To Punish or Forgive


Imagine you have a co-worker whom you like a great deal. Imagine further that you learn he has been accused of being a (take your pick) racist, anti-Semite, or homophobe, and that a picture is circulating that appears to prove the allegation. How should you proceed to treat him, to work with him, to interact with him?

Over the last year or so, we’ve seen this scenario play out with respect to politicians, athletes and entertainment industry figures. Some have been skewered and hung out to dry while others seem to squeak through somewhat unscathed. What factors should go into our calculus in the workplace environment when making these determinations?

Factors to Consider

We should be able to forge a reasonable approach to these situations as opposed to having knee jerk reactions each time one arises. Here are some factors I believe we should consider:

  • The exact nature of the offense. Let’s stop putting every racist comment or #metoo violation into the same bucket. Physical violence is a lot worse than uttering a racial, anti-Semitic or homophobic epithet, in my view, and the perpetrators should be treated accordingly. That’s not to excuse those who make such comments, by any means, but the severity of the offense, as well as the context are important.
  • Time and age. How many years ago did the infraction occur? How old was the perpetrator when it occurred? Last summer, there were a plethora of cases concerning athletes who, in their high school years, had posted on social media using the term “gay” to describe something they thought was uncool. Does that mean we automatically assume these athletes are homophobic and beyond redemption? By contrast, do we automatically give them a bye simply because they were young? Neither, in my view. I believe we should look at each case individually, as noted below.
  • Current behavior. The current behavior of the accused is a very important consideration. Today, former White Nationalist Derek Black not only disavows white nationalism but works actively to oppose it. Similarly, Former President Johnson, who had a racist past, eventually worked tirelessly to gain passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Think how much would have been lost had we dismissed them both as beyond redemption. By contrast, VA governor Ralph Northam seems to not understand or appreciate just how offensive his medical school yearbook picture was. His apologies seem more geared toward saving his political career than offering solace to those he may have offended.

Concrete Approaches To These Dicey Situations

  • Treat Every Situation Individually. Let’s go back to the situation at work where you’ve just learned that a trusted co-worker has committed a past transgression. Imagine that a picture of him from twenty years earlier has circulated, showing him holding a Nazi flag. Suppose he quickly explains that his mother is Jewish and his father is German, and that a Jewish friend sent the picture to another Jewish friend with a note saying, “this is what can happen when you have one Jewish parent and one German parent.” Let’s further suppose that he immediately indicates that he understands how ill-advised the picture was, and he accepts the gravity of the situation. He takes responsibility for having made an error in judgment, and indicates that he was a dumb seventeen-year-old when the photo was taken. Contrast that with the co-worker who has the same picture found and essentially says, “National Socialism was an ideology in the 1930s that lead Germany out of the post WWI era. I think people make too much of old-time symbols.”  You get the idea. The first situation, however flawed, contains an explanation that is plausible, a taking of responsibility, and an apology. The second contains a dismissive brush off. How a person reacts is every bit as important, or, arguably more important, than the original sin—assuming the original sin does not include violence. People are complicated and many of the situations we find ourselves in are messy as a result. Look at your own past.  Can you absolutely  guarantee that you never said or did anything that would now be cause for concern? I know I can’t claim complete innocence. But, as noted above, there are many factors that come into play.
  • Think about the big picture. Can the person still do good things and work in their current capacity without any ill effects? This certainly depends upon the current social environment. Former President Johnson would not have a fighting chance in today’s Democratic party, and Justice Hugo Black, who came down on the liberal side of many Supreme Court decisions after attending over 100 KKK meetings as a young man, would not pass muster with the progressives in the Senate today. Yet, they both did a great deal in their time to advance the cause of civil rights.
  • Err on the side of forgiveness. Assuming, as in the first instance above, the person demonstrates true regret for his/her past transgressions, I believe the impulse should be toward forgiveness. Of course, as noted, it’s far easier to forgive someone who made one passing comment or did one stupid thing, however hurtful, than it is to forgive someone who used force or violence. That’s why each situation must be looked at individually.
  • Be Consistent. This is perhaps the toughest criteria of all with which to comply. As the cases of President Johnson and Justice Hugo Black richly illustrate, humans are often inconsistent. In a workplace context, it is extremely important to try to be fair, open-minded and reasonable in each circumstance.

It’s a darn good bet that you will come across someone who is or was racist, homophobic, or anti-Semitic, either at work or in your personal life. If you’d like to have a dialogue about the best approaches to take, give us a call at 301-520-9511 or email