Our office was closed last Monday in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I was at the dog park talking to a woman I know who also happens to be a lawyer. During our discussion of how nice it was to be off of work, she mentioned that not everyone at her firm felt that way.
She then told me that there is one partner in her office who every year insists on coming into work on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Not only does he insist on coming in, he insists on announcing to everyone in the office that the reason he is coming in was because Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was a “made up holiday” and he did not believe in the concept of the holiday. Notably, this partner apparently has no such qualms about taking off other holidays, such as President’s Day.
As this attorney told me the story, she was annoyed but not visibly upset. I should mention that the attorney I was speaking to is diverse. Although she is not African American, I can imagine how she felt that this partner was going out of his way to basically say that he does not support the concept of equality and diversity.
I then thought about the fact that this partner, who is apparently very senior at her firm, is allowed to make such statements unchecked. Although he did not use a racial slur or directly say that he was opposed to minorities, that certainly is one interpretation of his comments.
I can also imagine how other partners who heard his comments simply shook their heads and walked away, likely thinking to themselves that it was inappropriate but not bad enough that they should say something. However, little comments like that fester just as much as other more egregious behavior.
If employers are truly serious about reducing harassment and discrimination in the workplace and reducing possible legal exposure, they must establish an inclusive culture. No workplace is perfect and there might always be a bad apple, but one bad apple is likely to turn into a bushel if these “little” comments are not also addressed.