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.
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.
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.