Diversity is one of the greatest strengths in the modern workplace. Over the past few decades, employers have recognized how the input and unique contributions of employees with varying backgrounds can help to build a vital, productive, and profitable workforce. At the same time, managers must be sensitive to actions or behaviors that are offensive to members of their teams and take immediate steps to put a stop to such conduct. 

As a manager, you of course want to foster teamwork among your employees—and joking is often part of developing camaraderie and good working relationships. But it is your responsibility to address any behavior that crosses the line, particularly when it comes to conduct that is racially or ethnically offensive. Indeed, your company should have—and enforce—a zero tolerance policy for such behavior. There is no place for this type of conduct in a work environment. offensive remarks.jpg

Consequences of Offensive Remarks

Offensive racial or ethnic remarks in the workplace offend and alienate employees. Such remarks can demotivate employees and harm a company’s reputation, both internally and among clients or customers. Finally, these kinds of remarks may rise to the level of unlawful harassment.

To that last point, harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates federal law and the law in many states. Under federal law, harassment is defined as unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Harassment is illegal when enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive. Offensive conduct may include, but is not limited to, offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, ridicule or mockery, and insults or put-downs. Importantly, the victim does not have to be the person harassed, but can be anyone affected by the offensive conduct. In certain cases, employers may be held liable for workplace harassment.

 

Responding to Offensive Remarks

With so much at stake, managers must respond forcefully to any instances of racially or ethnically offensive remarks or behaviors that occur in their presence or come to their attention. In such an instance, address the situation immediately, and explain to your employee that the behavior is unacceptable and must not happen again. Be direct, firm, and factual, and confine your discussion to the specific behavior. Report any incident to HR so it can be determined whether a detailed harassment investigation may be necessary.

Follow your company’s policy regarding employee discipline. Disciplinary measures should be proportional to the seriousness of the offense. For example, in the case of a single "off-color" remark by an individual with no prior history of similar misconduct, counseling and an oral warning might be all that is necessary. On the other hand, if the behavior is severe or persistent, then suspension or discharge may be appropriate. In all cases, it is important to work with HR before taking any disciplinary action to ensure compliance with company policy and applicable law, as well as to ensure proper documentation of the incident and any investigation and remedial actions taken.

It is also essential for employees to know that they will not face retaliation for reporting or complaining about any instances of offensive behavior, or for participating in any investigations regarding such conduct.

Diversity Best Practices

As a general rule, all companies should have a policy in place that clearly states a commitment to workplace diversity and outlines the consequences for discriminatory conduct. The policy should be included in the employee handbook as well as posted on the company intranet, if applicable. If circumstances allow, also consider conducting formal diversity training for all employees.  

Finally, commit to implementing workplace diversity best practices, including:

1.    Not making assumptions based on race, ethnicity, gender, disability, or the like.

2.    Respecting all cultures, traditions, and circumstances that may require accommodation.

3.    Refusing to allow inappropriate jokes, language, or behavior.

4.    Treating all employees equitably.

5.    Engaging in ongoing dialogue regarding diversity.

For more information on workplace diversity and discrimination, visit HR360.com.

Preventing Race and Color Discrimination in the Workplace

Topics: Discrimination

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