Retha Fernandez, Suffolk County's first chief officer of diversity and...

Retha Fernandez, Suffolk County's first chief officer of diversity and inclusion, said many employees of color, or other workers who identify as members of a disenfranchised group, often must determine whether remarks made by co-workers were hostile. She is shown at the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge on Dec. 3, 2019. Credit: Barry Sloan

One colleague’s perceived innocent comment in the workplace may be viewed as a “microaggression” by another employee.

Determining how to successfully navigate the complicated world of office dynamics, and what resources are available for minority employees who feel aggrieved on the job, was the topic of a panel discussion Thursday night. The Facebook Live event was hosted by Yung Hip Professionals Inc., a nonprofit based in Wyandanch.

Panelist Retha Fernandez, Suffolk County’s first chief officer of diversity and inclusion, said many employees of color, or other workers who identify as a member of a disenfranchised group, often must determine whether remarks made by co-workers were hostile.

“Is it cause I’m Black? Cause I’m a woman? Cause I’m young? So, you’re questioning yourself,” Fernandez said. “You’re not even sure how to address it or what to address.”

She emphasized no right way exists to resolve these incidents because each is different. 

Suffolk County Legis. Jason Richberg [D-West Babylon], also a panelist, said employees should be aware of workplace rules, whether that means checking the human resources handbook or speaking with union representatives.

“You need to protect yourself, and you need to know the rules of the road before you walk into a room,” Richberg said. “And if that means, you don’t talk to anybody before you have legal representation, then you don’t talk to anybody until you have legal representation.”

Suffolk County Legis. Jason Richberg [D-West Babylon] said employees should be aware...

Suffolk County Legis. Jason Richberg [D-West Babylon] said employees should be aware of workplace rules, whether that means checking the human resources handbook or speaking with union representatives. He is show in the Suffolk County Legislature on Jan. 15, 2020. Credit: Morgan Campbell.

Panelists emphasized businesses have anti-discrimination, anti-hate and sexual harassment policies. Labor laws also govern municipalities, state and federal workplaces.

Workers also need to know they are not alone, Richberg said.

“That’s why representation matters. Having people who look like you, who have, you know, your same gender or gender identity … is so important,” he said. “You’re not an anomaly.”

An incident might be resolved by just confronting the co-worker and being polite, but clear, on why their comment or action was hurtful, panelists said. They also stressed seeking advice from someone outside the office, such as a spouse, partner or trusted friend.

Sam Law, president of Yung Hip Professionals, said workers should try to cool off before sending that impulsive email that may get them into trouble while at work. Without specifying, however, Law said she had filed a lawsuit against a former employee. She said taking such a drastic step was a choice she had to make. 

“It was over racial things that could not continue,” she said. “Not only did it hurt me, but it was going to continue to hurt any man or woman that applied to work at this company.”

Law said she lost relationships with colleagues over the matter, but once she owned her decision, everything improved.

“I decided I will not stand down. I will address it. Since taking that stand, I have had a much more fruitful life and a happier life.”

Northwell Health social worker Darius Hopkins, also a panelist, said employees who felt aggrieved couldn't ignore the problem.

“It doesn’t have to be retributive. It doesn’t have to be about the other person,” he said. “But handling it however you see fit is so important because maybe it will mitigate that noise, that uncomfortabilty — and you’re addressing it.”

Latest videos