by susan mcaninch
Susan McAninch is a retired social worker and psychotherapist.
In Search of Civility Question - While at work I overheard co-workers telling what I consider offensive jokes and then laughing loudly over the punch lines. They were not clever or cute; they were highly inappropriate and in many cases contained racial slurs. I felt this was especially wrong considering a large part of our work force is made up of that minority. I wasn’t actually in the conversation. Don’t I have a right to speak up?
I appreciate your question and your implicit quandary. There is a big difference between minding your own business and minding someone else’s business. But I can say without reservation that all advocates of civility would support your right to speak up in the face of offensive and racist jokes in the workplace. In fact, one of the nine tools of civility reminds us that speaking up is not only a right, but also is a vital and necessary responsibility. Each of us must act if we want to maintain or reclaim civility in the workplace. Gandhi said it right: “We must be the change we want to see in the world.”
Figuring out how and when to respond when a co-worker makes a racist comment or joke is surprisingly difficult. One size does not fit all, because the context of each situation influences how best to proceed. In the situation you describe, there is something to be said for staying silent in the moment, then assessing and thinking about a strategy that can produce the most effective response. Heated emotions combined with inadequate forethought often produce the least useful responses. On the other hand, a racist joke can be so blatant that we react immediately—almost involuntarily—out of the need to maintain our own self-respect, as well as to stop the behavior.
In general, the first thing you want to do when confronted with an offensive comment or joke is to ask yourself just why you are offended. Do you care about this co-worker group or did you already have a problem with them? Does the joke-telling reflect a covert or even overt culture of racism in the workplace? Did this group cross an ethical line for you? Next, ask yourself what you can and can’t accomplish by speaking up. Are you the right person to speak up? Should you enlist support from other co-workers? Do you want to change attitudes, or do you just want the behavior to stop? In some cases, depending on the context, it is enough to shift the focus simply by changing the subject.
I would not avoid speaking up even when there is concern about whether a joke is defined as humor or as racism. Perceptions and attempts at humor vary widely, but yours is the one that counts here. Moreover, you are the one with the valid argument on your side. In the workplace, joking about race, sex, age, ethnicity, religion and any other equal employment opportunity category is not appropriate. There are moral, ethical, policy, and legal standards and laws that support that position. A person’s personal right to express himself has limits in the workplace.
You do want to be careful about protecting your reputation and your workplace relationships—and your safety. Again, depending on the context and the prevailing office culture, you must weigh the risks of being labeled as the office killjoy. As you proceed with caution, I suggest that you seek out a member of the offending group who seems to be the most reasonable and approachable person. Extend an invitation for coffee and start by expressing your concerns about the incident you witnessed. Your goal is to demonstrate that the joke (not necessarily the person) is racist. The best way to do that is to ask what was funny. There is no better way to deflate a joke than to ask a person to explain it. The person won’t be able to explain why the joke is funny without revealing a racial stereotype, which you can then question. If you have addressed your co-worker(s) directly, but nothing has changed, you may decide to go up the chain of command. Supervisors have authority and are obliged to investigate incidents or complaints of racial harassment. (If the supervisor is the problem—that would be the subject of a whole other column!)
Thank you for asking an important question. I hope you feel empowered to speak up in support of civility in your workplace. Good luck.
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