Group Therapy is a relationship advice column that asks readers to contribute their wisdom.
A reader writes: What do I do when my boss makes racial comments at work? We don’t have any visible minorities at our office, but the comments royally offend me. Should I just keep biting my lip?
Beware the slippery slope
If these comments offend you, speak up. Even if they’re not directed toward a specific person, they create a toxic work environment. And if your boss makes it okay at the workplace, other employees may start to feel it is acceptable. It’s a slippery slope.
M.G. MacRae, Vancouver
I’m a white guy married to a lovely black woman. When people make racist comments in my workplace, I politely inform them of my marriage partner, which embarrasses them. Thing is, it shouldn’t take a guy like me to stop racism – it should take everyone. Stand up to your boss, but make sure there are witnesses to the conversation in the event that you are illegally terminated.
Peter Dedes, Kitchener, Ont.
Strength in numbers
It’s difficult to publicly disagree with a manager who has control over your job, so going to human resources is preferable. But if there’s no HR department, find out how your co-workers feel. If they think the comments are okay, find another job. If they think it’s offensive, then approach him as a group and tell him that you’ll go over his head if the behaviour continues. A manager can’t fire a whole group.
The Final Word:
In this situation, there are only two circumstances where I would advise against speaking your mind: 1) Your job will be in immediate peril; or 2) the racist blowhard is deliberately baiting you. In the virtual world, this is a known type: We call these people trolls, and we advise one another not to feed them with our umbrage. But when you’re enjoying the sacred space of your Girl-Gamer Grand Theft Auto fan forum and some mook dive-bombs the thread to insist you put down your controller and make him a sandwich, we all know how difficult it can be not to take the bait. Doesn’t honour demand you speak against such attitudes?
Usually. But in both the real and virtual worlds, blowhards come in two types and you need to be able to distinguish between the two. The type described above delights in giving offence, and all but wets his pants at the prospect of igniting confrontation. If you take the bait you’ll be playing his game. The excrement will promptly meet the air conditioning, as Kurt Vonnegut would say, transforming your workplace into a real-world flame war.
More likely, your blowhard boss is simply ignorant. He assumes everyone at work appreciates his remarks for the nuggets of pithy social commentary he believes them to be. When you let him know otherwise, he’ll be surprised, perhaps insulted, likely resentful. But he’ll also think twice before restating his odious opinions in public – an unqualified win.
Therefore, determine what you’re dealing with and act accordingly. You’re in a difficult situation – we’ve all been there. Noam Chomsky has said that his lifelong political activism was prompted in part by guilt over abandoning a bullied schoolmate. So even Noam Freaking Chomsky didn’t always stand up when it counted.
Of course, you’re not asking me what Noam Chomsky did or would have done; you’re asking me what you should do in this particular case – the right thing to do. You and I and Noam all know the answer to that.
Lynn Coady is the award-winning author of the novels Strange Heaven and Mean Boy.
Next week’s question
I'm in my late 50s and have dated quite a few women in the last few years. Most of them are happy to share the bills when going out. Some are not; one told me that a guy over 50 should be treating. Another seemed shocked that I should ever suggest she might contribute by buying me lunch. I've always thought it should be 50-50. Most professional women I meet make more money than I do, and I don't like being expected to pick up tabs, especially when the odds are that the new relationship may not go anywhere. What are the rules? If I ask her out, do I always have to pay? And how come she never asks me out?
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