Monday, June 16, 2008

Gay-marriage remark causes discord

Dear Diversity Diva:
I manage a small retail store and the other day a disruptive conversation arose when one of my employees mentioned her plans to go to California to marry her lover and my other employee made a disparaging comment about gay marriage. How do I get two employees who have always gotten along back on track?
California Dreaming
Dear California Dreaming:
There is a reason why discussing weather is the safest conversation you can have with strangers and co-workers — there are only so many ways cloud cover can turn controversial.
Chances are that what happened in your work situation is that the person who made the negative comment about gay marriage expressed an opinion he had always had but felt empowered to vocalize because his co-worker opened the door to the subject. Also, for all you know, the co-worker who made the original comment was deliberately attempting to start a conversation to “out” a co-worker she suspected would be unsupportive.
You never know what’s really going on beneath the surface when sensitive topics pop up.
Ultimately, sensitive conversations in the workplace are a lot like driving. The person who has the clearest view of the situation is presumed to be the one who could have kept the accident from happening in the first place. That’s why if you don’t want to take the chance of someone saying something offensive, you’ve got to carefully pick your workplace discussions and anticipate the logical places where the conversation may end up.
Your options in making this situation better are limited.
It sounds like what you want to accomplish is having your two employees go back to the place they were with each other before harsh words were spoken. Sorry, but that won’t fly.
Each of them probably will see each other through different eyes now that they have openly addressed their conflicting views. If they are both mature and responsible individuals, they’ll try to keep that out of their working relationship as much as possible and maybe even learn something from the encounter they had.
The best you can do is what it sounds like you’re already doing — staying aware and keeping folks on track as best you can.

Monday, June 2, 2008

How do I speak to a co-worker about racial issues?

Dear Diversity Diva: I’m a white male who works in a predominantly white workplace. I’ve tried to talk to a black co-worker of mine about some of the racial events going on in the news, but she usually changes the subject. I really want to understand some things, but how can I learn if I can’t talk to people who have a different viewpoint than I do? — Seeking to Understand
Dear Seeking: First of all, it’s admirable that you genuinely are seeking to understand different vantage points.
Good intentions aside, however, you wade in choppy waters when you expect or even just want your co-workers to provide your learning curve on sensitive topics. When you’re at work, being the one to initiate an uncomfortable conversation about race makes you vulnerable to being on the receiving end of a complaint.
Although unfortunate that your good intentions could be misconstrued, you’ve got to understand that what may be in some ways just a political conversation to you can be a highly provocative conversation to a person with very different life experiences than you — despite the multitude of ways you’re alike.
Many blacks who have been schooled and have worked in predominantly white environments have exhausting experiences with being viewed as a racial spokesperson when it comes to explaining “what black folks think.” I’m sure that’s a common issue with many other people from various backgrounds.
In the case of the co-worker you’ve attempted to talk to about news events, do you have a genuine friendship with her that would leave room for those sensitive conversations to come up naturally?
Otherwise, think about it this way: If there was a sensitive and personal family issue going on with you, you probably would not feel comfortable discussing it with a co-worker who only appeared to have an innocent yet mildly academic interest in the subject.
The beauty of our society is that information is easy currency. Seeking out black interest magazines and Web sites is a good starting point, as is getting involved in community discussions and organizations that seek to foster racial harmony and understanding.
Like you, I agree that conversation is a great path to understanding, but we have to remember that not everyone wants to get on the bumpy road with us.