Employers Should Anticipate and Plan for Discussions About Race in the Workplace

 In President Obama’s remarks about the Zimmerman case and race relations in America, he advocated for a national discussion about race. He felt this national discussion should not be convened by politicians, but at the local level and within religious congregations, community organizations, and possibly even the workplace.

As we all know, even the type of well-intentioned discussions about race (or gender or disabilities or sexuality or religion or other protected category) that President Obama seems to be envisioning can easily be misconstrued by one or more of the participants or observers. When those well-intentioned discussions are misconstrued in the workplace they open up the employer to claims of discrimination and retaliation.

Employers would do well to anticipate that the President’s remarks may spark these discussions in the workplace (even where the employer is not the one starting them) and leaders may want to develop a game plan for responding.

Company cultures that place a premium on transparent leadership and communication about such things as the criteria used for promotion, compensation and training decisions will be best positioned to address the situation when these discussions happen.

A recent example of the potential legal claims that can be generated by workplace discussions of this type is the recent lawsuit filed against Target arising out of a memorandum issued at one of its distribution centers. According to press reports, the memorandum was titled “Organization Effectiveness, Employee and Labor Relations Multi-Cultural Tips” and at least based on its title seems to have been an effort by local management at one of its distribution centers to create a less stereotype-driven work environment. Unfortunately, the memorandum was very poorly worded and according to press reports instructed managers to note differences among Hispanic employees, and stated the following:

“a. Food: not everyone eats tacos and burritos;
“b. Music: not everyone dances to salsa;
“c. Dress: not everyone wears a sombrero;
“d. Mexicans (lower education level, some may be undocumented);
“e. Cubans (Political refugees, legal status, higher education level); and
“f. They may say ‘OK, OK’ and pretend to understand, when they do not, just to save face.”

Three employees sued claiming they suffered crude harassment, discrimination and retaliation at work, and that Target’s tips for managers are offensive in themselves.

Target has issued the following statement making clear this memorandum was created locally and was not approved at corporate headquarters:

“It is never Target’s intent to offend our team members or guests and we apologize. The content of the document referenced is not representative of who Target is. We strive at all times to be a place where our team and guests feel welcome, valued and respected. This document, which was used during conversations at one distribution center, was never part of any formal or company-wide training. We take accountability for its contents and are truly sorry.”

I suspect that Target’s corporate leadership was quite frustrated with the local memorandum given that it has expended a great deal of effort developing a corporate program which according to Molly Snyder, a spokeswoman for Target, is “designed to foster open, honest, respectful conversations.”  Here is a link to Kim Bhasin’s article in the Huffington Post in which Ms. Snyder is quoted. Kim Bhasin’s article also includes examples of some of the scenarios Target uses to engage in these conversations.

You’ll note that I have not taken a position about whether employers should initiate discussions about race in the workplace. I think the answer to that question needs to be thoughtfully decided by the leadership within each organization. I will say, however, that this is an area in which it would seem employers will want to tread very carefully and thoughtfully and have any “race discussion” communications reviewed by legal counsel.

What do you think?  Should employers initiate discussions about race in the workplace?  How should they respond when these discussions are started by employees in the workplace?

Read more articles about managing workplace conflict at Win-Win HR, a blog by Lorene Schaefer.

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