I’m unsure how to proceed – or if I can even do so.
Here’s the scoop: I’m in the sales department of a particular industry in which we have a great deal of exposure to the public at large. We’re situated in an urban environment in which some customers/clients who come through the door either don’t have the financial capability or an account (credit, checking, etc.) set up to buy from us. Sometimes it can be painfully obvious when some people come through the door that they aren’t going to be able to partake in our service (they appear drunk, homeless or both), but I always choose to treat them fairly and just the same as anyone else. I do this for a number of different reasons, but chief among them is I’ve been surprised on many occasions as my assumptions were wrong.
Unfortunately one of my co-workers isn’t so kind in this regard… …she has repeatedly treated people like garbage simply because they were dressed “ghetto” (as she put it) and because they (from my viewpoint) were African American. I’ve worked with this person for quite some time and always minded my own business regarding this matter, figuring what goes around comes around and eventually she would get her due. Things, however, have changed drastically in the last few months – and she and I have become at extreme odds (over unrelated, but office-politic, matters). She has gotten away with a great deal of b.s. in this environment (including the aforementioned) and I believe it’s not out of bounds for me to contact someone (perhaps the NAACP or the local News) and alert them of this practice.
I honestly don’t know what else to do. If I mention it to my supervisors (who are already turning in her favor) it will appear I’m doing so out of spite… and perhaps someone reading this right now might see me that way also – but that makes what she’s been doing no less wrong. It’s my full belief that if an African American person dressed in baggy clothes walked into the establishment and was greeted by her, they would be treated entirely different than a Caucasian person. I honestly don’t know what I should do… I can’t let it go due to the racial issue at hand, and yet, I feel I can’t go forward because it will only serve to be taken completely unseriously (other factors involved would contribute to this – whom she’s dated, etc. – long story) by anyone above me. Should I alert a higher authority (as stated) and let the chips fall where they may, without taking part? Please let me know a direction to go in…
Rock N. Hard Place
OFFICE-POLITICS REPLY BY DR. JOHN BURTON
Dear Rock N. Hard Place,
What you describe your co-worker doing is indeed reprehensible behavior. I commend you for your own exemplary behavior toward those who are disadvantaged.
Were this a situation which had arisen only recently I would suggest that you take your colleague aside and speak with her about her behavior. That would be difficult to do with any moral authority at this stage, however, since you have stood by for some time and said nothing.
When you say that it will seem to someone as if you are doing this out of spite, you are quite right. That is how it appears to me at least. You quite honestly say that it is other matters, not her behavior towards minorities or the disadvantaged, that have caused you to abandon your previous laissez faire approach. I agree that your motive for addressing this person’s behavior is irrelevant in determining its morality. Unfortunately a great deal of immoral or unethical behavior goes on in this world, but we can only control our own. In my view it would be morally unsound on your part to report this person with the objective of creating trouble for her.
It sounds as if there are serious issues around your working relationship with this person that you are not mentioning. Working with someone in such circumstances is stressful. Perhaps that is what has led to the clouding of your own moral judgment in this case. My suggestion is that you find a way to address the whole working relationship or you will find yourself risking burn out or dealing with this stress in inappropriate ways.
I would expect that in the context of improving your overall relations with her the issue of her behavior towards minorities would be raised and addressed.
Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.
Dr. John Burton
Dr. John Burton LL.B. M.B.A. M.Div. Ph.D. is an ethicist, mediator, lawyer and theologian. He has taught alternative dispute resolution at Queen’s Law School and Ethics at the Schulich School of Business. John was recently located in Prince Rupert, B.C., Canada, working with Canada’s aboriginal communities. He is now teaching at UBC, Okanagan Campus.
Publication note: This letter was originally published in 2005. We are republishing the best letters from Office-Politics and integrating them with our blog format.