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Racially Inappropriate Behaviors at Work

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Updated May 30, 2011

With American neighborhoods, public schools and churches overwhelmingly segregated, the workplace remains one of the few locales in the nation where those from diverse backgrounds routinely interact. Because Americans from different ethnic groups still have a lot to learn about one another, however, the workplace is often the site of racially offensive behavior. Sometimes colleagues unintentionally make racial gaffes, and other times racial prejudice is to blame for their bad behavior at work. Whatever the culprit, it’s in every employee’s interest to avoid culturally inappropriate behaviors in the workplace. Here’s not how to handle race at work.

Using Racial Slurs

It seems obvious that racial slurs should be a no-no at work, but a Race Relations reader of African-American descent recently informed me how stunned she was when a white colleague referred to an Arab-American coworker as a “towelhead.” Apparently, the woman figured that the Race Relations reader wouldn’t be offended that she used the term because she isn’t from the Middle East. That turned out not to be true, a mistake that could have cost the woman her job. Momentarily, the Race Relations reader contemplated reporting the colleague to human resources but ultimately decided to keep the transgression private. She did, however, let her colleague know that she wasn’t amused by her use of the slur.

Referring to Employees by Race

While not as disturbing as racial slurs in the office, this gaffe is still cause for concern. If you can’t recall a colleague’s name, it’s not appropriate to refer to her as “that Asian lady in sales” or “that black chick in operations.” If your workplace is predominantly white, think about what you would do to describe a white colleague whose name you don’t know. You might describe what he’s wearing or his height and build. Try using these same strategies to describe your colleagues of color. Then, “that Asian lady in sales” becomes “the tall woman in the red blazer.” By taking a few seconds longer to describe someone, you can avoid giving colleagues the impression that their race is first on your mind.

Pairing Up Employees and Clients Based on Race

You’re a manager of a company whose new set of clients is Mexican American. Naturally, you assign the Latino man in your department to the case. In fact, anytime you deal with Mexican-American clients, you make sure to involve your lone Latino employee. It’s a smart way to do business, right? Not necessarily.

If there’s a language barrier—the clients speak Spanish and the Latino employee is the only one in the office who can communicate with them—this move makes sense. But to pair up employees with clients simply based on cultural background doesn’t always pay off. Employees should be paired with clients who need services in which they have a strong skill set and range of experiences. Thus, if an Israeli-American employee has the expertise the Mexican-American clients mentioned above seek, that employee should be matched up with them. If clients felt that uncomfortable working with those from different ethnic backgrounds, they likely would have sought out a Latino-owned company with which to do business. What’s more is that if you keep directing all of your Latino clientele to your Latino employee, he may begin to think that you only trust him to do business with his own “kind.”

Racial Favortism Is a No-No

Do managers in your company treat employees from certain ethnic groups with more regard than they do others? For example, if a white employee walks in ten minutes late, is the transgression likely to go uncommented on, but if an employee of color committed the same offense, would she be given a warning? Who’s most likely in your office to be yelled at, publicly reprimanded or written up?

Unfortunately, managers often allow racial bias (consciously or unconsciously) to affect the way they treat employees. All workers should be treated with respect, not just the ones who share the same racial background as those in charge. If a company has codes of conduct related to timeliness, dress and ethics, these guidelines should be applied to all employees uniformly. A Caucasian employee should not be allowed “to get away with” behaviors that a black employee could not, and vice versa.

On a related note, Caucasian employees should not be given “insider” status that results in them being the first to hear about a promotion or a job opening at another site. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission strives for fairness in the workplace and investigates companies that practice racial discrimination. Often, it’s hard to build a case against a company that doesn’t blatantly discriminate, though. A manager at a company may very well publicly praise whites more than blacks and publicly criticize blacks more than whites, but that’s not always easy to prove legally.

Having Stereotype-Based Expectations for Employees

The 2004 comedy “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” opens with a scene in an office. A young white man tries to get his friend, also white, to leave his work behind so they can party Friday night. Because his friend is on deadline, the two decide to find someone else to finish the work. Their pawn? A young Korean-American man named Harold Lee. After Harold’s given the project to complete, the man who got his friend to ditch his work says, “I’m telling you those Asian guys love crunching numbers. You probably just made his weekend.”

This is a compliment, right? No, it’s a stereotype and one that’s harmful to Harold. He, in fact, doesn’t appreciate the extra work and plans to spend Friday night unwinding with marijuana. Harold’s nothing like the man his white colleagues imagine him to be. That said, it’s never a good idea to assume that your colleagues fit the racial stereotypes you have of them, whether it’s that Asian men are hard workers or African Americans are lazy.

Wrapping Up

A number of behaviors related to race are inappropriate for the workplace, be they using slurs, telling race-based jokes or stereotyping colleagues. The best policy is to treat colleagues as individuals, not representatives of their respective racial groups. Lastly, respecting colleagues of all races is key.

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