Question: Dear Mr. Sklover, I was terminated for saying “N—A please” to an African American co-worker of mine. I am Asian. During the investigation I notified my management that the phrase that I used is often used by 90% of my colleagues, some of whom are black, and others that are not. In the end, they decided that I posed too great a risk of liability to the company, and decided that the word I used was the same as the N-word ending in ER.
In the other girl’s statement she said that it was OK for other members of the team who were African American to use both the word ending in A and the one ending in ER, but that I could not say it.
Do I have grounds for claiming reverse discrimination against me?
New York, New York
Answer: Dear P.K., Your question illustrates a sensitive issue but one that does need to be addressed to our best abilities:
1. I don’t believe what happened to you was illegal “discrimination” because you were not (a) denied a job or job-related benefit by an employer (b) based on your own age, gender, race, or other protected category. The law says that illegal discrimination is a denial of the opportunities or benefits of employment on the basis of someone’s age, gender, race, or certain other protected categories. (a) You were terminated not because someone didn’t like your own age, gender, race or other “protected category.” (b) And you were not denied any “employment benefit or opportunity.” It just can’t be said that saying either of those two words is either an “employment opportunity” or a “benefit of employment.” So, what happened to you is not any kind of “discrimination,” whether direct or reverse.
2. Rather, I think you were terminated because of your conduct, and the likelihood you would repeat it in the future. I don’t think your use of those words was a kind of discrimination, but rather a kind of bad behavior, that is, saying things that many reasonable people find unreasonably offensive, not showing that you are sorry, and not assuring your employer that it will not happen again. To use your own words, your employer decided that you “posed too great a risk of liability,” because you might say that again. From the employer’s point of view, if they permitted you to stay on as an employee, and you continued to use those words, your employer was more than likely to be the subject of a lawsuit against it for permitting racist behavior and, in that way, not permitting African Americans the right to work in a non-racist environment.
3. It’s just not a defense to say “But they do it, too.” If you are driving 85 miles an hour in a 55 mile per hour zone, it is not a defense to say, “Officer, I don’t deserve a ticket, because other drivers were going 85 miles per hour, too.” Whether your employer permits or does not permit African Americans or other people to say those words, your saying those words is hurtful to some, risky to your employer, and at a very minimum, distracting to everyone. You are responsible for your conduct, and no one else’s. While “unequal enforcement” of the rules could be a sign of racist policies, from the facts presented in your letter, no one complained about anyone else saying those words, so I don’t see – at least from what you’ve written – “unequal enforcement.”
4. I don’t think anyone should be allowed to say racist words at work, but the truth is we permit some flexibility in enforcing every rule. As an employer, myself, I would not tolerate those words being said by any of my employees, no matter their race. It could hurt the feelings of so many people: people of a certain race, people who are married to people of a certain race, customers of a certain race, or anyone for that matter.
However, we all recognize that a degree of flexibility is given to some people some times that is not given equally to all. For example, Jewish people can sometimes make jokes about Jewish people and not seem offensive to other Jewish people, and the same goes for every religious, gender, racial, ethnic or other group. Likewise, if an airline pilot uses the word “bomb” when speaking with another airline pilot, chances are no one will arrest her. But if an airline passenger jokes about “bombs” during takeoff, there’s a better chance he or she will be arrested and taken off the plane. 100% fair? No. 100% human? Pretty much, yes.
5. In matters of prejudice, no one is perfect, but we all have to be as careful, as sensitive, and as understanding as we can be. P.K., no one is pure in their heart and soul; we are all imperfect in so many ways. In as diverse a society as we live in, we all need to try our best to be as respectful and understanding as we can, in order to get along as best we can. It sounds to me like your greatest “offense” was that you did not show remorse for your unintended offense, or were appreciative of the sensitivity we must all show each other, or an honest dedication to not offend anyone again in that way.
My own concern is that you will again probably lose a job on this basis unless you “get the right message,” which is to do all you can to not offend, and if you do make a mistake, to do all you can to make amends and assure you won’t do it again. My own hope is that this experience has given you that “message,” and that you’ll heed it in the future, to your benefit and the benefit of those around you.
P.K., thanks for writing in. If this has been helpful, I am glad, for these are sensitive issues, these are sensitive times, and the world needs people of good will and understanding more than ever.
My Best to You,
P.S: Our Model Letters help people stand up for themselves at work. For a friend facing Job Loss, Severance, Resignation, Bully Boss, Performance Improvement Plan, or other workplace problem, this is a nice “Helping Hand Gift for a Friend in Need.” Simply [click here] to view our list.
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© 2012 Alan L. Sklover, All Rights Reserved.