The N-Word

It’s Black History Month! And I’m continuing to share thoughts on race and diversity in the workplace. In this post, I’m diving into the grand-daddy of all racially charged words — the N-word.

The modern version of the word seems to have originated during the 1600s, when American colonists used “negar” to describe the African slaves brought to the Virginia colonies. The word spiraled from there to be the extremely inflammatory word it is today.

And, because of that, there is nothing I hate more than having to deal with the use of the N-word in the workplace. What’s worse is how many Black people I deal with who defend their right to use it.

Which brings me to the tale of Mr. Black and Mr. White …

Mr. White was Black. He’d been an employee for a little less than a year when Mr. Black (who was White) became the manager of his department. Well, Mr. White was friends with Mr. Brown (who was also Black) and they regularly used the N-word as a term of endearment to refer to themselves and other people.

Mr. Black didn’t like it. He thought it was inappropriate for the workplace. And he told Mr. White and Mr. Brown to cut it out. They didn’t listen to him. They defended their right to use the word as Black people and ignored Mr. Black’s instructions.

One day, during one of Mr. White and Brown’s N-word riddled conversations, Mr. Black jumped in and started using the N-word himself. An argument ensued which turned physical. Mr White and Mr Black were terminated.

But what happened next still baffles me to this day.

Both men filed for unemployment benefits, alleging they were terminated wrongfully.

Mr. White was awarded benefits while Mr. Black was denied.

Apparently, Mr. White’s argument that he was using the N-word as a term of endearment and not in an inflammatory way made sense. And Mr. Black’s choice to use the N-word to demonstrate why it’s not OK to use the N-word at work did not fly. And our argument that the N-word is inflammatory enough that it should not ever be used regardless of the intention was only half right.

Et tu, State Commission?!?!

Mr. White and Mr. Black suddenly made use of the N-word at work very … grey!

I don’t want to debate the N-word and it’s use in every day life and/or pop-culture. If you choose to use it as a term of endearment in your life to refer to your friends and loved ones, that is your choice. I disagree with you, but that is your choice.

At work, however, it’s never appropriate. That’s right — NEVER!! The history and pejorative nature of the N-word makes it off-limits. There cannot be words that are OK for some people but not OK for others in a place where everyone is supposed to be held to the same standard. Period. And the same rules apply to the B-word and F-word (not to be confused with the F-bomb, which I confess is one of my favorite words). There is no place for it. So cut it out — or face the consequences!

And by consequences, I mean progressive disciplinary action. I’m not advocating terminating every employee who uses inappropriate or inflammatory language immediately. When it happens, there is an opportunity to teach and coach about appropriateness and inclusion that should be seized. In the case of Mr. White and Mr. Black, the decision to terminate them was based on their altercation turning physical, not solely their use of the N-word. Had they not gotten into a fight, they probably wouldn’t have lost their jobs.

So what happened to Mr. Brown?  He stuck around. He was counseled and there were no further issues with him …

Comments Closed


  1. Thanks for the post, Buzz. I particularly enjoyed the creative naming of those involved in the workplace incident.

    I’m a bit confused as to why Mr. Black didn’t take immediate action to correct this issue, beyond asking them to stop. Most organizations have zero tolerance policies around the use of inappropriate and/or unprofessional language. While Mr. White and Mr. Brown thought their language was acceptable, as they were friends, Mr. Black could have made it clear that it wasn’t appropriate workplace behavior. What they do outside of work (and doesn’t get captured online) is their business. While on company property or on company time they can and must be held accountable. I doubt that he would have been seen as overreacting, either by internal or external monitors.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful and creative post, Buzz!

    • Buzz Rooney

      February 8, 2012 at 7:04 PM

      I am not sure. I know he wrote them up but I dont think he took it further than that. It didnt hit my desk until after Mr Black and Mr White ended up rumbling in the aisles — and at that point, there was nothing we could do to save anyone.

      In other cases, Ive seen managers fold under pressure and confusion over who said the word and the context and intent. I dont play that! Everyone gets progressive discipline. The word just isnt acceptable. White, Black, Brown, Yellow, Blue or Purple! No excuses.

      I creatively named them to deliberately add to the confusion. I am glad you caught that! 😉

  2. Great post! I GET your point and it is one worth making. No one is licensed in this area – NO exceptions. But if you dont mind me asking.. what’s the difference between the fword and the fbomb??

  3. I enjoyed the post. Very well written. This was my first time on your site, but it certainly will not be my last.

    • Buzz Rooney

      February 15, 2012 at 12:26 PM

      Thank you for reading! I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts. Please connect with me on twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn as well.

  4. Hey Buzz sorry it took me so long to get to this. I could not agree with you more. No place for N- in the workplace -from ANYONE. I don’t care what color you are – I don’t want to hear it. I have enough other issues to deal with I sure don’t need anyone giving me more work because of their mouths!

    • Buzz Rooney

      February 10, 2012 at 12:01 PM

      I agree with you, Dave! In order for managers and HR to be effective in there jobs and in enforcing policy, there cannot be different rules for different people when it comes to what we say. Inflammatory speech has no place in the workplace. Once you receive a warning that it isn’t allowed, you are using it at your own risk.

      Thank you for reading and always supporting 🙂

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