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

Prejudice Vs. Discrimination – Which Makes a Difference?

A manager might be  prejudiced, but if this individual does not discriminate, legally it does not make any difference.   We don’t care what people think, we care what they do!   Know the difference between these two unfortunate situations and know what might be actionable if it affects you.  When it comes to prejudice, thicken your skin and when it comes to discrimination know the rules.  Above all…always be the professional!


If you have read Black Sales Journal before, you recognize that I frequently comment on racial prejudice, racial preference, and the effects of negative racial perceptions.  It is natural to provide comment on these topics as they represent the 8,000-pound elephant in the room and as a result are not discussed openly in most forums.

We spend time discussing how the Black sales professional can successfully use tactics to neutralize racial preference and how we all (all Black professionals) can nullify and improve negative racial perceptions.  We also face the fact that racial prejudice is a different and difficult beast and that we may never change it.   Psychiatrists often characterize prejudice as a deep-seated attitude.  We all are aware that something negative has been cast into someone’s personal life, it can have a permanent effect.

Importantly, we should recognize the relationship between racial prejudice and racial discrimination and how they manifest themselves in sales.

The Attitude versus the Action!

For the purpose of this explanation let’s define both of these:

Prejudice – Unreasonable feelings, opinions, or attitudes, especially of a hostile nature, regarding a racial, religious, or national group.

Discrimination – Treatment or consideration of, or making a distinction in favor of or against, a person or thing based on the group, class, or category to which that person or thing belongs rather than on individual merit:  racial and religious intolerance and discrimination.

(Courtesy of definitions 3/5/2012)

So there you have it, racial prejudice is an attitude.  It can reach deep into ones fiber, but an individual will never be tried in a court based on this attitude, as it is not a crime.  If a customer has this attitude, they still remain a viable customer for someone, but possibly not for a Black sales professional.  If your employer has this attitude it is unfortunate yet as long as they make objective and meritorious decisions, they are not guilty.   In other words they can be prejudice but not discriminate strange as it may sound.

Racial discrimination is a different animal as it is action oriented.  A distinction made on the basis of race can potentially be afoul of the laws and regulations, and is almost always ethnically wrong.  It goes without saying that racial discrimination is unfair and although a customer is free to do anything they want, in the case of an employer it could be legally actionable.

The Vicious Circle

The relationship between prejudice and racial discrimination is suggested to be ‘circular’; meaning one leads to the other.  You document racial discrimination but you talk about prejudice as someones disposition or attitude.  Racial discrimination might mean that you get no ‘call-in’ prospects, bad territories, or no house (orphaned by another rep leaving) accounts.  Discrimination may be hard to prove, yet there is evidence, especially when you are able to compare the situation on a relative basis between all sales professionals at a location.  Know what extras you get and how well you performed when you get the chances and if you feel aggrieved read Black Sales Journal 3/9/2011 When You Feel Screwed  – Three Steps to Getting Help.

I make the suggestion that from the standpoint of professional sales that we realize that the most important activities that we can undertake are as follows:

  • Look for and expect fairness from the managers that we work for and be prepared to professionally point out inequities, in a professional manner, as they happen.
  • Document important milestones and activities correctly recognizing that it is “not what you know, it’s what you can prove!”
  • Master your company’s performance system (Black Sales Journal 1/10/2011 – Preparing for the Performance Review Discussion).  Always be pro-active and prepared.
  • Document every thing you get and what you don’t get.  Know the prospects, house accounts, and special benefits you get, and document them well.  Especially document the situation if you are not getting any.  You will need to know what others are getting to have a chance of success.  The facts count.
  • Be the expert on you! Know your sales totals, close ratios, and what percentage of your success came from the company giving you prospects or accounts.

When Bad Gets Worse – Racial Harassment

The unfairness of racial discrimination creates frustration and ill will.  Things are even worse when there is racial harassment.  Racial harassment normally comes from the employer and can emanate from management or coworkers.  A strong example of this is the Montrelle Reese vs. ThyssenKrupp (see Black Sales Journal February 13, 2012).

Racial harassment has a primary purpose of demeaning and driving an individual out of the particular work environment.  It is akin to racial bullying and has no place anywhere, especially in the work environment.  Making someone miserable is awful, and anyone who witnesses it and does nothing is full of fault as well.  It makes no difference as to the colors involved.

Know the facts and know your options.  Most importantly, recognize that acts of discrimination, harassment, and bullying may be actionable, but prejudice is not.  It is an attitude.

Additionally, always be the professional.

Your comments are welcome.