Improper Racial Comments From Your Customers? It Does Happen!

It doesn’t matter what color or nationality you are, invariably it will happen no matter what minority group you represent.  With all of the good customers in the world, there are some who just have no filter on what they should say.  We could recognize their ignorance, but more importantly you should know how to deal with these situations.  Always be prepared!


Customers come from all walks of life, and certainly have their goods and bads, but we cannot live without them in the sales world.  They are human, and with that in mind, are capable of saying things that are subject to translation, and sometimes downright wrong and insulting.

This post covers how you might react to those comments, or better yet, how you might better react to those comments.  Remember, just as we stated in Black Sales Journal August 22,2011, Reacting to Improper Racial Comments from Co-workers and Black Sales Journal 8/29/2011, Reacting to Improper Racial Comments from Managers, which covered how you might react to statements from co-workers and from your manager, you have the right to react, I am just suggesting to you do so in a professional manner.

Just because someone is doing business with you does not mean that they can say things that are demeaning or even cruel without a formidable response.

Intent Does Count!

Before we get deep into this, I would like to point out that intent does count.  I would like to explain that there are intentionally harmful racial comments that are made with malice, and racial comments that are made in ignorance.  Although neither of these should be considered acceptable, and they both probably warrant a reply, the requisite responses might need to differ.

Statements that are made because one is ignorant or one is unenlightened obviously have the same effect, yet have less gravity than a statement meant to harm by some one who is rude and insensitive.  Here are a couple of examples:

Statement A: During a business meeting your customer talked about safety in the area that his business is located. He says with a smile… “They say that one of your brothers pulled off the robbery of that fast food joint down the street last night.”

Statement B: During a dinner entertainment session, your buyer indicates she needs to terminate a Hispanic employee “who is still wet from the swim across because of the new immigration laws.”

Both statements are offensive, and both deserve a response.  Which statement is, in your view, is the most racially charged?  How would you react to each of these?

Always be calculated in your response and consider the intent.  I will discuss how I would respond in a moment.  First I want to acquaint you with a personal situation and how I handled it.

A Personal Example

When I was in sales, many of my customers were owners of trucking companies.  This industry, like many others has people that say what is on their mind, and sometimes what is on their mind can be disparaging.  In the instance that I am about to cite, I definitely responded incorrectly the first time, by not responding.  When the second time came around, I think I definitely handled it in the correct manner.

I was on a call basically to deliver policies to the account and we got involved in a conversation about a driver who had generated a lower back workers compensation claim.  Everyone knows that lower back claims can be subjective, and tend to linger for long periods.

During the call my customer indicated that we should investigate the claim of Ben T.  He stated that he had reason to believe that Ben was malingering, and it was our job to get to the root of it and make sure that the claim was compensable, and that payments should be stopped until we knew for sure.  He then said, “You have a good work ethic, and I wish all of your people had that same work ethic.”

I was a 26 year old sales professional and initially, my response was to say nothing other than that I would check it out.  I thought I needed the client, and needed my money.  I realized within minutes that my response was wrong. It kept me up at night for a little bit, and relived it several times.

When I returned to the customer location the following week, I explained to him the situation behind the back claim.  This individual was going to undergo surgery and his claim was legitimate to our people.  I then sat with him, looked him in the eye and said, “Respectfully Bob, I take offense to your comments last week about Ben T. and work ethic.” He developed a puzzled look and quickly said, “I did not mean to offend you Michael.” I then advised the following, “I know you did not mean to offend me, as we speak openly, yet you offended a whole community of people, of which I am one.  It would have been the same as if I said that you are special, but most of your people are drunkards (Bob was Irish). It was frankly just wrong.”

A light bulb went on in Bob’s head.  I could see it happen… enlightenment, that is.  Bob said, “Point taken, but we Irish like to drink!”  I quickly responded, “You do get my point, don’t you?”  We smiled and wecompleted the meeting.

Back to Our Questions

Well, both situations are enough to of these statements are bothersome, and unfortunately situations like this happen in the workplace frequently.

Regarding Statement A: This is the least charged, as this person is attempting to refer to a felon as a ‘brother’ presumably because we often call Black people ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’.  It should not have been said but you would not have to use a nuclear bomb on this one.  Your response should be simple and professional, “Respectfully, no one who would do that is a brother of mine.”  Remember, this is a customer.

Regarding Statement B: This is a racially charged statement.  You might hesitate to respond to it, yet the races are interchangeable in this case.  If you do not respond, I suppose you would be waiting until this customer got around to taking a ‘shot’ at African Americans  next.  An improper remark against any group or religion is an attack on your diversity.  Your response should be professional and impactful.  Something like, “Kristin, honestly I take offense to that statement.”  She knows it was wrong and if she is worth her salt she will not make another one like it.

Respect your principals.  I am not saying that you should not work with a customer as much as you need to be true to yourself.

Always be true to yourself.  Always be the professional.

Your comments are appreciated.  Read me at Michael.Parker@BlackSalesJournal.

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