My boss wants to know my ethnicity

Courtesy of Flickr user bpsusf C.C.2.0

(MoneyWatch) Dear Evil HR Lady,

I'm a senior manager at a large global company. I recently had my appraisal and shortly after getting feedback that "I needed to be a more vocal leader" my interim manager (now former boss) asked me if I was Hawaiian (I'm half Asian). I interpreted him to be saying that my style as a leader was due to my ethnicity, which I clearly can't change.

I'm considering filing a complaint with HR. I don't think questions about your ethnic background should come up in a performance appraisal. I no longer report to this person but he is a peer of my new boss and I fear I will be labeled a trouble maker and cast aside if I complain. I also fear that this person will just continue to be insensitive to others and feel obligated to do something about it.

Any advice Evil HR Lady?

A few weeks ago, I stopped by a restaurant I'd never been to before and ordered a couple of pizzas for takeout. While I was chatting with the men at the counter, one said, "Are you from Holland?" I'm not, so I replied, "No, I'm from America." Well, actually, I replied, "Nein. Ich komme aus den USA." Why? Because the restaurant was in Switzerland and the official language where I live is German.

Now, here's reality: I speak German with a strong accent. But, more and more people are mistaking that accent for a Dutch one rather than an American one, and I take that as a compliment because Dutch is a lot closer to German than English is. Was the pizza man trying to be rude? Of course not. He was simply making conversation. 

It's possible that your interim manager may well have been making conversation with you as well. I know it was in a performance appraisal, but those things can veer off course pretty easily. For instance, you could have said something that his Hawaiian college roommate used to say all the time, so he was simply inquiring out of curiosity and a fondness for his old roommate.

But what if he wasn't? What if he was implying that your ethnicity had to do with your management style? Is that so awful?

Americans (see, generalizing to a group of 250,000,000 people) have this strange belief that we need to be accommodating to all ethnic backgrounds but that we cannot ask about them because that would be rude and/or racist. It should be about culture and experience. They are different. Some silly things vary--like when you move into a new place, is it your obligation to introduce yourself to the neighbors, or is it their obligation to come and welcome you?

Now, saying you're half "Asian," tells me very little about you, your upbringing or your culture. But, there are some Asian cultures where being "vocal" about things can be seen as rude. Why is it bad for your manager to inquire into your background? It doesn't imply that you can't change at all. It simply implies that there might be a darn good reason for why you are behaving the way are behaving. Sometimes people need to be told straight out, "At this company, everyone is expected to speak their minds," or, conversely, "At this company, we always defer to the boss. You can say what you think when you're the boss." For whatever reason, your method of communication is a problem for this manager. 

What good would going to HR do? At best, your former manager would be terribly embarrassed that he offended you. At worst, you'll be branded as a whiner who is extra sensitive. There doesn't appear to be any negative fallout from the question, so there is no harm involved. Maybe they'd require him to go through some sensitivity training, but honestly, the manager in question isn't even your manager any more. And if this is the only thing that that he's ever done that could remotely be labeled as "insensitive" then it's best to let it go.

If someone is a genuine racist and is discriminating against you because of your race or ethnicity, you'll have plenty of opportunities to spot it. Complain then. But, in the future if someone asks you about your racial background, either treat it as a casual conversation topic and respond with, "Oh, I'm half-Asian and half-German. What's your background?" or ask them directly why they are asking, "What does this have to do with the performance appraisal?"  

Have a workplace dilemma? Send your question to EvilHRLady@gmail.com.