As a business owner or manager, you have the opportunity and the responsibility to combat racism and hatred in your workplace. Despite the bitterness of current political discourse and the appalling display of racism in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend, or maybe because of it, everyone deserves to be able to go to work and feel accepted, valued and safe.
From a legal perspective, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the discrimination statutes of every state prohibit racism. Racist expressions in the workplace can lead to discrimination cases that are costly, both in terms of money and company goodwill. For example, a Dallas milling company settled with the EEOC in 2012 for $500,000 after 14 African-American employees alleged that their supervisors did nothing when the complainants faced racist graffiti and slurs by co-workers, including “KKK”, swastikas, Confederate flags, and “die, n—-r, die” as well as nooses displayed in the workplace.
This kind of discrimination can hijack the future of a company. Why would anybody with a conscience choose to work there ever again? Or do business with such a company once these actions were known? No amount of wise counsel from an employment lawyer like me can really defend, much less restore a company’s prosperity after these sorts of egregious actions are allowed to occur.
Employers trying to avoid discrimination lawsuits and to build a culture of decency can put into place anti-discrimination policies and training, can immediately investigate and take remedial action when racism is suspected or discovered, and can make advancement and better pay at the company dependent on an employee’s or manager’s embracing of equality.
But perhaps the most important way you can prevent discrimination at your company is by setting an example of what you expect from your employees. You are the yardstick by which your company is measured.
Christine Porath, a leading authority on decency in the workplace, says in her book that 25% of employees acknowledge that they acted uncivilly in the workplace because they saw their bosses acting that way. As the boss, you need to have zero tolerance for incivility because it is like a gateway drug—incivility often becomes prejudice, harassment and discrimination. Getting away with one often leads to the others.
As a business owner or supervisor, you set the tone for your employees. Your words and actions determine if the workplace is respectful or hostile. You must tell your workers that bigotry is unacceptable and that you have a zero tolerance for stereotyping, name-calling, racial slurs, bullying and other abusive behaviors.
But more importantly, you personally must show your employees, not only by avoiding participating in these kinds of abuses, but also by making a special effort to “be the behavior you want to see” in your employees—respectful of all people, patient, empathetic, humble, transparent, honest and self-controlled.
Ending racism in the workplace is not just your legal responsibility—it is a moral one. In the Texas Panhandle, which proudly thinks of itself as the buckle of the Bible Belt, employers who claim to follow Jesus know that the Bible teaches that all people are created in the image and likeness of God. Paul emphasizes that racism (and sexism) is ungodly when he says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
So whether you are motivated by legal, moral or even financial reasons, if you as an employer or manager want to combat prejudice and incivility in your own workplace, you must demonstrate and encourage:
- Politeness, respect and decency;
- Actual care and compassion for your coworkers;
- Diversity in hiring and promotion;
- Listening and accepting that there are other viewpoints and experiences;
- Disagreeing without being disrespectful;
- Avoiding gossip, complaining, negativity;
- Acknowledging the contributions of others;
- Admitting your own mistakes and quickly making amends;
- Handling confrontation, when required, in a healthy way:
- In private;
- Giving the other person a chance to articulate his/her side;
- Brainstorming solutions;
- Expecting change and following up to make sure it is happening.