I receive some really great letters from readers and always appreciate their viewpoints, even if they don't agree with what I've written. Many readers take the time to outline a particular problem at work, and ask me for help in dealing with it.
But sometimes I receive letters that are full of anger and resentment -- and intolerance. These writers blame a certain person for their trouble -- but also the person's gender or the ethnic or religious group to which the person belongs.
Diversity experts told me I shouldn't be so surprised at those letters. They explained that people need someone to blame for their troubles, and blaming "those" people is a convenient outlet.
At the same time, they said, not all intolerance is so obvious. Some of us are intolerant to others at work, and we may not even be aware of it.
Right about now you may be saying you're not like that because you treat everyone the same.
But do you really?
Have you ever said someone is a "real slave driver"? To someone who is African-American, this comment may be offensive. Or, have you said that "all women love to gossip" but thought about how insulting that may be to the females where you work? Saying "all men are slobs" is just as unfair. Anything that has a "those people" kind of edge to it shows that you are making sweeping statements -- not based on fact, but on intolerance.
So, what should you do if you recognize that you're guilty of making such statements? First, be honest. If you have offended someone you should apologize and say, "I know this is awkward, but I'd like to keep working with you."
At the same time, you may not realize you've been offensive until it has been pointed out to you. In that case, be open to the criticism. "So, it was offensive when I said that all Asians are bad drivers? Obviously, it's something I need to work on, and I'm sorry. Thanks for pointing it out."
What should you do if others are making insensitive remarks around you and they won't stop? Say something like, "I don't want to hear racist or sexist jokes anymore. I hope you'll respect my wishes and not tell them in my presence." If you can, get a coworker who feels the same to support you.
Finally, be patient with yourself and with others. It will take some time to drop bad habits that you may have had for a long time. But remember that once you start being more aware, then you will continue to grow in tolerance and understanding -- and that will make you more valuable in the workplace today.
If you'd like more information on diversity, check out www.tolerance.org. If you think you may be the target of discrimination and want to learn more about your legal rights, consult the Equal Opportunity Commission Web site at www.eeoc.gov.