Working With a Bigot – Ask HR Bartender

by Sharlyn Lauby on November 11, 2012

I completely understand that we’re all entitled to our individual opinions. Today, a reader shares what happens when people don’t understand when to keep their opinions to themselves. And the impact it has on the workplace:

I’m dealing with bigoted coworker who spews his hate in front of clients.

He’s gotten worse over the years and now he has almost no filter. He HATES Mexicans, Chinese, Indians, Blacks, the Japanese…and we work for a Japanese company!  There are few people that he won’t share these opinions with.

He hates President Obama and refers to him in public, and during business meetings, as the F***ing Moron. He said it once out loud in the airport. I thought a couple of guys were going to start beating on him. My biggest concern was getting caught in the middle.

Recently in a meeting, he said 99.9% of Indians are dishonest. It was very embarrassing especially since one of our highly respected senior colleagues is Indian. Luckily, he was not in the room at the time. I tried to smooth over that comment by saying he’s being ridiculous and his response was “IT’S TRUE”. It’s like talking to a 3 year-old.

I could give you 10 more stories like the above but I believe you get the picture. Should I confront the bigot directly, go to HR, our boss (we have the same one), or something else? All of this human related stuff has always mystified me. If you can offer some guidance, I would appreciate it.

This is a tough decision. There are several ways an employee can deal with the matter. I thought it might be helpful to discuss the options separately. So I asked Mark Neuberger, an attorney with the firm of Foley & Lardner LLP, concentrating in all aspects of labor and employment law for his thoughts on the situation.

Mark, first things first. What are the pros/cons to confronting the “bigot” directly?

bigot, racist, hate, work, workplace, manager, Mark Neuberger, hostile work environment, HR, human resources, lawyer, law[Mark] I am a big proponent of people acting like mature adults.  Therefore, when someone does or says something that you find offensive, you should first try to directly address it with the offender.  Of course, every situation like the one described above is different, and the best way to resolve them is highly dependent upon the people involved, their levels in the company, and the company’s organizational climate.

While I am enough of a realist to know that this cannot be done in every situation, I truly believe that many workplace confrontations would be quickly and easily resolved if people would just address them one on one.  I believe there is little downside to trying the direct approach first.  The worst that can happen is the offender reacts negatively, in which case supervision and HR will have to get involved anyway.

Why should someone consider going to their immediate supervisor with this issue? Is there a reason an employee shouldn’t take this type of issue to their manager? 

[Mark] If you want to attempt to preserve an effective business relationship with the offender, keeping the issue away from supervision, to the extent that you can still truly resolve the issue, will accomplish just that.

Think about the broader consequences of reporting to management. If your reporting of this to supervision becomes known to co-workers (and it will), co-workers may either view you as a hero for addressing a long-simmering workplace problem, or they may view you as a “snitch.”

Of course, if you are reasonably sure that addressing the issue directly will only exacerbate or inflame the offender, then you probably have no choice but “to take it up the ladder.”

Would it be appropriate to go to human resources? What would/should HR do with this type of information?

[Mark] This is a variation on a hostile work environment issue, based on protected categories, which means that the conduct violates antidiscrimination laws. However, before running to HR, think through all the consequences.  Is the HR function in the organization staffed by professionals who will know what to do?  Is it respected by and listened to by upper management?  Does it have the political ability to actually resolve the issue at hand?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” going to HR may be a waste of time, and again, may just make things worse.  On the other hand, if the HR function has the positive attributes described above, then by all means consider using them.

If you are not going to go to HR and the matter cannot be resolved directly, it should be reported to someone higher in the organization.

I’m using the term “typical” loosely here…but shouldn’t there be some sort of information about this kind of behavior in a typical company’s employee handbook?

[Mark] Contrary to what my lawyer background may suggest, I am not a big proponent of handbooks containing policies that address every possible situation that may arise in the workplace.  I don’t think companies should have a “No Bigoted Statements Allowed” policy.  They should have an Equal Employment Opportunity and Non Harassment policies, as well as a detailed internal complaint procedure. Policies like that are, in my opinion sufficient to cover this situation.

Lastly, what if after thinking about all this…the person decides to just do nothing? Is that okay?

[Mark] Ignoring this situation is not OK.  For one thing, it has obviously negatively impacted the work environment of the reader.  Second, given the scenario, it is obvious that the bigot is having a negative impact on the company’s external vendor and customer relations.  If left unresolved, this could negatively impact the company and all employees’ jobs.

Many thanks to Mark for sharing his expertise. If you’d like to get updates from Foley & Lardner, follow them on Twitter or like their Facebook page.  It’s situations like this one that remind us, when faced with challenges, there are many ways to deal with it. Options are a good thing. But we do need to take action.

{ 2 comments }

Sandra A. Gonzalez, SPHR November 11, 2012 at 9:37 pm

Hi Sharlyn!

I would just like to stress the importance of formally reporting such behavior in the workplace. Although I understand and agree with many of Mr. Neuberger’s comments, as an HR practitioner, I have found that informing the individual to “stop” and “following the chain of command” go a long way in resolving these type of issues. At a minimum, the organization has a legal obligation to ensure that the workplace be safe and free from harassment and discrimination. If the organization is not given an opportunity to address the situation then the behavior persists and the individual or individuals that did not file a formal complaint or attempt to investigate and resolve the issue become part of the problem.

An organization must have a “zero tolerance policy” and enforce the policy consistently.

Thank you.
Sandra G.

Sharlyn Lauby November 15, 2012 at 1:31 pm

@Sandra – Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I agree that reporting the behavior is critical. That’s why I lean toward giving the employee options – go to the place you feel most comfortable reporting the behavior…because it needs to be reported so it can be investigated.

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