Hate-Free Office: How Strong Leaders Handle Racism At Work
Racism and discrimination in the workplace are not new; their legacies are unfortunately centuries old in this country. But in the last several weeks and months, overt acts of racism in America have multiplied in many different arenas–including the workplace.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, more than 900 hate groups are operating in this country; many members of these groups may or may not disclose their membership at work, even if they espouse their beliefs privately.
How you as a leader handle expressions and acts of racism– or religious bias including anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim bigotry– in the workplace is critical not just to making the culture safe, but in establishing an example of what a strong, successful leader says and does managing a diverse and inclusive team.
More strong leaders in business are also recently making statements about official stances on racism.
“Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier wrote on Twitter Monday that ‘America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy, which runs counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal,’” according to News Advance.
While there is of course legal recourse as racial discrimination is illegal in the workplace as outlined by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and was recently enacted in Connecticut, there are strategies every manager or leader can employ to lessen and hopefully eliminate a culture of implicit and overt racial bias. For a basic guideline, the EEOC recently issued its updated Proposed Enforcement Guidance on Unlawful Harassment.
Tech companies including Facebook, Reddit and PayPal recently eliminated accounts and blocked users who were hate groups, according to Marie Solis writing in Mic, establishing a precedence of how a business takes a moral stand.
“Joan Donovan, a media manipulation research lead at the research institute Data & Society, said it’s well within these companies’ reach to implement changes that will curb white supremacist activity. And it’s something she said major platforms like Facebook and Twitter will have to confront as they acknowledge their role in magnifying hate speech and those who spout it,” Solis writes.
Gloria Feldt, co-founder and president of Take The Lead, addresses the role model of leadership in Power Tool # 7 in the 9 Leadership Power Tools she created. “Take Action; Create a Movement” is this power tool that Feldt explains here: “Things don’t just happen. People make them happen in a systematic way. And you can change systems. Apply the three movement building principles of Sister Courage (be a sister, act with courage, put them together to create a PLAN) and you will realize your vision at work, at home, or in public life.”
On an individual basis, consultant Mitch Mitchell writes that as a leader in the workplace, you may need to handle overt as well as subtle racist actions, particularly in response to recent news events.
“What if an employee wanted to put something up on the wall of a cubicle showing support? For that matter, what if someone else wanted to put something up to support the police? Where does one draw the line when it’s about peaceful protest, even if it could destroy the foundation of a good working relationship?” Mitchell asks in Thy Black Man,
“Whenever I’ve been in a position of leadership, even as a consultant, it’s always been my intention to bring everyone together so that we can work towards a common goal, that being to make things better. I talk to everyone, individually and in groups. I always establish what the goals are and work to make sure all of us are on the same page when it comes to the goals. I try to make it plain that, though I’m the one in charge, that everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute, to learn, and to progress,” Mitchell writes.
If a verbal or physical expression of racism such as a joke, a threat or a physical symbol of racism is displayed at work, how colleagues and leadership handle it is important. Ignoring it is not an option.
“The efforts to push employers to fire the offending employees are an example of how the public—but, importantly, not the government—can strengthen the norms against these ideas, attach a stigma to them, and try to move society away from them, “ Gillian B. White writes in The Atlantic.
“Though public-sector workers can’t be terminated for their political views, and many union contracts require that an employer demonstrate ‘just cause’ for firing someone, federal law doesn’t offer any protections for expressing political views or participating in political activities for those who work in the private sector and don’t have a contract stating otherwise, according to Katherine Stone, a law professor at UCLA who focuses on labor law,” White writes.
It is neither uncommon nor illegal for “private-sector workers to get fired for what they do in their free time if it reflects poorly on their employer. In cases such as this, an employer in the private sector simply isn’t required to employ someone who exercises their right to free speech,” Stone tells White.
Attorney Jeffrey M. Beemer writes in Small Biz Daily that assuming everyone knows and understands company policy on discrimination, the possible outcomes for an act of discrimination and consequences is a dangerous failure of communication.
“Employers often make the mistake of thinking that because they have an anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policy in their employee handbook, they are covered. Those policies are often cookie-cutter ones that are filled with passive voice and not specifically tailored to the organization. An effective policy leaves no doubt as to what conduct is prohibited and how an employee should report unwelcome conduct. An effective policy includes the person to whom an employee should report prohibited conduct, how the employee should report it, and what the employee should do if the person designated to receive the report is the person who is harassing the employee,” Beemer writes.
Communicating the necessity for the policy and reminding employees about its importance are key steps.
For instance, the Child Welfare League of American recently released a public statement of its mission: “Individuals, families, communities, organizations and systems work together to understand and promote equality, cultural humility, and strong racial cultural and ethnic identity; while showing consideration for individual differences and respecting the sovereign rights of tribes. There is not a more relevant time then now for us to collectively advance this principle.”
Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice, offers in its 2016 Confronting Racial Bias at Work report “that we must not only reinforce the largely reactive anti-discrimination structure established by law so that it reaches more workers and protects them more effectively, we must also promote proactive systemic solutions to increase the pressures, incentives, and mandates for racially equitable outcomes in employment.”
In a separate report earlier this summer, Race-Explicit Strategies for Workforce Equity in Healthcare and IT, Race Forward “identifies barriers to achieving equitable employment outcomes for workers of color in the workforce development field, and outlines solutions to increase racial equity through a systemic, race-explicit, and outcome-oriented approach. “
Those strategies are to “Implement an institutional assessment and racial equity plan to develop a targeted method for addressing internal bias and institutional racism. Negotiate a racially explicit employer partnership that shifts the awareness and priorities of employers in the industry. Engage in structural advocacy with philanthropists and regulatory agencies. Build an inclusive and racially explicit narrative strategy to guide individual institutions and border workforce development coalitions.”
Inclusion of persons of color in the work force is crucial, but noting the burden of the representation shift as well as a misuse of that representation is noteworthy. What that means is inclusion as tokenism to imply endorsement is not fair or advisable.
“When it comes to being a person of color, particularly in my case a black woman, I think it is not only our right, I think it is our responsibility to be in all spaces,” Eboni K. Williams, co-host of The Specialists on Fox News, tells Selena Hill of Black Enterprise.
Confronting hate in the professional, personal and public spaces has become an elevated concern for many and cues on how to mitigate the negativity can come from other fields beyond business and management.
Tina Kempin Reuter, director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Institute for Human Rights offers practical tips for confronting hate, according to Social Work Helper.
“Pay attention to what happens in your everyday life. Document, record and monitor what is going on around you, and if you see injustice, say something,” Reuter says.
“It is incredibly important to be aware of your own biases,” Reuter says. “Actively learn about how our society has grown to marginalize some to the benefit of others. I encourage people to reach out and make new friends outside of their race, religion and gender.”
Know that as strong leaders how you behave and how you react to the behavior of others sends an indelible message that may not only be harmful, but illegal and costly.
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About the Author
Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon www.micheleweldon.com