Peter’s glass-walled office faces my cubicle. Behind me are four other cubicles occupied by the young analysts in our investment banking group. Marla’s cubicle is directly to my right.
One day last week, our new IT guy, Steven, happened to be sitting in Marla’s cubicle while fixing her computer. Andrew’s phone rang. He sits in the cubicle behind me. Andrew simply pressed the speaker button rather than pick up the phone. The analysts routinely take calls on the speaker so everyone in the bullpen can hear what’s said. It saves time. Usually the call involves some senior banker giving them instructions on what numbers to crunch or what pitch book to get out.
This time, however, the call was not about the latest deal we’re working on.
Peter’s voice rang out on the speaker, “Who’s the f----- black guy sitting at Marla’s desk?”
A collective hush fell. Andrew took Peter off the speaker and whispered something and hung up. I looked over at Steven. He did not look up.
In a few minutes, having fixed Marla’s computer issue, Steven left the bullpen.
A frenzied flurry of words ensued. I turned around to face the group.
“I’m calling Peter out.”
The bullpen stood up.
“No, Kathie, don’t do that!” Andrew begged, “He’ll get mad at me for having him on the speaker phone.”
“Two rules of business apply here: always assume you’re on the squawk box and that everyone reads your email. And by the way, I have five biracial children, and what Peter just said affected me personally.”
Another hush fell over the group.
I turned back around. Peter was sitting at his desk completely oblivious. I took a few minutes to gather my thoughts then sent him an email. It’s always best to put things in writing rather than face a “he said, she said” situation later.
“Hey Peter, I’ve got something to say. I heard what you just said, “Who’s the f----- black guy at Marla’s desk?’ I’ve got five biracial children. Listen, I know you and I know your good side. You’re not a bad person. But words matter. And the words you just said could cause some real damage.”
Peter wrote back immediately, “Got it. Didn’t know he was the new IT guy.”
That didn’t sound like an apology. I decided to give Peter some time to see how he would handle it.
In the meantime, I went over to Steven’s office on the other side of the building, and talked with him about the incident, assuring him that the firm would take care of it.
Peter left later that day for a three-week business trip. Days went by. No one in our group talked about it again.
I knew what I had to do. My boss, the vice-chairman, had been out traveling. When he returned, I went to his office, closed the door, and related the whole story.
“I did two tours of duty in Vietnam”, Bill began after hearing the account, “I arrived as a good ‘ol boy from Texas - white, proud, and racist. Fellow black soldiers saved my life more than a dozen times. I went back to Texas with a whole different outlook on what it means to be a human being.”
“That’s a great story,” I responded.
“Did Peter apologize to Steven?”
“I don’t know.”
Bill sprang up from his desk and headed straight to Steven’s office.
Later Bill copied me on an email to Peter, “Call me immediately! I don’t care where you are or what meeting you’re in, get on the phone ASAP!”
Bill followed up in a few minutes to tell me about the phone call with Peter. He said that initially Peter displayed a defensive attitude about the incident. Bill said he interrupted Peter’s foul-mouthed diatribe and ordered Peter to do three things as soon as he was back in the office: Go to Steven’s office. Apologize. Shake his hand.
When Peter returned from his trip, he did just what Bill said to do.
That same day, Peter called me into his office and apologized as well. We had a nice long conversation about the importance of words and how we use them. Peter is a new father. He candidly related how he and his wife are working together to shield their daughter from the moments of stress between them when all the wrong words spill out. I shared my experience of raising my children and how I tried to protect them from such verbal assaults. Peter stood up, shook my hand, and said thank you.
My office is a better place to work now. Civility had taken a seat - front and center.
Anna Deavere Smith (artist, actor, writer), once said, “In my experience, happier people are people who have not only a high price tag on themselves, but a high price tag on the people around them.”