The Office: Complaining without Inviting Backlash

Dear DW:

How do I complain to my manager about a colleague’s insensitive comments in a way that ensures my concerns are heard and taken seriously?

Signed, Afraid of Causing a Backlash or “Blacklash”

Dear Afraid,

Complaining about a colleague or work situation can be tricky in the best of cases. For women of color, it can be even more challenging in light of unfair and inaccurate stereotypes such as the “angry Black woman,” which paint Black women as hostile and intimidating.

However, everyone has the right to feel comfortable in their work environment, says LaTrice Huff, a career coach based in San Antonio. “If the behavior impacts your role, or if somebody does or says something that grossly offends you, and you think it would be offensive to other people too—those would be reasons to complain.”

There are ways to increase your chances of having a productive conversation. Don’t just unload on your boss in the heat of the moment when your emotions are heightened, Huff says, as that can play into those stereotypes. Instead, ask your manager if you can schedule some time to talk about a sensitive matter concerning a colleague in the next couple of days. That lets your manager know it’s important and gives you time to prepare, says Huff.

Make sure to create a paper trail. When you meet with your manager, say something like “I took the liberty of writing up some points for you,” Huff advises. “If it’s not written up, [your manager] could just ignore it.”

During the meeting, be prepared to share what happened, how you responded, and how it was unfair or how it made you feel. Also, think about what type of resolution you want, even if it’s simply that the offending behavior stops.

If your manager does nothing, have a plan to take the next step, whether it’s speaking with someone from human resources or meeting with your boss’s manager. Your paper trail will show that you went through proper channels when trying to get the matter resolved.

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