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posted: 11/11/2012 7:15 AM

Work advice: Blowing the whistle on a racist retaliator

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Q: I work for a community college. I was leading a meeting when the topic turned to an Asian student who is opening a restaurant. My boss mocked the student's name and the restaurant's using a fake Asian accent. A couple of co-workers and I were stunned. Others joined in and laughed. My boss has already threatened to retaliate against me because I copied her boss on an email. She warned me I'd face repercussions if I ever did that again. Should I complain to Human Resources about her racist joke, or should I let it go since she will truly retaliate?

A: Surely you know it's illegal to retaliate against employees for reporting discriminatory behavior.

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(Cue peals of bitter laughter from workplace whistle-blowers who have ended up looking for new jobs, anyway.)

Not that I'm trying to discourage you. If you were to report this incident to HR, and if HR can be trusted not to reveal the source of the complaint, your boss wouldn't necessarily know it was you. That's especially true if others who were present -- or weren't present but heard about it -- also filed complaints.

If you do report it, be sure to describe exactly what was said, and be sure to mention that you believe you witnessed an act of "discrimination." That's the word that triggers Title VII protection for you against retaliation from your boss, says Elaine Fitch, of Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch, a Washington employment law firm.

That said, you are not required to report this event. As Fitch notes, "one set of nasty comments standing alone will not a hostile work environment make." But I have to wonder how well your boss is serving the student population if she can't get through one meeting without a juvenile homage to Mickey Rooney's role as Mr. Yunioshi in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Besides, Fitch adds, "If people don't stand up to this behavior, it doesn't change."

Speaking of change, here's my two bits on dealing with your vindictive boss in general. Assuming that you are not trying to undermine her or get her in trouble, next time she threatens you with "repercussions," follow up later via email: "I realize you are unhappy with me for [whatever your alleged offense was]. I didn't mean to cause problems, but I'm not sure why what I did was wrong. Could you please explain, so I don't do it again?" If you're lucky, she might clue you in to a potential land mine you were unaware of. If you're really lucky, she might apologize for overreacting. If you hit the jackpot, she might be fool enough to make another threat in writing, providing you with evidence in case you someday find yourself facing those aforementioned repercussions.

Karla L. Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office.

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