A Contractor Gets Fired for Voicing an Opinion

Certified mail is the “we need to talk” of written communication. The news is never good: The IRS is demanding additional money on top of the 10 percent penalty you already paid for an early 401(k) withdrawal; an old flame has reappeared in the form of a court order requesting establishment of paternity, or in my case, your employer is firing you for believing that African-Americans and Latinos are able to sit in a clinic waiting room without starting a race war.

I started contract employment with a San Diego area community health center in July 2012. My job was to write grant proposals that would help the nonprofit increase its already robust $20 million budget. It was not my ideal job, but I had worked in not-for-profit health care for a number of years and knew the grant writing routine—use statistics and emotional appeals to explain, for example, why impoverished children in your service area should have dental care that exceeds putting silver crowns on every tooth. Plus the gig paid well—$25 an hour—and aside from bimonthly meetings, I could work from home while watching my two young kids, or, at the very least, help them to learn the importance of being able to occupy each other while Dad is busy.

By early September of the following year I had written 12 grant proposals. Eight were rejected by potential funders, three were awaiting decisions at the time of my firing, and one was funded at $37,000 to purchase a new patient transportation van. Admittedly, I may or may not have been a great grant writer; the job in itself is nearly impossible to objectively evaluate. You can write a powerful and eloquent 40-page proposal that gets rejected. You can also spend an hour composing a run-of-the-mill description of the organization’s history and program plan and receive a large grant, primarily because the funding organization and the grantee have an established relationship.

Later that month I attended a marketing meeting at the request of the organization’s Chief Operating Officer. The group brainstorming session, complete with flip charts, colored markers, and late afternoon lack of enthusiasm, was held to identify future grant opportunities and discuss ways to increase patient visits. During the meeting, the employee whose job task was to guilt Big Business and politicians into giving the organization grants (official title: Director of Community Partnerships) suggested that the health center market their services to African-Americans, which made a lot of sense. Pick any major health disparity or health crisis—HIV infections, hospitalizations due to chronic disease, deaths to chronic disease, or number of non-emergency visits to the emergency department—and the statistics for African-Americans in the clinic’s service area were the worst of the worst.

But the Chief Operating Officer quickly dismissed his idea. Her reasoning was that, “Blacks don’t like to be in the clinic with Mexicans,” which is somewhat correct if you’re talking about black and brown gang members in a prison infirmary, but not your everyday community members seeking health care.

A spirited 20-minute discussion ensued between the two. The Chief Operating Officer said, “We already see African refugees,” as if there was some sort of Negro quota. The Director stated that politicians and the media would “come down hard” on the organization if they found out about the policy. He went on to explain that he planned to meet with a black state assemblymember who represented the district that was home to the bulk of the organization’s clinics. Presumably she had no problem sitting in a room with someone of a different race. Still, the Chief Operating Officer refused to budge.

As the only African-American in the meeting, this was probably an opportune time for me to join the conversation, but as a lowly contract grant writer working 15 hours per week I lacked the clout to influence an executive level decision. Still, the spirit of Django ran through me and I said, “As a member of the African-American community we’re discussing, I can say that it’s not just a matter of race, but also matter of health disparities…this is the wrong way to go about things.”

The head honcho, visibly aggravated at this point, reaffirmed that the health center would not target “them” and then said, “We’re moving on.”

“This is not the right way to do things,” I said again.

She looked at me as a mother does her child when he continuously interrupts an adult conversation, seemingly focused more on the act of disrespect than the content of his message, and sternly said, “No, no, no.”

I considered walking out of the meeting, which would have likely terminated my employment. But then I thought about my family and money I received from the job and how my kids are generally well-behaved if they’re well-nourished. I remained silent in my seat for five or so awkward minutes before the meeting concluded.

A week later I attended the third marketing and development meeting. I was supposed to discuss research I had conducted in search of new grant opportunities, but the Chief skipped past me and ended the meeting early. I caught up with her as she left to her office and handed over a copy of my research. She gave it a quick glance and said, “Looks good. I’ll email you about it tonight.”

I never received that email. The following day I went to the post office to pick up certified mail for which I received notice a few days earlier. My first thought was to ignore it, but then I figured the notice was for a package of limited edition Pepsi-flavored Cheetos that a friend in Japan had promised to send. Instead it was a letter from the health center dated September 19, 2013 (a day after the marketing meeting) and signed by the Chief Operating Officer. It read, “Please be notified that we are terminating the Independent Consultant Agreement we have with you for the services of grant writing effective September 30, 2013. We thank you for the services you provided to us and wish well (sic) in your endeavors.”

If there’s an immediate positive to come out of being fired it’s that it causes you to self-reflect. There were jobs in the past from which I probably deserved to be fired but was not. While employed at another community health center, I once left the office 30 minutes early so I could attend the San Diego Padres’ Opening Day. That’s not so bad until you consider the local news interviewed me at the game and after three too many beers I said, “I left work without telling anyone just to be here!” The segment ran multiple times and word quickly spread around the office. Thankfully I was saved by my supervisor’s sense of humor.

But my time at this health center was different. I believed in the organization and worked kind of hard to contribute to their mission. Their executive staff, including the Chief Operating Officer, routinely complimented my grant writing and even suggested that I apply for a full-time position as the Director of Development. I passed on the opportunity because I could not bear to suffer through the boredom of a full-time workday behind a desk. I genuinely believe that there are very few office jobs that actually need you to be present eight hours a day, which comes to about 20 years of sitting over the course of a lifetime (assuming you don’t die early from a chronic illness brought on by stressful and sedentary employment). Put it like this: If you restrict social media and reduce the number of times eager-to-please staff can say “Just to piggyback off that…” in meetings you could knockout a day’s work in about four hours. Grant writing and development work was no different.

In the days after my firing I contacted various foundations and government entities that provided La Maestra with financing and explained what I saw as the reason for my firing: the gall to speak up to the organization’s second-in-charge about a marketing policy based on a racial stereotype that a taxpayer-funded organization should not be implementing.

A few local politicians responded to my letter, mostly with trite statements related to valuing diversity. But one elected official took the matter to the Chief Administrative Officer for the County of San Diego. An investigation into the organization’s marketing policy is being conducted, though I imagine it’s just a formality with no serious repercussions. This is how the buddy-buddy world of some local governments and large non-profit organizations function.

I’m currently working with another not-for-profit company, though, without the grant writing contract, I’m bringing home $1,500 less per month. Just last week I received notice that a “dental care for diverse populations” grant proposal I wrote while working for the health center was selected from 331 submissions as being “worthy of additional consideration.” This may no longer be the case now that I’ve alerted the grantor of the health center’s belief that “Blacks don’t like to be in the clinic with Mexicans.”

 

Dewan Gibson is author of The Imperfect Enjoyment. He blogs at www.ImperfectEnjoyment.com. Photo: John Blyberg

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43 Comments / Post A Comment

EA_Mann (#5,000)

This is a great piece and very well written. I’m sure that you’re a great grant writer.

garysixpack (#4,263)

I’ve been a contractor on and off for the last 15 years. You know what’s the greatest thing about contracting? It’s not your company. Go sign on as a perm if you want to care. If you’re a contractor, you are there to do your job, and you are there only as long as the money is flowing. The company wants to invent a perpetual motion machine? Great! Pay me. Solve the halting problem? Great! Pay me. The stupid idea is their business model; yours is to go in, do your job, and get paid. The stupider the idea, the less likely they’ll be able to find a perm to replace you.

milena (#3,288)

@garysixpack I worked in consulting and in this people-pleasing industry where basically everything the client says is king, I have to agree. You’re there to do what the client wants and you shut up about it. Too bad the truly smart, valuable consultants/contractors are the ones with good ideas about how to change the status quo of a company for the better– it kind of goes against what you should to to keep your job.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@garysixpack excellent point. And bonus points for the reference to such a great movie

@milena What the Fuck. It’s everyone’s job to call out RACISM, contractor or not. YOU DON’T SHUT UP ABOUT RACISM, EVER. It’s everyone’s fight, and to say this person ‘should have known’ is soo fucked up.

Allison (#4,509)

@Jake Reinhardt I really agree with what you’re saying, so I hope my initial read of milena’s comment which was “doing your best work isn’t what’s valued in a contractor” not “if you want to keep your job, don’t call out the horrific bigotry that’s informing policy”. Especially since I thought Dewan implied that had they listened to him and not been absurdly racist, their healthy center would be better off.

Allison (#4,509)

@Allison er, my initial read of the comment wasn’t naive. way to not complete a thought self.

City_Dater (#565)

@garysixpack

He wasn’t just a “consultant” he was working as their grant writer, representing the organization to funders. A policy that is antithetical to the organization’s stated mission directly effects his ability to fundraise, so speaking up about it wasn’t exactly out of line with his role. Not to mention, calling out a racist jerk is NEVER wrong — taking a stand against someone awful is more important than a paycheck.

honey cowl (#1,510)

Jaw dropped. Can’t believe that happened to you, and impressed at the action you’re taking, and agree with @EA_Mann that you are a great writer.

I used to write grants and hated it, even when I believed in the org, so in my world you’re basically a badass.

EM (#1,012)

This was a great piece. If you’re going to be fired, being fired for pointing out a discriminatory policy is a good way to go. Also I don’t want to distract from your story or anything but I’d really like to hear more about these Pepsi-flavoured Cheetos.

I used to work for a large non-profit that would do something like your story and has done many other questionable/possibly illegal things. Thanks for reminding me why I don’t work there anymore!

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

There are some rules of office politics which apply.

1. If you want to disagree with an executive, do so in private, not public. Most executives are quite willing to listen to different perspectives in private.

2. When an executive says “let’s move on”, drop it. At that point, he or she has stopped listening. There’s nothing to gain from continuing.

3. As a contractor, you’re there for the money. Just let it slide. There will be other opportunities to make your point in private.

Getting the sack is no fun. That said, I’d cease any further publicity for your revenge-seeking activities.

@WayDownSouth oh my god, this again. Please, pay attention to office politics-we wouldn’t want you to be impolite to the racist in charge. The problem isn’t with the one contractor who bothered to speak up, the problem is with everyone else in the room who let it go on.

honey cowl (#1,510)

@Jake Reinhardt Co-signed.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@Jake Reinhardt Jake, the writer made some mistakes. I’m offering my suggestions so that he can handle the situation better next time (expressing his opinion without getting sacked). Not paying attention to basic organisational structure cost him revenue while he was unemployed and he’s making $1,500 less per month. His actions (while well-meaning) cost him a lot of money and it’s better that he doesn’t experience this problem again.

Allison (#4,509)

@WayDownSouth you as a commenter are also making some basic mistakes, like glossing over issue of racism that is at the heart of this, and telling people to “let it slide” generally fires up their “just burn it all” reaction.

In the future, maybe consider addressing the lived experience of the racism (or misogyny or homophobia or other crap) instead of appearing to just blow it off as something insignificant in the workplace.

@WayDownSouth Yeah, um, you’re wrong and comments like ” Just let it slide. There will be other opportunities to make your point in private.” are a marked indicator of a ridiculously flawed logic. “take it up in private, so the racist won’t be embarrassed or mad about their racism. You’re there for the MONEY, not to dwell on things like ‘ethics’ and ‘your personal belief system which involves not being a racist’”

EDaily (#4,396)

@WayDownSouth Curious: Are you a minority?

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@EDaily in order for me to answer that, I’ll need to understand what you mean by a minority.

EM (#1,012)

@WayDownSouth I don’t think it’s in doubt in the piece that the author knew he was endangering his contract when he spoke up. But he felt compelled anyway to point out this bullshit, racist policy anyway. It’s not really necessary to advise him, because he wasn’t and isn’t ignorant about the chain of events. Everyone who lets this kind of thinking go unchecked- all the full-time regular employees who did not respond to someone in power making a stupid racist statement- should be questioning their behaviour, not the author.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@Allison there are different ways to handle difficult situations. In this case, we agree that the COO was mistaken in her opinion. The question is how to deal with it.

One way is to confront the person in public, call her a racist and demonstrate one’s superior moral judgement. We see this at public demonstrations, where two sides chant and scream at each other. How effective is this? How many minds are changed? I’d argue not much and not many.

Another way is to understand the person’s point of view and then to provide examples of why those views are mistaken. This is usually done in private, because it minimises the likelihood of embarrassing the other person. The goal is to convince them, not embarrass them.

I’m not disregarding racism. I’m suggesting that rational, quiet, one-on-one discussions are more effective with dealing with it than how it was done in the original post.

EDaily (#4,396)

@WayDownSouth Uh, if you’re a minority, this should not be a difficult question to answer. There are boxes you’ve check on government forms pertaining to race and ethnicity.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@Jake Reinhardt believe it or not, I agree with you about something. I work at my job for money. The income from my job helps to support my family. I’m not there for fun. I’m there to be paid. Throwing the job away for a bit of self-righteous posturing must be weighed against the impact to my family if my income stops while I find another job.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@EDaily since I don’t live in the US and don’t fill out those government forms, it would help me to answer your question if you could explain the definition to me. What qualifies as a minority, so I’ll know if I belong or not. Thanks.

EDaily (#4,396)

@WayDownSouth You don’t know what race or ethnicity you are? For not living in the U.S., you sure have a lot to say about how Americans should live!

@WayDownSouth I honestly am not sure how voicing your opinion about a racist policy is ” self-righteous posturing”, and if *everyone* were inclined to speak up when necessary, no one would have to lose their jobs when things are brought up.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@Jake Reinhardt fair enough. I’ll give you an example. I am at a corporate presentation with several hundred people in the audience. The CEO announces a new product which will be targeted at a specific demographic (e.g., a new Eskimo barbie or whatever). When the floor is open for questions, I say that the CEO is a racist for targeting a specific ethnic group and he should be ashamed of himself.

This is an example of self-righteous posturing. There is little to no chance of my comments having a positive effect, but I feel better about standing up against racism and demonstrating my superior moral clarity. I have voiced my opinion about what I think is a racist policy, will probably lose my job and won’t have made any difference at all.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@EDaily you asked me if I’m a minority. If I’m Japanese, I’m a minority in Denmark, but not in Japan. If I’m Jewish, I’m a minority in Japan, but not in Israel. And so on. I therefore didn’t know how to answer your question.

As far as not being from the US and commenting about it, I see Americans commenting to the Chinese about human rights, Afghanistan about women’s rights, Syria about chemical weapons and so on. I didn’t realise that people from other countries aren’t allowed to talk about events in the US.

EDaily (#4,396)

@WayDownSouth Oh please, you know exactly what I was asking—especially in context within a post discussing race relations in the U.S. If you are a minority living in the U.S. this is not a difficult question to answer. But as it turns out, you don’t live here, and used that to deflect the question. So I’ll make it simple: If you are white, you are not a minority.

And I just made an observation that you seem to be highly vocal about how Americans should live as a person who doesn’t live here. I didn’t say you weren’t allowed to talk about events in the U.S.—you inferred that.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@EDaily life is not as simple as defining people by the colour of their skin. I don’t agree with doing so, which is why I asked for your interpretation of it.

For example, if I have white skin and am a Mormon in South Carolina, am I a minority? If I have black skin, but was adopted at birth by a white couple, am I a minority? If I have white skin, but was raised by a black family, am I a minority? The question is more complex than simple skin colour. I had hoped that you had a better definition.

honey cowl (#1,510)

@WayDownSouth I feel like you think you are the rational one here, and that is (and I am totally guessing) probably because you have the luxury of being polite and not tanking your career over something like this. For this author, a black man living in the United States, this is an issue WORTH losing a job over. I don’t know if “white-splaining” is an accepted phrase but I see it a lot — “don’t worry about that Katy Perry performance, she was just *appreciating* Japanese culture;” “oh Mitt Romney just *happened* to get a spray tan the day he spoke to a Latino group;” etc.

honey cowl (#1,510)

@WayDownSouth Again, “life not [being] as simple as defining people by the colour of their skin” is a luxury. If you think that way, you are probably white.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@honey cowl So my opposition to defining people by the colour of their skin means that I’m white. I’m going to treasure this reply. Thank you.

honey cowl (#1,510)

@WayDownSouth You’re welcome!

EDaily (#4,396)

@WayDownSouth I asked, because I was interested in knowing if you had a nuanced understanding of racism as perceived by working minorities in the U.S.—as seen through the lens of blacks, Hispanics, Asians, South Asians, Middle Easterners, and Native Americans who live in the U.S.

But you don’t live and work in the U.S. And you continue to deflect the question. So that’s that.

Also: “If I have black skin, but was adopted at birth by a white couple, am I a minority?” Do you mean, if you are black and living with a white couple will you still go out into the wider world and experience institutionalized racism? Will you still encounter people who don’t like you because of the color of your skin? Yes.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@EDaily yes, people will make judgements about me because of the colour of my skin, regardless of what it is. I’m not happy about that, but it’s life. Whether I’m black, white, yellow, brown, whatever, people will make judgements. Even in this very thread, someone decided that I must be white because of my philosophy. I find that both amusing and sad.

The reason that I’m not telling you my skin colour is that I’d like to be judged based on my beliefs, not on my skin colour. I don’t want to read “you’re black, therefore…” or ” you’re white, therefore…”.

honey cowl (#1,510)

@WayDownSouth What I was trying to impress upon you earlier, in haste and anger, is that (at least in the United States), no one but white people has the luxury not to be judged by their skin color. I know, as a white person, it took me a while before I realized this. Coming to terms with one’s own privilege is a hard thing. But it’s a harder thing to live without that privilege, and I hope you can see that in some small way.

EDaily (#4,396)

@honey cowl Thank you. We can’t pretend that race doesn’t matter in how it informs a viewpoint, or how race has shaped policies in the U.S. Doing so is naive.

I find this really appropriate in many situations when we talk about whether or not to speak up about injustice:

First they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they came for the Socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_they_came_

Eric18 (#4,486)

@Jake Reinhardt Comparing a racist incident at a workplace to Nazi atrocities?!?!

Ah, I love Godwin’s Law.

Markham (#1,862)

Hi -

Black guy here, see my picture? :)

Also, I’ve been a consultant for over ten years….

So…

1) It’s true, don’t argue with executives in front of their minions. You can disagree but be VERY political about it, and aim to make it a business case type of disagreement.

Now, on with my current client I can disagree with her in front of others, but, we’re friends away from work. I’ve been to her house at functions where hardly anyone from the office was there.

But again, be careful.

2) The racism is rough and yes, you needed to speak up. But I would’ve first talked to the person who also disagreed, made a strategy and then took it to the CEO separately. If it doesn’t work, then you look for another job.

Combining 1 & 2 – take racism out of the picture, go to basic business strategy, you could’ve lost your job for criticizing another issue just as well, because the person you’re working for is petty.

That’s why you have to think carefully about the type of person you’re dealing with, the issue, the audience and then make a strategy.

I get it – in that situation it’s hard no to want to speak up, BUT you have to be careful. Think of a strategy and then proceed.

Again – I’ve built up relationships here where I can get away with a LOT, but I still know when and where to voice complaints, or hell, give someone else the ammo to handle it.

In this situation you’re not speaking up against injustices per se, you’re speaking against someone’s ego, someone who can hurt you.

It’s not about “letting it slide’, it’s about picking your spots and helping yourself first.

I’d also not speak about this in public, as even people that agree with you 100% might be wary of you because you’re airing interior dirty laundry.

Case in point – I felt something that was done was a little un-PC, not outright “ist” of kinda not cool. But we’re in a huge meeting and my standing up and saying: “WTF” isn’t going to accomplish much but make someone want to stand up for themselves or feel stupid.

So I talked to people outside of the meeting, “hey guys, we need to re-think *****”, found others who agreed with me, yada, yada.

Now it’s all fixed.

There is a way to do things.

The “first they came” thing doesn’t work because no one is listening and it actually works against you.

needsmoresalt (#3,501)

I can understand what people are saying about it being impolite to criticize a superior in front of everyone. But I think the problem with not commenting on someone’s racist behavior in front of everyone is that it gives the impression that behavior is okay. Also, even if it wasn’t the very best way to handle it, would that justify firing him, instead of talking to him about it? I really don’t think so. It’s unfortunate that the writer was fired, but he did do the right thing.

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