Improper Racial Comments from Your Manager – It Does Happen!

Boss Man

You are dependent on this individual for you income, and the stability of you family.  This position doles out the training, and even access to some key prospects.  How should you react when this individual makes an “off-color” comment. How measured should your reaction be? Should you ignore it? Should you lash out? You won’t be the first in this situation, or the last!


Insensitivity and racism exists, and it is not institutional as it is an individual’s personal problem in most cases.  This insensitivity coupled with a lack of respect for racial differences can be vexing.  When it is not handled correctly, it manifests itself as organizations being called racist, when it is actually a particular (or more than one) manager who is the problem.

No one can predict the source or the timing of these types of comments, we just know that as long as you are interacting, there is a possibility that an improper remark will happen.

These are Not Mistakes!

Everyone comes from a different station in life, and their ability to relate to others is hindered by a lack of understanding others and their sensitivity.  Sometimes, it comes across as being insensitive, sometimes rude, and in other instances, it can rank as downright boorish. The fact of the matter is that many, but not all of these statements represent unadulterated displays of racial prejudice.  Be smart enough to know the difference, as they deserve different courses of action.  Be smart, not oversensitive.

I honestly encountered this during my early years of employment, and quickly learned, as will you, who the source of these types of comments would be.  These types of comment are not mistakes.  They are utterances of ones viewpoints, and in many cases a window into one’s upbringing.  I explain this in Black Sales Journal 12/30/2010, Preference, Perceptions, and Prejudice and Your Employer.

I had an opportunity to cover an issue like this in Black Sales Journal 6/27, Changing Racial Perceptions.   This is one you should check out.   I write about it under the sub-heading “Perceptions – An Example from My Past”.   Frankly, as a young sales professional I did not know what to do.  I was left speechless, and that was the last time.

I don’t care if it is 2011, these comments do still happen.  No one cares about hearing an apology from someone for making the statement when the problem is that someone actually feels this way, and they are your superiors at your place of employement.

Measured Reactions When it comes from “the Top”

When a manager or a senior executive makes a comment that is offensive the other managers and employees who are listening immediately sense the impact of the statement.  Many get uncomfortable, and some want to exit.  Remember this in the examples of actions that I suggest, it is the moment of truth, but the group is your ally.  Groups (the audience to your comment) have a way of being very uncomfortable when someone is singled out, and unjustly aggrieved.

When the comment is made, the audience and you are affected:

  • Something wrong has been said
  • Someone has been wronged or hurt (You)
  • There are witnesses to this wrong, and they are victims as well

It is at this point that your actions are most visible, and most observed.  You cannot avoid the spotlight, and your face will quickly show something is a problem.

Here is what you need to remember:

  • Don’t be afraid to show that you are disturbed if you are. You do not have to be stoical.
  • Show your maturity by not reacting improperly as you are a professional.
  • Exiting the conversation speaks volumes, even more than the suggestion of exiting the conversation when it is a peer. Leaving shows your feelings about the comment, and the commenter.
  • Match the gravity of the comment to any verbal response you might have, yet I will guarantee you that if the comment has any gravity at all, an “excuse me” will result in a future discussion, or even an apology in the very near future.

Realistically, any apology may be more for having said the comment rather than feeling those things that compelled them to make it.  An apology or admission that the comment was inappropriate will show that this comment should not have been uttered.

These Remarks Are About Power

When you hear a remark that is improper and inappropriate from a manager it is usually results in feeling vulnerable, at least at that moment.  Factually, you should not accept it even if alcohol is involved.  I mention alcohol, as that is a common excuse. The ”he had too much to drink” bit is not kosher, and any manager’s drinking issue is not your problem.

Trust me, no manager wants to have a discussion with his/her manager or human resources about remarks they make involving race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation to a employee.  What is even more problematic is if they have to have that conversation because there was more than one incident.  Most employers, especially large ones have no tolerance for that discussion, especially after the first time.

The Role of Human Resources

I have had the pleasure of working with some very good HR professionals.  As a manager I recognize their focus on the well being of the employee and their willingness to take a manager to task when it is truly necessary.

If you feel aggrieved by a comment, you definitely should approach HR and frankly tell the story.  This is definitely a situation where “the truth will set you free”.  Advise what was said including the audience, and how that made you feel.  Be factual and not emotional.

There are a couple of things that can happen when you talk to HR:

  • The manager might be told to have a conversation with you, perhaps including an apology
  • The manager can receive a memo of either admonishment or reprimand.
  • There is a possibility of the manager being placed in ‘sensitivity or diversity training’.
  • If this is a repeat incident, there could be more harsh punishment meted out including termination.

Intelligently realize that you should only involve HR if you really feel aggrieved and they will help you sort it out, as this is not a trivial matter.  Don’t be thin skinned or you will lose credibility.

It goes without saying that you need to avoid jokes about any of those forbidden topics, and stay “clean” yourself.  Recognize that peers and managers should show you respect, and you should do the same.

Your comments are appreciated.  Write me at

The Most Amazing Sales Professional Ever!

Sales Professional and Manager

Amazingly enough, it is still not too late to be the first! Being the first is an important role in American society.  It is equally important in business.

I am going to use cite one iconic American company, IBM, as an example. As a matter of fact, it is more than symbolic, because this organization took a leadership role.  This is a brief study in how an organization handled diversity. Think about the pressures of selling even before the Civil Rights act of 1963!


Let’s revisit a true sales pioneer and trailblazer, Thomas J. Laster. His ability to deal with racial preference, racial discrimination, and acts of racial prejudice are legendary.  We cannot avoid giving kudos to International Business Machines (IBM) in their effort to promote diversity.


A Leader in More Ways than One

In 1946 International Business Machines, also known as IBM, hired its first black sales representative. It was an individual named Tom (T.J.) Laster. This was well before the Civil Rights Act of 1963.  This act was also well before the Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in professional baseball.  This was not a beauty products company, or someone selling durable goods products to the Black community, this was a business products company that was on the technical leading edge, and selling their product to basic ‘white’ America’s businesses.

The audience that Laster was something to was decidedly in the majority. If we think we see racial prejudice and racial preference, we need to recognize that we see nothing like this gentleman was faced with during his tenure as a sales professional.  A couple of years later, Laster joined the 100% Club, an honor for reaching his sales quota.  This was affirmation to many that this individual was a qualified and accomplished sales professional.

The 40s, 50s, and 60s were decidedly difficult time to even dream of being “the first” in B2B sales, but someone had to do it.  Soon after Laster, IBM hired their first Black marketing representative (Lionel Fultz) in 1951, their first Black engineer in 1952 (Harry Cochraine), and their first Black engineering manager, (Calvin Waite) in 1956.  Lionel Fultz also was named branch manager in 1964.

This made IBM a leader in both business machines as well as employment diversity.  It also made Tom Laster a pioneer in the sales diversity situation.  He was willing, and obviously began destroying the racial perceptions that Blacks, or Negros as we were referred to in that time, could not handle the technical nature and business relationship issues related to B2B sales to a white business populace.  I would believe that partially as a result, many others Black professionals followed through the doors that were opened.

There was no greater a threshold in business sales as this one!  This was certainly important.  Although you probably won’t read books about it there is no doubt as to the impact.

Following this, IBM, assuming the leadership role again, penned and enacted its Equal Opportunity Policy through the Thomas Watson’s (the president of IBM) letter to his organization termed as Policy Letter # Four.  This September 21, 1953 letter directed his managers to “…hire people regardless of race, color, or creed.”  We wish it was as easy this declaration, but this was a start.

This is Significant, But Why is it Important?

I hope you see the significance in the story of Laster. He is truly a pioneer, and really knows what it feels like to be the first.  What is equally important is that you still can be the first Black sales professional in many organizations.

By the same token, you still can be that individual the changes everyone’s ideas about the abilities and work ethic of black professionals.  It would be nice not to worry about that, but it is significant.

I was not the first Black sale professional in the organization that I came up in. I was actually the third. I was the first Black sales manager, and the first Black vice president, senior vice president, and executive vice president.  I had some interesting experiences, which I try to share in this ‘journal’, but I am certain that many of these assertions would have paled in comparison to the stories that Laster could tell.

Be the Best

There are many small and medium sized organizations that have avoided, for whatever reason, employment diversity.  They could have avoided it because of their small size, or because they purposely have not hired Black sales professionals.  They may have other Blacks and minorities working for the company.  It does not matter what the reason might be, embrace that opportunity to work for and to change those organizations.  Show your stuff!

Your only requirement is to do be best that you can be at what you do.  By being the best, you increase your opportunities for success, as well as destroy ridiculous and erroneous racial perceptions.  Your success will be rewarded with a high compensation rate, but also in the pride you have in being the first!

Be the Best!  Your comments are appreciated. Contact me at