Readers Are Spellbound & Perplexed…
Dear GWBW —I work in HR and while it’s illegal for us to ask job applicants their race or religion, I get to overhear one of my colleagues vent her prejudice against a certain religion (there’s a lot of them in our building for some reason) every day. Should I tell her to stop before someone else hears and gets her in a lot of trouble, or just keep my own mouth shut? — Freed Mind
Dear Freed Mind,
You are on the right track by telling your colleague to hold her tongue. Truth is, her comments could trigger a discrimination lawsuit. Deriding comments about a particular sect of protected people—say, like a religion—can be considered harassment and/or discrimination under the right circumstances.
Imagine the following: some member of this religion is up for a promotion. This person has the seniority and qualifications for the promotion, but in the end a colleague with less time at the company, but more raw talent is selected. The selection was fair and understandable. However, the person from this religion, with feelings hurt, hears some comment first-hand or third or fourth hand, doesn’t really matter. They hear, feel the lost promotion was motivated by the company’s discriminatory feelings about their religion. After all, the person accused of saying heinous, biased comments works in HR for the company. What follows? Expensive litigation, your friend’s termination and a possible scouring of HR so the company can show a “fresh” face.
So, I would speak up, sooner rather than later. Pull her aside and have a heart-to-heart that may save her job. If you aren’t speaking up, you are complicit in the crime. You are helping to create a hostile atmosphere. Don’t think not saying anything absolves you. Putting your head in the sand on this one could cause you your job, and if there’s enough buzz around the whole issue in the press, could taint your career.
There are no borders in the world anymore. We must learn to be respectful of people who look differently, think differently, believe differently, talk differently, worship differently. Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddists, Pagans—every religion has suffered persecution for believing what they believe. Tell your colleague to evolve. Heresy doesn’t really exist and no one gets burned at the stake anymore.
P.S. Document everything for your job safety. Comments said by whom with a date—including a brief on your conversation. You may never need to refer to it, but if you do, you’ll be more than a little happy to have your evidence right there.
P.P.S.-I’m proud of you for doing the right thing.
Dear Freed Mind,
The adage Loose Lips Sinks Ships came from WWII concerns about overheard communications sinking US subs. These days, we should all be even more concerned with texting or other electronic gossiping which has greater potential to leave your co-worker’s control than even her own bad judgment already does.
Be clear I’m not advocating discrimination of any sort, but as long as your company promotes and observes legal non-discriminatory employment practices, there’s little you can do about how an employee thinks, and as described, hers is more a case of gossip than discrimination. Why bother saying “she should know better” because of course she does. And that it’s natural that all humans are prejudiced about something or someone(s), is a given. Then there are the studies on gossip that reflect an arc of things about your co-worker’s personality (from dominance levels to stress relief). Who knows what if anything this group (or member) did to her, or whether their ilk actually did merit her wrath (! Not excusing her behavior.). So if it’s not her ignorance or human frailty — and we can’t know the “story” (she tells herself) about this group — then the girl just got on that track where the train goes in a circle. She’s enjoying her own ride, and she can’t get off Destination No Where.
It’s unlikely she’ll hear your concern at this point in her professional development, so I think you could jump right to telling her that you find her talk offensive and/or suicidal given the make up of the peers you describe. Or if you can’t muster that, tell her your parents are converting to religion X so could she please stop talking about them in front of you and your evolved sensibilities?
We all go through different faces and degrees of these sorts of things at some point/arena in our development. Some of us grow up (from the gossiping bit). But not often by others telling us to. And as you can see, you can’t truly legislate acceptance. At the very least tell this already-informed caboose conductor to stop yakking about this in front of you (then make sure you don’t partake in any form when she does), and then stand behind the yellow platform line and see if she finds the brakes or derails.
Next stop, disembark,
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