Deep breath

  • By Amy Gallo
  • Published February 2017

helping managers retain their best talent. "I'm certain he never called anyone a 'fag' again." He and the former colleague remain friends.

Case Study: Don't accuse
Daniel Wagner (names and some details have been changed), the co-owner of an executive search firm based in New York City, has worked for more than a year with Carol, the founder of a youth education organization. In the course of advising her on leadership hires, he's been frequently taken aback by some of Carol's comments and requests. For example, she once emailed Daniel's team to ask them to find photos of job candidates so she could see what they looked like. She also asked that they determine the age of an applicant. After one meeting, Carol commented that the interviewee "dressed like she was Amish." When discussing an African-American woman up for another job, she expressed concern that her skin color might prevent people from taking her seriously. Daniel and his team were upset by these remarks.

But all along, Daniel's approach has been to be direct and honest with Carol. "As the senior person on the team, I was constantly trying to insert myself before she got herself in too much trouble," he recalls. For instance, when she asked for inappropriate information about candidates, he replied, "We don't request that information because we won't make a decision based on that. We focus on competencies." And when she asked for the photos, he said, "Please don't ask us to do this again. It's not OK."

At the same time, he never accused her of being racist or biased. "I didn't want to make assumptions about her intentions or moral character. My parents make the same sort of comments sometimes, so I've been exposed to good people who say inappropriate things."

Carol's responses have varied. Sometimes she denies she'd been offensive and says, "You must've heard me wrong." Other times she apologizes. But over time, Daniel's input seems to have helped. "She says fewer offensive things now. It's gotten a lot better."