HR Must ‘Be Proactive' in Confronting Race Relations Issues in the Workplace

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By Genevieve Douglas  

In light of recent events--the George Zimmerman trial and professional football player Riley Cooper being caught on camera using an egregious racial epithet--race relation issues, perhaps thought resolved by many, are again a major part of the national discourse. And like so many societal issues, race relations also are a challenge in the workplace.

Showing how great the divide between the races can be, polling results released after the Zimmerman not guilty verdict revealed that people of color overwhelmingly said that race had something to do with the incident, while Caucasian people overwhelmingly said it did not, Eric Peterson, manager of diversity and inclusion at the Society for Human Resource Management, told BNA Aug. 1.

Racism in the workplace can be overt, but it also can be a hard thing to characterize, Beth Livingston, assistant professor of human resource studies at Cornell University, told BNA July 29.

“People do bad things and make unintelligent decisions in the workplace,” Livingston said. “However, these issues are not always blatant.”

According to Livingston, conflicts based on race are often the result of many “micro-aggressions” that act as paper cuts leading to a larger wound. Employers, managers, and HR should “be proactive” in addressing these mini-conflicts before they blow up into something much larger, she said.

An Issue That Can't Be Ignored

For fiscal year 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had approximately 99,000 charges of discrimination filed, and race made up 33.7 percent of those charges, Edward Loughlin, trial attorney in the commission's Washington, D.C., field office, told BNA July 29.

According to EEOC data, sex discrimination was second at 30.5 percent, and national origin was third at 10.9 percent. This trend where race has been the top claim has existed for years, Loughlin said.

“From the commission's perspective, racial discrimination in the workplace is clearly still a very big issue, and it's been that way for a while,” he said.

According to Loughlin, the biggest problem is managers who do not address or deal with conflicts related to race, because the issues never go away.

Loughlin said that effective antidiscrimination policies and practices can avoid costly litigation. When it comes to discrimination litigation, “the only thing worse than not having a policy is having one and not following it,” he said. “An antidiscrimination policy can't be a 'set it and forget it' kind of policy,” he said.

Due to the evolution of anti-discrimination laws, and new technology in the workplace, such policies must be updated, Loughlin added.

He recommended that HR professionals pay particular attention to social media, since networking sites are increasingly the forum in which these kinds of issues can be raised.

Kristen J. Nesbit, senior associate in the Los Angeles offices of Fisher & Phillips LLC, told BNA Aug. 2 that the layoffs caused by the recession often raised race bias concerns.

Management, and particularly senior management, should take care to be transparent about why an individual is laid off, such as the employee's education, experience, or seniority, to protect themselves against these kinds of charges, she recommended.

Not a Black and White Issue

HR must embrace the gray area when it comes to resolving racial disputes, SHRM's Peterson advised.

“As a culture, and specifically in the profession of HR, we have to get beyond the assumption that there are good people and bad people,” he said. “Almost all people fall somewhere in the middle, and often disparate treatment is not the result of hatred for other races, but of unintentional offense.”

How HR addresses conflicts can be tricky, Peterson said, because often slights are not intended. Increased diversity education and encouraging self-awareness in the workplace are best practices, he advised.

Furthermore, HR should try to get to the root cause of any conflict in a way that is not punitive, Peterson said. “Denial, defensiveness, and other obstacles appear when punishment may be on the horizon,” he said. HR must build a culture where employees feel comfortable coming forward with their feelings and concerns, he said.

Livingston recommended that employers not rely on zero tolerance policies, because they are not helpful in fostering a conversation among employees involved in a conflict, or creating a relationship among employees. She suggested that HR can mitigate racial tensions or conflicts in the workplace by training managers and staff in conflict resolution.

Livingston warned, however, that HR must take any complaint seriously. “Most workplaces are in a team-based atmosphere, and when there is conflict due to racial diversity, one of the worst things organizations can do is minimize the seriousness of what has happened,” she said.

According to Livingston, employers should establish that all parties are supported, and should make an effort to hear everyone involved. “People can see one event through many different views due to life experiences, work experiences, and relationships,” she added.