I’ve written a couple of articles recently about the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Regardless of your personal opinion on the subject, I think it’s important to understand what BLM means in the business world. As human resources professionals, there could be a moment where we have to discuss current events – like Black Lives Matter – with employees. That’s the focus of today’s reader note.
I have an HR representative who posted something negative about Black Lives Matter (BLM) on a government website. They were identified as working for our organization. We have issued a corrective action and asked them to remove the post. They have removed our organization as their employer on their social media accounts.
I want to find some way to train/coach them that – as an HR representative – they should maintain a presence that is seen as balanced and fair by our employees – even if their personal opinions vary greatly. I have not been able to find anything in my searches that applies directly to HR personnel specifically. Lots on how to handle employees who post things, but not HR personnel postings of personal opinions.
Perhaps you can direct me? Or write an article about it that I could use a training material? I subscribe to your blog and read regularly. Thank you.
Organizations need to understand that situations like this are a part of business today. And we need to prepare HR and managers to handle racist comments appropriately. Obviously, there are things we don’t know about this situation. We don’t know what the company policy was (if any). We don’t have access to what the HR representative said, or what type of corrective action was given.
But I think it’s worth having a discussion about what happens when your personal views and those of the company don’t align.
I asked our friend and employment attorney Kate Bischoff at tHRive Law & Consulting LLC if she would share her experience with us. Thankfully she said yes. Kate has shared her experience with us on several occasions. One of my favorites are her comments in this article about the “Ageism in the Workplace”.
Please don’t forget that Kate’s comments should not be construed as legal advice or as pertaining to any specific factual situations. If you have specific detailed questions, they should be addressed directly with your friendly neighborhood labor attorney.
Let’s start with a legal aspect of this situation on racist comments. Is it legal to hold HR to a different standard than the rest of the employees as implied in the note? And while this reader isn’t asking, can managers be held to a different standard?
[BISCHOFF] Of course, it is. We hold managers to different standards than employees, so we can hold HR to different standards. HR plays a significant role in making sure harassment and discrimination don’t occur in the workplace, so our words and conduct should reflect that.
We’ve all read the same headlines and articles about employees expressing views that are considered to be racist, homophobic, misogynistic, xenophobic, or just plain toxic. Can organizations legally have policies deterring or prohibiting employees responding publicly to current events? And if they can, should they?
[BISCHOFF] I wouldn’t recommend having policies where employees can’t comment publicly on current events. That would be equivalent of saying “you can’t have an opinion.” We want our people to have opinions.
That said, we want people to understand the consequences of their opinions. If your opinion is racist, misogynist, homophobic, or xenophobic, that will affect our workplace and we, as an organization, are responsible to provide a work environment free of that toxic behavior. When I conduct trainings on this, we talk about what it would be like to work for a manager who has said something racist even if it was during off-work time and away from work. Most, if not all, agree that it would be hard.
This reader wants to offer some sort of training and/or coaching to the employee about maintaining the perception of fairness. Can you offer a couple of suggestions about how HR departments can maintain fairness (in general)?
[BISCHOFF] Fairness is best explained with transparency. Explain why the organization took the action it took, explain the impact of the employee’s behavior, and why HR in particular has to not appear to be condoning toxic and potentially unlawful behavior. Explaining the why and flipping the scenario around to demographics of this particular employee would be helpful.
I want to flip the scenario because I can see another situation that organizations need to address. There will be some organizations that choose not to take a public stance on a current event (like BLM). However, their employees will OR employees will want them to. How can organizations and employees work together to positively impact their communities?
[BISCHOFF] The first is to recognize the impact the current event. The Black Lives Matter movement is about making Black lives matter within our society. It is non-partisan as confirmed by the Trump Administration and it is endorsed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. So, as an organization, what does distancing from that message look like? Does it look like saying Black lives don’t matter and is that the message the organization wants to send? Or has the organization decided to take action in other ways?
What I’ve recommended to clients over the past few months is to really dedicate themselves to doing what they should be doing for a long time now. Find the points in the employee lifecycle where bias could affect decisions and encourage folks to challenge biases. Develop real, meaningful relationships with community organizations. Talk with your local mosques, synagogues, and churches about finding talent. Set up antiracist reading groups for willing staff, hire facilitators, or pay staff to have employee resource groups (ERGs).
Last question and this one is focused on the employee. The reader note leads me to believe that the employee was disciplined for their actions. My question is – is that enough? In today’s world of “cancel culture”, are there a couple of things this employee should consider proactively doing to show they understand the seriousness and the consequences of their actions?
[BISCHOFF] There are a lot of things the employee can learn here. They can start by reading books like ‘So You Want To Talk About Race’, ‘How to Be an Antiracist’, or ‘The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table’. Taking an unconscious bias training that not only identifies bias, but also requires individuals to learn how to combat or interrupt bias. All of this learning may not be enough to rehabilitate someone with deep-seeded racist beliefs, but it is something an organization will want in order to show it took timely and appropriate action.
The thing about “cancel culture” for employers is that it is the safest, less risky, and often the right thing to do for their organization. The anti-BLM post described by the reader is going to make Black employees hesitant at best and fearful at worst to come to HR with an issue. That is the exact opposite of the culture we HR want to foster. It is going to be ‘Exhibit A’ in any claim of race discrimination or harassment that may come up. While I don’t believe any organization is pro-cancel culture, most are antiracist and it is more important to be antiracist than worry about if cancelling a racist is a problem.
A huge thank you to Kate for sharing her experience with us. Please be sure to check out Kate’s blog for more insights and, of course, her other articles here on HR Bartender.
Businesses cannot operate successfully by ignoring what’s happening in the community around them. And I’m not just referring to geographic location. Employees want to know that they are working for an organization that treats people fairly and with respect. Customers want to know that they’re spending money with companies that do the right thing. And investors want to know that businesses are aware of what’s happening in the world around them.
Image captured by Sharlyn Lauby at the 34th Street Graffiti Wall in Gainesville, FL16