when should i speak up?

Reader A.H. asks:

I work in a relatively small office (about 75 people) and while we have a few people from diverse backgrounds, it seems like nearly everyone is a white, protestant Christian with conservative political beliefs. Personally, I don’t practice any religion, but my family is Muslim. I haven’t ever experienced direct discrimination because I don’t practice any faith and I don’t think anyone at work knows my background. For the most part, when my boss talks about politics, we all let our eyes glaze over (particularly if we don’t agree), because he’ll stop talking eventually, and, well, he’s the boss. However, recently a friend and coworker of mine related to me a story about the boss saying that only Islam could produce violence and terrorism, because Christianity is a religion of peace. I was shocked that something so obviously, factually wrong could be a belief held and espoused in the workplace by someone who runs the company I work for. But since I wasn’t in the room, and the story is hearsay, I don’t feel I have a right to confront my boss about it.  I don’t want to develop a persecution complex (that’s already really easy, coming form a Muslim heritage and living in the US, I think), and I don’t want to be seen as seeking “special treatment” or anything like that. Basically, I like my job and I don’t want to rock the boat. What should I do?

I have personally lived through a similar experience several times. In fact, I think it would be odd to find someone in the world who hadn’t felt this way at some point. The details may change, but whenever you have a group of people together working towards a common goal that isn’t politics or religion, those two taboo topics are going to differ from worker to worker, and sometimes get in the way.  Oftentimes, bosses are people who have certain “skills” that may not include “listening to everyone around them” or “considering someone else’s feelings”.

A saying that came to mind when I first read this: “What is popular is not always right; what is right is not always popular.” (I think Jesus even said that, in the Beatitudes. But it’s been a while since I read that sermon.)

There are a few things you have to consider here, and decide for yourself.

What is your personal comfort level with being hated at work?

Sometimes you feel like a black dildo amongst red jelly beans.

Image: Chris Sharp / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Do you care enough about social justice to make a point?

How patient are you?

A friend of mine and I were recently discussing sexual harassment and how it’s a power issue. He said to me that if women want to be treated equally, they need to insist on getting that equality, no matter the cost, because people in power will never consider just giving power to the underdog unless they are forced to. From his point of view, women should always report sexual harassment, regardless of the consequences, and even if the harassment that happened was all good fun and everyone who witnessed it knew it was just a joke. In fact, this friend’s sister did just that — twice — and still enjoys employment at the place of work against which she complained. (A caveat in this case: she’s a lawyer.) From this point of view, you should stand up against the ignorance now before it gets out of hand. Write the boss an email. Come out to your coworkers as someone from a Muslim background. This approach could even nip any upcoming discrimination in the bud (not that your boss is going to discriminate you… but out of the overflow of the mind the heart speaks [another Jesusism!], so there’s a good chance he thinks things about Muslims that aren’t true and may act in an unflattering manner at some point as a result).

Of course I, personally, am guilty of not standing up for myself all the time. I think you would agree with me on this — sometimes you have to weigh what you say against the upcoming reaction and decide if it’s worth it. I have been sexually harassed at work, but didn’t say anything, mostly because sexual harassment is insanely hard to prove, drives big rifts between people (especially if the harassment was all fun and games, rather than someone forcing him or herself on another party), and can make you feel like a rat if you call someone out on it. Later on in my employment, however, I got the chance to call this boss out on something that wasn’t sexual — he held me up from doing my job based on a personal issue, and because it was completely documentable via email, I could rightly complain about it. (Sadly, he went without reprimand. But I felt better about things.)

You’re right, you weren’t in the room, and you weren’t directly attacked. However, the fact that you are aware of the problem can give you a bit of an advantage: you can have a response prepared should the issue ever really come up in your presence. You get to have the time and foresight to consider how you really feel, and what you would really want to say, should your boss ever say something like that again. If your boss is worth his weight in dust, he’ll apologize off the bat. And if he’s not, you can start planning your legal action.

You should certainly consider talking to the Human Resources department at your work, whether or not you decide you feel discriminated against or have some issues to air. (That is, if you have a human resources department. When I was sexually harassed, there was no HR department; I had to go directly to my boss’s co-boss, office-sharer, and best friend.) The HR manager can probably talk to your boss anonymously for you, and that can help prevent future problems without you having to feel like a snitch. Furthermore, making it official is your best way to assure change will take place. It’s true that a boss won’t often change his or her mind about politics, religion, or other world views on his or her own time. Nevertheless, you have a right to stand up against discriminatory or inflammatory statements against a group of people.

Which brings me to my last idea: stand up for other people in your office when you get the chance. Imagine if the friend who’d told you the story had said something to the boss so you never even had to deal with this? Take a step out of your own head for a moment and look at places where other people are being underdogged and stand up for them. As I mentioned before, most people feel belittled at least once during their careers. Encourage this empathy and standing up for each other among your coworkers. That way, nobody is the bad guy here. Sometimes it’s actually easier to stand up for someone else than to stand up for yourself. And it’s good practice.

In my personal world, if your boss is capable of saying things like that, he’s not qualified to be your boss. But my personal world and the real world rarely collide. Hopefully you can make your work world a better place.


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