Handling divisions in the workplace

Trump is stirring up a lot of feelings — and that could have implications for employers

I have worked with both the Trump and Obama administrations during my career as a diversity and inclusion practitioner, so I have inside experience on how both administrations work.

I have been critical of both administrations for different reasons. From corporations to schools, I have also worked with organizations dealing with the challenges the election of the first African-American president brought them — which is a discussion for another day.

Today, I’d like to provide some steps employers can take during the presidency of Donald Trump to deal with challenges related to diversity.

Love or hate him, we all know Trump has been called the most divisive president in recent United States history. Whether you agree with that statement or not, one thing we cannot disagree on is that, since 2016, tensions have risen tremendously in the country in the form of an increase in hate crimes (according to the FBI), an apparent increase in tensions between non-white communities and law enforcement, and increased tensions in the workplace, according to a 2017 survey by the American Psychological Association.

More employees are experiencing tension because of what they are experiencing outside of work as well as on the job.

So, here are three steps employers can take to start to create a more productive work environment in a country that is only going to become more tense as we approach the 2020 election.

Create free spaces

There has been much written about the importance of organizations creating safe spaces — “intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations,” according to Merriam-Webster — but there also need to be free spaces where your employees can express themselves without being judged or developing a fear of reprisals.

There should be a department — or at the very least a representative of your company — not affiliated with HR, where employees can express themselves and their concerns about how the climate of the country (or your company) may be affecting their work performance.

You can have employees who feel they are being targeted because of their race, religion, gender or any other identifier for which they feel singled out.

From the rich, white male in a company to the Muslim, middle-class female, anyone can feel marginalized at any time. They need spaces to speak their mind.

Focus on diversity

Create a diversity statement and training now before the crisis hits — and a crisis will hit. I have encountered so many employees who have told me they feel tolerated and not celebrated in their organizations because their workplaces do not have a stated commitment to diversity.

The idea of the diversity statement can indeed be controversial, but I believe it is better to have a statement than not have one.

A diversity statement is a promise to everyone who walks through your doors that your company is committed to hiring the best talent, regardless of their background.

To honour that promise, employers must engage in regular events and training that are focused on building a culturally competent workforce to demonstrate that actions do indeed speak louder than words.

Silence is compliance

As I am writing this, the hashtag #silenceiscompliance is trending in regards to frustrations with politicians not speaking up on some of the issues facing the U.S. today.

Whether it is the situation with the flag and Colin Kaepernick or environmental issues such as the effects of plastic straws, we live in a society where consumers want their companies to take a stand, one way or the other.

Even Skittles had to issue a statement after the killing of Trayvon Martin (who was carrying the candy) by George Zimmerman in 2012. In this day and age, you do not want your company to be caught off guard by an issue that is quickly going viral.

In the last year, Starbucks, Gucci, Macy’s, Home Depot, H&M, Sephora, Burberry and so many other companies have found themselves the subject of backlash over issues such as racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. You want to make sure your company is proactive in the face of controversy, because companies that are reactive tend to suffer the most criticism from the public (and stockholders, by the way).

We live in a society that is on the brink of either something beautiful or disastrous. Your company should not wait to respond to issues regarding diversity and inclusion.

I have not yet read a study saying that employers that are more diverse and celebrate their diversity are less profitable. Companies can increase their revenue by as much as 19 per cent when they embrace diversity, according to a 2018 study by the Boston Consulting Group.

As the United States becomes more diverse and the world becomes smaller, you owe it to employees and consumers to continually be ahead of the curve. As Martin Luther King stated: “The time is always right to do what is right.”

If your company is strong in one or two of these areas, strengthen yourself in the third. If your company is shaky in all three, there is no time like the present to fine-tune your programs by working with experts in this area.

If your company is proficient in all three, do not get comfortable, for as U.S. author and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar said, you can always better your best.

Omekongo Dibinga is an award-winning leadership, diversity and inclusion strategist based in Washington, D.C.

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