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What to do when you overhear racist comments at work

You’re at your cubicle at work, minding your own business. In a neighboring cubicle, your manager strikes up a conversation with a colleague. She brings up a police shooting that happened the week before, which resulted in the murder of an innocent black man. To your horror, you overhear your boss making fun of the victim—even blaming him for being shot.

You feel sickened by your boss’s inappropriate workplace behavior. You slump into your seat. On your lunch break, you mention the incident to some friends, asking for advice about what you should do. “What does it matter to you?”, they respond. “You’re not even black.” This reaction disgusts you even more. You know your boss’s behavior is wrong. But you’re unsure of what you can do about it.

Legal protections

Racial discrimination is banned at both the federal and state level—under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act as well as under Chapter 21 of the Texas Labor Code. This prohibition also applies to verbal racism, including racist and otherwise discriminatory comments, slurs and jokes.

If racial discrimination happens at your workplace, it’s important to document any instances you encounter. Take detailed notes of any comments you overhear, and save any written correspondence that contains racist sentiment. Then, there are a few steps you can take:

Report the issue internally.

Talk to human resources or the manager of the offending party to voice your concerns. Because of the laws that prohibit race-based discrimination in the workplace, such individuals should—in theory—take your complaint seriously.

Report the issue to the EEOC.

If you’re worried about speaking up at your company, or if you submit a complaint and nothing changes, you can also report your concerns to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). They will investigate your complaint on your behalf. If the EEOC finds your case to be substantiated, they can take your employer to federal court.

Talk to an employment attorney.

Regardless of your situation, it’s worth having an employment attorney evaluate your case to give you an idea of whether you have grounds to pursue legal action against your employer yourself.

Race-based discrimination should never be tolerated in the workplace. Calling out such behavior can help to ensure that you and your colleagues get to work in the supportive, respectful environment you deserve.

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