Last night I caught up with a very good friend after a long day’s work. We’re both in enjoyable but really full-on jobs (his requiring a ridiculous amount of creativity that I can only watch from the sidelines and admire/be envious of).
He told me about something that happened at work – to be clear, it was retold in the context of “wasn’t this so funny – but also, can you believe it???”
He was at work and someone was asked if they knew any jokes, the guy who was asked doesn’t pause a beat and says “Well, three faggots walk into a bar….”. The room of 30 or so went silent. My friend laughs it off.
Laughs off the slur that he’s been called plenty of times, in a room full of people, because he’s at work.
The dynamics are tricky here, it was a client who made the “quip”. Clearly the room was not impressed (a silence came over them all).
The fact this still happens in workplaces in 2021 beggers belief. (Well to be honest, anywhere, but people have to put up with this AT WORK TOO???) Acknowledging the ridiculousness of this, we discussed strategies for dealing with it (‘it’ being racism, homophobia, sexism, the whole gambit). He laughed at this instance – it was a client after all – but said normally his instinctive response is to laugh, agree and double down sarcastically. I shared my strategy has always been asking for more details/not understanding, i.e. “wait? Why’s that funny? “I don’t get it, can you explain why it’s funny that they’re gay?” “How is it funnier if you’re using a slur?”
So my first reaction is personal – yuk! This is unbelievable! I can’t believe people still have to navigate this at work in 2021! My second? Liability for the employer.
If you’re the employer (manager, owner, HR) whose staff are exposed to this type of abhorrent behaviour, take this as notice. If you know about it, and don’t do anything, you’re a part of the problem. If you know about it, and don’t do anything, you’re reinforcing that this is ok. If you know about it, and don’t do anything about it, you’re opening yourself & your company to a huge amount of legal risk (although I’d hope that you’d do something just because you think it’s repulsive behavour).
30% of LGBTIQ+ employees, and 29% of workers who have a disability, say they do not feel able to speak up openly at work without fear of criticism [source]. These figures are unacceptable, and particularly sobering when you consider that in situations like the above you might never be made aware if you’re not present to witness it yourself.
So what can you do? The most obvious is to call this behaviour out if you see it, make it clear that it’s not a standard that you will accept by walking past and letting it slide. But you also need to create an environment where people feel comfortable raising these issues with you, and for that, your employees & leaders need to “own” diversity & inclusion initiatives – not just your HR team.
Hahaha, I’m not suggesting reducing your D&I team if you’re lucky/smart enough to have one in the first place, but I am a firm believer in ensuring that your employees and leaders are fundamentally driving this work. If you don’t have a team (particularly if you don’t have the funds to create it), it doesn’t have to be an HR function! Initiatives can be led by voluntary working groups, as long as you ensure that you’ve got good support for the team through external mentoring/support. I highly recommend encouraging a few senior managers/execs to be involved so initiatives can be supported as they need and systematic issues are raised within your C-Suite.