Austin has a unique culture. On the one hand, we live in a world where trigger warnings and micro-
aggressions are a huge issue for people, and many Austinites take fair and compassionate treatment for people of all colors, creeds, sexual preferences and gender identifications very seriously. On the other hand, we pride ourselves on being the chill, laid-back city. So when an Austin city staffer used a “judgmental map” marking the city into areas like “North Mexico,” “Blacks resisting gentrification,” and “boring gays” during a presentation, I like to hope that the staffer was just being cluelessly inappropriate, rather than intending actual malice. It reminded me of when I was a teacher and textbook writers—who I envisioned sitting in a barren room making up math problems and bored out of their minds—would create graphing problems where the answers (supplied in the back of the textbook) spelled out curse words. I like to hope these people didn’t really mean any harm, they just weren’t really thinking. Perhaps It never dawned on them that anyone would pay attention to what they were doing. And my next thought was: Austin needs more diversity training.
They had that consultant last year who came in and made all kinds of ridiculous statements about women’s ability to govern—based on his own issues in the city where he had been city manager. And now this. In this case, the city seems to be handling it well, but I hope they realize—as many organizations don’t—that diversity training can never be a one-and-done project. First of all, unless your life or work bring you face-to-face with the discrimination others experience, you might not think about it very deeply. Understanding what other people go through requires a level of empathy, putting ourselves in each other’s shoes and developing a new perspective. It’s work. And if that’s not part of your daily life, you might not ever think to do it. So you say or do insensitive things, oblivious to how others are affected.
Then there is the issue of people just being inappropriate. They get comfortable with their workmates and forget to show up with their “adult” hats on, understanding that—however you may behave with your pals—this is a workplace. There are rules that govern how we treat and speak to each other. We can laugh, talk and joke around during work, but if you’re prone to off-color humor, that needs to be checked before you get to work.
Because people forget, and slip into old, bad habits, any business, public entity or non-profit that wants a respectful workplace should consider doing regular diversity training. I’ve heard leaders say “Oh we had diversity training five years ago, we’re good.” No…no, and no. First of all, you may have brought in some new employees over the last five years. But whether you have or not, you’re looking for your employees to shift their perspectives and their behavior in all their interactions at work. That means cultivating new habits and we all know that that can’t be accomplished in one afternoon session. People need to be reminded: “Remember how that language, those jokes, that rude calendar impact the people around you?” Their workmates may never say how they feel about the inappropriate behavior at work. They may find it easier to just tolerate it and let it pollute the environment than to confront their co-worker. Or they may decide to take it to the EEOC. It’s up to the organization to make sure everybody is trained, regularly, to keep the concepts fresh in their minds.
Besides the risk of a big gaffe, and the possible legal ramifications of inappropriate and insensitive behavior, there’s a much bigger reason to have regular diversity training: Your workplace, your team unity, and your lives are just better when you remember to have empathy for each other.
We work with companies on a project basis or on retainer, providing a custom level of HR help designed for your business, with offices in Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston. Contact me at Caroline@valentinehr.com or call (512) 420-8267.