It started harmlessly enough just a casual observation to a colleague
about some clients names that got turned into a list, circulated and
added to. The list was titled Funny Names. As the Funny Names list
became more widely circulated there were growing concerns from some
employees that the names were predominantly of Asian and non Anglo
Saxon origin. This sparked a fierce internal debate on racism and
sexism resulting in suspensions and a third of the 57 strong workforce
resigning in protest.
As a result the Chief Executive sent an email to all employees
stating that in future there was to be no discussions on contentious
societal issues at work. Politics was to be kept out of the office.
Whilst this happened in a small high tec organisation the issues will
be familiar to HR managers in organisations of all sizes across sectors.
This experience has been traumatic for the organisation so it’s not
surprising that the chief executive would want to put an end to the
destructive disharmony. Removing the list and banning its circulation
as inappropriate would seem an obvious step but telling employees not
to debate these issues on line, within teams or across work stations
seems heavy handed, difficult to police and feels like an attempt to
avoid addressing the underlying issues.
Racism and sexism are work issues. Rather than close down the debate
the organisation needs to manage it. By all means take the debate off
line where people tend to be more inflammatory and make it face to
face in facilitated group discussions as part of the equality and
diversity strategy. The aim should be to have an open organisational
culture where people can say what they are thinking with out fear of
being belittled or labelled. This of course is a two way process which
requires all employees to acknowledge their colleagues feelings and be
willing to listen.
Yes this may bring out into the open a lot of hurt feelings that have
been suppressed. It may reveal a level of unconscious bias that had
previously gone unrecognised and it will probably make senior managers
feel very uncomfortable. But organisations that don’t talk about the
elephant in the room are in denial.
Blair Mcpherson former Director and author of An Elephant in the Room
published by www.russellhouse.co.uk