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David Eddie's Damage Control

I made an inappropriate remark at work Add to ...

The question

I am the part owner of a small business.  As with most organizations, ours is a diverse group who counts at least two openly gay men as part of our team.  In a recent meeting I made an offhand remark that, on reflection, was probably homophobic (or at the very least insensitive) within earshot of one of our gay employees.  Although no one reacted during the meeting I was mortified; I genuinely want to create a welcoming environment for everyone on our team and it really bothered me that I may have offended him.  I decided to apologize in a brief e-mail directly to him.  The problem?  He didn't hear what I had said and now wonders what it was I said that would cause me to send him an e-mail out of the blue.  Now what? (Aside from not making offensive remarks in the future.)  Do I provide a detailed breakdown of exactly what I said or leave my response vague while apologizing again?

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The answer

Well, I wish I knew what the crack was, exactly.

But, to speak generally, of course, you as the boss must take great pains to ensure that people of whatever sexual orientation or skin colour or hair colour or cup size do not feel threatened or harassed in your workplace.

(Nearly) gone are the days when it was acceptable for the boss to make blonde jokes, or racist cracks, or even unleash a fusillade of drooling, innuendo-filled "compliments" whenever the office hottie sashayed by.

And I'm sorry if I sound too politically correct here, but to me that's a clear evolution. All you have to do is watch an old, workplace-set movie (e.g. one of my favourites, Billy Wilder's The Apartment) to see how far we've come, in terms of the types of behaviours we used to take for granted.

At the same time, it's possible, I feel, to go overboard in the other direction. And you may be doing just that.

First of all, beware the perils of the "prepology," the pre-emptive mea culpa that only draws attention to the offence and shines a spotlight on your guilt.

Often, these types of apologies are more about making you feel comfortable than him, and could that not possibly be the case here, hmmm?

And, if it's just a question of a stray comment, have you considered that in this circumstance all this overthinking and effusive apologizing could wind up being the most homophobic and even "offensive" element of your behaviour?

I mean, maybe the guy can take it. Ever think of that?

Personally, I think if I were gay, the thing that would make me the most tired is all this "not that there's anything wrong with it" stuff:

"Oh, hi, Dave, happy Monday. Hey, I like your new pink shirt, it really suits you - but not because you're gay! I didn't mean that! I want it on the record that in no way, shape or form did I imply that at any time, and any such imputation on your part or on the part of anyone in the vicinity is hereby declared null and void! My compliment has nothing to do whatsoever with your gayness! Please accept my profoundest apology, to be followed by a written request for forgiveness on company letterhead to come this afternoon. I promise I will never make another remark referring even in the most oblique, roundabout way to your gayness ever again, and I plan to report myself to HR this afternoon, to seek counselling to correct my secret homophobia," etc etc.

I'd be like: "Dude, relax, I know I'm gay, I understand that may be a little different for you, but I have a sense of humour about it, and can handle the odd comment about it - as long as you don't mind me zinging you back with occasional cracks about your breeder-boy minivan and fanny-pack and backyard-barbecue lifestyle."

So your employee is gay. He's still a guy: It's possible he doesn't mind a little banter and verbal jousting.

It's funny, just as I got your question I was eating lunch and watching the end of Shane Black's charming movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, in which Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer play two guys on a case, "Harry" and "Gay Perry."

And it's a classic "buddy" movie, in that plenty of barbed comments and insults fly between the two of them, including many cracks from Harry about Gay Perry's sexual orientation.

But Gay Perry's a tough guy - much tougher than Harry. He can take it, and gives as good as he gets.

Why should your employee be any different?

After all, why should your employee's gayness be a "sensitive" topic? Is your heterosexuality a "sensitive" topic with you? Do you bristle and throw hissy fits whenever anyone makes an allusion to your sexual orientation?

But, bottom line, since this was just a stray crack, and you seem aware it wasn't exactly appropriate, I think you will both wind up feeling more comfortable if you play this one down, not up.

Just say to the guy: "Ah, I made a dumb comment, no big deal."

Then, for the future, as the boss, maybe it's time for you to grow up a bit, adopt a more businesslike approach, and keep the jokes and editorializing to yourself.

David Eddie is the author of Chump Change and Housebroken: Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Dad. Damage Control, the book, will be published in March.

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