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The Token Woman

One of the more challenging people that I had working for me was my lead technician, who I will call Joe. He was prejudiced against most people, but top of the list seems to be black people and women in the workplace [although he was happy to use them as sexual objects].

About a year after I started the business, I hired a female salesperson, who I will call Alice. She had her challenges but the sales manager and I certainly felt that she was competent and had the kind of potential that we were looking for. As part of her job she had to interface with the technical people, and given the above remarks this was obviously something of a flashpoint.

Of course, the relationship between sales and service is always a potential flashpoint because sales "gives it away" and service has to pick up the pieces, but this was exacerbated in this case by what Joe saw as female behavior to get her way.

One day I heard that Joe had referred to Alice as a "token", that he had said some other things by way of illustration and that this had all been reported back to a tearful Alice, who was not feeling very secure about her place in the organization or her relationships with coworkers.

I thought at some length about the best way to handle this and I realized that the situation required careful handling. I had to find a way to defuse the situation and to keep Alice as a motivated, happy and "non-suing" member of staff but I knew that any accusation I leveled at Joe would be vehemently denied, and that I would not get anywhere with that line of attack.

Having thought about it for a while, I managed to get together with Joe in the computer room for a casual chat. It was important that I didn't call him into my office and elevate the discussion to one where his guard was up and he became defensive, and I figured that talking to him in his own environment would be the best way to sneak up on him from behind and get what I wanted.

The conversation went something like this:

"Joe” I said softly in my understated, English style that I use most effectively in confrontations, “I heard something a little disturbing today and I wanted to talk to you and to alert you to something that is going on. The rumor going round the office like wildfire is that you referred to Alice as a "token" and a waste of space, and while I haven’t spoken to her, I gather that she is pretty upset"

Joe reddened, and I saw that my words had hit home. "I never said anything of the sort" he said defensively “How could you think that I did?”

"I never thought for a moment that you did”, I said quietly…..”but here is the issue. Somebody started a rumor, and it had enough credibility that people accepted it at face value. The issue that we have to deal with, Joe, is that there is evidently something in the way that you present yourself that makes this inherently believable to other people. That's what I find troubling, and that's what we need to address together.

He looked at me as though I had hit him over the head with a piece of lead pipe, and I reflected to myself that I had certainly sandbagged him quite effectively. He thought for a moment and said "you got me Steve..... what do you want me to do to help fix this situation?”

I was astonished at how easy this has been and once I had his compliance [if not his enthusiastic support], the actions that needed to be taken were relatively simple and straightforward. He agreed that he would talk to Alice in the presence of the sales manager, deny ever making the comments and say that he would never say or do anything like that and that there must have been some kind of misunderstanding.

It worked, and this is a technique for addressing behaviors that cannot be directly confronted that I have been using ever since to good effect.