• Jonny Parker

Having That Awkward Conversation With That One Colleague

An old colleague of mine made an inappropriate racial gesture in the office towards me.

But before I get into what happened, allow me to lay the groundwork. I always thought it was funny that we spend more time with our colleagues than we do with our families.

In fact, according to Globoforce, 52% of us spend more than 30 hours a week with family, while 91% of us spend more than 30 hours a week with our colleagues.

I am shaking my head while reading those ridiculous percentages. We spend a tremendous amount of time around our colleagues, and we don’t usually get to choose who they are, that alone is a precarious relationship. Add the fact that it’s reasonably expected to maintain good relations and remain professional with these people. So what does that mean? You may not want to give your colleague a piece of your mind like you would with a friend or family member.

It is a difficult thing to balance being respectful, cautious, and professional, all while your nerves may be getting worked, yet your lashing out can have repercussions. Thinking about the impact of your quality of life at work is vital.

Saying all of that, having an honest and straightforward conversation with that one colleague can be daunting, to say the least. But in my experience, approaching the issue the correct way will give you positive results and confidence to quite frankly stand up for yourself. In a respectful manner, of course.

The Story

Back to my above point of my colleague making an inappropriate racial gesture in the office. One day as I was at my desk sending out a company internal message on Slack API, my colleague sends me a request to complete. About thirty minutes pass by, and I finish it and send it back her way. She replied with the words, “Thank you, and a black thumbs-up emoji.”

Let me give you some more context: my colleague was of Asian descent. A kind woman, but sometimes we would butt-heads on assigned projects we collaborated on.

Now, this has never happened to me before. I took a few double-takes at the message before internalizing. But when I did I wasn’t mad per see, I was more shocked and caught off guard. I even brought it up to one of my directors that I felt comfortable speaking to; I wanted to hear a perspective from a more seasoned background. He told me I should definitely bring it up to her and let her know how it made me feel.

I hesitated before sending her an email asking if we could grab a conference room for a second to chat. To be honest, I am not the best with awkward and confrontational conversations. I’d instead brush them off, or avoid them rather than taking them head-on. But I made the decision to stand up to my fear of speaking up for myself. I chose to go against the grain and grow, rather than be complacent and stay silent.

We entered the conference room, I told her how the gesture made me feel, and she was very empathetic on the manner. She did not think anything of it because she felt it was more of a sign of respect than an inappropriate gesture. She was still getting acclimated to living in the states. The empathy she gave me came around full circle.

What Did I Learn From This?]

  1. Speak up for yourself. It can seem scary, problematic, or arrogant, but it will give you the self-confidence and self-awareness that will not only improve your life but could inspire the lives around you.

  2. Clarity first — No need to escalate immediately. Although this is tempting to take a self-righteous stand, hear your colleague out. Their perspective matters too. Clarify your feelings, and actively listen to their response.

  3. Empathy matters. Make an effort to put yourself in your colleague’s shoes. Once you understand them, only then can you respond appropriately to the issue.

  4. Move on. The awkward and challenging conversation is finished. Don’t let it linger in the workplace, this will just make your days longer at work. Make time to have a normal conversation with that colleague, this will aid in a reset of the dynamic between you two.

At the end of the day, how you feel matters. Don’t worry about confrontation because you can be respectful in the midst of it. Worry about what happens when you don’t speak up for yourself.

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