Many employers believe they are working toward solving discrimination by simply hiring a “diverse” workforce, and that is a great first step. Most of the early legal work in Civil Rights has also been to provide opportunities to groups with disadvantaged characteristics so that they have the opportunity to participate in areas they had been banned from (for example, owning property, having careers, and voting). The problem we’ve seen with this is that it is one thing to hire a person of color into a job, but it is an entirely different thing to keep her and allow her to advance in her position. It is one thing to say, “I’ve given this employee the opportunity to do well in his job, now it’s on him to take it.” It’s a different matter entirely to create an inclusive, culturally healthy workplace environment. Most of us want to have a healthy workplace, but when we run into signs of un-health, we try to hide them and cover them up, rather than diagnose and treat the wound. Just like when a physical wound goes ignored and untreated, at best this leads to scarring, at worst it leads to an infection that can destroy the entire system.
Most business owners do not start their business with the hopes of babysitting high-conflict, high-drama employees. There’s no sense in pretending anything different. But, as your business starts to scale and expand, you are statistically likely to have incidents of conflict and even harassment and discrimination. The research indicates that hiring the “right” people may be an impossible goal, and it is at least much costlier than healing the cultural wounds your company has now.
We often think, if someone has a good business and is doing good work in the world, they won’t have discrimination or harassment in their company. But, really, I have seen non-profits doing incredible work shut down over harassment and discrimination allegations; I have seen artistic companies with incredibly high turnover as a result of abusive management behavior; I have seen law firms who could barely manage because of staff gossip; and we have all seen people we respected accused of sexual assault or harassment. Being able to do your job well does not necessarily mean you have learned the skills of handling high-conflict, high-drama situations at work. They are separate skills. We often believe that a “good person” will know how to respond to harassment or discrimination allegations and that only “bad people” struggle, but after having worked in this area for years, that is not my experience. Responding to high-conflict, high-drama situations at work or allegations of harassment, discrimination, or bullying is a skill that most of us have not been taught.
We would never expect a business owner to understand how to install her own electrical wiring or even cater the food at her own events. But we expect business owners to be able to navigate high-conflict situations with employees that involve sensitive cultural topics, even though they have never received information or training about how to do so. Some of these situations are as though there was an exposed electrical wire, and we expected the business owner to navigate rewiring their building with no expert advice. This sets the business owner up to make the situation much worse, sometimes dangerously so. This is often what I see as a lawyer who has spent years advocating for employees, and it’s why I want to share as much as I can about what I’ve seen work to solve these problems. Like with electrical wiring, there are solutions to make a workplace culturally healthy, and it does not take magic. It just takes the right tools.
The problem is that we have only recently come to understand (even in a limited way) the brain and the cognitive biases that create conflict around cultural differences. Even those of us who have been trained in traditional conflict resolution methods usually have not been trained in methods that effectively work where there are genuinely clashing cultural beliefs or extreme cultural betrayals. Instead, we are trained in negotiation and investigation methods that assume an even balance of power and promote competition for the win. I have heard mediators and seasoned attorneys talk about resolving a dispute as “getting to the deal in a used-car sale.” That is not because they lack compassion, but because when we are dealing with strictly a legal claim, not the human reality of cultural conflict, money is usually all we have to deal with. A legal claim becomes some version of a used-car deal where both sides are just negotiating the financial value a jury might give.
There is nothing inherently bad about the legal system restricting negotiations to settling financial harms that can be repaired, but it does not do the additional work of repairing the cultural breakdown and the suffering around conflict that many employees experience day in and day out. The reality is that if we wait until there is a legal dispute to negotiate a resolution, which will inevitably be expensive and stressful, but really only address the financial component of the problem, it is a burden on both employers and employees.
Often good employers and their good employees face the costs of harassment and discrimination, rather than avoiding that cost by taking preventative measures or shifting the cost to the people accused of harassment and discrimination. I don’t want that for you. There are not any other workplace issues I can think of where employers are so willing to front the financial costs of a preventable workplace hazard. The EEOC reported that in 2018 it recovered $70 million from employers through sexual harassment claims alone. The EEOC reports remarkably low settlement amounts compared to legal settlements, as well. (In one research project I did to prepare for mediation in two sexual harassment cases where I was representing the harassed women, I calculated that an average EEOC settlement was around $10,000 per complainant, but some looked much larger because there were often such a large group of complainants.) Most settlements where attorneys are involved tend to be much higher than an EEOC settlement. So, the $70 million figure likely represents a large number of complainants, rather than high settlement amounts. So, one business owner may pay a large settlement, and at the same time, each complainant against that business may get a small settlement. This seems like a lose-lose situation for both the business owner and the innocent employees who were harassed.
When I started working with Rhea’s employees, both were in complete crisis. Both spent over an hour crying and/or yelling to initiate our conversations, and I sat with both of them for four hours for our initial meeting to really absorb their perspectives on their stories and offer them the basics of what I teach. The next time we met, both were still angry and hurt. Before our third conversation, though, both had apologized to each other for their part in what they agreed was a complicated relationship. They agreed that they wanted to try to work together professionally. Rhea was able to implement rules that would make the workplace safer, with specific expectations around physical contact and respect.
One of Rhea’s business partners expressed that she had been really worried that their work family would have to become a cold place after these allegations of harassment, with no hugging, joking, or personal relationships allowed. But, after these employees did the hard work to shift the power dynamics in their situation and own responsibility for their own thoughts, feelings, and actions, she noticed positive attitude changes and more engagement from them.
I have seen businesses shut down after harassment allegations, and I have also seen businesses and their employees thrive and grow around these conflicts. Ignoring and covering up harassment and discrimination does not solve it, it just feeds the toxicity and gives it room to grow. Once it is big enough, it can swallow entire organizations. Resolving a cultural health conflict never means covering it up or pretending abusive behavior is okay. But, when employers can take an active role in diagnosing their company’s cultural health and effectively resolving conflict issues by understanding and teaching how power dynamics impact the workplace, it is possible for harassment and discrimination allegations to ignite growth in the business, rather than destruction.
This is a selection from The Inclusive Leader's Guide to Healthy Workplace Culture. For a free copy of the book, visit www.HealthyWorkplaceCulture.com. Or you can purchase online via Amazon. ______________________________
This is a selection from The Inclusive Leader's Guide to Healthy Workplace Culture. For a free copy of the book, visit www.HealthyWorkplaceCulture.com. Or you can purchase online via Amazon.