Improper Racial Comments From Your Manager…It Can 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 3 Unmentionables for the Black Professional!

As a Black professional in the business world, you have plenty of chances to interact at work and socially with coworkers and management. In this election season you may want to heed my words! There are clearly unmentionables for you, and this election season is proof.  You may want to “check” somebody re their believes, but in truth, all you can do is expose something that is none of their business…. beliefs and your positions! They don’t deserve access to that!!


The Three Unmentionables

No matter what your level of comfort with certain topics, I suggest you avoid discussing these three topics, even when prompted:

  • Politics
  • Religion
  • Race relations

Politics can go nuclear at any moment. There’s a good possibility that just as your race may be different, your politics will vary widely also. This was obviously a big issue during the campaign of the first Black president.  Do not be baited to discuss politics with your co-workers unless you are prepared to have that same conversation with management.  Word about diverse views spreads quickly and without accuracy.  Your views are your own, and unless you have some other motive, they are best left that way. “Red state” versus “blue state” issues do not generate fodder for a conversation that you need to open a door to.

Religion discussions are a ticking time bomb. It is as personal as any subject could be, and it is dangerous for a workplace discussion, even if you are of like color with those you work with.  Sunday morning hours are the most segregated hours that American society can produce.  I would avoid discussions of religion for all the right reasons, so you know how I feel about this when you are of a different race and religion. Besides, it is frankly none of their business.

Race relations are undoubtedly the 800 pound gorilla in the room. No one believes his or her stance on race is an issue, until it butts up against another person’s stance. At that point the other persons stance is perceived to be the issue.  I think you get my drift.   By the time the discussion starts the relationships can be damaged. At the root of this is the 3P’s (Preference, Perceptions, and Prejudice), his/hers and yours.

I’m sure that I don’t have to dive to deep into any of these illustrations; many of you have lived this for years. Recognize that it is easier to stay above some of these dangerous conversations than to think you can change someone’s perspectives. Additionally it is easier to avoid these conversations than to try to repair the aftermath. Everyone you work with is not your friend so you have no obligations here. Besides, you have important sales to make.

Discussions about religion without empathy, tolerance, and an open mind will drag someone down an abyss. Discussions about politics are polarizing.  I respect everyone’s religious beliefs.  One’s politics are one’s own business. You just don’t need to put your business out there.

A Special Word on Discussions About Race Relations

Before I close on this topic, I do want to focus for a moment on the topic of race relations. This topic can be radioactive. There are friends that cannot have a gentle discussion on this topic.  With so much at stake, you cannot be assured that the discussion is sincere or an effort to pull you into the ‘rip-tide’ of controversy.  So with that in mind, leave that one for relatives and those people you have a close and sincere relationship with outside of work. Since it is impossible to ‘put toothpaste back in the tube’, this is an unmentionable.

We can strengthen the ill effects of the 3P’s with some of our actions. The impact of preference, perceptions, and prejudice can be made rock-hard when our stances are the opposite of those people who can have an effect on our employment future.

I certainly look forward to your comments. Please take a moment and share them with us. You can reach me at Michael.