Hostile Work Environments: Nip Them in the Bud.
It is no secret that the current political atmosphere has emboldened people who do not believe in equality between genders, races, people of varied sexual orientations, people with disabilities, etc. While the first amendment arguably defends the expression of ideas of superiority of one group over another in the public sphere, your business is not a town square. It is a private enterprise, and is beholden to provide a certain level of safety for your employees, and your customers. You are required to clearly mark the stairs. You have signs telling your employees to wash their hands after using the restroom. You have a similar responsibility to shield your employees and customers from harassment.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s website is very clear that employers are ultimately culpable for harassment in the workplace and hostile work environments. They advise that “Prevention is the best tool to eliminate harassment in the workplace.” They suggest anti-harassment training, clear communication to employees that harassment will not be tolerated, and clear communication that harassment complaints will be investigated and acted upon. The underlying theme is that preventing a hostile environment requires direct action before any harassment takes place.
A cornerstone reason to shut hostility down as soon as you sense it is that a single hostile act or comment can easily explode into a generally hostile environment. A single employee making generalizations about Asian Americans not being good at making macchiatos can very rapidly escalate into full scale racial hostility among many employees. Within minutes. A manager making a comment about female employees not being able to lift heavy things can ramp into a loud confrontation about assigned gender roles. As an employer it is not your job to take sides on a personal or general level. It is your responsibility to ensure that your employees are treating each other with respect. Even if you as an employer don’t personally care about the issue being argued, what you want is for everyone to do their job. They will do their job more effectively, more completely, and more safely if they aren’t driving each other crazy.
Remind your employees: the workplace is not the same as their couch. They are not free to holler out their opinions, especially the ones they haven’t thought out. They are not invited to like or dislike everything that is said to them, or around them. They are not at work to share their take on the day’s news. They are there to work. In order to work they need to have and show respect for their co-workers, and themselves.
Of course, it is essential not to create a hostile environment yourself when trying to prevent a hostile environment. Do not loudly or angrily censure employees who express discriminatory or questionable views. Instead, calmly advise them that their line of discussion is not appropriate for the workplace. Simple statements like “We’re not going to talk about that at work,” or even “Save it,” are sufficient warnings to employees to cease their disruptive commentary or rhetoric.
You do not have to wait for an employee to become abusive or engage in harassment before dismissing them. If an employee comes in to work wearing a t-shirt with a confederate flag on it, a manager can (and probably should) ask them to change shirts immediately. If they refuse they can be immediately dismissed for insubordination (refusal to carry out direct instructions from their manager). You do not have to prove that anyone was offended by the shirt, or even that anyone other than the manager saw the shirt. You are taking action to prevent a hostile situation that you have a reasonable expectation of occurring as a result of the shirt.
This may make you feel like the thought police, or like you are creating an eternally bland atmosphere. Remember, what you are truly doing is ensuring an efficient and legally compliant work environment. If you let the employee wear the t-shirt, and another employee or customer is offended, that’s on you.
Perhaps as an employer you find this whole discussion frustrating because you think your employees or customers are too sensitive and need to grow thicker skin. If so, you should not approach the issue through the lens of social conflict, but through the lens of efficiency. Harassment is not just illegal, it is inefficient. Measures that you take to combat harassment will increase efficiency. There is no shortage of evidence that the most successful businesses are the ones with close knit teams that work together harmoniously. It is important to maintain a variety of points of view, but you can’t protect hostility.
Be aware! Talk to your employees about what they find to be unacceptable. Even when they qualify their statements by saying things like “It doesn’t really bother me but . . .” that doesn’t mean their example is not a concern. I have seen incidents over the spelling of cocktail names, pronunciation of words, slang terms used in an attempt to identify across cultural lines, not to mention total genuine misunderstandings. As an employer you do not have to stand behind and condone every statement and action of every employee every day. You do have to make sure that the workplace you provide is peaceable and free of harassment.
An excellent example of a current test of the opposing concepts of free speech and workplace environment is the National Labor Board complaint brought against Google by James Damore. Damore was fired by Google after sending out a memo that decried Google’s “politically correct monoculture”. The National Labor Board rejected the complaint. Their attorney, Jayme Sophir, argued that Damore’s memo included discriminatory language. Sophir found Google within their rights to dismiss Damore in order to preemptively prevent a hostile work environment.
Ms. Sophir wrote that “employers must be permitted to ‘nip in the bud’ the kinds of employee conduct that could lead to a ‘hostile workplace,’ rather than waiting until an actionable hostile workplace has been created before taking action.” This is a key point that is very important for small business owners and their HR departments to internalize. If an employee is engaging in behavior or speech that could create a hostile environment it is the employer’s responsibility to shut that behavior or speech down before it creates a hostile environment.
Preventing a hostile environment takes diligence, attention, and deft handling, but the rewards are great. A truly harassment-free, efficient, diverse workplace is an example of what our society can be. Keep your heart and mind open, and keep your ears and eyes open too. Hatred is the source of harassment, and if you pay attention, you will know hatred when you see and hear it. Nip it in the bud.