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TL;DR: I said at work that someone got promoted to my dream position due to 'white privilege', my manager threatens me with dismissal unless I write secret apology


I've been trying for 18 months to be promoted to the "research" team in the engineering department at my company, where I've worked for seven years. It's basically a team of several of the top engineers in the company, where they get to work with bleeding edge technology instead of just our in-house stuff (which definitely helps having on the resume), they get to steer new projects (which helps get additional/larger bonuses), and they get paid more. The team is also culturally homogeneous.

About 2 months back, my manager informed me that I was a "preferred candidate" for the team, and gave me some assigned reading on the expectations required of team members.

Last week, I was discussing with friends at work how a new hire "Francis", who has only been with the company 12 weeks, got promoted to the research team, and mentioned that he got the job "probably because of white privilege". The next day, my manager, and the head of the research team, "Tom", called me in for a meeting. Tom presented a speech on how candidates make it onto the research team due to raw talent (i.e. writing patents in extra time, innovative money-making/saving ideas, having their registered professional engineer cert, etc.), and not due to race or cronyism.

I tried to explain that I meant that a **portion of Tom's success is likely due to race privilege**, given that it's something proven to exist in my country, and that I didn't mean to attribute all of Francis' success to it. My manager gave me a choice: I can write a written apology to Francis, and provide signed copies to Francis, Tom, and my manager. The document would be kept locked up, on-site, and not disclosed outside the company, and this would be the last any of use spoke of the issue. If the issue comes up again, I'm issued one of my "three strikes" (i.e. verbal warning). If I refuse to write the apology, I'll be fired for harassment/racism, with cause (no severance).

Yesterday, I also asked my manager about the promotion, and he noted that while I shouldn't worry about future promotions within the company, Tom feels I lack the judgement to ever work on that team ("they want leaders, not whiners").

What should I do at this point? Have I permanently screwed up with my company? Should I just quit? I don't want this information to become public and prevent me getting "cancelled" or unable to get hired at another firm, so I don't really want to write the apology (also, I'm firm in my position). On the other hand, this company pays a lot more than most other firms of the same type and size, so I'd likely lose out on a lot of money if I quit and worked elsewhere. And by quitting, it might just look like I'm admitting I did something wrong.

Update

I went into the office today, logged on to my PC, and received an instant message asking where the apology letter was, and if I needed to print it at the office in case I don't own a printer at home. I'm then called into my boss' office, where I tried to provide a verbal apology similar to the ideas presented in the answers here, and was asked to go, write it down, print off 3 copies, sign it, and provide it (i.e. has to be done before the weekend). I insisted a verbal apology should be enough. My boss says I can go back to work.

An hour later, in the 5 minutes I was gone for a smoke break, all my accounts are locked out, and most of my possessions (except some thumb drives I own) were boxed and put into a taxi. I was given a release form I could sign for severance (on-screen, no hard copy was given to me). I declined, and was escorted out of the building. Now I have 6 days of pay plus my savings to live off of rather than the normal 6 months of severance.

Final Update

So, I was lucky enough to find a labor lawyer who cut me a deal for $200 for 60 minutes of his time (most were asking $375 or more). I'm told:

  • I should have signed the agreement, as it was mostly along the lines of "I admit I'm guilty for a harassment-related fire-able offense, I promise not to sue for more money or my job back, here's my severance, the company will keep this incident sealed and out of the public eye". I did not want to sign it on general principles.
  • I asked for a written copy (which I was told was a smart move), but they only let me sign it on a touch screen (likely to prevent additional disclosure) and to cover the company's backside. My lawyer said that was shady, but not illegal, to not provide me with a paper copy.
  • I don't have a case against the company, and suing would bring my actions possibly to the public's attention (which I want to avoid).
  • After re-telling my story 3 times, the lawyer seems to think I screwed up worse than you guys think. Apparently admitting I said those things to Tom and my boss was the dumbest thing I did. The apology was probably just a way to fire me in the future easier if needed.
  • I was advised to ask if I could still sign, to which my old boss declined, as I'm barred from the premises entirely.
  • The company gave me about 3 weeks of additional pay (vacation pay owed), so I should have enough to get me into another job without having to dig into my savings.
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Neo Feb 21 at 12:50
  • Keep in mind workplace provided professional advice. Strictly speaking, we cannot provide legal advice, which is what your lawyer is for. – tuskiomi Mar 11 at 5:26
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Last week, I was discussing with some friends at work how a new hire, "Francis", who has only been with the company 12 weeks, got promoted to the research team, and mentioned that he got the job "probably because of white privilege".

Saying someone got a job based on their race regardlessly being majority or minority is unprofessional and could be cause for dismissal for creating a hostile workplace. While there may be systemic racism with a company, someone being promoted within 12 weeks of being hired is not necessarily indicative of racism. Any discussion at work (even among "friends") must abide company code of conduct.

My manager cut in and gave me a choice: I can write a written apology to Francis, and provide signed copies to Francis, Tom, and my manager. The document would be kept locked up, on-site, and not disclosed outside the company, and this would be the last any of use spoke of the issue. If the issue comes up again, I'm issued one of my "three strikes" (i.e. verbal warning). If I refuse to write the apology, I'll be fired for harassment/racism, with cause (no severance).

I found this ultimatum very odd. Normally strikes don't require a person to issue a written apology under lock and key. You should be issued your verbal warning or fired with cause. Regardless, your chances of growth at this company are now very slim. Take the situation as a learning lesson and don't judge someone by their skin color. Tender your resignation and find a new job.

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    he should be happy he was given a chance to apologise and to have that apology not become part of public records... I'd not have given him that chance and instead fired him on the spot. – jwenting Feb 21 at 6:16
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    It may not be clear to OP what he actually said: He first accused Francis of not being qualified for his promotion. He secondly accused those promoting him of treating their staff in an unfair and racist way by promoting a person to a position they don’t deserve purely due to their white skin colour. Both are pretty bad accusations. – gnasher729 Feb 21 at 11:02
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    I read this as the guy being given a lifeline. He's being given a chance to have this handled informally, because he's a valued employee. But at the same time, if he's going to make a habit of doing this every time someone gets something he thinks he's entitled to, his boss has the evidence trail in place in case there's a next time. – Graham Feb 21 at 11:55
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    I agree with Graham - this is a lifeline and opportunity to move on and let the issue rest. I would suggest the OP apologies and moves on. I read this as a chance - next time the company is likely to come down hard, and will have the paper trail to show this is a pattern of behaviour, not a one-off. – Swedish Architect Feb 21 at 12:40
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    @Graham The only thing I would add is that OP really needs to start looking for a new job after taking this lifeline. It is lucky for him that they will allow him to stay on till he finds new employment, and leverage currently having a job in the hunt. And On that one part I disagree with the answer, tender the apology, and start job hunting ASAP. Finding a job is much easier while holding one. – Tymoteusz Paul Feb 21 at 13:24
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If I refuse to write the apology, I'll be fired for harassment/racism, with cause (no severance).

Actually, the reverse may happen.

If you give them an apology letter, that may give them the paperwork they need to fire you for cause (and no severance). Do not trust what they tell you. Seek your own legal advice. Do not trust theirs.

After all, do they really fire everyone who complains about potential racial discrimination?

Should I just quit?

Do not quit. Get yourself an employment lawyer, and one specializing in racial discrimination if possible. Do not say anything to your employer and do not say anything to anyone else at your company. Do not sign anything either. If they give you something to sign. Take a picture of it with your phone. And take a copy of it home with you and say that you need to show it to your girlfriend before you sign it (it doesn't matter if you don't have a girlfriend, just pretend to have one for this purpose).

Do not warn them that you might try to hire a lawyer, or things may escalate on you. Contact the bar association in your state (or the equivalent in your country). They should be able to give you a referral, or ask your non-work friends for a good employment lawyer referral. The first 15 to 30 minutes should be free. And even if you have to pay $300 or $500 for a lawyer to write a letter on your behalf, it should be more than worth it.

In the meantime, look for another employer. Truth be told, companies reward people who jump from company to company and seldom reward employees who stay around for a long time. And yes, 7 years is a heck of a long time for a company these days.

And even if your lawyer is able to save both your job and your promotion, your employer may still be able to find other ways to make life difficult for you.

Last week, I was discussing with some friends at work..

Hindsight being 20/20, one of them was not your friend if your words were reported to management.

I know you may feel betrayed right now, but do not confront any of them. Anything you say could be misinterpreted and twisted to say something you didn't say.

On the other hand, this company pays a lot more than most other firms of the same type and size, so I'd likely lose out on a lot of money if I quit and worked elsewhere.

It's too late now. Your manager could have chosen to speak to you informally and privately. That's what an actual "leader" would have done, but for whatever reason, he chose not to. I don't think you can put this back in the box.

If your current employer has such a good reputation, maybe you can parlay that into a promotion at a smaller company. For instance, one of my bosses left our company to become the CEO of a smaller company. I'm not suggesting you try the same thing, but maybe you could become a Director or a VP in a smaller company (since some small companies worship bigger companies and they'll do anything to hire staff away from them).

But my point is, do not jump the gun. It takes time to find a good position elsewhere. And ideally, you still want to be employed when you're job-hunting elsewhere. That gives you the most leverage in your negotiations. See if your lawyer can buy you enough time to do that at least.

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    @jwenting that's not what he said, though. And citing "white privilege" doesn't automatically make you a racist. It is an actual thing, after all. And I'm saying this as a white person. (That doesn't make his comment okay, but you seem to be severely triggered by the idea here if you want to immediately fire a 7-year company veteran over a private grumble to a friend after being denied a promotion to the new guy.) – Erik Feb 21 at 6:45
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    @Erik White privilege as an actual thing is very different to what OP has alleged (overt racist discrimination by an individual or small group). White privilege as an actual thing relates to societal benefits such as, and I quote Wikipedia, "cultural affirmations of one's own worth; presumed greater social status; and freedom to move, buy, work, play, and speak freely". If you go around saying someone else got the job "probably because of white privilege", it is no less racist than saying a black person got the job "probably because of affirmative action". – 520 says Reinstate Monica Feb 21 at 9:48
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    @520saysReinstateMonica, There is a difference though. If I make a quick negative judgment about a person I just saw and in a profession that I know little about. Such a quick negative judgment is likely to be rooted in prejudice. But on the other hand, if I've been pining for a job for the last 7 years and if I've been able to observe a coworker at his work for 12 months (similar work that I've been doing myself for a long time). My ability to figure out how my colleague got promoted so quickly may not entirely be rooted in prejudice alone. My assessment could even be somewhat accurate. – Stephan Branczyk Feb 21 at 10:43
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    @StephanBranczyk if anything that could make their judgement rooted even more firmly in prejudice; in a situation like that, people will often shift blame onto factors outside of people's control to justify such a bitter loss. Add to that, this coworker doesn't report to OP, so there is no way they could have a 100% accurate assessment as to the workloads the coworker puts in and have time to do their own work 100% either (unless their work is really easy for them). – 520 says Reinstate Monica Feb 21 at 10:59
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    “After all, do they really fire everyone who complains about potential racial discrimination?” That’s not what happened. He made completely unjustified accusations that a colleague is not qualified for his job, and that the company promotes unqualified candidates for racist reasons. – gnasher729 Feb 21 at 11:12
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Last week, I was discussing with some friends at work how a new hire, "Francis", who has only been with the company 12 weeks, got promoted to the research team, and mentioned that he got the job "probably because of white privilege"

Firstly, one of your "friends" is not your friend if it got back to HR.

I tried to explain that I meant that a portion of Tom's success is likely due to race privilege, given that it's something proven to exist in my country, and that I didn't mean to attribute all of Francis' success to it.

You screwed up there by admitting you said it. Until you admitted it, it was just hearsay that such a thing was said.

My manager cut in and gave me a choice: I can write a written apology to Francis, and provide signed copies to Francis, Tom, and my manager.

That's odd. Why would you write an apology letter to someone who was not present when the offending comment was said? You clearly did not say it to him. They want it for another reason.

The document would be kept locked up, on-site, and not disclosed outside the company, and this would be the last any of use spoke of the issue.

If all that is required is an apology, why can't that be verbal? Why is a signed document required? If the document is to never be discussed again, why is it being "locked up" instead of being destroyed? All of those things would be equally true if they used the letter as cause to fire you, either now or later.

If the issue comes up again, I'm issued one of my "three strikes" (i.e. verbal warning). If I refuse to write the apology, I'll be fired for harassment/racism, with cause (no severance).

They seem to be a bit light on the evidence for this cause and complaining about potential discrimination is hardly a solid reason to fire someone. Not sure how it can be harassment if you never said anything to the target.

Yesterday, I also asked my manager about the promotion, and he noted that while I shouldn't worry about future promotions within the company

Yeah, sure... Would you like to buy a bridge in rural Alaska? They are never going to let you on the team you want to be on if they think you will have an issue with an existing member of the team. It is in the interest of your manager to retain you and keep you working hard. He is hardly an objective source of information.

Tom feels I lack the judgement to ever work on that team ("they want leaders, not whiners").

Tom outranks your manager, if only through informal influence for who gets on his team. Tom presumably has a lot of choices for team members, so someone who he views as risky is going to have difficulties getting promoted.

What should I do at this point? Have I permanently screwed up with my company?

Probably. I would assume that I had no future there in your scenario.

Should I just quit?

Not sure what your field is, but it is easier to get a job when one still has one. I would obfuscate by talking about "wanting to speak to an employment lawyer" about the letter while spending all my time job hunting and going to interviews. The employment lawyer tactic could buy you a few weeks. Hopefully you can be gone by then.

(also, I'm firm in my position)

Apologies don't need to be sincere. I don't think writing a formal apology letter would be good for you in this case, but if it could be negotiated down to a verbal one, I would freely give it, no matter what I actually thought. In many circumstances, apologies are as free as water. Treat them accordingly.

However, you need to be careful about having these opinions in the workplace. You don't state a country, but there are plenty of places where the people of the race you mentioned this to will never trust you again.

so I'd likely lose out on a lot of money if I quit and worked elsewhere.

A great reason to speak to an employment lawyer.

Your Action Plan:

  1. Find an employment lawyer.
  2. Start job hunting just in case you are on the chopping block.
  3. (This one is optional and dependent on whether you think the managers are the kinds to double down or withdraw and consider. If the former, use other tactics to stall for time). Tell your company that you don't want to take action without consulting an employment lawyer on the language of the apology letter (pretend to be carefully compliant so they think you are willing to obey). Worst case, this buys you time to get a job. Best case, they just drop it on this news.
  4. Go visit an employment lawyer and explain your situation. See what he recommends. If he thinks your job can be saved, go with that. Otherwise, go with your exit plan.
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    Excellent answer! Much better than mine actually. I just have a quibble with #3. I wouldn't warn them that you're going to consult a lawyer. I would give every excuse in the book, but I would not warn them of this. It could scare them, get you fired, and get you escorted out of the building before you get a chance to say anything else. – Stephan Branczyk Feb 21 at 5:35
  • @StephanBranczyk hmm, I thought it might scare them, but if anything, into making sure their own actions are completely by the book. HR wasn't mentioned as attending the meeting. – Matthew Gaiser Feb 21 at 5:49
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    It could have that effect too I suppose. But at the same time, I'm not sure that the manager really knows what he's doing either. And if he's an idiot when it comes to these HR matters, this could make the situation potentially very unpredictable. Feel free to disregard my earlier comment. I don't know if I have the right answer either. – Stephan Branczyk Feb 21 at 6:02
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    Apologies don't need to be sincere. - I think this answer can be improved by adding an explanation of 'hypocrisy' and its implications on the reputation of the person. – Igor G Feb 21 at 10:35
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    So your saying 'racist remarks are ok when nobody can prove you did them'? – Aganju Feb 21 at 12:18
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Preface:

  • I'm a white guy.
  • I believe in white privilege, as the data are quite clear on it. In fact I suspect some part of my success (such as it is) is a result of it. Also my being male, and being tall, and not being ugly. All of those things (in roughly that order of impact) have been proven to give one a professional boost in U.S. society (and others).

A few opening observations:

  1. As others have noted, one of your "friends" is not your friend.
  2. It's not racist or similar to assert that white privilege exists. It is something I wouldn't discuss at work, unless I was involved in hiring and having a general discussion with other hiring managers about how we can try to avoid bias - of many kinds - in our work.
  3. It's extremely problematic to prove that white privilege is "probably" the basis for any specific person's success in a specific situation outside of laboratory conditions.
  4. It's unprofessional to assert, to work colleagues, that a colleague got a good position "probably because of white privilege." You may believe it. Stating it is unprofessional. It's not far off saying that the new female receptionist got her job "probably" because she has a nice smile or attractive figure. Save it for your actual friends who aren't associated with the company.
  5. Claiming that Francis got his job "probably because of white privilege" is directly impuning the integrity - or at least competence - of the people who made the decision to give Francis the job.
  6. It's extremely unfortunate one of your work "friends" decided to make this a thing by going to your boss. Yes, it was an unprofessional thing to say, but unless it was part of a pattern of behavior causing a difficult work environment, it seems harsh to tell your boss about it. (You might consider whether your behavior on other occasions has been problematic in ways you didn't realize. Or the "friend" may just be a jerk.)
  7. What your boss is asking you to do is odd, which raises a big red flag. It may be that he's trying, in a clumsy way, to do you a favor by avoiding involving HR. Or it may be that he's got some other agenda.

Given all of that, a genuine apology for unprofessional behavior and insulting management is appropriate. I wouldn't do it without consulting an employment law attorney. I'd tell the attorney what I wanted to say, ask whether it's appropriate to say that, and get their help drafting the letter. For example:

I accept that it was unprofessional and inappropriate to say to colleagues here at the company that Francis got his position "probably as a result of white privilege" and I regret saying it. I was blowing off steam to people I thought were friends, and meant it primarily in general terms, not specifically in relation to the company or Francis. I don't believe the management here intentionally indulges in race preference in any way, and I don't believe Francis is in any way unqualified to do his job in Research. If by my poorly-chosen comment I gave the impression I believe either of those things, I apologize for that.

Then I'd proceed according to the lawyer's advice, but again, an apology is appropriate and called for. If it's good enough for them, it's good enough for them; if it isn't, it isn't.

Your lawyer will know better, but I suspect a single comment like that without a pattern of other problematic behavior is not sufficient for them to fire you with cause, or even mention the incident to a future employer in the course of providing a reference. It is sufficient for them to be reluctant to promote you in the future. Unless you have a really good relationship with your boss and other members of management, I doubt you have a future at this company, but in part that really does depend on why your boss is approaching this in this way rather than through HR channels.

Almost all bad situations provide us with lessons we can learn. The ones I'd try to focus on here are:

  • Work colleagues aren't really friends (unless they're really friends).
  • Basing a specific judgement on race or other such characteristics is usually a bad idea. Assume good faith. That assumption will often be wrong in our deeply flawed society, but it's your best starting position.
  • Seriously, work colleagues aren't really friends. :)

Good luck.

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  • thanks for a useful and thoughtful first answer. Could you edit the answer so it is shorter? there is a bit of repetition and too much detail for a good answer – aaaaa says reinstate Monica Feb 21 at 14:35
  • It’s also impuning Francis’ integrity to say their promotion was due to white privilege. – Donald Feb 22 at 11:00

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