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I am a supervisor of about 30 employees. I held a small meeting with three employees around setting up their year-end goals recently. One of the employees shared a problem she had with a customer and started out with that age-old phrase: “I am not a racist, but. …” Then she proceeded to make a claim about an entire group of people based on the actions of one.
It wasn’t a truly insulting story, and I didn’t speak up at the time because I wanted some breathing space to address this. She is a very difficult employee in that she is very untruthful and has undercut her colleagues in very subtle ways that we (my prior two managers and I) have been unable to document beyond “he said/she said” evidence, which doesn’t carry a lot of power here.
I realize I should have said right away that she was being inappropriate. I now want to approach her, but without triggering defensiveness. Is there a good way of doing this now, and how should I have addressed it at the meeting?
As a manager, you definitely have a responsibility to address this. Letting a stereotypical comment go could send a signal that such talk is considered acceptable, which could lead to a variety of problems. It would probably be best to have responded in the moment — but I understand that it’s very easy for me to say that, and that it’s often hard to come up with the right reaction in real time. But the sooner you can deal with this, the better.
You do not want to simply accuse this person of being racist, or otherwise turn the situation into a confrontation. In the moment, you might respond to this sort of remark by gently but firmly challenging the premise: “I’m confused. You don’t mean to suggest that all members of Group X engage in behavior Y, do you? Because that’s not my experience at all.”
If you think this person is too combative for that approach, then skip the attempt to engage thoughtfully and be blunt without being accusatory: “I believe that you’re not a racist. But that kind of generalization can make others really uncomfortable, whether they are members of that group or not — me included.” Don’t adopt a harsh or lecturing tone; just be matter of fact or even collegial, as if you were explaining what the afternoon break policy was.
You can also try some version of this now. She might still react negatively, and you may need to be overtly reassuring that you’re not judging her as a person. But at some point this can’t be about her feelings. If you’re worried that she might escalate matters, get your own managers on your side in advance. They should recognize that this needs to be dealt with.