Even micro-level current events become fodder for potential workplace conflict, dysfunction in which people attack one another’s values and personality rather than focusing on a specific task or issue. This is because of what those micro-events represent: not just a single armed gunman or bomber, but a white/black/Muslim/ other extremist, representing an entire race, religion, or ethnicity. It’s important to remember that the brain, in its attempts to simplify our understanding of the world and anticipate others’ behaviors, uncontrollably labels and categorizes people, things and events according to established and partly true stereotypes. A stereotype in someone’s head does no harm; in fact, it can facilitate growth and learning when it is invalidated by the actions of someone in the target group (“I thought all women were poor drivers, but now that I’ve ridden with Jill and Sarah, I guess that was wrong.”). Stereotypes are not completely fictional, nor are they completely accurate, and they don’t represent all or most people in the category, but they minimize necessary cognitive effort by filling in missing information, and they support our social identity. But we do have control over our words and actions. A rash statement in the heat of righteous indignation and outrage over a media-hyped event may too easily represent a discriminatory act (“You people come over here and steal our jobs!”). Left uncorrected in an environment that has no clear diversity and inclusion policy, such acts and statements leave the organization open to lawsuits, EEOC investigations, and other negative consequences such as loss of valuable human capital as high-performing employees quit, or loss of reputation as word gets out about how the company feels about group X or Y. Speech and behaviors can be prevented and monitored, unlike internal mental processes like stereotyping, categorization, homogenization and differentiation. So no matter what the thought is, whether it represents a categorization ( Jane looks Asian), or homogenization (Asian women love to cook), or even a differentiation (they cook things we don’t eat on our team), the thought is harmless . When the thought manifests as a slur (“No, Jane, don’t bring any of your dishes to the team potluck; you
people eat gross foods”), or an exclusion (“We usually just have a couple of us bring a special dish, but you don’t need to worry about that”), it can escalate into a discriminatory act or even a pattern of actions that eventually affect the person’s employment status. On the much brighter side, though, acknowledging and appreciating the variation of contributions can free your people up and empower them to innovate, disagree, revise, and more fully engage in the organization’s goals and objectives. It is not too much, therefore, to allow a certain conference room to be reserved at set times of day for religious observances, or even to designate a space for them. Nor is it too much for an employer to allow employees to designate the religious holidays they will observe; you set the number of paid holidays and let them choose. To coordinate work, simply show on the team’s calendar that Person A will be out of the office on X date. Period. Lately, issues of gender and sexuality have pervaded American society, and there are state laws and Executive Orders in place to afford members of the LGBT community protected-class status. Your response should be to scrub company policies and benefits statements of all gender-normed language (switch husband and wife to spouse, for example) to ensure inclusiveness.Then, make sure all of your employees feel valued by honoring them as they honor their values. Making a diverse workforce feel seen,safe,and valued ensures that you get the most engaged, innovative, synergistic team possible and will attract more interesting, high-performing contributors to your organization. Of course they’ll bring their own challenges and ways of making work meaningful, but what an exciting problem to have! Dr. Angela Spranger, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, is a business consultant specializing in performance improvement and professional development in corporate and nonprofit organizations, focusing on effective followership, healthy teams, and maximizing organizational engagement. A Gallup Q12 and StrengthsFinder® facilitator and coach, she offers online Intentional Leaders © Coaching programs, emotional intelligence coaching, and workshops on personality type and strengths integration. She is a lecturer at the Luter School of Business, Christopher Newport University, Newport News, Virginia. email@example.com.
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