Watercooler: When money trumps racism

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Watercooler is the section of the blog in which we share with you real-life horror stories from the frontlines of race in the workplace. :) This week, we have a story from Ariella Drake:

I’m a white/Chinese Australian woman who looks mostly white, so I tend to hear all sorts of racism from white people who think they’re ’safe’. About five years ago, I worked for a rather large insurance company in their worker’s compensation claims department. Some of my job involved going out to workplaces to talk to employers about ongoing claims from injured workers.

One of our clients was a large manufacturing company that tended to employ mostly low-skilled immigrants, so their claims usually came from such employees. I was in a meeting with my supervisor, an underwriter and the contact for the organisation. These meetings tend to be rather a challenge, because the default attitude of employers when it comes to workplace injuries is that the injured workers are making it up and ‘milking the system’, particularly when it comes to non-white employees. This client, however, was particularly noxious. Not only did he generally ignore my answers to questions until my (male) supervisor practically repeated my answer (though I suspect that also had to do with the fact that I was in my late teens, which was rather unheard of in the position I held in the organisation, and generally led to older clients doubting my ability and knowledge), he felt the need to make racist comments about the injured workers whose claims we were discussing.

I was quite young at this point, and was still rather accepting of the idea that I should keep my mouth shut in the interests of retaining business for the company, but as the racist and derogatory comments escalated, particularly against Asian female employees, I couldn’t resist slotting in an comment about my own background when the opportunity presented itself. The client mostly toned down his comments after that, realising he wasn’t surrounded by ’safe’ whitefolks, though at the end of the meeting he still felt the need to make a joke about getting all the injured employees (he used racial slurs to refer to them) to lie down in the driveway as speedbumps as part of their restricted duties return-to-work program.

I was angry enough at having to sit through such a meeting, and I was actually quite shaken on the drive back. What I wasn’t expecting was my supervisor pulling me into a meeting room when we got back to the office to tell me that he thought my mentioning my background whilst the client was being openly racist was inappropriate and antagonistic, and could have cost the company business. I was shocked. I wasn’t really sure what to say in the meeting, but the more I look back on the incident, the more angry I feel. My supervisor was largely uninterested in how the client’s comments made me feel as a Asian woman (albeit one with light-skin privilege), and I realise now that the sick feeling in my stomach at the time was largely related to discovering that the company I worked for was so interested in money and ‘client relations’ that it was willing to overlook blatant and unapologetic racism and sexism from clients.

That wasn’t the reason I left the company, but it certainly made me less sad about leaving.

Please email team@raceintheworkplace.com if you’d like to send in a story, put “watercooler” in the subject line, and let us know what name we should use for you. Pseudonyms and first names are totally fine. You can read more Watercooler stories here.

Recommended Reading

by Race in the Workplace special correspondent Erica

Minority Workers Less Likely to Say Promotions Are Based on Merit - HR.BLR.com (Business & Legal Reports)
61.4% of all employees, 56.6% of Hispanic respondents, and 58.2% of black respondents said they thought their job performance was the main reason for their professional advancement. That doesn’t seem significant to me and speaks to larger issues: it’s as much who you know as what you know and there’s a systemic issue of lack of trust in one’s employer. (via Strategic HR Lawyer)

Paradox of Inclusion - Management Craft
There are two kinds of inclusion. There’s the politically correct kind where you make a show of inviting along a “representative” group to your meeting du jour and you “listen” to what they have to say and then go ahead and do what you were going to do anyway. Then there’s the kind where you actually listen to the voices of the people around you, even (and especially) when you might not agree with them.

Where Delivery Is a Mainstay, a Rebellion Over Pay - New York Times
Deliverymen in NYC, mostly Chinese immigrants, are protesting their working conditions, long hours, and meager pay. Unions are organizing, workers are getting locked out, and lawsuits are being filed.

Is It a Mistake to Be a Stay-at-Home Mother? - The Monster Blog
“[T]he more pressing question is not whether mothers should work (more than 70 percent of mothers with school-age children do), but how we can structure our society in a way to allow us to meet our caregiving needs. We, as men and women, bear some responsibility in that mandate, both to instill change within our organizations and within our own lives.” I’d like to see a discussion actually address this statement and go beyond “I stayed at home and it worked out for us” which further perpetuates the concept that you have to make a choice (and a sacrifice). Flex time, anyone?

LinkedIn and the Art of Avoiding an Asshole Boss - How to Change the World
How to get references on a potential boss. Guy Kawasaki suggests finding him/her on LinkedIn, seeing who they’re connected to, then asking these potential references a few questions. I appreciate the idea that you need to check out a potential employer as much as they’re checking you out. The comments on Guy’s post are mostly useless, but there are a few good constructive criticisms.

Churners and Churning - Generations@Work
Kids these days, the “Millennials,” are increasingly open to more global job opportunities. Which is good because that’s where the jobs are. The conflict is that younger folks are also a lot more likely to change jobs more frequently while employers and the government are looking to improve retention, which may be unrealistic given the nature of the current job market.

Wisdom and a Helping Hand - Amy Joyce at washingtonpost.com
On the importance of being a good mentor. The very large company I used to work for had very well-developed mentorship programs serving a variety of populations within the company. I participated in the “new minority employees” program and the “new technical employees” program. Mentors were very carefully screened and a lot of attention was paid to the matching process. These programs were crucial in my development there, and in my ultimate decision to leave, which I consider a testament to a good mentor/mentee relationship in that the best decision for me as a person was to not stay with the company, and my mentors were supportive of that.

How to ask for mentoring - Brazen Careerist
On the flip side of the mentoring relationship. Penelope Trunk emphasizes that it’s all in the approach. Ask good questions of your potential mentor. More importantly, don’t be afraid to ask in the first place.

Georgetown Gets Grant for Workplace Flexibility - Workplace Prof Blog
“Workplace Flexibility 2010 believes that social change occurs best through a combination of voluntary action and government action. The American workplace is a complex, constantly changing, and rich human environment. We believe the best policy approach to workplace flexibility therefore combines thoughtful and creative government regulation, robust voluntary and individualized efforts by employers and employees, and governmental support of innovative employer and employee efforts.” Outstanding!

Fear Of Firing - BusinessWeek
“How the threat of litigation is making companies skittish about axing problem workers.” There are several issues: Whether the employee really is an underperformer, whether or not they really are being discriminated against, and whether the company retaliates when they get wind of the discrimination allegation. Even the largest companies with the most rigorous policies and review processes get caught up in seemingly frivolous lawsuits.

Recommended Reading is a weekly feature where we link to some of our favorite workplace-related blog posts and articles. If you would like to suggest a link to Erica, please email tips@raceintheworkplace.com

Watercooler: The missing wedding invitation

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Watercooler is the section of the blog in which we share with you real-life horror stories from the frontlines of race in the workplace. :) This week, we have a story from Merq:

So there’s this guy, we’ll call him Frank, who is a first-generation Greek American. Now, Frank can only be described as a “special” kind of fellow… There are a million race-related stories involving him, but today I’m going to tell just one.

Our boss, Jim, is really the salt of the earth. Every one of his employees can list at least five instances where Jim has gone (far) above and (way) beyond his role as an employer to help resolve issues in their personal lives. It’s because of Jim that we are a surprisingly tight-knit team—an anomaly in our organization. So anyway…

Frank gets engaged, but he drops hints to suggest that he’d prefer that none of us show up to the wedding. Besides the larger Caucasian population of our small department, the group includes individuals of Nigerian (me), Egyptian, and Korean origin. But while many of us could care less about not being welcome at this wedding, I was more than a little disgusted at his refusal to invite our boss, Jim.

A little background on Jim and Frank: This man campaigned to the higher-ups to elevate Frank’s status from an internship to a high-ranking position within our department. This man got into heated arguments with said higher-ups when they refused to give Frank a raise. This man listened to Frank whine for hours on end whenever he argued with his fiancée (and they fought a lot), offering the best advice one could after 22 years of happy, stable married life. This man even went to Frank’s amateur league baseball games from time to time! The only problem was, this man was black. Continue Reading »