Worked Up At Work

How to handle sticky office situations

Racial Name Calling Is Never Okay

News flash: The "N" word is not okay

The fact that the "N" word is inappropriate and offensive should not be news to anyone.

I had a client call me with an allegation that one of his employees was in the break area and overheard use of the "N" word. This workplace is a very diverse, blue collar manufacturing setting. I was called to conduct an examination of the allegation and to make a recommendation for the employer's next steps.

An allegation is neither a fact nor a fiction. Until it is examined or investigated, it is simply a statement made by an employee. Like in baseball, the pitcher pitches the ball and the catcher catches it. The batter asks the question of the umpire, "Was it a strike or a ball?" The allegation from the investigation becomes truth if it is substantiated or denounced if it cannot be substantiated.

It is imperative that the allegation be investigated. If an employee alleges something has gone wrong or something is of concern and management says, "It's nothing; go back to work." Management is saying to the employee, "Your opinion or concern doesn't matter, therefore you don't matter." That's simply not smart and, today, it won't stand.

I was called in to examine the allegation. I started with the employee who raised the concern to management-the one that made the allegation. I got his account of what happened. He gave me the details of who said what and who overheard it beside himself. He also told me how he felt about the matter. The last part is very important. How he feels will drive his behavior going forward. I interviewed the alleged perpetrator and all the alleged witnesses. The long and the short of the investigation was that the allegation was substantiated—it was a fact that the employee used the "N" word and that others, both black and white, were offended.

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Now what should be done? The offending employee needs to go. Termination? Maybe. Better is encouraging the person to voluntarily resign, sign a "hold harmless" waiver, expunge his record and offer a clear path to unemployment compensation. The best answer is for everyone to move on.

Employers need to understand that their values are on display with every decision they make. In this case, there are conflicting values at stake: one value is "We believe in second chances. This guy made a mistake, but it was an isolated incident and he deserves a second chance." The competing value is, "We have a zero tolerance for racial slurs. We won't tolerate them."

My recommendation was to extricate this guy, hope he learns from his mistake and send the message that the employer wants and will work towards an environment that supports racial fairness.

 

Steve M. Cohen, Ed.D., C.M.C., is the president of Labor Management Advisory Group and HR Solutions: On-Call, and the author of Mess Management: Lessons From a Corporate Hit Man.

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