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You know what really gets me tight? Injustice. Unfairness. Blatant favoritism.
I’ve learned to control my external reactions to these things. But sometimes, inside my belly, there’s a pissed off group of tiny little me’s of all shapes and hues howling at the perennial injustices visited upon minorities in this country.
The biggest piss off moment this week? Ryan Lochte.
I’ve always thought there was something off about him. I attributed my feeling to a supposition that Lochte really likes attention, and coming up in the era of Michael Phelps, he isn’t getting much. But his latest Rio foolishness, pretending to be robbed and going around holding press conferences about the experience, only to have video emerge to prove that he lied about the entire thing? Really?
And the killing part about it all? He loses his endorsements and then immediately picks up another one hawking cough drops for Pine Bros. Softish Throat Drops. Not disgusting enough for you? I’ve seen multiple reports that he’s in talks to join the cast of “Dancing With the Stars.” I say again, really?
Let’s speculate on what would have happened if Lochte was a black swimmer, shall we? Number one, he’d be under a Rio jail right now, and most of the United States of America would have thrown him under the bus. After his family mortgaged their lives to get him out of jail and he returned home, there’d be fines up the wazoo, his medals would be revoked, and there’d be an outcry to try to get him arrested for something here, too. He’d be blasted with rock salt from every angle for lack of morals, being a liar, casting a horrible shadow on the U.S.’s honor, being a terrible sportsman and role model, and folks would probably be calling him crazy as well.
And sure some brands dropped Lochte’s endorsements like he was hot – Ralph Lauren and Speedo among them. But according to E, Lochte’s new sponsor Pine Bros. CEO Rider McDowell reached out to him personally after last week’s incident, and then “asked the public to be a little more understanding – even forgiving – of the young American swimmer.”
“We all make mistakes, but they’re rarely given front-page scrutiny,” McDowell said in a statement. “He’s a great guy who has done incredible work with charities. I’m confident that Pine Bros. fans will support our decision to give Ryan a second chance.”
First, 32 isn’t all that young. It’s definitely old enough to know better. And as for front-page scrutiny, that’s the game whether you’re an Olympic athlete or some poor black nobody with your picture in the paper after being sentenced years for having two joints in a plastic bag.
That sentiment, the whole, aww, he made a mistake, forgive him, he deserves a second chance, it’s way too familiar. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen it play out in the media – rapist Brock Turner, anyone? – and it’s disgusting and blatantly favors white screw ups over minority ones.
I’ve seen the same thing play out over and over throughout my career, as well. If you’re white and male and you make a mistake, your supervisor gives you a pass, a pat on the back, encouragement and pulls you aside for some one-on-one coaching to either help you improve, or make sure you don’t get caught again. If you’re a minority – and I include white females in that group – you get chastised in front of everyone during a meeting, or you’re asked to stay behind in front of everyone after the meeting, which is kind of the same thing.
Then, once the door’s closed, you’re admonished, shamed, and made to feel like one little transgression is not only an indication of your lack of character, skill and intelligence, you’re made to feel like you now have to turn some Simone Biles-esque back flips in order to get even close to back in the boss’ good graces.
But here’s the thing: you never can. That one mistake will be held against you forever. It will be trotted out in meetings and performance reviews and bandied about oh so casually whenever there’s an opportunity in random conversations. It’s like the career version of a criminal record; not only can you never forget it, no one else will either.
Minority employee: “I’d like to be considered for the management development program.”
Schmarmy supervisor: “Well, it’s probably not a good idea. You know you did have that one incident 36 months ago with theft.”
Minority employee: “It was a box of paper clips, and I needed them for a work project that I took home to complete.”
Schmarmy supervisor *with nose in the air and a supercilious expression*: “Theft is theft.”
America might be the land of second chances, but that love of a comeback simply does not extend to everyone. I mentioned Brock Turner. Two witnesses saw that dude raping an unconscious woman, tackled him and held him for authorities when he tried to run away, and he got six months’ probation. Six. Months. Probation. And when prosecutors asked for some years Judge Aaron Persky said “he was concerned about the “severe impact” a longer sentence would have on Turner’s life.” Apparently he didn’t have the same level of concern for the Latino man he sentenced to three years for a similar crime.
Of course, Persky will no longer try criminal cases, having asked to be moved to Santa Clara County court’s civil division following criticism for his leniency, but I notice no one has suggested reopening the cases he tried to see where else he played favorites. So, even he gets a free pass on despicable behavior.
There are no absolutes, but being white and male is kind of like an automatic get out of jail free card. Location is irrelevant. We could be talking about a college campus, a gas station in Brazil or two cubicles over in your office. If you’re a minority, you will be judged more harshly for any transgression.
In the workplace in particular one mistake becomes a ball and chain around your ankle that hobbles not only your ability to perform, but your ability to advance, be developed, coached or even be seen as something other than that person who made that mistake that one time – and into perpetuity. Johnny screws up one order, he gets coaching and encouragement. Johnetta does it and she gets a write up and a performance plan. See what I mean?
I point things out to my direct reports all the time, but I don’t usually say, you did this wrong because it’s not necessary to potentially hurt someone’s feelings, generate resentment and hamper their performance – all of which can and often does happen when you point out an adult’s mistake.
Anyway, perfection does not exist. Everyone makes mistakes, and when they do, they’re usually a learning opportunity, not a chance to make an adult into a child complete with slapped hand and wagging finger.
Now, sometimes it’s necessary to be forceful. If a mistake could have been dangerous to a co-worker or cost the company revenue, resources or expose the organization to negative legal attention, a tough talk is entirely appropriate.
I might even talk a little tough if I think a direct report’s behavior could derail their own career efforts. But managers have to make sure when they have those tough talks they come under the heading “harsh, but fair,” not harsh for some, and lenient for others. The same goes for development opportunities and promotions. Don’t give to John what you don’t offer to Jane and Juan.
As for Lochte, Rio police have charged him with falsely reporting a crime. We’ll see if that charge leads to actual punishment.
Kellye Whitney is Workforce’s associate editorial director. Comment below, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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