Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Handling a Racist Remark in the Workplace

Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicists, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, “Handling a Racist Remark in the Workplace.”

I represent a real-estate developer in Florida. Recently an employee of one of the developer’s commercial tenants confided to me that he overheard an administrator at his company tell another employee that she had just read a book called ‘‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’’ and thought it contained excellent points. The person with whom she was speaking, a department manager, responded that it was a great book and that it must be legitimate because it was endorsed by Henry Ford. I’m uncomfortable that this type of conversation might reflect a negative aspect of our tenant’s company culture. I’m tempted to raise this with the general counsel of the company, with whom I negotiated the lease — but for what purpose? I can’t betray the confidence, so what am I trying to accomplish? I can’t get over that employees working in a respected chain could really accept any premise in that anti-Semitic rant. I thought the reach of the book was limited to uneducated neo-Nazis, but these are educated people in positions of authority. Something just feels wrong here, and I would appreciate some guidance on where to go with this. NAME WITHHELD

My response: First I want to applaud the Times for finally picking another letter that isn’t their usual juvenile please-tell-me-what’s-right-and-wrong or please-tell-me-how-to-label-my-activity.

I had never heard of this book. Its Wikipedia page says it’s a hoax document that fakes a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world created around 1901. Noted Nazi sympathizer and Adolph Hitler admirer, Henry Ford, paid to print half a million copies, amid other attacks on Jews. What a guy! I don’t know enough about him to know his motivations.

Anyway, as bizarre and historically interesting as that part of the story sounds, I see the main issue as what you do about it. I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t think there’s a crime in believing a hoax is accurate, though you might check with a lawyer, which, I believe would give you attorney-client privilege, avoiding confidentiality issues.

The two main issues I see are the confidentiality and your question of purpose.

Regarding confidentiality, the biggest lesson to learn is not to agree to hold something confident that you haven’t heard yet. When someone asks

Will you keep something secret if I tell you?

I recommend answering

I don’t know because you know the secret and I don’t. If the secret is you’re planning to kill someone, no way will I keep it secret.

In my experience people usually share, maybe to show they aren’t the criminal you innocently suggested at. If they insist on you blindly agreeing to something, which I consider an unreasonable request, I recommend saying

If you want to tell me, tell me, but I can’t agree to something blindly. I’ll do my best to keep it in confidence but you know more than I do so I leave it to you to figure out if you want to take the risk.

I don’t remember anyone keeping their secret after that. I’ve kept all the secrets people have shared at this point, including some big ones I’d love to share but never have. The point being it’s been my choice and valuing relationships, not a blind external abstract obligation.

You’re past that point in this situation, though you may not have learned this lesson. You didn’t even say you agreed to hold anything secret so it’s not clear you’d have to go back on your word to share it. Doing so, even if you felt right, would undermine your credibility to anyone who heard you did it, even if they agree with you.

It seems the relationship with the person who shared it is your key relationship. If you find a way for that person to agree with your actions—that is, if you lead her—I think you’ll protect your credibility and get to act on your values. Since she spoke to you, it sounds like she wants to share this information too. You have an ally. Based on what you said, I recommend talking with her and figuring out what to do. She probably told more people than just you already.

That leads to the second issue: your point. You asked “what am I trying to accomplish?” Well, what are you trying to do? No one can answer for you, but you can. Do you want to punish someone? Humiliate them? Shame them? Educate them? Avenge past victims? Until you answer these questions, you won’t know what to do. If you don’t have a strategy, talking tactics doesn’t make sense.

I recommend talking with the person who shared the information with you and figure out both of your interests. Maybe you want to act on this issue. Maybe you want to choose your battles and let it go. You can’t be so innocent to believe many people believe lots of things you wouldn’t. If you felt you had to right every wrong before doing anything else, you wouldn’t be able to start anything.

But maybe you feel you can make a difference here. Your effectiveness depends on your relationships with the people who like this book, your social skills, your leadership skills, your resources, this woman’s resources and skills, whom else she told, and other factors your letter doesn’t reveal.

It’s your values, your relationships, and your consequences you’ll have to deal with. This is why I learn and teach leadership, so people don’t have to feel so helpless in situations like this, relying on others to make important decisions for them. Beyond talking to the person who shared the secret, everything depends on that conversation. The more you understand your values, skills, etc, the more effectively you can figure out what to do.

Incidentally, I don’t recommend dismissing people you disagree with as uneducated, even neo-Nazis. If you want to influence someone, disrespecting them will undermine your ability. That is, if you start talking to them and have some belief like “only an idiot would believe this,” I doubt they’ll listen to you. When was the last time someone acted like “I’m right, you’re wrong, and if you were more educated you’d agree, so stop talking and listen to me,” and you felt open to hearing them out? However right you think you are, it’s not effective.

The New York Times response:

Amy Bloom: I wish that this never happened, or only in tiny corners of America, but I suspect that is not the case. Did the person say to you that you absolutely could not share this with anybody? That’s one kind of confidence, but often we use the word more loosely, to mean ‘‘somebody passed this information to me in a friendly manner,’’ which does not bind you in any way. Even if the person confided in you and swore you to secrecy, which is not at all clear to me from this letter, I would also want to know at what level these people work, the administrator and the department manager.

The other question is: What is your goal here? I assume it’s to alter a business atmosphere that you think encourages anti-Semitism. But you don’t have any authority over the culture of this tenant corporation. If you wish to tell your client, the real-estate developer, what you heard, I think you can do that. If you wish to tell the general counsel what you heard without naming names, I think that’s O.K. too. I would suggest you not give any names, because you didn’t hear it directly — you are passing on something that you have been told. Also, you might want to encourage your pal, the employee who told you about this, to share the information at work with people who have some responsibility for their company’s culture. I think the personal part of your letter is that you’re just stunned anybody except uneducated neo-Nazis would accept something like ‘‘The Protocols of Zion.’’ Something is wrong there and part of what is wrong is that anti-Semitism, although it is not what it was in this country, is not gone.

Kwame Anthony Appiah: My first response to this letter was to be puzzled by the author’s surprise. I’m afraid there’s pretty good reason to think that stupid anti-Semitic beliefs and idiotic deference to the views of rich people like Henry Ford are quite pervasive in our country. It’s definitely out there in the land.

Now, I would talk to the person who told you this and say, ‘‘I’d like your permission to raise the matter in a way that doesn’t identify you, because I think your company will want to know that this is going on, and it will be up to the company to figure out how to change its culture.’’ There are actually people who consult with companies that have these sorts of problems. I’m sure there are people who can help you change a business culture in which this sort of thing is going on. But if the person who told you this told you in strict confidence, you can’t pass it on unless they give you permission.

Kenji Yoshino: I totally agree with Anthony that you should speak to the individual who approached you. My intuition is also to say to that person, ‘‘I would be happy to make a record of this complaint.’’ As a matter of law, and as a matter of culture, the case will be stronger if it’s based on more than one incident. I would tell the person, ‘‘I am always willing to come to your support if you want to make this an issue.’’

Bloom: Is that because you want to create a trail? ‘‘I will record this now and I’ll also keep track if you hear more of these remarks so I can support you?’’

Yoshino: Exactly. Right now it looks as if the response could easily be ‘‘That is an isolated remark that has nothing to do with our culture.’’ Once you can show a pattern, the general counsel or another manager is more likely to take notice. I realize I’m sounding like a lawyer. But law and ethics tack together here: You want to respond both appropriately and effectively

Leave a Reply