Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Is Every Personnel Issue a Big Deal?

Dear Diversity Diva: No offense, Diva, but I think you dropped the ball on your last column. It sounded like you were saying that the manager should just blow off two employees getting into it about gay marriage. Shouldn’t someone have gotten in trouble? — Critical in Kansas City
Dear Critical: I can understand how my response may have seemed that I was taking too soft a tone to the manager’s dilemma. However, that wasn’t the case. The manager asked about what he should do regarding two employees in his small retail store who had a spat when one of them mentioned that he/she was about to get married under California’s new gay marriage law. The other employee responded in an offensive way.
Basically, my answer was in response to the very specific question the manager asked (who gave me more details than space allowed), which was wanting to know what role he had in improving the relationship that went awry between two employees.
The manager was asking about an isolated incident in which two people were on opposite sides of an emotionally charged issue. And whether people like it or not, an isolated difference of opinion between two employees does not trigger the need for a companywide diversity training session or the firing of an employee.
If one of the employees had written and told me how this was an ongoing issue of hostility and harassment, then reporting the incident to management would have been the first step I recommended, followed by possibly hiring an attorney to seek legal remedies based on the facts.
If the manager himself had told me that this was an ongoing issue, then I would have recommended that he quickly take this to his human resources department and address this immediately.
That wasn’t the case here. The manager who contacted me had the specific concern of wanting his people to go back to liking each other again in the aftermath of one conversation. The law can address behaviors; it can even address motivations that result in work environment and job decisions. But the law and human resources department can’t legislate how people feel about other individuals or other groups.
Laws and policies help keep the workplace fair, but they can’t eradicate bigotry, because one person’s bigoted comment is another person’s right to have an opinion.
Just like the first fight with a spouse doesn’t require a trip to a marriage counselor, every isolated disagreement regarding diversity in the workplace does not require a trip to the human resources department or to the EEOC.
Additionally, 100 different HR professional will have 100 different takes on how to handle a personnel issue. But all those approaches are imperfect considering that the EEOC last year had its biggest increase in discrimination complaints from the preceding year since 1993.
Thanks for holding my feet to the fire, Critical!

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