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When co-worker behaviour seems biased

The worker at the receiving end has to be clear about what the core issue is

Rob Walker | NYT 

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If workers are rebuffed and it is clear it’s because of their minority status, they could talk to a lawyer. Photo: Shutterstock

I work on a contract basis in a large building that requires identification to enter. It’s impossible to know everyone there, but over the past year, I’ve noticed an increase in questions directed at me by staff members: “Can I help you?” and so on. They often seem suspicious of me, or even frightened. My response is to remain calm.

One incident was particularly troubling. I went to make some copies with my ID in hand and was asked a barrage of questions, including, “Why are you showing me your ID?” I answered in a stoic, monotone fashion that I had found it was best to display my ID openly. To my surprise, I was called in by the company’s supervisor of contractors and told that I could not go around intimidating and frightening

I am a member of a group, and I believe this is the real issue. When I talked about this with other employees, they seemed relieved to tell of their own experiences being slighted because of perceptions based on the colour of their skin. But there is fear of career retribution — or of being labelled “too sensitive” — if one speaks out.

I went to a manager and was advised to abide by orders, and that was the end of it. If no one in management is open to addressing the impact of such perceptions and behaviours on a minority-group man, is there any outside agency that this can be discussed with? ANONYMOUS.

Prejudice in the can manifest itself across a considerable spectrum, from non-conscious biases all the way up to blatant and overt — and illegal — discrimination. Although you aren’t exactly saying so, it sounds as if you are considering a legal claim. Either way, that context may be useful to help clarify how you might proceed, so I spoke to a few experts. (I am not a lawyer, and none of these experts are offering specific legal advice here.)

A good starting point: Become more precise in your thinking. “He should be clear in his mind about what is happening that offends him, and why he thinks it’s related to his being a minority,” said Peggy Mastroianni, who heads the office of legal counsel at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

There are endless reasons for any worker to feel as if he or she is being shown disrespect by management or But in most situations, there’s no outside recourse if the issue is, say, that other workers don’t like you or your haircut bugs your manager or the boss wants to give your job to his nephew, said Brian Heller, a partner in Schwartz Perry & Heller, a New York employment law firm. “The courts are not a super-HR department,” as he put it.

Being mistreated or otherwise discriminated against specifically because you are a member of a legally protected category — such as a racial — is an exception. Being clear about why you believe that’s the core issue is key. 

If you are rebuffed or problems persist, and you are clear it’s because of your status, you might contact the EEOC, or talk to a lawyer. If the issue is your colleagues’ behaviour, bring it to management’s attention. As a contract worker, raise it on-site and at your contracting firm.

© 2017 New York Times News Service

First Published: Sun, July 09 2017. 22:42 IST