By Charles E. Ray, U.S. Ambassador (Ret.)
Having difficult conversations and addressing sensitive issues in the workplace is critical. If we’re unable to talk openly about our organization’s problems, we will never solve those problems.
Bias and discrimination, conscious or unconscious, exist in every organization. Those who try to deny it are either naïve, asleep, or lying. Whichever category they fall into, they are part of the problem and must be confronted with it even if it’s uncomfortable. Pointing out that you or someone else have been mistreated on the job, depending upon how you do it, is not whining; it’s standing up for what’s right.
I have been fortunate during my career, which spanned 20 years in the U.S. Army and 30 years in the Foreign Service, to successfully deal with such issues on more than one occasion. I have my grandmother to thank for that (see my article, Six Things My Grandmother Taught Me About Effective Leadership, August 17, 2020). She was unyielding about pushing back when she saw instances of abuse or discrimination, an unusual character trait for an African American woman of her generation. She was able to do it successfully, though, because she knew how to do it without being abrasive or overly confrontational. While she didn’t change the culture I grew up in East Texas during the 1940s and 50s, she instilled in me the belief that every one of us has an obligation to try.
4 Ways to Handle Difficult Subjects
1. Know Yourself
Before reacting to a situation, it’s always a good idea to do an objective self-assessment. There are times when what is perceived by an individual as discrimination is merely a matter of not realizing that our experiences and beliefs can cause us to misinterpret even innocent actions.
An example of mistaken impressions happened when I was deputy chief of mission at our embassy in Freetown, Sierra Leone. I tend to use stories and metaphors to illustrate points I’m trying to make, and, having grown up in a farm community, many of my stories come from that environment. I was talking to my staff members one day about the need to be resolute and unyielding in our efforts to convince the military junta that was then controlling the country to allow peaceful elections. To drive my point home, I said, “The last thing we want to do is lie on our backs and expose our bellies like a whipped dog.” I noticed as I spoke that one of the female members of the staff had a shocked, almost angry look on her
Later, I got her alone and asked her what was wrong. Her answer caught me by surprise. She said she was offended by my crude sexual reference. It took me a few seconds to realize that she was referring to my comment about a dog. I asked if she’d ever had a pet dog or even been around dogs. Her answer was no. I then explained how dogs, when they are bested in a fight, expose their vulnerable parts–belly and throat–to the winner, a way of surrendering. She was shocked, and so was I.
Both of us in this situation had failed to know ourselves well. She, in her ignorance of animal behavior, had gotten an entirely wrong impression, and I, who had been doing this for years in the army, had failed to realize that not everyone had my bucolic background. Lesson learned. This story’s point is that when something happens, examine it from the point of view of your background, then–and this should go without saying–from the point of view of the person who did or said it. If, after doing this, you’re sure that there was no mistake that an insult or instance of bias occurred, then move on to the next step.
2. Know the Organization
Being familiar with the organization you work for is a good idea even if you don’t have problems, but it’s essential if you’ve experienced any kind of mistreatment or harassment. And, by being familiar, I’m not just talking about memorizing the organizational chart. Know where your organization’s decisions are really made, not only who reports to whom, but who talks to whom.
Know the organization’s rules and regulations. As a junior FSO, before my first posting in Guangzhou, China, I visited the publications office in the basement of Main State. I asked them for a copy of each of the Foreign Affairs Manuals (FAMs). My request sent them into a tizzy. The man at the desk informed me that in all his years there, he’d never had such a request before and wasn’t sure it was even permitted. I persisted, and he checked with his boss, who made a call to someone, and then informed him that, while it was unorthodox, it wasn’t prohibited. So, I arrived at the Consulate General in Guangzhou with a complete and up-to-date set of FAMs, where I soon acquired a reputation as the person to consult if you had a FAM question. It paid off, though. On my second tour, in Shenyang, China, the car we’d shipped to Guangzhou and then north to Shenyang began to fall apart. The administrative counselor (now management counselor) at the embassy in Beijing told me that if I replaced my old clunker, I would have to pay to ship the replacement and recommended that I buy a car locally. Hah! I’d read the FAM on such matters and knew that there was a provision that said if any employee had a vehicle overseas after a certain period (I no longer remember how many years), then the employee was entitled to have a replacement vehicle shipped at government expense.
To make a long story short and relevant, it’s essential to fully understand the relevant laws and regulations when you’re reporting harassment and discrimination.
When you have a problem, you should take that problem to whoever in the organization can solve it, right? Wrong. You should take a proposed solution to the person who has the authority to implement it.
3. Address Solutions, Not Just Problems
You should never only present a problem if you can avoid it. When I was a young captain working as a staff officer in the US Army Intelligence Command at Fort Holabird in Baltimore, MD, I worked for a general whose ironclad rule for those of us on his staff was “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.’ Sounds good, right, but how do you do it in practice?
I’ll give you an example from my own life. When I served as a special assistant to the Director of the State Department’s Office of Defense Trade Controls, I was assigned to a panel reviewing civil service performance ratings and award recommendations. In two cases, two employees–one white and one African American–with the same job description and grade were given identical performance ratings. Even the verbiage was the same. The white employee was recommended for a performance award, and the African American was not, which seemed wrong to me, or at best, hard to explain. When I spoke to the rating official, the response was that the African American employee’s performance was unsatisfactory in particular interpersonal relations. When I asked why the evaluation didn’t mention this, the response was that the rater didn’t want to deal with the inevitable complaint if an unsatisfactory rating was given.
Now, in my view, this was a failure of leadership that needed to be addressed. I pointed out to the rating official that the act of giving an award to one and not the other, with the same performance ratings, even though one rating was wrong, exposed the organization to an EEO complaint. This oversight would be far worse than a complaint about a low rating, provided that documents or other actions supported the rating. My suggestion was, either recommend both employees for the award or recommend neither. The wisdom of my solution was recognized to the rater’s credit, and the award recommendation was withdrawn. Now, this was only a partial solution to the problem. The issue of accurate ratings, as far as I was able to determine, was never addressed. In this case, though, a partial solution was better than no solution at all, and in dealing with your own issues, that’s a good thing to keep in mind.
4. Patience and Persistence
Once you’ve brought the problem and its solution to the attention of those who have the power and authority to do something about it, the job is just begun. Unfortunately, bureaucrats tend to try and dodge the sensitive, troublesome issues. They’re just too hard. You can’t let them do that. Very few things move fast in a bureaucracy, so patience is required while your issue works its way through the system. But persistence is a virtue whenever you challenge the bureaucracy. When you’re talking about issues like discrimination or harassment, it takes an enormous amount of courage to stay the course. But discrimination and harassment should not be tolerated in any workplace. Ending it starts with you.
I would be remiss if I left readers thinking that following the advice given above will provide an instant solution to problems. Like the TV commercials for the wonder cures, that also list the adverse side effects (albeit in tiny script that’s almost impossible to read or scrolls so fast you have to be a speed reader to understand them). I must point out that nothing is one hundred percent certain. There are risks to doing what I recommend. The least of the potential negative outcomes is that you will be ignored or dismissed again and again before getting someone in the bureaucracy to listen to you.
On the really negative end of the potential fallout is the possibility that bringing up hard questions to the chain of command can have negative career consequences. Before taking on such a challenge, you must ask yourself if it’s worth it. I believe it is, and if no one in the organization is willing to listen, you should give serious consideration to moving on to another organization where people listen. That, I know, is not an easy decision to make. People have student loans and families to support, and changing jobs is not an easy thing to do, especially if you’re working in a field important to you. But if you’ve followed my first piece of advice—know yourself—you’ll know when it’s important to help an organization change for the better. Staying in a toxic and unwelcoming environment can do irreparable long-term damage to your self-esteem and even your physical health.
There, I’ve given you the caveat, and not in fine print, either. Do what you believe in your heart of hearts is the right thing to do. Live long and prosper.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ambassador Charles A. Ray (ret) wrote this article to provide a guide for dealing with difficult situations. Charlie served as U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Republic of Zimbabwe. He was the first U.S. Consul General to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, opening the Consulate General in 1998. I met not-then-Ambassador Ray in Sierra Leone in the mid-1990s and was so impressed with his understanding and application of leadership principles. I will forever remember stories he told of his grandmother https://prudencebushnell.com/6-things-my-grandmother-taught-me-about-effective-leadership/
This article is a part of the Marketplace of Leadership Stories series.