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INSIGHT

Racism and allegations: never easy to manage

By Steve M. Cohen  bio

As current headlines and news broadcasts attest, racial relations are still an issue in this nation.

For employers and managers, the issue can be especially difficult. You may have legitimate complaints from a wide range of employees. At other times, an action or comment may offend some and not others. Then there are instances where race is less a question than ordinary bullying. Indeed, looking at situations with bullying in mind can help frame your perspective, but often there are no easy answers.

Let’s take a relatively straightforward case as an example. Suppose you have an allegation that one employee was in the break area and overheard another staff member use the n-word. This is an allegation that needs to be examined. The seriousness of the charge and the fact that it’s been reported to management means it must be investigated, legally and morally.

As with any claim, this report is initially neither fact nor fiction. Until it is investigated, it is simply a statement made by an employee. The allegation becomes truth if it is substantiated, or denounced if it cannot be substantiated.

The need to investigate is based on several things, both formal and informal. If an employee alleges something is wrong or cause for concern, management must act. If the manager says, “It’s nothing; go back to work,” then management is saying to the employee, “Your opinion or concern doesn’t matter and, by extension, you don’t matter.” That’s simply not smart and, today, it won’t stand up to legal and regulatory tests. The manager and the organization will be open to numerous, potentially expensive actions.

With our n-word allegation, start with the employee who made the allegation. Get an account of his or her version of what happened. Get the details of who said what and who overheard the conversation. This is important, since even the most sincere individual can miss-hear or confuse what was said. It’s also important to ask how the individual felt about the matter. How he or she feels will drive their behavior going forward and it can impact management’s actions.

Next, you would interview the alleged perpetrator, the person accused of using the n-word, and all the alleged witnesses. If the allegation is substantiated—the employee used the n-word and others were offended—then you must act.

But what should be done? If you’ve got a clear case, then the offending employee needs to go. Termination would be one course, but an alternative action could be better: Encourage the person to voluntarily resign, sign a hold-harmless waiver, expunge his or her record, and offer a clear path to unemployment compensation. That’s often the best answer. Everyone moves on and the organization avoids questions of wrongful termination.

Of course, life—and management—is usually not so clear cut. You may not have good corroboration of the allegation. Perhaps the alleged perpetrator and the accusing witness were the only two people in the break room when the n-word was said to have been used. Some witnesses may not agree or may have not heard the exchange. As police officers say, if you have five witnesses to an accident, you have five accidents.

But even if you can’t substantiate the allegation, you still need to act or, in this case, talk to both parties. Management’s values are on display with every decision. The alleged perpetrator must understand that you take even allegations seriously and that your office does not condone racism. The person bringing the charge needs to know that as well, and that such concerns are taken seriously.

You may also encounter a situation where the person using the n-word is in fact black. That may seem especially difficult but, in fact, you can use the same strategies. Tell them that the n-word is a racially charged term that is not acceptable in this office. Regardless of how they used the term, it’s not okay at work.

Even in our hypothetical case, there are conflicting values at stake. One value is, “We believe in second chances. This individual made a mistake, but it was an isolated incident and he or she deserves a second chance.” The competing value is, “We have a zero tolerance for racial slurs. We won’t tolerate them.”

My recommendation would be to extricate the offending staff member, hope he or she learns from their mistake, and send an undeniable message that this office wants and will work towards an environment that supports racial fairness.


Steve M. Cohen, Ed.D., CMC is President/Partner of Labor Management Advisory Group, Inc. and HR Solutions: On-Call, both based in Kansas City, MO. For more information, visit www.laborgroup.com or call (913) 927-0229.


The above information is shared by a guest contributor and does not necessarily reflect the views of Medical Office Manager.

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