Dear Captain Awkward,
I have a dilemma that I suspect is quite common, but I’m still running into mental roadblocks as to how to properly approach it. Background: I’m a lesbian and a big-eff Feminist working in a male-dominated field, in a male-dominated company. I’ve worked marketing, event planning and PR for rape crisis centres, and volunteer on rape crisis support lines. I know a lot about anti-oppression and actively work on acknowledging my privilege and on calling people out when they’re being oppressive asshats. Except that’s not what I want to do at work. At work, I wanna focus on my interesting tech stuff and not feel I have to educate my boss and coworkers on racism and why and how they’re being fucking offensive.
My boss is a young-ish, laid-back, former hippy who’s travelled all over the world and loves to talk and thinks he knows everything about everything. A nice enough guy, but these topics he brings up at work are raising my blood pressure. And it doesn’t help I have 3 male coworkers who fall easily into the conservative end of the spectrum, so I’ve got no backup there. The lot of them could talk until they run out of breath, not really caring if they have a lick of knowledge about the subject. I mostly keep my mouth shut when he brings up touchy subjects, because I cannot be bothered to try to get into convos with people who won’t change their minds, have no investment in the topic, and will keep talking until I give up bc I’ve got other shit to do and my face is red and I just want them to STFU.
So, the question in all this, is how do I draft a nice, calm email to my boss about work-appropriate conversations and how his oft-racist verbal meanderings are contributing to a hostile workplace for me? I don’t wanna quit my job, I don’t want to go over his head to HR if I don’t have to, and I don’t want to be “the one who caused a scene” b.c., oh yeah, he’s also a huge gossip. Help?
Damsel in de tech
I don’t think there is a snappy email that gets this done.
Please change your entire personality.
Even if you went with “don’t say so many racist things” or “try to keep workplace conversations more appropriate” you will run into the Hydra of Derailing Questions and Wounded Innocence. “Could you like, define every single word in every single sentence for me?” No one needs that.
I know you don’t want to have to go to Human Resources, but I think we should treat this LIKE a situation where you might have to go to HR. That way if you do have to go to HR, you are prepared. Also, your boss doesn’t have to know that you don’t want to or plan to go to HR, and the fear of that hassle might be a weapon in your arsenal in getting him to cool it.
This old post covers a lot of the steps of having uncomfortable conflicts with coworkers, and I think it might help you. To review some basic principles:
1. Review your company’s policy on harassment, language, what constitutes a hostile workplace. Know it backwards and forwards and keep it in reserve. Chances are it’s on your side, at least on paper.
2. Document everything.
3. Tighten up your game in case there is blowback. Be at work early, dress nicely, make sure your work is awesome, tidy up your work area. I’m sure your work is already awesome, but if you’re going to start pushing back at your boss about things you don’t want to give him anything to latch onto.
4. Polish your resume and start looking around for other opportunities. Even if you don’t want to leave, or don’t have to leave, it will make you feel less trapped if you know that you have other stuff going on.
5. Keep your eyes on the prize. You don’t have to change hearts and minds. You don’t have to help these guys achieve enlightenment. If you get them to stop saying these things around you or at work, you win.
6. Keep in mind that while you have been stewing about this problem, if you haven’t spoken up before now it’s not actually a problem that’s on your boss’s radar right now, so if you land on him like a ton of bricks with “I NEED YOU TO STOP BEING RACIST NOW, OK? HERE IS MY FOLDER OF EXAMPLES AND I AM PREPARED TO GET YOU FIRED” it is probably not going to have the result you want, even if he deserves that. The Derailing Hydra of Wounded Innocence is a hard beast to slay.
7. Recognize that dealing with this kind of fuckery head on takes a lot of energy, so be extremely nice and gentle to yourself and step up your self-care regimen. Take breaks, eat well, get enough sleep & downtime, hang out with only extremely awesome people outside of work, remove as many draining commitments from your life as you can.
I think you’re going to do best with a “Hey, Knock It Off” strategy at first. Speak up directly when the bad thing happens. And, while it is unfair that you should have to do this, I suggest that you work on becoming as affectless and robotic as possible when these topics come up.
Boss: “Offensive thing.”
You: “That’s pretty offensive.” + [work question]
(shamelessly stolen from Carolyn Hax)
“Wow.” + [beat of awkward silence] + [work question/innocuous topic change]
(this one is mine)
“Awkward.” + [beat of awkward silence] + [work question/innocuous topic change]
Boss: [derailing word-vomit of questions like “What did I say that was offensive? Why is that offensive?“]
You: “It’s _____ist and not appropriate for work. So, about work question…..”
DO NOT ENGAGE him on the substance of why the thing is ______ist. Even if you’re correct, it’s not an argument you will win to your satisfaction or want to engage in. Just keep repeating, in the most boring, flat, monotone and trying to change the subject.
If he really pushes back at you, defer to his position as your boss. “How would you suggest I respond when someone says something _____ist at work?“
This is the magic question, right? Your boss sees himself as enlightened hippy world traveler guy who can’t possibly be racist/sexist because he’s read cool books and watched the sun rise over Angkor Wat. But seeing yourself as an awesome progressive isn’t a magic defense against your own privilege. Also, it’s his job to enforce company policies about harassment and hostile language and keep people (including himself) in line. This isn’t be your job at all! So put this problem explicitly on his plate, and get him on the record about how he thinks you should handle it. Document everything in case you need it later.
While you hear and understand work-related things just fine, you have contracted a mysterious malady that makes you unable to fully hear or understand offensive language and you need it repeated and explained.
Boss: “______ist thing.”
You: “Sorry, I didn’t catch that, what did you say?”
You: “Huh? I’m sorry, I don’t follow.”
Hopefully somewhere in here, self-awareness about how bad he sounds kicks in, but probably not. He might just get tired of repeating it and change the subject himself. If you hear a “Ugh, never mind,” be happy: You have won! If you can get him to repeat the thing three times, give yourself a gold star.
You: “But I don’t understand. All _____ people are not like______. Whoa, do you really think that?”
Him: (hopefully) “Ugh, never mind.”
If he doubles down on the ________ ism, there’s always “Wow. That’s really _____ist. We should probably change the subject, right?”
And again, if he pushes back at you, pop the magic question: “Okay, but how would you like me to respond when people say ____ist things to me at work?“
Now, things might get uncomfortable in the short term. When you enforce a boundary you haven’t set before, even well-meaning people can get really weird about it. Sometimes they get embarrassed about their own behavior and take it out on you for making them uncomfortable. They see calling them out as a hostile act on your part, when actually, asking someone calmly and directly to stop doing an offensive thing is the most professional and chill way you can behave. You might get some version of the “But you didn’t say anything before, so it was okay before, so I thought we had an unspoken agreement that it would always be okay and now you’re ruining everything by changing the rules on me!” defense. If you get sucked into this logic, you start thinking that only boundaries that are set perfectly from the very beginning of a relationship count, which is, frankly, the stinky poop of of a cow and I have no patience for it.
I think the more comfortable you get with setting boundaries, the more comfortable you get when other people set them with you. You can hear “Hey, could you not do that one thing anymore?” as meaning “Hey, could you not do that one thing anymore?” (i.e., reality) and not “Hey, could you not do that one thing anymore YOU WORTHLESS PIECE OF SHIT THAT EVERYONE SECRETLY HATES?” (i.e.,massive projection) It takes some time and some practice to get more chill about this, and your boss may not be there yet.
So one way you can counteract this is to stay very focused in the present moment, but once you’ve spoken up for yourself and diffused the shitty situation, reset the clock on your interactions. If your boss is cool? You are friendly and cool. If your boss does something nice? Go out of your way to say thank you and let him know you appreciate it. If he apologizes for saying something? Say “Thank you, I really appreciate that.” Show him that you’re not a grudge-holder and that you are trying to keep things friendly.
Now, the “Hey, knock it off” strategy is going to either work after a few awkward weeks or it isn’t. If the bad behavior escalates and crosses over into harassment, the fact that you have a documented record of what’s been going on will become very useful. If you find yourself called into a meeting about your “attitude” or your “negativity,” use it as an opportunity to speak your piece.
“Boss, you’re right, I have felt pretty down lately. I am sure that you and coworkers don’t intend to offend anyone, but you guys say a lot of stuff in the course of the day that is pretty hostile/racist/sexist. It’s been making me very uncomfortable for a long time, and I do think it’s interfering with how our team functions. I haven’t wanted to make an HR issue out of it, but I have started speaking up more when things cross the line. I want to have a good relationship with the rest of the team and be able to focus on work at work. How do you suggest we move forward in a constructive way?”
Because, again, as the boss, it’s his job to figure out how to manage the team so that you don’t have to work with your shoulders up around your ears. It’s his job to offer solutions and moderate his behavior and follow company policies.
I don’t think he is going to have any solutions for you, at least not right then. I think you are likely to get a giant dose of defensiveness, excuses, mansplaining, etc. So, pull out the magic question.
“When someone says something _____ist at work, how do you suggest I respond?”
You are asking a totally reasonable question and secretly he’s going to know that you’re in the right, so hold onto it and keep asking it. From what you’ve described, chances are that he’s going to want you to just shut up and ignore it. But he can’t SAY that, or, he has just enough self-awareness to know that he shouldn’t actually say that. I mean he can say that, and then you can document the shit out of it, and then you can have a really uncomfortable conversation with HR where you lay out the following points:
- My boss and coworkers say offensive stuff that makes this a hostile work environment for me.
- I asked them directly and nicely to change the subject back to work topics.
- They didn’t.
- I met with my boss and repeatedly asked for his suggestions for how to deal with this constructively.
- He pressured me to ignore it.
- What do you suggest I do? I am a very productive and valuable employee, and I don’t want to work in a hostile situation where people feel free to make _____ist comments.
I’m hoping that this approach will get you some results. It seems way harder than sending the perfect email (or, honestly, just going straight to HR and saying “this is a problem, how should we fix it?”), and it will take more time and energy than you probably want to spend, but if you put the time in you just may cut down on the asinine statements/hour ratio.
What say you, readers? Have you ever gotten someone to stop saying offensive things around you at work? What did you say to them? How did they respond?