Amid the current tenuous political climate, co-workers face many hurdles as they discuss the reactions of elected officials and CEOs to recent incidences of racism and violence.
Heated discussions and arguments have emerged when co-workers are unable to provide their viewpoints in a constructive manner. These actions can have severe consequences, especially if the comments are racist or splashed all over social media.
In the aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville, Va., Merck (MRK) CEO Ken Frazier was the first executive to exit President Trump's manufacturing council due to the commander-in-chief's failure to condemn the racism. Frazier announced his resignation on Monday morning, and slowly other CEOs followed suit as public sentiment appeared to encourage taking a strong stand against hate. While some of the CEOs expressed their concerns, the majority only resigned after the two councils were disbanded on Wednesday via a tweet from Trump. The behavior of these CEOs has been criticized by people who believe they were acting out of fear of alienating their shareholders or customers if they challenged the president.
It became clear that public political discourse -- especially in so far as it seeps into business life -- is not divorced from office life. But is it incumbent upon employees to stand up for what they believe, or should they be prudent and stay silent in the separation of work life and state?
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Some experts have cautioned employees to take a step back or simply refrain from commenting on divisive issues that express hateful ideology such as white supremacy, while others have said that speaking up is crucial. Ensuring that a workplace does not manifest into a hostile work environment is the responsibility of employers, said Adia Harvey Wingfield, a sociologist who studies women and minorities in the workplace at Washington University in St. Louis.
"This is a challenge that many workplaces grapple with today," she said. "Workers must be mindful when airing viewpoints, particularly those that could be controversial."
Topics, jokes and comments which may have been "perfectly acceptable in the workplaces of yesteryear are no longer suitable" and employees need to be aware, Wingfield said.
"Employees are going to express personal viewpoints at work—this is simply inevitable," she said. "Organizations can play a proactive role in helping workers understand how to do this in ways that do not create an inhospitable culture for groups who are already socially disadvantaged."
Remaining silent is not the right strategy and taking a stance against hatred, white supremacy and racism is paramount because even people divided by their viewpoints can discuss the issues rationally, said Thomas Nguyen, a partner and co-founder of Peli Peli, a Houston-based South African restaurant group.
"I think as evidenced by restaurateur and author Eddie Huang's now viral video conversation with a white nationalist, it's not only possible but necessary to have open dialogue about racist or offensive views," he said. "His piece is educational and very enlightening as it allowed the nationalist to share a viewpoint that I don't think most people are aware of and certain not a viewpoint openly admitted."
Speaking up is even more crucial for marginalized groups who are not viewed by society as individuals who typically take a stance.
"Especially for Asians who are stereotypically quiet about controversial topics, it is critical that we aggressively engage in dialogue and discussions," said Nguyen. "It's easy to yell or argue, but much more difficult to have a conversation."
Holding back on expressing your opinion is not always akin to being complicit, said Wingfield. Some employees may hold back for the fear that they will lose their jobs or will face other consequences.
"It depends on the person involved and the position they're in," she said. "If you're in a privileged position and choose to be silent when you see something unjust or wrong happening, then that's a little different than if you're in a subordinate or oppressed role and are silent to maintain your safety or health."
Employees who have a position of power should "never be silent if they see mistreatment happening to someone who has lower status than they do," Wingfield said.
When racial issues emerge, it is even more important for white workers to speak up when they observe their "colleagues of color being discriminated against, marginalized, or otherwise treated unequally," she said.
When conversations become intense and spirited, remaining calm while practicing active listening is a good strategy. Employees can say thing such as, "I hear you saying X, Y, and Z. Is that correct?"
Employees who believe their statements might be surprising to someone should deliver it with facts, said Joel Klein, a haredi or ultra-Orthodox Jewish business consultant who founded BizTank, a New York-based Jewish version of Shark Tank who has advised CEOs about workplace issues. Crossing that fine line can have severe consequences such as the case of Google's ex-employee, James Damore.
"It's not always the right decision to keep an opinion to yourself, even in the workplace," he said. "Always back up what you are saying because no one will respect someone who just bluntly rants their opinion with no evidence or reasoning. When you are genuine and can back up your statements, things tend to go over more smoothly, leaving the other person with something to consider rather than just a disagreement."
Walking away can be a powerful statement and speaks volumes when it is done correctly, said April Masini, a New York-based relationship and etiquette expert and author.
"Consider the option of just leaving and remember, to be effective, this isn't pretending you have a call coming in on another line or being late for a fictitious appointment," she said. "This is a silent beat, where you acknowledge the other person with a small nod and a turn to leave."
When you hear an employee make an inappropriate and harmful comment, report the incident to human resources in writing and let them deal with the offensive person."If the conversation becomes heated, diffuse it," Masini said. "You can say something like, 'We're not going to agree on this one, so let's call it a day," and then do just that."
While bigotry and racism will never dissipate, the voracious rate of digital communications has compounded the ability for people to express their beliefs without having to confront their audience, said Chris Roberts, chief security architect at Acalvio, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based provider of advanced threat detection and defense solutions.
"In the old days, you had to stand on your soapbox and face your audience, which would occasionally contain a smattering of individuals you were campaigning against," he said.
The proliferation of social media has allowed people to detach themselves from their hateful, incendiary comments, which is why many are comfortable expressing hatred, violence and racial slurs without fears of consequence.
Too many people are only expressing opinions and not facts when they are conversing on social media.
"You should also check Snopes and other sites to ensure the facts you present are accurate because you know that your opposition is going to be very well-informed," Roberts said. "The power of self expression is one that should not be taken lightly and we should all be able to articulate our position and be able to understand and comprehend others based on equal footings when it comes to delivery of a respectful message."
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