I believe today’s reader note represents a situation that can happen to anyone. It might not involve the same word or phrase, but it creates the same dilemma.
I have a question. I heard someone on a workplace conference call use the term ‘tribal knowledge’ to indicate that the procedure being discussed was known internally but it was not documented. It gave me immediate pause and so I did a search which indicated that the term isn’t considered to be culturally insensitive.
I’m not sure that I agree with the response I found on the internet just because it doesn’t indicate an affiliation with a real Native American tribe. I don’t want to be overly sensitive, but if it gave me pause and it doesn’t reflect my heritage, I am wondering if it is a term that should be normalized or dropped from workplace buzzwords. Thoughts?
I have to admit that I don’t hear the term “tribal knowledge” very often, so I did the same thing as the reader and looked it up on the internet. I found articles saying, “no, it’s not offensive because it isn’t affiliated with a specific tribe of people” as well as articles that said “yes, it is offensive because it’s disrespectful to indigenous peoples who refer to themselves as tribes”.
I can’t tell someone what to be offended by. I think that’s what makes this situation so challenging. So, I reached out to a colleague for some insights. Anthony Paradiso SHRM-CP is a human resources business partner with Industrial U.I. Services. He’s also the founder of ALLThingzAP, which specializes in diversity and inclusion matters. I’m a regular reader of his blog where he encourages individuals to be their authentic selves.
Anthony, thanks for being here. From this situation, I can see an employee hearing something that gives them pause but wanting to do some research before saying anything. If an employee is trying to figure out if something is cultural misappropriation or socially inappropriate or offensive, what’s the best way for them to learn or find the answer?
[Paradiso] I’m a believer of having those tough uncomfortable conversations. I often say that we have to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. If an employee is offended by a term, they should be able to openly and freely express themselves. When having these conversations, make sure that they are in a private setting. It is important that both employees listen carefully, have an appropriate tone and energy, discuss and work together to resolve agreements and disagreements, and follow through on commitments while building on successes.
It is recommended that if one uses a term that they are not sure about in the workforce, that they should certainly look it up and discuss with human resources. Better yet, discuss with an inclusion and diversity officer, diversity council, employee resource group, etc.
Ultimately, an open conversation leads to a healthier and transparent workforce where employees are empowered by each other and the organization’s mission.
One of the things that I’m personally struggling with in this situation is if an employee feels that a term is culturally insensitive but there are no articles out there to support their feelings, that shouldn’t mean they’re wrong. Is there some way to help?
[Paradiso] There is not a one size fits all with the handling of these situations. Organizations should have policies in place that guide employees with the proper steps and have internal protocols surrounding sensitive topics. This can include anticipating employee concerns and ensuring organizations measure potential solutions and company values.
Just because there isn’t an article out there to support one’s feelings doesn’t mean that the term is not offensive. There are constant changes happening in the world that are not necessarily found in an article.
I cannot stress enough the importance of having the tough conversations. If an employee is offended by a term, let the employees discuss. Professionally and personally, we need to start having difficult conversations…not just starting them but embracing them.
Let’s say an employee feels that their manager or organization is using an inappropriate term – like tribal knowledge – how should they approach the matter?
[Paradiso] If an organization does not have a policy and/or protocol in place, now is the time. If an employee has an issue with a term they deem inappropriate, the proper steps need to be at their disposal.
There are a few ways to handle the above question. First, the employee can discuss directly how they feel with their manager. Hopefully, the manager understands. However, there’s a slight chance the manager will not. If the manager does not understand, a neutral third party needs to step in immediately such as human resources or a diversity and inclusion (D&I) officer.
I’ve seen discussions specifically on social media that there are individuals who are strongly opposed to the word ‘tribe’. I respect them as individuals and therefore do not use the term tribe. Instead of ‘tribe’, one can easily just use ‘community’. It really is that easy.
Shifting the conversation from the individual to the company. An employee does approach the company and shares their feelings that something is offensive. How should the organization respond?
[Paradiso] There is a quick answer to this. If the employee feels a certain word is inappropriate, there’s a reason why. Organizations should never undermine how an employee feels. It begins with education and continues with having conversations. It is an organization’s responsibility to educate their employees surrounding inclusion, diversity, equity, and belonging. Educate employees about why the word ‘tribe’ is offensive. After educating, discuss. Listening is key. Let’s start having these difficult conversations.
I also want to point out that hiring a D&I consultant for an hour to train an organization about unconscious bias, sensitivity training, the importance of inclusion, etc. is not a viable solution. One hour of training is not enough. Continuous education surrounding inclusion, diversity, equity, and belonging takes time and is well worth the investment and commitment. The end result will include employees who become better people, organizations that flourish as their employees feel included, and satisfaction in doing what is right.
Transparency is essential. As an employer, when an employee is uncomfortable with a term you should want them to come forward. According to Forbes, “People produce their best work when tensions are dissipated, and challenges are solved swiftly and with a sensible and transparent approach.”
Last question. I’m sure there are lots of organizations who have buzzwords or phrases that they consider part of what makes their culture special and unique. And not intentionally offensive. Is there a way for organizations to “audit” their culture to make sure they are being inclusive and respectful?
[Paradiso] If an employee brings up that a certain word or phrase is insensitive and that they are uncomfortable, there’s a reason why. Trust the employee.
Additionally, have employees complete confidential surveys. Be proactive rather than reactive. Organizations should also have a diversity council and employee resource groups that can be a part of the conversation.
I’ll be honest, it really is not difficult. If an employee comes to me and states that they are not comfortable with a certain term, I listen and comply because I respect that employee as an individual. It all boils down to respect and empathy.
I want to extend a huge thanks to Anthony for sharing his knowledge with us. You can stay in touch with him by subscribing to his blog or following him on Twitter.
I also want to add one thing. As Anthony mentioned, organizations want employees to come forward with their concerns. It makes the workplace better. But employees will only come forward when they feel it is safe to do so. It’s the concept of psychological safety. There’s a difference between uncomfortable and unsafe. Organizations have to create safe work environments so employees can have uncomfortable conversations.
Image captured by Sharlyn Lauby at the SHRM Annual Conference