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I work as the team lead / technical lead where I work in a team of 8. I have been with my current company for just short of 7 years and am well respected by both colleagues within and outside the team.

Last week in a meeting with one of the more junior team members, she told me a member outside the team made a racially discriminatory / crude remark against people of her minority class. She is originally from a non-western country and had been in the USA for much shorter than I, approximately 10 years less. The remark was made using a racial slur and basically stated that immigrants from her country don't belong here and are unwelcome.

I was upset. Although I am not a manager, I am in a senior position on the team and am accepted as a lead. It is my belief that no one should be harassed or made to feel unwelcome at work due to characteristics such as national origin and race that one cannot control. The remark was wholly unbecoming, unwelcome, and unprofessional for anyone to make.

I stated my agreement that such discriminatory remarks are unbecoming, and provided links to company policies prohibiting harassment and discrimination in addition to stating clearly I support her. I stated what the company stance on such matter is as they are documented without interpretation by me. I also said I was open to her if she wanted to to talk or for me to escalate to my manager.

Today I was surprised by feedback from her that she thought I was intrusive and seemed bothered that I may be doing too much. She said she just wanted me to know, nothing more.

Did I commit a faux pas here?

If I misread the situation, how could I do better in the future (Fingers crossed that it won't be necessary)?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Kilisi Apr 6 at 8:03
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You could do two things - one, ask the employee what support they want from you earlier in the discussion, but two, set expectations with the employee about how these things work in a professional environment.

On the one hand, even though it sounds like you didn't actually take any action yet except for counseling her and pointing out the company policy, she says you "may be doing too much." Perhaps she fears you have reported it or are getting ready to, even though you don't seem to have. Clarify what next steps you are planning to take and ask her input on what she’d like done.

On the other hand, you need to coach her that there's no "I just wanted you to know" in the workplace. If it's worth talking about then there's some intent of action there. If she "just wanted you to know" about a safety issue you may have a responsibility to take action regardless of her feelings on the matter, in the same way when it comes to hostile work environment activity you may similarly need to do something regardless of her feelings.

When I worked for a major telecom, their harassment training stressed reporting issues like this (though ideally if you witnessed it, the secondhand report nature of this one is more difficult) regardless of the desires of the person being discriminated against. It happening at all opens up the company to legal action from not just the target but also others that may have seen it and not just the "direct victim." (I saw Joe berating Sue for being Asian in the warehouse, that made a hostile working environment for me because I'm Asian. Or I’m not Asian, but don’t like racism in my workplace.) It's not all about their feelings, it's about maintaining a safe, professional, legal working environment.

As an aside, it’s also unhealthy to always make racism the problem of the people discriminated against to report or act against - it’s not, it’s a flaw in the people being racist, and anyone can address problems they see that are against company policy in a work environment.

I would talk to her about why she "just wants you to know" - so there's a record of it in case it happens again? So you'll look down on the other guy? What? And also note whatever reporting requirements etc. are in the policies.

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    Accepting and +1. Good balance between setting expectations, respecting choice of the employee, and doing the right thing in calling out such comment. She is new and I am uncomfortable in watching others on my team being mistreated for something no one should have to tolerate at work – Anthony Apr 6 at 3:03
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It sounds like your coworker did not appreciate you getting offended on her behalf.

I have several disabilities, and have dealt with similar things with regards to my disabilities.

The first thing to consider is the person's feelings in the matter.

What many of us who have been put in "protected groups" have started to bristle at, is the overprotectiveness of people trying to rush to our aid. People are already walking on eggshells around us, and instead of creating a more inclusive environment, it tends to make us pariahs.

If it had been me in a similar situation, I would have said more or less the same thing. The faux pas you made here was in taking offense on her behalf.

At one job I was at, I had a dirtbag coworker who thought he'd be funny by putting a long commentary about me on the white board. I was talking to my supervisor, and we saw it at the same time. He asked me if I wanted the guy written up. I said "no", and corrected his spelling and grammar, and gave it a letter grade.

That stopped the behavior more than any write up ever would, and it showed that I was not about to be a victim. I did not get labeled the office rat, and there was no sympathy for the guy.

The point of that story is that I was treated as an employee, instead of someone who needed protection. Likely, your coworker felt the same way.

NEXT TIME

You should absolutely check with the person first ask the person what they want to do before you do or say anything else. Don't talk of supporting the person or amplify the seriousness of it. Let the aggrieved person make the decision.

BTW, you absolutely will deal with something like this again in the future, because people are jerks.

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    "...corrected his spelling and grammar, and gave it a letter grade", now that is funny. Nice work! – Pete B. Apr 5 at 17:50
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    @PeteB. You never feel like a victim when you can handle things all by yourself. That discouraged him from screwing with me more than any writeup would have. Plus, I maintained my reputation of "not a rat". – Old_Lamplighter Apr 5 at 18:32
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    @Anthony I would have answered a bit differently as I have different life experiences then Old_Lamplighter. You could have said: "that is wrong, I think you should do X, do you want any help or support in that"? Then leave it up to the person who was harassed. – Pete B. Apr 5 at 18:54
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    @Anthony You are already helping by being a person she can confide in, and accepting that she may not want to handle it the same way you would want to handle it if the remark had been directed at you. You weren't there, and she doesn't seem to be in any danger, so you should trust her judgement on what should or shouldn't be done about it. – ColleenV Apr 5 at 19:00
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    @Anthony The point being, you seem to be more concerned about how you look than what your coworker needs. I think that's where the faux pas was. – Old_Lamplighter Apr 5 at 19:01
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Did I commit a faux pas here?

Obviously she thinks you did. And that's all that matters here.

Apologize, and ask for her thoughts on how you should handle such a situation in the future.

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    Apologize? Really?? For what exactly? So I always have to apologize if so. else thinks I made a mistake even if I actually didn't, rather than clarifying why I did what I did? – csstudent1418 Apr 6 at 7:02
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    Not a good answer. – user32882 Apr 6 at 7:17
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It sounds like you may have said too much as a first response. She said "someone said X and I thought it was really offensive", and you reamed off a list of company links and resources and essentially pushed her to file an HR complaint. Personally speaking, while I wouldn't complain to my manager that you'd overstepped, if I'd received that response, it would have felt somewhat excessive.

Next time, your response should be something like (adjust the exact wording as appropriate depending on the situation, this is intentionally generic):

Hey Jane. Thanks for letting me know. What Jack said was really wrong, and I'm sorry that Jack made you feel upset. I'm not really the one to deal with this, though; you should let Bob (the manager) know about this, he would be the one to do something about it. You may also want to check these company resources if you feel like escalating this issue further than Bob. (list some HR resources)

That seems sufficient to me. The important thing here is that, as you are not the manager, you really have no authority or interest in this situation, beyond anecdotal interest as a coworker of both Jane and Jack. You should lightly push Jane to contact the manager (Bob) directly to make a complaint, but leave the followup to her.

I've made the response a bit impersonal; if you feel like you and Jane have a more friendly relationship and less of a simply collegial one, adjust the wording appropriately.

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  • "I'm sorry that Jack made you feel upset" is known as non-apology apology and doesn't help. Best thing to do, which is what I think this answer suggests [if a bit in a roundabout way], is to: acknowledge the complaint directly with Jane [which sounds like what the OP did], forward it onto the real manager [does not look like the OP did this], and notify HR (as even knowing and not speaking up is considered a violation of most companies' policies) to the extent that it becomes Jane's responsibility to follow-up herself with her own HR complaint / process. Let HR handle it here on out. – David Apr 7 at 12:23
  • @David That is a farther overreach than OP did, and OP was reprimanded for his conduct. Giving OP the advice "you got reprimanded for overstepping, so you should overstep even more" is not particularly helpful. Also, OP has nothing to apologize for, because OP did nothing wrong; it was Jack who did something wrong. Jane is looking for empathy from OP, not starting company drama, and "I'm sorry you're feeling upset" is showing empathy; filing multiple formal complaints, while it might be "correct", is starting company drama which it seems Jane explicitly does not want. – Ertai87 Apr 7 at 14:47
  • I did not see anything in the question indicating any (in)formal action was taken against the OP. Perhaps this is noted elsewhere? However, in general, non-apology apologies come off as very insincere and as if it is the victim's fault. Best to rephrase as "What Jack said was wrong; I am sorry Jack made those comments." As for reporting to HR, well it only gets worse for the OP once his involvement is noted and no report or documentation was filed by him (it looks like withholding information or ignoring company policy). Best to CYA in those cases. – David Apr 7 at 17:01
  • @David From OP: "Today I was surprised by feedback from her that she thought I was intrusive and seemed bothered that I may be doing too much. She said she just wanted me to know, nothing more" – Ertai87 Apr 7 at 17:26
  • Ah ok, yeah I didn't interpret that as reprimanded in the formal or official sense (assumed that the co-worker doesn't have managerial authority over the OP) such as documented note in the personnel file of the OP or a verbal warning by management/HR. – David Apr 7 at 19:14
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This type of issue is meant to be dealt with by a person's manager, not someone in a supervisory role, and especially someone in a de facto supervisory role.

You should have felt free to be mildly upset, shocked, dismayed, whatever you want, but then after that meeting do absolutely nothing about it.

It could look like you assumed that just because they are of a minority class they are unable to do their own research on company policies, or handle this issue on their own.

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Today I was surprised by feedback from her that she thought I was intrusive and seemed bothered that I may be doing too much. She said she just wanted me to know, nothing more.

You both mishandled it, which is surprising since she has ten years there.

You should have advised her to go to the manager if she feels it's a problem. Or asked her what you can do to assist.

She should already know that. Racism is unavoidable if you're in a minority, people quickly develop strategies to cope with it. One thing you don't do is make it a third parties problem unless they have the authority to do something direct about it. Otherwise it just creates drama which is a lose-lose situation in the long run (this is what she is probably worried about and regretting telling you).

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  • She doesn’t have 10 years there, she’s new. – mxyzplk Apr 7 at 21:42
  • @mxyzplk I meant as a minority, not in the company. But even if newly arrived, it's one of the first things people are warned about by their peer group if they have one or work out for themselves if they don't. – Kilisi Apr 7 at 21:46
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Did I commit a faux pas here?

Unless she specifically asked you to take action, you overstepped. Additionally, you weren't party to the incident. While I believe that you believe your colleague is being truthful, from your perspective what she told you is hearsay.

If I misread the situation, how could I do better in the future (Fingers crossed that it won't be necessary)?

Ask if they're asking you to take action.

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    To clarify, OP did not initiate any action. They only provided links to company policies, resources and offered to help escalate if needed – Fred Stark Apr 6 at 6:21
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You probably shouldn't have involved your victimized colleague.

It's unclear from the question exactly what you said and when, but let me give some possible examples and explain the significance.

At first glance the question reads like you spoke up on behalf of your victimized colleague (who I will call V from here on). Possibly you said something like:

You mustn't say things like that to V. She doesn't want it, and you should apologize.

The trouble with this is that you are speaking on behalf of V, stating things about her that might no actually be true - or if they are true, that she doesn't want to say. You shouldn't be doing that. If you did say that, then apologize to V and tell her that you won't speak for her again without her permission. If true, tell her you are prepared to speak up for her if she would like, but only if she wants.

That doesn't mean you have to do nothing. In fact you don't have to be a racial minority to be offended by racism.

A better way to have handled this would have been to say:

That's a racist thing to say. Please don't say things like that when I am present.

That makes it about you, not V. And you can say it whether V is present or not, and without involving her at all. The racist can't blame V. They may still try to deflect with something like "There's nothing wrong with it. V doesn't mind does she?" which should be responded to "It doesn't matter if V minds, I object. Please don't do it again."

Given what you've already said, it might be best to have the above conversation the the racist in private.

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    I think you have who was talking to who confused, the OP is pretty clear the colleague came to him about an event that happened outside the OP’s presence. – mxyzplk Apr 6 at 4:47
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    The OP is also relatively clear that they didn't initiate any action or talk to anyone other than the victim, only linked to policies, resources and offered to help escalate – Fred Stark Apr 6 at 6:24
  • I agree that an informal attempt to talk to the perpetrator might have been helpful as a first step, escalating from there as necessary. – BobRodes Apr 6 at 16:20

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