Why There are George Zimmermans in Every Organization & How to Manage Them

March 2012 public opinion polls indicate that about 75% of Americans want George Zimmerman arrested for shooting Trayvon Martin to death. The opinions take into account news reports indicating that Zimmerman is “white Hispanic”, from a racially mix family, and a neighborhood watch person for the racially mixed community in which Trayvon Martin was visiting.

Zimmerman’s family and friends characterize him as a non-prejudice, likable, and responsible. He is reported to be remorseful and saddened for having taken Martin’s life. At the same time, it is difficult to discount some distressing behaviors on Zimmerman’s part upon hearing the recorded 911 call conversations. He was clearly profiling Martin and showed concerns that Martin would get away with a crime without being caught by the police. Zimmerman presumably had a reason for concern if the news reports about a recent increase in crime in the complex are true. But, what does all of this have to do with the human resource officer’s job?

While the public have the privilege of taking any side of the argument they choose about this tragedy, a human resource professional must suspend judgment to consume the facts impartially when investigating workplace complaints about racial profiling and animosity.

Consider this scenario. Brent is a bank manager who promoted Tyrone from teller to assistant manager. Brent happens to be white European American and Tyrone is African-American. Brent was proud of placing Tyrone for the job position because he believes that promoting diversity is good for the workplace and society. The two of them really hit it off. Brent invited Tyrone to his home for dinner a few times and they would meet at a sport bar after work on occasion. Brent requested Tyrone’s presence at the hospital when Brent’s wife had their first baby.

On a two-day business trip by car, Brent confided in Tyrone that he was different from most African-Americans “who are not very ambitious” and “expect something for nothing”.  Brent realized that Tyrone became silent after his comment and asked if there was something wrong. Tyrone said no, but remained very quiet. The day following their return from the trip, the HR officer reported to Brent that Tyrone had brought a formal complaint against him for making insensitive racial comments.

Take this Quiz

What would you recommend to resolve the matter if you were in the HR professional’s position?

  1. Assume that Tyrone’s story is true and reprimand Brent with a formal warning that goes into his record.
  2. Assume that Brent is innocent and let him know that he needs to be more careful about what he says in front of his direct report.
  3. Get Brent’s side of the incident. If you conclude that Brent’s behavior was inadvertent due to poor intercultural skills, require and provide him with an educational solution.
  4. Get Brent’s side of the incident and recommend that he take diversity training for legal protection.
  5. Get Brent’s side of the incident and help him understand the consequences of his actions.

The answer is at the end  of this lesson.

It does not matter in any case whether Brent’s behavior was innocent or not because the impact is the same. That is why it is so important to focus more on education instead of firing the individual or letting the person off the hook.

The world is more complex and collegiality challenges in organizations is a consequence. The demographics of a modern workplace  reflect a mini United Nations. The problem is that our ability to navigate cultural differences lags far behind the reality of organizations filled with cultural diversity landmines. One result is that the human resource officer must determine the difference between employees who step on multicultural toes due to prejudice and those who do so inadvertently due to poor intercultural competence.

Five Practices to Reduce Profiling and Insensitivity in the Workplace

  1. Take each and every complaint seriously. Avoid making excuses for the accuser no matter how likeable the person and out of character the behavior was.  Keep the focus on remaining impartial.
  2. Treat each incident as an opportunity to improve overall organizational inclusion. Whether the behavior was egregious or inadvertent, consider it as a teachable moment. Focus on what the organization can learn from it to help people navigate differences better in the future.
  3. Educate people instead of relying a list of Don’ts to avoid behaviors that break policy.  One of the most troubling features of anti-harassment policies is the list of all the things you should avoid doing instead of what works.
  4. Reward individuals who model collegiality and inclusion along with employee awards for modeling how to do it right. We do this for people who do heroic acts.
  5. Work on your HR cultural diversity skills. It is difficult for people to take you seriously when they perceive you as lacking the skills that you are expecting others to have. Developing your ability to promote inclusion will empower you to effectively encourage others.

The modern workplace is filled with cultural diversity landmines because most of us have not learned how to navigate cultural differences even though we value diversity, which leads to the filing of complaints due to people inadvertently stepping on each other’s multicultural toes.

It is the human resource office’s responsibility to lead the organization’s efforts to close the gap between the diversity values and poor corresponding skills.

Quiz Answer: C

Additional Resources

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