Talking in the Workplace
Tools for dialogue around challenging topics at work
As part of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics’ Business Ethics program, a dialogue series exploring workplace diversity and inclusion issues was launched in November 2017. This first gathering, sponsored by the Ethics Center’s Partners in Business Ethics, focused on speech in the workplace. To register for upcoming sessions, please see our Workplace Diversity Dialogues page.
Microaggressions in the Workplace: Mountain or Molehill?
In the first session, Santa Clara University Philosophy Department faculty member Robert Shanklin, explained that the term “microaggressions” is often misused to label things that are outright racist, sexist, or discriminatory; more accurately, microaggressions are primarily unconscious slights that may not be perceived as insulting on the surface.
Shanklin highlighted the ethical importance of understanding microaggressions because at the root of microaggressions is the unconscious mistreatment of others, which can perpetuate problematic social perceptions. Shanklin also explored why people would think microaggressions are not a big deal—a “molehill”—and why others think they’re important—a “mountain.”
According to Shanklin, organizations have a hard time addressing microaggressions in the workplace because they are subjective; for example, what one person finds offensive, another person may laugh at. Or a person might find a comment offensive in the workplace but not in his or her personal life because of situational context.
How can organizations have policies to address this issue if it’s so subjective (and even unconscious)? Shanklin provided participants with some communication skills to help address the issue head-on in organizations. One example is to use meta-linguistic scripts to address the behavior/language. Some phrases to use to create greater understanding:
“Help me understand why you said /did…”
“What do you mean by…”
“What does ___ mean to you?”
“I heard you say____, did you mean____?”
“Let’s not try to avoid disagreement/difference but handle it like professionals.”
See Shanklin’s supplemental handout for further information.
Balanced Experiential Inquiry
Leslie Sekerka, professor of management and director of the Ethics in Action Center at Menlo College, presented on fortifying workplace respect through a tool called Balanced Experiential Inquiry (BEI). Ideally, we want diverse work environments that encourage respect for all. But, in reality, a thoughtful regard for others can be easily lost in organizations, which can cause friction among coworkers. BEI is a tool that can help employees collectively achieve a mindful awareness and respect toward others. Sekerka explained that BEI is a blend of problem- and strengths-based approaches to ethics so people can become more morally courageous through emotional signaling, reflective pause, self-regulation, and more preparation.
Sekerka walked participants through her BEI model using examples of times they’d heard Islamophobic remarks in the workplace. They reflected on what they could have done differently in these moments in order to build their moral muscles for the next time they need to speak up at work.
Sekerka’s slide deck is available here.
Freedom of Speech in the Workplace
The final session was a panel on the topic of freedom of speech in the workplace with Saidah Grayson Dill, senior director, Employment Law and Employee Relations at Cisco; Margaret Russell, SCU professor of law and interim associate vice provost for Diversity and Inclusion, and Gary Spitko, SCU Presidential Professor of Ethics and the Common Good and professor of law. Full video of the panel is available here.
Overall takeaways and highlights from the panel include:
- Our culture has shifted from having separate identities—a “work self” and a “personal self”—to a blend of the two. As a result, it’s unrealistic for employers to expect their employees to leave their personal selves at the door and this includes political ideologies and concerns about current events.
- When organizations are confronted with issues like the Google Memo from earlier this year, they need to consider the person in the work environment. Is this person responsible for performance reviews? Are they responsible for setting pay? Other benefits? Could their personal beliefs impact the quality of their work, how they assess others’ work, and the work of those around them? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, the company needs to seriously consider whether or not that person should have these responsibilities.
- Organizations should create spaces for employees to discuss current events and hot button issues. This creates a designated time and space in a controlled environment for employees to talk about current events and issues. This encourages them to speak their mind but also allows them to focus on their work instead of the thing that’s bothering them.
- Employees and consumers want to know where companies stand on social justice issues; it’s unrealistic for companies not to address or comment on current events because the public now expects it.
- People need to learn how to engage in civil discourse with one another. People are going to work with other people who have different views, so we need to learn how to respectfully disagree and remain civil with one another.
In addition to these takeaways, Spitko gave an overview of the laws that offer potential free speech protections in the workplace, which you can read about here.