sufficient value to the organization to offset the cost. (I also shouldn’t make those demands in that way if I’m not willing to quit, but that’s a separate issue…) It’s either a good deal for the firm to let her have this benefit or it’s not, but it doesn’t need to have an emotional component for the business or the manager.

      1. Safetykats*

        I would think twice about retaining anyone who felt the need to remind me often that they didn’t need the job. It’s fine not to need the job – technically I guess I really don’t have to work either, as my spouse could support us both. But reminding everyone that you don’t need the job just shows a bad attitude and a lack of commitment. I would never go around saying that at any job I liked or valued.

        Aside from that, there should be a formal policy about unpaid leave and negative balance for paid leave. That way other personnel understand there’s no favoritism going on – that they could also take off for a month a couple of times a year if they could afford to do that. And if you’re not prepared to let everyone do that, then you shouldn’t be letting anyone do it.

          1. paul*

            It’s very gauche, at best isn’t it? And I consider myself socially kind of dense, so I figure if I’m picking up that something’s rude it’s probably fairly rude.

        1. WellRed*

          Hmm. If the leave is unpaid, why is there a negative paid balance? I really think in figuring this all out, the office might need some reframing around this stuff.

        2. Rusty Shackelford*

          Aside from that, there should be a formal policy about unpaid leave and negative balance for paid leave. That way other personnel understand there’s no favoritism going on – that they could also take off for a month a couple of times a year if they could afford to do that.

          See, this is the big question, as far as I’m concerned. Is anyone else allowed to go into negative leave? Is anyone else allowed to take LWOP? If not, there’s a problem. Even if none of them can afford to take LWOP, they need to know that they have the option, just as she does.

          1. Samata*

            That is my biggest question, among others. If everyone is offered the same benefit but choose not to use it or are not denied the benefit because of this woman I am not sure what can be done.

            I do agree that covering frequently can get tiresome, but if the other secretaries are out and choose to use all the allotted time give to them (paid and unpaid) wouldn’t she be expected to cover? I admittedly get bent out of shape when people look down on people for doing things like taking all of their agreed up vacation.

            Which brings my next question: since the attorney’s are OK with it, could it have been part of her employment arrangement? In lieu of a certain salary she gets flexibility with her schedule so long as work is done & covered? As someone said above to me this is the same as negotiating salary, etc.

            Now, the frequency of “I don’t need this job.” can get grating & annoying, but in light of the general feeling is this something the employee really says weekly or has the resentment build up so much at this point it’s just amplified the one time the do say it? If she really is sitting there filing her nails and constantly touting how well off she is and how she is above the work that is one thing, but I know when I had to go part-time people got very resentful of the fact that I wasn’t working FT in the moment and were constantly saying snide comments like “She has a rich partner, she doesn’t need this job.” … “I don’t know how you can go PT, how can you even afford that”…”I sure wish I was lucky enough to not need money”…sometimes I’d just smile and say “Yep, don’t need to work.” Even though the truth was far from that. Please note: I realize this is not this woman’s reasoning but what I am saying is that people project and build up resentment and sometimes you pick up on that and just fire back anything shitty.

            Sorry about the personal direction this took.

          2. neverjaunty*

            The OP clarified in a comment that this is against policy, but they have “looked the other way” for years.

            1. Rusty Shackelford*

              Ah, I missed that. This changes things. No matter how good she is, she shouldn’t be allowed to ignore a policy that others have to follow.

              1. Green*

                Policies, unless mandated by law, are arbitrary, and exceptions to policies are made all the time in corporations and law firms.

                1. Rusty Shackelford*

                  If they’re deliberately making an exception for an outstanding performer, “looking the other way” isn’t the way to handle it.

                2. Myrin*

                  While they’re certainly making an exception, the OP literally said “We have looked the other way for years now” in her comment upthread.

                3. Green*

                  OP said she has to approve the time off if the attorneys approve the time off. The attorneys are making the exception, therefore the firm is “looking the other way” (making an exception, not pretending they don’t know about the policy while someone does something wrong). A policy that is in general a good policy doesn’t need to be changed because sometimes the company wants to make an exception.

        3. Green*

          There is favoritism going on. Her attorneys like her and she is a high performer, so she has asked for and gotten a benefit that others have not. Which is fine.

        4. Green*

          It’s weird that she goes around saying this (or it could come up in conversation — people also have a weird tendency to ask things like “How can you afford to take so much time off?” “How can you afford to go to the Maldives?” or “I wish I could afford to do X”), but it’s also weird that people are making snarky remarks about her vacation.

        5. Fiennes*

          Maybe it’s rude. But if she is a secretary who regularly wrangles difficult partners (my guess), she may keep saying this just to keep herself sane.

    3. Temperance*

      I think the word “toxic” gets thrown around a lot, and it’s not always accurate.

      I think a lot of people are hung up because this woman is a secretary and she’s acting like this. Good secretaries are really hard to find, and can have a lot of power. If she works for important partners who like her, she can largely do what she wants.

      1. neverjaunty*

        Setting side whether that’s a good dynamic in the first place (no), this isn’t that situation. The OP is not asking how to manage an employee who is leveraging being the managing partner’s secretary. She has one good employee who is letting work fall on others.

    4. Phoenix Programmer*

      There is also a downside to her approach for her so it’s not like she is bilking the system or wielding power irresponsibly.

      By announcing she doesn’t need the job any of the following could happen: she is first in line for layoffs since the manager knows she can afford it, she is given smaller raises since she doesn’t need it,she is passed over for promotions or professional opportunities since she doesn’t care about the role enough not to use LWNP etc…

    5. The Other Dawn*

      I kind of feel the same way, that it was a threat; however, I say that as someone who has had employees say that, either to me or to other managers, in the past. And it was almost always in the vein of “my way or the highway.” It really depends on the secretary’s tone as to whether it was actually a threat or not. Maybe it’s just her stating what she needs to stay in the job.

  5. Marie B.*

    I’ve worked for both large (Fortune 500) and small companies in more than one industry/field. At every placed I’ve worked at everyone has always greeted each of the people on their floor or in their vicinity when coming in and leaving. This includes managers. No one thinks anything of it and if someone didn’t do it there would be a little side-eye. I’m not an intern and if I was in letter writer #1’s office I would be doing the same thing as the interns. Since this is so out of your office norm, it’s great letter writer #1 wants to say something. Alison’s script is excellent, especially the part about it not being obvious. I would certainly want someone to tell me.

    1. Bea*

      We all greet each other at our company as well, right down to the CEO and Ops Manager. That’s why I immediately picked up on doing the same after I started. I was thrilled by the practice and over all good vibe it adds to our office culture.

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I’ve worked in places with both norms. But I do think it’s helpful to let interns know, just because the culture does vary by region, field, office, etc.

      1. Safetykats*

        Yeah, we don’t do that at my office – and I can’t think of any office I’ve worked at that did. if someone is standing in the hallway I would say hello on my way in – not to do that would be rude. But the norm has always been to come in, drop your briefcase, hang up your coat, login to your computer, check emails and calendar to see if anything happened since yesterday that needs immediate attention. If not, and if you don’t have a meeting first thing, then you might stop by the kitchen, say hello to whoever is there while getting a coffee, and then get to work. People le are more likely to stop by mid-morning or at lunch time to see how your weekend was, or how your day is going. Of course, I work with people in different time zones – so they have been at work a few hours before I show up – and we support facilities that have shift work, so people may be waiting for me right at start time for a number of reasons – for work. It would be really bad form to keep them waiting while I socialized my way around the office – unless, of course, I was somehow coming in early to make the time to do that before my normal start time.

        1. Safetykats*

          Actually, I wonder if part of the issue with the interns is just that they don’t have anything pressing waiting for them in the morning. Nine days out of ten I either have an early meeting or can count on having some kind of request waiting for me – and on the tenth someone called me on my way to work. But if that wasn’t the case, I would probably arrive at the office a little differently. If the goal is for the interns to display some kind of a sense of urgency in the mornings, it would probably help to schedule early meetings with them, or to make sure they have some kind of request from the day before to deal with.

      2. Al Lo*

        In my office, we have flexible and varying start times, and there are a couple of us whose offices are down a different hallway from the reception desk. Most days, I pop in and say hi when I arrive, just so that my coworkers know I’m there. I don’t say hi to everyone, but I at least make eye contact. I may show up any time within a 3- or 4-hour window, so it’s helpful for someone to know I’m around!

        I have a co-worker who tends to slip in and not say anything, and in our office, it’s definitely noticed. In a space where everyone has to walk past the front desk, or where people’s schedules are set, it may be totally different, but in my office, it’s an expected courtesy.

        1. Ramona Flowers*

          Huh. We can also arrive and leave within a large window and it’s an expected courtesy that you DON’T greet loads of people as you may be disrupting their work.

          1. Al Lo*

            It also makes a difference that my office only has about 8 people on-site. I necessarily don’t say hi to everyone, but definitely to the receptionist, since I could otherwise slip in without seeing anyone or having anyone know I was in.

            It’s totally about the office’s norms. I could see it being totally different in a larger office.

          2. Oilpress*

            I would say that it almost always disrupts work. How could it not…unless no one is working yet.

      3. Ramona Flowers*

        Basically there are two things to tell them.
        1. How you do things in this particular office.
        2. The need to watch and observe norms around this in other offices.

        1. Anon today*


          People are also ignoring how much the physical layout of an office affects this. If it’s a long hallway with private offices on either side and people don’t look up when you walk by, then stopping at their door to greet them is kind of disruptive (a friendly smile or good morning as you walk by for the people who do look up would be fine). On the other hand, I work in a 4-person cube thing and it would be kind of unfriendly if we didn’t say good morning to each other and goodbye when we left at night. But poking your head into other group cubes for greetings would be seen as really weird in my office.
          So this varies a lot based on size of office, open versus cube versus offices, whether peoples backs are to the hallways, how many people are usually on headphones or phone calls, etc.

        2. Anxa*

          Yes this seems like the most important thing.

          Internships are so important for seeing how an office in your field works, but not all offices in your field will work like that.

          I must say that sometimes I bristle when I see so many comments and letters about how generally unprepared interns are for the working world when a lot of it seems to boil down to them being new at that particular office, and maybe a little less perceptive over all. And that may not be naivety or a lack of self awareness as much as nervousness and having a lot of other things to think about.

    3. Ramona Flowers*

      Every office I’ve worked in, you say a general hi and greet a few people with whom you work closely but you don’t take the time to stop at every desk.

      I am usually the first one in and I don’t love people disrupting my concentration – but I sit near some loud greeters on another team. (And it’s not possible to move.)

      1. Koko*

        Yeah, every office I’ve worked in has been slightly different, but generally I’ve only said hello to people who I end up making direct eye contact with, either because of the office layout or when passing in the hallway.

        When I come through my company’s main entrance where reception is, I nod or wave at the front desk employees if they look up when I come in, but I don’t stop to engage them if they are occupied with something. When I sat in an open-plan area where the low-walled cubes faced to the center of the room, and everybody had a tendency to look up when someone walked into the area, I would smile and say a general “what’s up” to everyone in the area when I entered.

        But I mostly enter through an employees-only entrance with no reception desk, and my current office is a private one down a long hall of private offices and cubes are set back in little nooks, so you can’t really see the person sitting at one until you’re walking right past it and you’d have to turn your head and slow down to try to make eye contact. The only person I say hello/goodbye to is the person who sits in the cube nook right outside my office because I have to walk behind his cube to get into my office and that does feel rude to do without acknowledging him.

    4. Annie Mouse*

      I’m not in an office but when I get to work there’s generally only a couple of people in the crew room. Still rarely greet them individually, just a generic ‘morning’ or ‘evening’. And they’re usually not even working yet. We do usually greet the outgoing shift individually as they filter through the door, ask how their day/night was and if we need anything.

    5. Akcipitrokulo*

      In our office we usually do a general “Good morning!” to the room at large. People respond or not depending on how busy they are. If I’m passing someone I know oitside immediate office, usually give at minimum a smile and nod.

    6. Ainomiaka*

      And we had the letter here about someone explicitly deciding that people who didn’t greet her and say goodbye were being hostile and got A TON of support here. So while the lw can certainly talk about their office culture, I would very much hesitate to say “don’t greet people as you walk in” is universal.

      1. Sally O'Malley*

        I was about to say the same thing! And I believe there was someone in the comments who said she was WRITTEN UP for not greeting people.

          1. Sally O'Malley*

            I went back and looked to be sure I was remembering correctly, and it’s actually worse than I remembered. It was in the comments accompanying this:

            January 22, 2018 at 2:08 pm
            I remember in my first job, part of my PIP included saying “good morning” instead of just “morning” when I came in. The PIP itself was justified, but some of the things I had to do were kind of silly, like I wasn’t allowed to get water for myself, if I got up for water I had to offer to refill everyone else’s water bottle.”

          2. aNon*

            My first job as an adult was somewhere with the policy ‘Everyone Greets Everyone’ (EGE). It’s a worldwide casino organization and yes, you do get written up if you get caught (even just by surveillance camera) not greeting someone. I was very creeped out when I got an e-card congratulating me on my EGE skills during a random audit done where they watched me walk through the casino for 5 minutes to make sure I followed EGE. Also, that policy follows you. I’d be grocery shopping and catch myself greeting everyone.

    7. Elemeno P.*

      Yes, this very much depends on the culture of the office. We all say a quick “Good morning” and “Have a good night” on our way in and out, partially because we all work flex hours and it’s good to know when someone is in or out. We’ve only had one intern who didn’t do that and we never knew when he’d come in or left for the day.

    8. Agent Diane*

      We have a culture of saying a generic “hi” or “morning” as you pass each bank of desks. No slowing down, no stopping. Those who want to respond say “morning” back, those who don’t, don’t. Very little ‘work’ time is lost and everyone is as social as they want to be first thing.

      Note: I’m in the UK, and this happens at every office in every city I’ve worked in. Cultural norms in the US may vary. ;)

    9. Lora*

      OK, I’m picturing a whole line of interns chirping, “Good morning Miss Lora!” as I walk in, kind of like the first time I went to Commander’s Palace in New Orleans and a whole honor guard of waitstaff greeted me as I was led into the dining room with “Good evening and welcome to Commander’s Palace Ms Lastname!” as I walked in. I thought ZOMG I am a princess! And then promptly died of embarrassment. But it was sweet.

      I’m kind of charmed by the idea of being greeted by a parade of interns, though I can see it getting mildly annoying if you’re already elbows-deep into your projects when they march past. But yeah, it would definitely not convey “I am a professional here to do serious business” so much as “welcome back, Lady of the Manor”. Which would just be weird outside a fast food / service industry kind of context. That might just be me though, I get weird about people doing service-y things in any way that doesn’t suggest we are absolute equals. Mostly because I’ve done those jobs and I know perfectly well it’s the luck of the draw that I don’t anymore…

    10. turquoisecow*

      When I come into the office in the morning, I say good morning to the two or three people I pass on the way from my door to my desk. I don’t stop and say “Good morning, Bill!”, “Good morning, Sue!”, I just say “Good morning!” as I’m walking, and sometimes repeat “Good morning!” several times. Others do the same, and it’s the same as we’re leaving, just “good night!” while walking by, to anyone who is still at their desk.

      People at their desks usually call a “good morning” or “good night” over their shoulder. Sometimes, I don’t even know who I just said “good night” to if I’m in the middle of something and not paying attention. In fact, the CEO usually walks by my desk at some point in the morning (no first thing), and he says “good morning” to everyone he passes. It’s just common courtesy.

      At my old job, there were a few people who slipped out quietly when it was quitting time, without saying “good bye” or anything. They were perceived as slackers who wanted to get out immediately – usually they had put on their coats and packed up their personal items, and at quitting time exactly they were gone.

      I guess this varies by office, but what I’m saying is that the interns aren’t totally out of line to think that it’s courteous and polite to greet people or say good-bye at the end of the day.

    11. HollyWeird*

      Yeah we have had people complain to HR that certain individuals did not go out of their way to greet them in the morning. For the record, in our office culture some people are greeters and some aren’t and no one for the most part cares. The complainers were, I imagine, coming from an office culture where everyone did get a greeting and they saw the lack of “Good Mornings” as a sign of disrespect. I think that the interns just need to be advised at your current culture it’s not necessary to greet everyone but they may see it elsewhere.

  6. A Bug!*

    #3 – Maybe also consider whether or not you might need to talk to the other support staff about their resentment and how they’re expressing it. I may be reading too much into it based on my experience in law firms, but that kind of thing can easily get out of hand and create a toxic workplace that’s unpleasant for everyone and very hard to recover from.

    1. justcourt*

      It could be jealousy, but the other staff could feel put out by having to carry their coworker’s weight while she is gone and not know how to express it.

      I understand that it makes sense for employers to give good employees extra perks, and if a high performing coworker got to work from home or leave early when he/she finished work or received some sort of bonus, I wouldn’t care. But if one coworker’s perks started to impact me, meaning I had to take on extra work and extra stress, then I don’t care how high performing they are or my employer’s reasons for giving them flexibility.

      1. justcourt*

        LW also mentioned the office is small, so there is a decent chance that there aren’t enough secretaries to cover multiple being out at once. So it’s possible that the coworker’s frequent vacations are limiting when other secretaries can take time off. That’s another, legitimate, reason why they might be frustrated.

    2. Cordoba*

      Do the other staff also have the option of LWOP? If so, I don’t see what there is to be upset about.

      1. Someone else*

        Based on what LW said above, they’re supposed to use it only as an absolute last resort for emergencies, not for swanning off on holiday, and that’s how everyone else is using it (and by the sound of it, nobody else in the office can afford anything like that number of LWOP days- in my office, we’ve got people dragging themselves in when they’re deathly ill because they can’t afford to miss even a single morning). If I were working in an office where I had to routinely pick up the slack for a colleague who kept swanning off abroad at the drop of a hat to go on holiday with her rich husband (and the company didn’t seem willing to bring in a temp to cover at least some of her workload), I’d be pretty resentful too, possibly to the point of looking for work elsewhere.

        1. A Bug!*

          Looking for work elsewhere is a perfectly good way to express resentment with the situation. So would talking to the office manager about the unfairness of the situation. The “must be nice” type commentary that happens in the subject’s absence has an awful tendency to color people’s attitudes about other things in the workplace and create an environment where nobody will ever be happy.

          Basically, if OP decides that keeping this employee is worth giving her the leave she wants, then it’s OP’s job to find a way to manage the other employees’ workload in her absence, and it’s not that employee’s fault if that doesn’t happen, because she negotiated an arrangement that she’s entitled to rely upon without getting snark from her coworkers.

    3. Koko*

      If Traveling Secretary is taking her leave unpaid and her work is being covered by other salaried employees while she’s away, then the company is getting a bargain – they’re paying her less but still getting the same amount of work done by overburdening the other staff.

      Why not take the money they are not paying her and hire a temp to pitch in while she’s away? They could probably find someone whose hourly rate is less than Traveling Secretary, and although that person may not be able to do work at TS’s level, there are surely some unskilled/low-skill tasks of which all the other admin staff could be relieved to free up their time for absorbing her higher-level work?

  7. Borne*

    #2 I’m half Bahamian, and mulatto is widely accepted in the Caribbean, Brazil, and most other countries. The US does not dictate truth or discredit the fact that the term is fine around the rest of the world.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      But no one is saying that. The issue is that it’s considered offensive here. There are other words that have different connotations depending on where they’re used.

      1. TL -*

        This, exactly. The c-word is not considered nearly as offensive in New Zealand as it is in America, but that doesn’t mean that I can go around using it in the States and just ask people to remove decades, if not centuries, of incredibly offensive history contextualizing its American usage so I can spout it at will.

        I also can’t tell my Kiwi friends to add years of offensive use to it so they’re as offended as I am when they hear it. I can just ask them to never refer to me using that term.

        1. Akcipitrokulo*

          Exactly In Glasgow the c-word often just means “people”… not appropriate elsewhere though!

          1. Media Monkey*

            umm, it’s still accepted that it is rude though (even if used affectionately as only people from Glasgow know how!)

            1. Akcipitrokulo*

              Rude, maybe – but doesn’t have the same offensiveness unless it’s meant that way. In that case, it’s REALLY bad ;)

              I don’t use it anyway because I don’t like it, but was just an example that things are different, and erring on side of not upsetting people is a good thing!

              1. Media Monkey*

                it’s a good example! but more to be used a pub/ football match/ amongst a group of friends you know very well, not really in polite company!

      2. John Rohan*

        If by “here” you mean the United States, then that’s not necessarily true. Everywhere I’ve lived the term is so old-fashioned that most people don’t even know what it means, but it’s not offensive. I looked up dictionary definitions, and a few mention it could be offensive, but most don’t. There is no official handbook for these things.

        1. JamieS*

          That’s where I’m at as well. I don’t know anyone who says it but I’ve never heard of it being considered offensive. What’s more disconcerting to me is that she specified their race in the first place. While it’s possible in context mentioning their race was understandable based on OP’s letter it doesn’t sound like it was.

        2. Annabelle*

          Dictionaries aren’t really the best source for finding out if marginalized people find something offensive. I realize there’s no racism handbook but, generally speaking, if something was used as a descriptor for black folks in Gone With the Wind, it’s probably offensive.

    2. Sylvan*

      Based on what OP wrote, it’s seen as offensive in the culture her workplace is in. Let’s go with that. (It’s not used in my culture, either, but I actually am in the US.)

    3. Green*

      Also, in general, it’s worth it for OP’s colleague to be alerted and thinking about whether someone’s race is important as a descriptor. “My black coworker Janet” and “my Hispanic coworker Lydia” are accurate statements but the instances in which it would be appropriate to describe my colleagues, clients or customers using their race are … pretty infrequent.

      So pointing out the race of child attendees at a story time is probably inherently odd. The fact that the word used is considered outdated and offensive to a lot of folks here makes that even worse. (Also, many people in other countries still use the word “Chino” to describe all Asians, etc., but if I were from a country where that was common and accepted by everyone including the Asian community, I’d still want a Japanese or Korean colleague who was offended by it to let me know that a custom I’d grown up with was considered rude and racist elsewhere!)

      1. hbc*

        I was thinking the same thing about mentioning race at all. That’s actually what I’d bring up to Pam, rather than the particular term: “I don’t see how their racial background is relevant.” You can get her to stop using a particular term, but you still don’t want her describing people by race, and especially with what appears to be a setting of Default People and NonWhite People.

          1. Ani are you okay*

            Agreed. Start with correcting the terminology, and then have a prepared response for the next time she points out race unnecessarily.

        1. DCompliance*

          I agree with both of you. Why was the race pointed out? That in itself would have made be uncomfortable.

        2. MashaKasha*

          That was my first reaction, too. There was absolutely no reason for Pam to mention their race at all.

        3. Lillie Lane*

          Sometimes public programs need to tabulate participant diversity/demographic statistics. I always hated doing it for my events (who made me an expert on “judging” people’s ethnicities?). And you can’t really ask a preschooler those questions. Maybe that’s why she made a note of it.

          1. Totally Minnie*

            I’ve done programming for children where my official written reporting had to include a breakdown of the attendees’ ethnicities (a term of the grant we received for the program), but when my coworkers asked how many kids were at yesterday’s program, I would just answer “12.” Having to report statistics is not the same thing as having a casual conversation with your coworkers.

    4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I’m not sure how that changes the advice for OP? If the term is a slur where she works, then shouldn’t it be addressed as such?

      It would be different if she were in a Caribbean country where it’s not considered a slur and were lecturing others about word choice. But that’s not what’s happening, here.

    5. MommyMD*

      Borne, many matter of fact words become twisted in the US. Some rightfully, others not. I’m mostly “white” but not all, and I don’t really take much offense unless offense is intended.

    6. neverjaunty*

      Many non-US parts of the world have huge issues with racism, too. I’m not sure that “they use that word in Brazil!” is quite the checkmate you’re assuming.

      1. Green*


        I once had a situation where another professional referred to someone in Spanish as as a “judio” (Jew). I speak Spanish, but there was an official translator there, and I had to sit through a very awkward moment when a Jewish lawyer later accused the person of specifically targeting someone for anti-Semitism (because he thought the person being spoken about was actually Jewish), while the person then explained through the translator that “Jew” is just a word that “everyone” in their country uses to mean stingy/cheap.

        Props to the translator, though, who maintained his neutral tone and neutral face through this and about 100 other even more ridiculous exchanges…

    7. FD*

      But people shouldn’t use terms that are offensive in their own countries, right? This LW (and a lot of the readership) happen to be US-based, so the advice is relevant here.

      But even if the specific term doesn’t relate to other countries, the scripts could be used to have a similar conversation about an offensive term in any country. It just might be different words.

    8. matcha123*

      You can use it in your country if you want. However, in the US it is an offensive term. I would hope that if an American were in your country, you wouldn’t continue to call them a word they found derogatory because you felt the need to make a point.
      I’ve seen arguments similar to yours from people in Commonwealth countries who find J*p a perfectly fine spoken and written abbreviation for “Japanese.” They make a similar argument that “It’s not offensive in Australia/etc. Why does America dictate XYZ?!”, while conveniently ignoring the fact that Japanese people in Japan find the word offensive and know it as a slur based on how it was used prior to and during WW2.
      You might feel annoyed that a word you feel is neutral has “suddenly” been called out as offensive, but it’s been offensive in the US for a very long time…

      1. Lady Phoenix*

        Reminds about the arguments I had with Europeans about Blackface being ok for them because it is an American thing.

        Granted, I hold their opions with salt because:
        1. Hell the fuck no
        2. The commenters Were WHITE Europeans so extra hell no
        3. Europe has a history of conquering small nations
        4. Some European nations have come under fire for traditions many are deeming racist (like Sabta have blackfaced servants)

        It’s like… can we just not?

      2. Liz*

        …yikes, “J_p” is still offensive in Australia! Even my great-uncle, a WW2 veteran who fought in the Pacific, expunged it from his vocabulary eventually.

  8. TL -*

    OP2: Please have a talk with your coworker. I might talk to my boss as well – not to get your coworker in trouble but to perhaps talk about pursuing cultural sensitivity training options, especially if you have a diverse patronage.

    Say that the word concerned you and your inability to react in the moment also concerned you, and though you’re not trying to get your coworker in trouble, the whole incident prompted you to ask for cultural sensitivity training availability.

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Strong agree. She may not realize that the term is widely considered a slur, especially if she’s (a) not been exposed to that disapprobation in her friend group, or (b) she’s known folks from specific communities for whom the term is not considered a slur when used by folks of that identity to describe themselves. I’d be tempted to mention it to a manager, also, and frame it in terms of cultural competency, ensuring reliable service for patrons, and building an inclusive community and work space.

      It can be super paralyzing to know how to respond in the moment—I’d argue many of us would react similarly. The good thing is that that means it’s even more ok/easier to bring up the issue afterward.

      1. TL -*

        It can be hard to react in the moment, but if you work in a public facing role like a library, part of your job is to ensure the library is a respectful place for all patrons. Thus, training is a good thing to ask for – you’re developing a necessary skill set for your job.

        I’m not blaming the OP; this moment just highlighted an aspect of library services that it seems like the whole branch could use some training on.

    2. MommyMD*

      Or how about manager just politely and calmly telling worker to not bring up race?

      It’s done and everyone moves on without accusing anyone of a “slur” or making a federal case over it.

      If it continues, then it can be escalated.

      1. TL -*

        I’m more concerned that nobody has said anything than that it happened; it’s not uncommon for someone to find out a phrase they thought was normal is actually pretty racist (see: Clerks II). But it’s actually happened to me and several of my friends – people point it out, you apologize and stop using the term and silently curse your family/hometown/whatever for being racist jerkwads.

        But multiple workers overheard and as far as the OP knows, nobody has pointed out that the term is not okay to use. That’s a little more concerning.

        1. IntoBooks*

          Op here! I didn’t speak in the moment because it took me a few minutes to realize what I had heard. In addition I am very junior to this woman. I don’t know if I can speak to her on this matter considering she is superior to me. For the record I don’t think she’s like a raging racist – just ignorant. Our predominantly white city recently saw a boom of immigrants from Middle East and African countries, so I think she and others are struggling with their biases and ignorance (though I don’t know if they would phrase it that way.
          I agree we could use training but again being so new and at the bottom I’m hesitant to cross any lines to suggest this. I don’t think it will be taken seriously.

          1. Natalie*

            You absolutely can speak to here even though you’re her junior! This isn’t a performance review or something, think of it like a friendly head’s up.

          2. CM*

            If your management is open to suggestions, it sounds like some diversity training would be a great idea in general given that you have an all-white staff and a high population of immigrants and minorities who are library patrons. It doesn’t have to be directed at Pam or any particular person or behavior. If you’re willing, you could see if anybody does training like that in your area or if there’s relevant training online, and suggest it to your management. You could frame it as learning more about your constituent community so you can serve them better. If a lot of people are coming from certain countries, you could learn about the culture and customs of those countries.

          3. TL -*

            Right! I get how hard it can be to speak up – but I do think it is worth bringing up with your boss, even if you want to frame it entirely as *you* needing the extra support or training. Maybe this made you think of how you would handle it if a patron was using inappropriate or racist language in the library and you realized you didn’t have any good ways to approach it in the moment.

            1. Decima Dewey*

              If the patrons in question become regulars, wouldn’t staff get to know their names? Instead of calling them “the two pretty mulatto girls”, how about saying “Shamika and Tamikka looked adorable in their matching dresses”?

      2. Sylvan*

        You’re right; escalate if it continues after a polite, calm request.

        But at the risk of derailing, I want to say that sometimes we don’t always know the whole meaning of words. I didn’t connect the dots between the word I heard as “jip” or “jep” and the word “gypsy” until I saw someone else getting called out for it. If I ever said that in front of anyone, I would have cut it out if I had been told.

        1. Goldensummer*

          I learned that connection from House of all places when he deliberately used it to offend someone! I’ve strived to remove it from my vocab since then.

        2. AKchic*

          Yes. We recently had issues with the word “gypsy” here at our renaissance fair and a few people could not understand why it was so offensive. At least one person doesn’t understand why we need an anti-bullying plan in place, or a sexual harassment plan in place (both of which are needed). When told that the optics of a 40-something white cisgender male complaining about having the policies in place were exactly why we needed them… well… that didn’t go over well either.

      3. galatea*

        Sure, for the individual worker.

        On the other hand, cultural sensitivity training for people interacting with the public is hardly what I would consider “making a federal case” over anything, especially since some of these slurs ARE uncommon/unknown/etc, and there ARE certain cultural landmines across race, across class, across gender, etc.

      4. Sunshine Brite*

        Not bringing up race doesn’t solve any of the systemic problems it represents. That library is supposed to be a reflection of the community it serves and that’s impossible without understanding the cultures in the area.

      5. Penny*

        You really don’t get it, do you? You think it’s making a “federal case” to ask someone to stop using harmful words. Slur in quotation marks, as if you think mulatto isn’t a slur. You just don’t get it.

  9. willow*

    #3 – I am fantasizing about a utopian world in which we all get 6-8 weeks of PTO.

    … mmmm…. niiice …

      1. Ramona Flowers*

        Indeed – I was about to comment and say move to the UK. (I have just under 8 weeks, including public holidays.)