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Knowing when a joke hurts

Blair McPherson - former Director, Author and Blogger
It started harmlessly enough just a casual observation to a colleague about some clients names that got turned into a list, circulated and added to. The list was titled Funny Names. As the Funny Names list became more widely circulated there were growing concerns from some employees that the names were predominantly of Asian and non Anglo Saxon origin. This sparked a  fierce internal debate on racism and sexism resulting in suspensions and a third of the 57 strong workforce resigning in protest.
As a result the Chief Executive sent an email to all employees stating that in future there was to be no discussions on contentious societal issues at work. Politics was to be kept out of the office.
Whilst this happened in a small high tec organisation the issues will be familiar to HR managers in organisations of all sizes across sectors.
This experience has been traumatic for the organisation so it’s not surprising that the chief executive would want to put an end to the destructive disharmony. Removing the list and banning its circulation as inappropriate would seem an obvious step but telling employees not to debate these issues on line, within teams or across work stations seems heavy handed, difficult to police and feels like an attempt to avoid addressing the underlying issues.
Racism and sexism are work issues. Rather than close down the debate the organisation needs to manage it. By all means take the debate off line where people tend to be more inflammatory and make it face to face in facilitated group discussions as part of the equality and diversity strategy. The aim should be to have an open organisational culture where people can say what they are thinking with out fear of being belittled or labelled. This of course is a two way process which requires all employees to acknowledge their colleagues feelings and be willing to listen.
Yes this may bring out into the open a lot of hurt feelings that have been suppressed. It may reveal a level of unconscious bias that had previously gone unrecognised and it will probably make senior managers feel very uncomfortable. But organisations that don’t talk about the elephant in the room are in denial.

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