“…an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man…” — Former President Jimmy Carter
You may think this controversy is old news by now, but just because it dropped off the medias radar screen doesn’t mean did not impact or influence the discourse taking place around your companies water cooler. In fact, if you’re a manager in your organization, you may have reason to be concerned.
As you’ve probably noticed, prominent figures by the very nature of their popularity can influence the shape, quality, and direction of important conversations taking place in society. And when you consider that the workplace is a microcosm of society, then you must consider how influential people can influence the conversations around the water cooler. These conversations then can get out of control and damage your organization’s human relations climate, productivity, and potentially create violations of equal employment laws. More specifically, comments like those of Carter—without any qualitative justification—can in fact undermine the advances made in terms of our relationships and forward-thinking conversations about diversity.
Many interpreted Carter’s comments to suggest that the demonstrators were racist; and we can hardly advance the conversation about diversity if racism is the main issue. Racism is more deliberate and based in hatred; and diversity more is about values and differences. For instance, if I were a racist, I would fundamentally hate or dismiss you because of your race. Conversely, it is possible that I may be ignorant about or simply not subscribe to your culture; but this is a diversity issue—I have a bias, different opinion, or a different set of values. As you can see there is quite a difference in being a racist and being insensitive. You must combat racism and work through diversity issues.
So how might these conversations impact your workplaces and what can you do about it? Well this depends on for instance, the organization’s current human relations climate, whether there have been past problems regarding race relations, whether people are polarized or are inclined to interact regularly, and/or how much effort the company leadership has invested in building workplace relations. Nonetheless, here are a few things you can consider that will help you better deal with diversity and other people related issues:
First, recognize that workplaces tend to be reflective of local society. If your local community is having difficulties in terms of diversity and/or race relations, you should look out for these issues in the workplace. Also recognize that statements from influential people in the news and media can indeed fan the flames and heighten tensions in the community and workplace.
Second, don’t stick your head in the sand when it comes to diversity and race relations in the workplace. In my 25 years of dealing with these issues, I have found the worst thing an organization’s leadership can do is to let divisive people-problems linger; allowing negative perceptions and bad feelings to mount. In 2001, Cincinnati erupted in widespread racial unrest days after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black man. It was apparent as the media covered the riot that many were shocked that a race riot ensued. Later it was concluded that the racial tensions were always there, but folks simply were unaware or had their heads in the sand. The truth is, people want to have an honest conversation about these issues, but so many are afraid to broach the subject, afraid to be labeled a racist or accused of “playing the race card.”
Third, keep your ear to the ground and your antennas out. Be sensitive and pay attention to the problems and issues being discussed within your organization. One “best practice” I recommend is to have a manager who has the additional duty of monitoring “the pulse of the organization’s people climate.” Now this is not the “PC Police,” but being transparently in tune with issues that might negatively impact the organization. One “tool” or technique that we recommend is a version of “Management By Walking Around” (MBWA). It would be this manager’s role to visit workplaces regularly with the intention of having informal conversations to understand what’s going on “under the radar.” They would then provide feedback to the managerial staff about any issues uncovered.
The handling of diversity and a myriad of other workplace people issues—be they conversations, conflict or other concerns—can be complicated and necessitate a balancing act in terms of your approach. Know that there are people and forces (including our own perceptions) on all sides of the debate that also complicate matters. But as long as we remain aware of these issues and forces, and understand how they influence our people and workplaces, we can sometimes diffuse them with a little common sense. More, we can use them to improve relations in the workplace.Oct 21, 2009 | 0 | Uncategorized