Diversity & Inclusion

Handling challenges to diversity in era of divisiveness

It may seem there’s no escaping political divisiveness. All manner of news and social media sources carry angry, frequently hurtful, and often untrue communication. And the workplace is not immune from the damage of those messages.  Two angry businesspeople with boxing gloves having an argument

Presidential campaigns have been heated before, but the 2016 contest seemed especially rife with venom. Since the campaign was so divisiveparticularly on race and religion issues that were aggravated by comments about Mexicans, Muslims, and other minoritiessome of that discord has found its way to the workplace.

As the new administration takes office, workplaces may still be experiencing hostile talk coming from employees emboldened by the contentious campaign. For human resources and diversity professionals looking for ways to repair the damage, they are likely grappling with the question, “What does the future hold for diversity efforts in an era when some employees openly voice hostile feelings toward minority groups?”

Brad Federman, chief operating officer and an employee engagement and performance management expert for F&H Solutions Group in Memphis, Tennessee, says his firm has some clients that have seen an increase in racial and religious tensions. “However, my biggest concern is the under-the-surface tensions that exist,” he says. “We have some clients that understand that something is just not right, but they have no transparent, concrete understanding of what is wrong. Unfortunately, these types of situations tend to build up until there is a bit of an emotional explosion unless they are proactively dealt with.”

What can help?

Employers trying to promote diversity in what may be a challenging environment have tools they can put to work to help employees “learn how to deal with conflict and express themselves maturely, professionally, and with empathy,” Federman says. “It is amazing what people can accomplish and overcome when they approach situations the right way.”

It starts with the organization’s norms for professionalism. “You can call the norms values, culture, or whatever you want,” Federman says, “but they need to be real and tied to the way the organization works.”

One way to approach a problem is to encourage colleagues to learn about each other’s cultures and religions. “Whether that starts with an international potluck or ice breakers at training, it needs to build into something more meaningful over time,” Federman says. “When people from different backgrounds learn to deal with fear or discomfort through questions, curiosity, and self-education, that is when you know you are becoming successful.” The goal isn’t about getting everyone to agree, he says. Instead, the goal is to help people see beyond labels and develop an understanding of others’ experiences.

Putting people through a simulation can be effective in promoting understanding, Federman says. “We actually put people into different cultures and then have them interact,” he says. “Once completed, we process and debrief the simulation.” He says people often are amazed at how quickly they begin to affiliate with something new to them.

Diversity backlash?

Sometimes diversity efforts are hampered by a feeling among some people that diversity and inclusion are intended to give minorities an unfair advantage at work. Federman says he’s seen some organizations experience such a backlash, but that occurs when diversity is handled the wrong way.

“First, you cannot tackle sensitive topics like these in an hour,” he says. “Companies, if they want to tackle these issues, must invest more time and energy. Second, organizations must begin to see diversity as more than a compliance issue. Diversity should be connected directly to the success and strategy of an organization. Third, organizations must define their efforts appropriately.”

Often, diversity “has been handled as a correction of the past or as a vehicle to change the majority to accept minorities,” Federman says, and that can lead to defensiveness and hurt feelings. “The truth is when it comes to a highly functioning, diverse organization, everyone needs to learn and grow. Everyone has bias and lacks understanding. Everyone can learn how to leverage their unique personal power to gain success.”

In order to reassure people who feel threatened by diversity efforts, Federman suggests defining it differently. “Diversity has been about numbers. How many minorities did we hire, retain, or promote?” he says. But it should be about more than numbers. “Diversity is about representation, which is an outcome.”

He suggests that HR focus on inclusioncreating an environment “where everyone feels safe, respected, and valued consistently.” Such a focus creates sustainable diversity.

Getting to civility

Jill M. Smith, executive director for WorkPlace HR, LLC, has suggestions for employers trying to move from discord to civility. Writing in the January 2017 issue of Federal Employment Law Insider, she says 2017 may be a challenging year for workplace civility. Among her suggestions:

  • Send a memo from the CEO reinforcing the organization’s commitment to valuing and respecting everyone.
  • Review antidiscrimination and antiharassment policies (with an attorney’s help) to make sure they’re enforceable and say what’s necessary.
  • Consider training sessions for leaders as well as all employees.