Q: Making racial, ethnic or gender slurs where I work is unacceptable, but apparently government employees are fair game for all manner of ridicule. This troubles me as my spouse and the vast majority of his colleagues are very hardworking public employees. Any suggestions for how to deal with my stereotyping colleagues on this issue?
A: Model positive behavior as you educate your colleagues.
The inner game
Put away your protective instincts so you can calmly address the situation. Take some deep breaths, letting go of anger with each breath. It’ll help you feel better and will increase your ability to have a positive influence.
How widespread is the behavior? Do you hear comments every week or a few times a year? Is it limited to just a few people? And, if so, consider your ability to influence them.
In particular, consider what the people making these comments really think. Some may truly believe that government employees are unmotivated and underperforming. Others may just be making thoughtless jokes.
Finally, consider your goal and the amount of energy you’re willing to put into it. Close to home, you may be just trying to stop comments in your presence. However, that raises the question of the wider-spread societal views that foster these attitudes.
The outer game
Rely on private communication when you’re not annoyed to get your point across, taking a couple of different approaches. For those who are just making empty wisecracks, plan out a conversation in which you tell people about the feelings you have when they bash government workers. But it’s up to you to let them know that it feels personal because of your spouse’s occupation. People may be insensitive, but it’s rare for them to be intentionally unkind.
For those who have a more reasoned belief they’re expressing, try asking — neutrally — about the reasons for their opinion. Listen with an open mind and ask questions to clarify. At this point, you could share that their experiences don’t align with yours, and also let them know why this hits hot buttons for you. At worst, you’ve let them know that you’re going to be sensitive on the topic, and at best, you may be able to influence their opinion.
For all, reminding them that every profession has its stars and its slackers will provide useful perspective.
If, after talking with them, it continues to happen, find a light way to call them on it — countering with anger will not get you anywhere. At that point, depending on how strongly it affects you, you may also want to talk with your boss about other steps.
Looking more broadly, write letters to the editor to get wider visibility. Other professions, notably nursing, have done an ad campaign to reinforce the respect they deserve. Be involved politically to help address the polarization that may be inflaming disrespect for government in general.
And maintain perspective … government workers are not the only ones who get tweaked. There are millions of jokes about lawyers and insurance agents out there, too.
The last word