Insults at Work, and Seeking Resolution

When Grey's Anatomy star Isaiah Washington used the F-word as an epithet in referring to his gay co-star T.R. Knight, he put his bosses in a bind. Advice columnist Amy Dickenson talks about the use of slurs at work and how insults play out in the workplace.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Right now, insults at work. Slur words between friends, family and acquaintances are hurtful enough, but between coworkers they can go from wounding to litigious. In the case of "Grey's Anatomy" star Isaiah Washington, when he used an anti-gay slur in reference to his gay co-star T.R. Knight, he put his bosses in a bind. The series creator and executive producer Shonda Rhimes struggled to find a way to address his behavior in a way that, as she said, underscored the gravity of the situation while giving us all a foundation for healing.

Trying to find an appropriate punishment for the perpetrator of the slur while mitigating the hurt feelings of the victims brings up a lot of delicate issues. To help us navigate these tricky waters, we've invited Amy Dickinson to help. She's the author of the syndicated column "Ask Amy" for the Chicago Tribune. And she's going to be our regular behavior guru on this program. She'll sort through all the unwritten and written rules of modern life, many of which conflict. Amy joins us from our Chicago bureau today. Welcome, Amy. Glad to have you as a regular.

Ms. AMY DICKINSON (Columnist, Chicago Tribune): Hey, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: And of course we want to hear from you listeners. If you're a boss that's had to mediate a dispute of these words or been the victim or the perpetrator of these epithets, let us know how your workplace handled it. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: talk@npr.org.

And Amy, I understand you answer a lot of mail on this issue.

Ms. DICKINSON: I do. I get a lot of mail about this. But you know what cracks me up. During the first part of this program you guys sitting around. It's no big deal; if we don't make it a big deal, then it's not a big deal. It shouldn't bother people. Well, you know what, Mr. McWhorter said something about Joe Biden, you know. If he had made those remarks about Kay Bailey Hutchinson, it wouldn't have mattered. Excuse me?

Basically I took that to say that if he'd made a disparaging remark about a woman it would be OK.

CONAN: I think he was meaning to say if he'd said it about a woman it wouldn't have been taken as a disparaging remark.

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, I beg to differ, my friend. No, thank you. If Biden, if Joe Biden said about Nancy Pelosi, finally a woman leader who's good looking, clean and smart, a lot of people would take offense at that.

CONAN: But getting back to mail about slurs at work, you get a lot of it?

Ms. DICKINSON: I do, I get a lot of it. And the thing is it's very easy for us to say, oh, you shouldn't let things bother you, but things do bother people, and that's where I come in.

People often have problems with what other people do. You know, for instance, when Mr. Washington said what he said in the workplace about a colleague, it was directed at one person but other people overheard it. Maybe the grip, maybe the sound guy. And even if it hadn't bothered Mr. Knight, it might have bothered somebody else who had overheard it. And that's sort of a typical workplace issue.

For instance, I work in a cubicle farm. You know, everybody's got a little cubby. It's like a playpen. Nobody has any privacy. What if my next-door colleague is on the phone to a friend using these slang words or these derogatory words to his friend but in my presence and in my earshot? Well, you know, this is a case where you get to be offended by that even if it's not directed at you because it happens in your space.

CONAN: Well, we know what the punishment for this crime is for celebrities. And I think Isaiah Washington and Mel Gibson and Michael Richards have all gone off to the confessional of anger management.

Ms. DICKINSON: I think it's galled gayhab. You know, you're sent into this therapeutic setting where everybody can talk it out. Well, the workplace actually, you know, you can't really mandate that somebody go to therapy. But what you can do is, the first thing I suggest to people is usually the last thing they think of. If somebody offends you in your workplace, on purpose or by accident, the first thing you should do is tell them.

People don't usually do that. They kind of crumple up and they start to worry about it. And they start to worry about what they should do, when actually I think 80 percent of the time, if you said, you know, that I overheard that, that really bothered me very much and I wish you wouldn't do that again.

First thing you should do is tell the person. Now if you're in some kind of supervisory - if the person is your direct supervisor, you may have very good reason to feel that you cannot tell them. What you should do is make a note, quote what you overheard, say, you know, that it bothered you, and you need to go to the person in the chain of command that you feel comfortable speaking with about this. And basically, you know, make a note.

CONAN: Sometimes people even might feel, particularly if it's a gay insult and a gay person, to complain about it, as in the case of the character of the actor on "Grey's Anatomy," it forces him to come out.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right. I mean the fact is what Isaiah Washington did completely altered, as was mentioned earlier, absolutely altered the workplace, which is something you're actually not supposed to do. You're not supposed to infringe on somebody else's ability to do their job well. You know, a set of a fictional television show, it involves hundreds of people. And as I said, even if Mr. Knight weren't worried about that or even if that slur didn't bother him, it very well have bothered someone else. So it absolutely altered the workplace.

And the Disney Corporation has every right to protect its franchise. And so they could, you know, most actors and public people sign something called a personal services contract, which has a clause that's called the good guy clause. I mean, maybe you have one in your contract. I think I do in mine. And that means that Cokie Roberts, for instance, can't, you know, be an exotic dancer on the side. You know, it means that you have to behave in a certain way that protects the franchise and it protects your brand, so to speak.

But what he did really disrupted the workplace. Absolutely he's going to change the course of the show and could affect the ratings.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in this conversation. Either a manager, a victim or perpetrator, what's been the response in your workplace? 800-989-8255. And let's go to Tim. Tim's with us from Muskegon, Michigan.

TIM (Caller): Yes, good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

TIM: I was a regional manager for a company a few years ago, and we had a gentleman that was openly gay in our department. And during a course of normal business someone made an offending comment - it was not directed at him, it was pretty much just an off-color joke.

And as appropriate, you know, we certainly wanted to protect the workplace but a third party contacted management, actually went above my head and contacted management. Management came back to me and said, look, you need to have, you know, a unit meeting, you need to pull everybody into the room and make it obvious that this is not acceptable.

Now I agree with that. I mean, I don't think we should allow those types of comments to be made in the open. So we do need to protect the individuals that work for us and as well as the company. Well, what actually happened was, as I did what I should have. I made it plain that this was not acceptable. I did not use any particular instance. I didn't point anybody out. Well, as it turns out, after the meeting, the gentleman that was openly gay called me aside and said what in the world was that? And I explained to him. And he says, are you kidding me? He said, oh that didn't bother me at all.

So what happened in the end is that it actually made him feel more uncomfortable because everybody now was tensed about what they could or could not say in the workplace.

CONAN: Amy, that's a situation that, you know, every situation is unique, yet I can't imagine that hasn't come up before.

Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah, and actually I could absolutely imagine that happening. And I think that's what, you know, people were talking about earlier is, you know, one way to diffuse these situations is to sort of reclaim this terminology so that it - and, you know, people say it doesn't offend me, so why should it offend you?

But, you know, I was - Sharon Stone was in the gossip columns yesterday because she said - she was commenting on this whole mess. And she said, it's so ridiculous, and obviously Sharon Stone is a very well known gay activist. She said, please, I call all of my gay friends the F-word.

Big - she said, I call them all the big F-words. And it's - this is ridiculous, it's a tempest in the teapot, but I'm thinking, well, you could call your friends that and they could take it well, but don't call my kid that. I mean I just feel like we all do get to decide what offends us. And maybe the person that was directed at in that workplace wasn't offended but maybe a colleague was. And that's legitimate.

CONAN: Tim, thanks very much.

TIM: Thank you.

CONAN: So long. Let's go to - this is Todd, Todd's with us from St. Augustine in Florida.

TODD (Caller): Yes, how are you doing?

CONAN: Good, thank you.

TODD: Yeah, I own a mortgage company and I have quite a number of employees. And I would tell you that if I ever heard of an employee using the N-word or the F-word, there really wouldn't be too much conversation. I would dismiss them because there are certain words that are universally associated with negative experiences. I'm African-American.

To be honest to you, the N-word has never offended me because my parents always raised us to take words for what they are. And when you actually look up that word in the dictionary, it has nothing to do with African-American people. So for me, I laugh at somebody who uses the word in reference to a black person because it's out of their own ignorance.

CONAN: Yet you run into problems, wouldn't you Todd? Would you have a list of prescribed words?

TODD: No, because some of the words that people use are not associated with negative things. Like for instance, the N-word. I understand why some of my colleagues would be upset with that because it is associated with oppression and slavery and things like that. As one of your callers may have mentioned to, some people would use some of the other words that are not associated with that but have been made to be associated with those kinds of things because of human experience.

So for me, even though it doesn't offend me - I can't remember the lady who's sitting there with you and I apologize.

CONAN: Amy Dickinson, that's her.

TODD: Amy Dickinson, for the most part, people would be offended by those things.

CONAN: Is this a firing offense, Amy?

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, in a lot - in a lot of companies, it is. I mean, you know, obviously you have to investigate, you have to - I wouldn't say it's a firing offense. It's a violation of most workplace policies, which leads to, you know, a talking to…

CONAN: Reprimand?

Ms. DICKINSON: A reprimand, a chance to apologize. Please don't do it again. I mean, a lot of things happen before a firing, but I can understand how someone trying to run a mortgage company that deals with clients and there's a lot at stake would have an absolutely zero tolerance for that.

TODD: And that's the - I make my employees sign a contract basically stating that because it is - to me, it comes down to the person. I know people will use those things in their personal lives for whatever reason, but when you are applying those things to someone that you don't know on a personal level, then to me it is something that is there with a negative connotation to somebody you don't know, because that's just not something you say to somebody you don't know.

So that would only come from a person that would have a negative intent. And then of course for me, because I have employees from all different kinds of background, it destroys the workplace. There's no recovering from that.

CONAN: Todd, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

TODD: Have a good day.

CONAN: We're talking with Amy Dickinson, the author of the syndicated column "Ask Amy" for the Chicago Tribune. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Aurora, is that right? Anura(ph) excuse me.

ANURA (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: She's with us from St. Louis. Go ahead, please.

ANURA: Hi Neal, Hi Amy, how are you?

CONAN: Good.

ANURA: I have a question. Where do you draw the line between what is funny to other people and what is offensive? Your previous caller made a remark to nothing is ever acceptable. But I have two co-workers, one black, one white, both females, very, very good friends. And they joke constantly, constantly, constantly. Both of them laugh, they're both mutually making fun of each other - racially insensitive jokes that other people would perceive.

But everybody around them laughs. And where do you draw the line between what is, you know, funny, you don't want to ruin someone's fun. I mean they're having a good time to each other. But then there's the surrounding co-workers that are laughing with them.

Ms. DICKINSON: But you know what, you do want to ruin somebody's fun. You know, in a lot of workplaces that is actually - and I feel like I work in an office where a lot of people have great senses of humor and all having a lot of fun. But you sort of can't bring Sarah Silverman into work with you.

You know, it's actually, I think it's very inappropriate to laugh and joke with one another using charged language. It is asking for trouble. You know, the previous caller who said it poisons the workplace. If you got a new colleague who didn't appreciate all of that tomfoolery, it could be a real problem.

CONAN: Anura, thanks very much for the call.

ANURA: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

CONAN: And obviously we're getting a lot of calls on this, Amy. But I can't let you go today without asking you about something in the papers today. Former Prime Minister Berlusconi…

Ms. DICKINSON: Oh.

CONAN: …of Italy and his wife have been carrying on their marital dispute in the newspapers.

Ms. DICKINSON: My favorite story of all time. Every woman scorned - who hasn't wanted to do this? Mrs. Berlusconi published a letter in a prominent Italian newspaper basically demanding that her husband, the president, apologize to her for flirting with not only other women but apparently every woman.

CONAN: Every woman, yes.

Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah.

CONAN: And not only any newspaper - his least favorite newspaper.

Ms. DICKINSON: I know, it was beautiful. And, you know, with Valentine's Day coming up, it's - she - one of the things she complained about was that he allegedly sent a bouquet of flowers everyday. And she said, funny, none of them went to me. And so I think she could be get - and to his credit, he threw himself on her mercy and apologized.

CONAN: In his favorite newspaper.

Ms. DICKINSON: I know. I love it when these private matters kind of spill out in spectacular fashion.

CONAN: Did he grovel sufficiently, do you think?

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, so far, yes. But apparently he's got at least two decades of mistakes to sort of clean up.

CONAN: Indeed. And again, before we leave you there in Chicago, lions are donning Bear's helmets, home of course to one of the teams in the Super Bowl this Sunday.

Ms. DICKINSON: Now whatever are you talking about - oh yeah - the Bears. Yeah. We're all about it.

CONAN: And the city is obsessed with Bear's fever at this point?

Ms. DICKINSON: Completely obsessed. And me, I'll be watching the Lifetime channel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Wouldn't want to stereotype anything, would we?

Ms. DICKINSON: No.

CONAN: Amy Dickinson, thanks so much for being with us. And she'll be back with us every couple of weeks. Nice to have you on the program as a regular, Amy.

Ms. DICKINSON: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Amy Dickinson writes to the syndicated column "Ask Amy" for the Chicago Tribune. She's our regular behavior guru on TALK OF THE NATION. She joined us from our bureau in Chicago.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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