Before I became a lawyer or even considered the profession, I was a waitress. I also was a feminist.  I was 18 and working at a restaurant In Providence RI.  Ronnie’s Rascal House!  One of the line cooks constantly called me “honey, baby and sweetie.”  Every time I put an order check on the wheel and spun it to him into the kitchen, he said it. One day I had had enough and I said, “I am not your honey or baby or sweetie.”  I snapped those words. He looked at me stunned and said, “I am sorry. I had no idea.”  After that we became very good friends.

Later I graduated from waiting tables to working as a salesperson in a custom jewelry store. The owner of the store met me at his ex-wife’s gourmet lunch restaurant (not the honey baby sweetie place in Providence RI but a later and more upscale place in NC).  He thought I had the ability to work with customers outside of taking orders for food and offered me a job.  But, he was kind of a traditional guy – 20 years older than me.  For example, he would try to open the car door for me when I was a passenger but I had no experience with that so, not expecting it, I nearly clocked him with the door several times as he tried to open it.

On my first day working in his jewelry store, at the end of the day he told me to vacuum the store. I thought this was a test, and the most chauvinistic thing I had ever heard, so I declined to vacuum. And over the next few days I saw that he and the other sales person took turns vacuuming. That was just how it was. So I started vacuuming too.

What can these experiences teach us?  What your employees hear is often a function of what they are expecting to hear based on their world view, age, education and experiences. I expected men to be belittling of me because I was mindful of my rights as a woman to be respected and when I heard something that seemed to be belittling, I reacted through that lens. My lens prevented me understanding what they were really saying.  Getting employees to get past that requires honest discussion.

Learning that people usually do not mean to offend is key. Learning what your own biases are is key.

These experiences also teach us that often people think they are being treated in a discriminatory way because they expect that to happen. They read intentions into other’s actions that never were intended. I try to approach my clients’ situations and my cases with that perspective. And when I can, outside of litigation, I try to help employees and managers see past their pre-set lenses.

That is not to say that there is no discrimination anymore. It is just to say that a lot of disputes can be avoided by giving others the benefit of the doubt and clearing the air when you think someone is belittling you. You may learn that this was not the intent and they may turn out to be a remembered friend, 35 years later.