Stay calm and document every detail, experts told Moneyish
Noura, an Orlando, Fla., writer and case manager specializing in child welfare for a social services agency, decided to start wearing hijab three years ago. But about seven months before donning the traditional Muslim head covering, she began mentally steeling herself for “worst-case-scenario” comments from coworkers.
“When people see a hijab, they see it as an open invitation to ask really invasive personal questions in the workplace that they would not normally discuss,” said the 32-year-old, who asked to be identified by an alias in order to speak candidly.
The ignorant remarks trickled in: After learning of Noura’s nuptials in North Africa, an attorney senior to her asked if there’d been camels at the wedding. (There weren’t.) When she wore fashionable shoes to work, an attorney asked if the Quran allowed her to wear them. Superiors’ jokes, she says, also emboldened colleagues to ask about “that thing on (her) head.” Some asked if her marriage had been arranged. (It wasn’t.)
Meanwhile, Noura dealt with clients who called her a terrorist and hurled threats and expletives over her faith. The spouse of one military veteran, after learning she was Muslim, asked, “Didn’t we just go to war with you guys?” and questioned why they would want to work with her. Rather than defending her, Noura’s supervisors apologized to the spouse as she left the room crying. (Managers later agreed not to assign her clients that might prompt such confrontations.)
“There are some people who genuinely don’t realize why what they’re saying is problematic, because some of these stereotypes are just so internalized and reinforced,” Noura said. “People need to realize that we are not a set stereotype and we are not monolithic.”
Workplace bias was subtler for 39-year-old Shana, a black educator from Atlanta who asked not to be identified by her full name or employer: Superiors at previous jobs would repeatedly dismiss her ideas during school meetings, only to praise them once a white colleague parroted them back to the group. “I literally would’ve said that same idea and actually explained it better, five minutes before the other person just blurted it out and took credit for it,” she told Moneyish.
At least twice over her 13 years as an educator, Shana added, a supervisor either directly or indirectly expressed surprise that she was black after hiring her based on phone interviews and a resume. “I don’t know what a phone interview or resume indicates, but apparently it didn’t indicate that to them,” she said.
“It may be every day you’re asked to do something as a person of color that your coworkers in the same situation are not asked to do,” Paula Brantner, a senior adviser to the Workplace Fairness advocacy nonprofit and veteran employment lawyer, told Moneyish. “Or your work is not being recognized in the same way. Or you are not being asked to socialize or be mentored or given the same opportunities to advance in the company.”
What’s more, some experts say today’s charged political climate has increasingly emboldened racists — like the Tiki torch-wielding Neo-Nazis, white supremacists and KKK members who descended on Charlottesville, Va., this month — to declare their views loud and proud. “I do think over the last several months, the conduct that was a lot more subtle or what I would consider implicit bias or microaggressions has become more overt, and people have been more empowered by things like Charlottesville,” Brantner said.
If you’ve been targeted for your race or religion at work, here’s how to confront your supervisor, navigate the HR process, file an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charge or ultimately bring a lawsuit:
Stay calm and be tactful. “If you lose it, if your behavior is not professional, then it becomes really difficult for you to defend yourself,” Brad Federman, chief operating officer of the labor management consulting firm F&H Solutions Group, told Moneyish. Bystanders may not overhear the racial remark in question, he added, but they will notice an outburst in response. You might take a breather and tackle the situation a day or two later.
Try and address the remark in a way that “educates people,” Federman added. You might ask the boss to explain why he or she made the comment, or simply have the person repeat the statement — which can make him or her “really aware that it was inappropriate,” he said.
Record your objection to the behavior, a move that can come in handy if retaliatory behavior follows, Mary Kuntz, an employment attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch, told Moneyish: “Don’t be confrontational, but be inquisitive: ‘That’s funny; that sounded to me as though you were suggesting that I was less capable because I’m black. Perhaps I misunderstood you,’” she suggested. With that said, “challenging your boss is risky business,” Kuntz said. “Possibly, the better part of valor is to record it and survive so that you can go and file a complaint with the EEOC.”
Get a second opinion if the incident felt borderline or unintentional. “All too often we also have blind spots; we see things from our own perspective … and getting perspective from someone else helps,” Federman said. “The reality is, sometimes we see something as racially charged and purposeful, or religiously charged and purposeful … and in some cases, it’s not.”
Document, document, document. Make like former FBI Director James Comey and record incidents in “contemporaneous” memos, Kuntz said. “Look around the room, see who might have heard this … make sure that you have as much information about the circumstances of the incident as you could possibly have,” Brantner added. Social-media gripes are “a very risky way to go” because they’re still a very fluid area of law, said Kuntz — and be advised that there’s no expectation of privacy on a work computer.
Even if you’re not the target of bigotry at work, be an advocate for others who are. “The ideal thing would be to be that brave hero that speaks up, but at the very least you should be making a record,” Kuntz said.
Know what you can tolerate. “If it’s something that you’re willing to let slide as long as it never happens again, then you may not want to have a confrontation about it,” Brantner said. But if you decide to take action over a pattern of harassment, be advised that “once you go down that road, you kind of have to be prepared to see it through,” she added. Ask yourself whether you want to stay in this job and fight, or try and seek employment elsewhere.
If you approach HR reps, remember they work for the company, said Brantner. Familiarize yourself with the HR process, come armed with specifics, and make sure any coworkers you name as witnesses are both aware of their involvement and willing to have your back. If HR asks for certain documents or information, cooperate. “Do the best you can to be factual, not emotional,” Brantner said. Know what you want the outcome to be — and whether it’s a realistic goal. “What would the company need to do to rectify the situation, and is that within their power?” Brantner said.
Consult a lawyer. “See if the four or five times add up to a potential lawsuit; see if you’re being advised to pursue anything through the company or HR,” Brantner said. “If it’s bad enough, the company may be able to resolve it for you through the company HR investigation process.”
File a discrimination claim — and potentially sue. In general, the EEOC gives you 180 days from the date of discrimination to file a charge (check with your state’s civil rights office to see if that time limit might be extended). The EEOC will notify your employer within 10 days of your filing the charge, then conduct an investigation and allow your company to respond. If an informal “conciliation” is unsuccessful, it will greenlight your “Right to Sue” in federal court within 90 days.
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