to address harassment, bullying and discrimination
with Stephen Hammond
Tip #27 — LISTEN CAREFULLY TO A COMPLAINT OF DISCRIMINATION
Remember the O.J. Simpson trial? Many of us know where we were when the verdict came down. If you weren't old enough, ask someone who is and you'll be surprised that they actually DO remember where they were when the verdict was read out. It was after that trial where people would talk about someone playing the "race card," or eliciting sympathy because they're in a victim role. Despite this, I'd advise you to not dismiss out of hand a person who thinks he or she is being victimized due to gender, religion, sexual orientation, colour of skin or other characteristics. If you've never been in those shoes, it's all too easy to dismiss their view. As a company leader, you've been entrusted to listen and weigh such judgments carefully.
In 1977 at the University of Manitoba, I was in a large class with a friend, Mark, who sat a couple of seats over. I was more interested in fun than academia that year; during this first year I was more or less concentrating on my "major in beverages." And I was forever looking over at Mark and making strange faces to distract him (in my case 18 years old wasn't very far off 13). At the end of this class, a Black student who sat between Mark and me asked, "Why do you keep staring at me?" I was stunned and explained that I'd been trying to get Mark's attention. Although he seemed satisfied with that, I remember thinking he was making something out of nothing, due to his colour of skin.
Looking back, and keeping in mind that this was the late 1970s in Winnipeg, when there were a limited number of Black students at the University, I realize this classmate probably got more than his share of people staring at him. This fellow did the right thing, asking me to explain my behaviour rather than making an assumption. Had I been staring at him, he would have had every right to ask me to stop.
As with that situation, in your workplace, your actions as a supervisor speak louder than words. If your decisions are fair and equitable, you're less likely to be visited by an employee who feels that he or she is being singled out by you for mistreatment. In fact, you'll be a more effective leader as employees will know you are fair to everyone.
Does it seem to you that I'm speaking out of both sides of my mouth? Prior to this tip, I've said don't treat people with kid gloves for fear they might cry sexism or racism. And on the other hand, I'm saying listen carefully if a person says they're being singled out due to sexism or racism. Until we get closer to a society where people base their decisions on a rational basis and not so much on prejudices, we will have these complexities. My point is, don't worry about the times a misunderstanding happens. Treat people equitably, explain rationally, and most of the time, people will respond reasonably.
1) Avoid use of any kind of "card" - as it's so easy to use and abuse. When someone says, "Stephen's just using the race card" ask the person what she means and try to use reason instead of blanket and stereotypical terminology.
2) Give people a fair hearing - to truly understand where they are coming from. It might be a misunderstanding or it might be legitimate. We all come from different life experiences and each one of us will react differently to situations. Truly listen to what a person has to say and don't dismiss it.
3) Perfection should not be the goal - it's too much work and unachievable. We certainly don't achieve perfection by hiring only people who look like us, so we shouldn't expect perfection from a mixed gender and multicultural workforce. There will be misunderstandings and mistakes, so talk them through and learn from past mistakes. It may sound trite, but I think it's the simplest approach.