Recent news developments show the increasing sensitivity of harassment issues including inappropriate language. During July, the founder and chairman of Papa John's was forced out over comments made during a May conference call in which he allegedly used the slur "n - - - - -," explaining that other chains used the word but his chain did not, referring to the use of rappers. He immediately apologized and said he had not used the word as a epithet, but agreed to step down as chairman. Company officials issued a statement condemning "insensitive language, no matter what the context."
In another development, a Native American attorney sued the Department of Energy because her colleagues talked about the Washington Redskins at work and displayed team paraphernalia. In a July decision, a federal district court found the claimant was not subjected to illegal harassment suggesting that not all workplace behavior that some may find offensive is outlawed under current U.S. harassment laws. The term was used not as a slur but in the support of the football team. Tallbear v. Perry, No. 17-0025 (D.D.C. 7/24/18).
While many employers are responding with tough "zero-tolerance" policies, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is now issuing warnings concerning the overbroad use of even that term. The EEOC chairperson states that while it is nice to have a policy of zero-tolerance for any form of unwelcome behavior in the workforce, the zero-tolerance concept should not be used as a "one-size-fits-all" approach to the discipline or other remedial response to the harassment. Zero-tolerance such as a termination in every case would possibly lead to under-reporting of harassment, since many workers reporting harassment want it stopped but do not want their co-worker to be fired.
Even anti-bias training has become a very sensitive issue. A recent public relations controversy at Starbucks has opened up a great deal of discussion on anti-bias training. At Starbucks, a manager in Philadelphia apparently called the police when two African-American men refused to leave the coffee shop after they were denied use of the restroom because they didn’t purchase anything. Video of the event went viral and Starbucks subsequently announced that it would shut down its more than 8,000 company-owned stores on May 29 to conduct anti-bias training. Ironically, some African-American employees of Starbucks reported being uncomfortable during the training sessions.
Many other employers are considering sensitivity training and diversity initiatives for their employees. An incident at American Airlines resulted in the NAACP issuing a travel advisory recommending African-Americans not use the airline, resulting in American Airlines emphasizing employee training including diversity analysis and anti-racism training. Some of the training is designed to raise employees’ awareness of their views regarding race, gender and physical capability.
Many experts suggest that becoming more aware of bias does not necessarily make persons less biased. Further, many get very defensive if they consider the training as accusing them of bias. Much of the bias may actually be unconscious bias. Others suggest that while employees cannot see their own bias, they can see others being biased.
The simple answer is to say that good diversity training may help, and poor diversity training will not help and could even hurt. Some believe that good bias training focuses on respect for individuals, and the culture of individuals, rather than singling out groups that might be more prone to bias. Some believe that such respect fosters better cooperation among employees and improves business as well.
In any event, just about everybody agrees that conducting a single training session does not solve the problem. Training must not push awareness of bias to the point of neglecting the skills necessary to avoid its application. Most believe that setting the example and developing a good company culture is crucial.